Kostas Peroulis/ Deconstructing family, deconstructing the country: the new wave of Greek cinema in the age of crisis

 

Kostas Peroulis was born in Pireas in 1974. He studied law and comparative literature. His collection of short stories Automata was awarded with the prestigious debut writer award 2016 of the literary magazine o Anagnostis. He is co-scriptwriter with director Alexandros Avranas of the original movie script of Miss Violence, which was awarded with Silver Lion for Best Director and Volpi Cup for Best Actor at Venice International Film Festival (2013) and with Aluminum Horse for best script at Stockholm Film Festival (2013). He is also co-scriptwriter with Alexandros Avranas of the original movie script of Love me not (2018). He has published articles of cultural criticism in several magazines and newspapers.    

In George Lanthimos Dogtooth (2009 – Prix Un Certain Regard at 62th Cannes Film Festival, nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards)  we watch an upper middle class father and mother keeping their adolescent children confined and ignorant of the world outside their property, teaching them distorted language such as cunt meaning telephone, rewarding good behaviour with stickers and bad behaviour with violence, providing them a sexual maid or incest sex etc. The movie ends when one of the children violently extracts its dogtooth (the fall of which will mean adulthood according to parents’ mythology of life) and hides in the boot of father’s car by which he leaves home everyday to go to work, escaping or suffocating.  

In Panos Koutras’s Strella (2009 – participation at 57th Berlin Film Festival) a father is released from prison after years of incarceration for murdering his brother back in their village in Greek countryside for having sex with his son. He spends his first night out in a cheap hotel in Athens. There he meets Strella, a young transgender prostitute, they spend the night together and soon they fall in love. Gradually we come to know that Strella is the hero’s son and their meeting was more than accidental by Strella’s part. After the father’s stress with the situation, the movie ends with a feastful New Years’ Eve with a new kind of family consisting of Strella, her father, Strella’s boyfriend and an abandoned baby practically adopted by the heroes.            

In Syllas Tzoumerkas‘ s Homeland (2010 – participation at the International Critics’ Week of the 67th Venice International Film Festival), we watch a typical Greek petit-bourgeois family gathering through which we witness all the emotional violence, the emotional and sexual perversion, the labyrinth of relations, the treasons, lies, secrets, terrors that is revealed to constitute the traditional Greek family of Metapolitefsi, as the collapse of its three generations is depicted in contrast to or parallel to scenes of political demonstrations, debt managements, school national catechesis. The movie ends with the secretly adοpted from his own aunt son/cousin, in desperate love with his cousin who is actually his sister, committing suicide.

In Alexandros Avranas’s Miss Violence (2013 – Silver Lion for Best Director and Volpi Cup for Best Actor, 70th Venice International Film Festival), we watch a middle class family consisting of father and mother/grandfather and grandmother, daughters and grandchildren trying to deal with the suicide of the older granddaughter on the day of her 11th birthday. The all providing, moderate and prudent father/grandfather  is gradually revealed to be an authoritative, all supervising monster, that prostitutes his daughters and granddaughters in order to live his family decently, occasionally having sex with them himself. The story ends with mother/grandmother slaughtering the male hero and locking everybody in when he gives away the eight years old granddaughter to a pedophile in exchange to recognise as his own child a forthcoming new member of the family, in order to deceive once more the Authorities.

Ten years before, in major Giannis Oikonomedes’s Matchbox (2002), a forerunner of the outburst of the new generation of Greek cinema, still in an era of abundant bank loans for everyone, luxury lifestyle and the euphoria from Athens Olympic Games, we watch a traditionally authoritative father of a lower petit bourgeois family, owner of a poor quality café, making plans for altering the café into a restaurant “with piano”. There is an atmosphere of constant pressure, something ready to blow up without particular reason. His family initially makes mock of him, but gradually attacks his totally patriarchical power with the mother, showing him her old cunt, triumphantly declaring that their teenager daughter, a real piece of shit, is not his own child but a passing by tourist’s, while their teenage son hurls abuse and sarcasm as a response to his collapse at the epic finale, where he stays singing under the shower with his clothes on.   

Oikonomides’s film was released in the same year with Nia Vardalos My big fat Greek wedding, a Hollywood romantic commedy where a Greek American middle class young girl falls in love and finally gets married with an upper class American. In the movie, that became the world’ s highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time for almost 15 years, we watch a typical, extended with all kind of relatives, Greek family of diaspora, sweetly oppressive, caring and generous at the same time, in its process to accept the groom as its member. Vardalos film is resuming all the clichés of an older representation of Greek family, a kind of progressive approach of the old ultra-conservative Greek moto “country-relegion-family” (the groom is non Greek, non orthodox and has to be baptized) that ends with a good marriage for the girl (good=love and social status), and the rough contrast with the “explosive” Oikonomides matchbox signifies what was later to be labeled as “Greek family in crisis”.

            When foreign critics hailed “Greek weird wave” in the blossom of Greek cinema,[1] here we had to wonder what urged all these new directors and screenwriters, barely in their first or second movie, to depict simoultaneously the once “sacred Greek family” now eating its own flesh.  Actually, it was not much after the outburst of economical crisis in 2009-2010 that it was reduced to a crisis of values. The Greek family in those movies was immediately identified by Greek and foreign critics as a social representation of crisis, occasionally as political cinema. Most of the directors themselves were negative to a direct connection of their movies to crisis, however the conjunction was too obvious to ignore.

What is for sure, the vast majority of the directors and screenwriters of these movies (except Koutras who is older) belongs to the generation consisting of offspring of the so-called “Generation of Polytechnic School”.[2] This severely politicized generation dialectically gave birth to the apolitical generation that grew up in the Greek nineties of the “modernization era”, which turned the country into what was labeled as “vast middle class”. In this frame, within which talking about social and political battles went out of fashion and Foucauldian microphysics of power in everyday practices had come into fashion as elsewhere, this generation, able to study in an abundant from European and bank money Greek society, had to deal with power relations in the house exercised by the parents-financiers rather than outside in society, against or within which the family was overprotecting as an all providing shelter. So when the crisis came, class-based and bringing back the political with its older, economic dimension, this generation had no direct political tools to respond to it. Family was the most familiar thing to grasp, especially since the crisis showed generational traits with the parents-generation of Polytechnic School to be blamed by their children for constructing during the Metapolitefsi a corrupted system of debts that blew in their face, leaving them unemployed and unable to support the lives they were given so far, and with the total cancellation of a promised future, still at their early thirties economically dependent on their parents. The deconstruction of sacred Greek family seemed their means to criticize in despair, the children in those movies try to escape from family or just kill themselves – they have no alternative to suggest. It is no coincidence that the only really political movie of the period is Strella of the older in age Koutras, being from the first moment a queer manifesto groundbreaking for Greece, and that this movie ends proposing a happy – new type of family – the family here remains a centripetal and not a centrifugal force.

            But why the family was the right choice for this generation in order to make movies that meant more than their topic? Dimitris Papanikolaou, Associate Professor of Modern Greek Studies at Oxford University, writer of the book “There’s something about the family. Nation, desire and kinship in the age of crisis” (Patakis 2018), examining the renegotiation of Greek family during the last two decades within a larger frame, not just the movies, the international impact of which made the topic a trademark, but also relative literary and theatrical works, points out that the concept “family” in Greece has since long ago come to mean not just a network of relatives, or a social unit etc., but a “system”. That is more than nepotism – and indeed Greek family, traditionally and even in the “modernization era”, remained a key social concept for favouritism, patronage and as a consequence for social injustice. Family as a system means a structure, the mechanism of which can determine the lives and possibilities of its members, including, excluding or securing them, investing in them, in their health and education. And all that, as Papanikolaou shows, being a field of severe biopolitics – as exactly can be seen in the movies – which, in the families of lower social strata, includes reproduction of nationalism and racism. As Papanikolaou also shows, in the past, Greek family has been the major discourse for stigmatizing and oppressing LGBTQI identities in real life and in the public sphere.           

            What is left after all, apart from the renewal and internationalization of Greek cinema through some bold and fascinating artworks, is a public discussion about the institution of family. Art put the agenda (better: made it visible) and Greek society, though unwilling, proved ready for the debate. As a result, important alterations have happened in law during the last years, such as civil partnership between individuals of different or the same sex, foster care by couples of the same sex, establishment of the “third sex”, even from the age of fifteen with parental consensus – but no wedding and children adoption for couples of the same sex.

Greek family has still its dominant place, more or less positive. But with a kind of generational complicity, when we come to narrate or hear family stories the underlying structures of which we all recognize, we end up with a cheerful “dogtooth!”       


[1] 45 movies so far, participating at international film festivals. You can find a thorough categorization and analysis of this “new wave” of Greek cinema in the informative article of Afroditi Nikolaidou and Anna Poupou “Post-weird Notes on the New Wave of Greek Cinema” at 58 TIFF – Non-Catalog (2017) 

[2] who as students and youth played the leading role in the subversion and overthrow of Junta (Greek military dictatorship 1967-1974) by occupying and having as center of resistance the Polytechnic School in the center of Athens until the army’s tanks forced themselves in with paramilitary shooters shooting and killing in cold blood. The Generation of Polytechnic School is later supposed to have culturally and ideologically (and not rarely economically) dominated Greek society during Metapolitefsi, that means the period from the overthrow of the Junta in 1974 until the imposition of the first Memorandum (austerity measures and institutional reforms) on Greece by her debtors in 2010, which signified the “crisis”. As a matter of fact, we could say of that generation that, with the exception of a very small part that never abandoned Communist Party, it constituted the social-democrats, under the long-period government of whom there has been a so-called “modernization era” for Greece, concerning infrastructures, institutions and attitudes.