Where one’s culture forms a basis of European civilization, the other is happy to eke out an existence on an isle of its own; where one became the heart of the Byzantine Empire, the other lived under the heel of the British Empire.
It’s not just for their positions at opposite corners of the continent that Greece and Ireland might make for the most unlikely nations to see eye-to-eye, yet the undeniable impact of two new Greek films at this year’s edition of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival suggests that maybe the idea of Hibernio-Hellenic relation isn’t as strange as it might seem at first glance.
After all, where better a place–its own nation aside–for Greek cinema to make an impact than Ireland, maybe the Eurozone’s closest cousin in terms of economic instability, and home to a population every bit as beset by banking crises and budgetary cutbacks. History may have had entirely different paths in mind for these countries, but the EU’s amalgamation of identity–not to mention currency–has set their fates on a collision course with fiscal catastrophe. The disillusioned Dubliners who bore witness to the strange wonders of these films might well have seen something of their own circumstances in the situations showcased.
“The fascists of the future will come from the condos built on burnt land,” prophesizes the opening narration of “Standing Aside, Watching,” twisting a quote often attributed to Churchill on right-wing extremism’s roots in nationalism to the film’s specific take on the Greece of today. Yet another naturalistically unsettling vision of a society thrown into chaos by austerity measures and unpromising projections for the future, Giorgos Servetas’ movie bears no shortage of similarities to Athina Rachel Tsangari’s breakout Greek hit “Attenberg,” its landscapes similarly laden with the wrecks of a ruined economy.
But the stalled wind turbines and scorched patches of the hillside forest that dwarfs the town in which Servetas’ story takes place is less overtly ominous than the burgeoning sense of horror that accompanies its escalating narrative. As the young schoolteacher who’s returned to her hometown finds herself favored by the same businessman who pays her friend for sex and denies her boyfriend the wages to let him leave with her, so too does the film tease a tale of a Greece flustered by financial frailty.
If “Standing Aside, Watching” seems less synchronous than “Attenberg” with what’s been termed the “weird wave” of recent Greek cinema, it’s best to remember that appearances can be deceiving. Its ties to those films are less aesthetic than thematic; diversify though it might from their disturbing style of social (sur)realism, Servetas’ film stands just as starkly a monument to the malaise of modern Greece than “Miss Violence,” the “Dogtooth”-esque terror together with which it represents the country at this year’s JDIFF.
There’s a moment in “Miss Violence,” a movie detailing perverse patriarchy by way of its physically and sexually abusive father character, where he deigns to feed the family after threatening to let them starve. Crawling across the carpet toward him, reluctantly realising one-by-one that it’s eat his food or not eat at all, the twisted tableau they create of a family literally forced to take whatever they’re given is an image no less apt to Dublin as to Athens.
But if this Mediterranean weird wave’s ripples might reach Irish shores, its distinct differences to the country’s own cinema output in the wake of austerity points toward political aspects that make these movies’ worlds similar, not shared. The finest Irish film screening at JDIFF might well be “Out of Here,” produced under the auspices of Stalker Films, the low-budget company whose co-founder Mark O’Connor rocked the boat in 2012 with a call-to-arms for his countrymen in cinema. Director Donal Foreman was among the names singled out in O’Connor’s manifesto; his film is a fitting realization of the responsibilities he was then tasked with.
Unlike the production house’s namesake, “Stalker” and the caustic “Charlie Casanova”–films so uproariously angry as to be, far more so in the latter case, at times obnoxious–“Out of Here” exudes the reticence and restraint of movies like “What Richard Did” and “Trampoline,” each focused on a young protagonist faced with the challenge of post-adolescent life in an Ireland empty of the opportunities their boom-time upbringing promised, each a sombre evocation of the stilted atmosphere that disillusionment brings. As the rootless protagonist pines, after shuffling from day to day as unable to find something to do as his unemployed dad: “I’m sick of walking around this place and being reminded of shit that’s over.”
Even “Love Eternal,” another Irish JDIFF selection whose pan-European production and source in a Japanese novel accords it rather less relevance to the Irish situation in particular, registers the ongoing uncertainty of an unclear future. Director Brendan Muldowney is another of the talents touted by O’Connor; it’s less the transgressive elements of his quasi-necrophiliac plot that makes his film akin to the likes of “Limp” and “Jack and Ralph Plan a Murder” than the sense, in the death of the protagonist’s parents, of being left entirely without guidance.
That’s less a worry for the Greek films that the possibility of being left with the wrong kind of guidance; the nationalistic sentiment ironically espoused in the closing narration for “Standing Aside, Watching” concludes with the half-screamed “Are you fucking serious?,” an apt end to a film that narratively takes neo-fascist thinking to its natural endpoint. It’s an urgent message for a Greece in which the anti-immigrant, right-wing Golden Dawn party has dramatically accelerated from a small group to parliament’s third-biggest contingent. The support has been seen as reactionary opposition, a knee-jerk rebellion by the people rushing to strip support from the government that crippled them and hand it over to those most dramatically different in their political thinking.
The same was seen in Ireland, where leading party Fianna Fáil lost an unprecedented amount of seats and fell for the first time from the top two parties in parliament. But political dissidence is duller in Dublin, and the party to whom power was handed in their wake differs only moderately in public policy. And where the Irish economy looks to be making steady–if slow–recovery, the situation in Greece continues to evade optimism. We’ve noted before the narrative trend in Irish films of absent or ailing fathers, a telling tip of the hat toward the inability of politics to provide. With the dad of “Miss Violence” and the father figures of “Standing Aside, Watching” adding to the incestuous oddity of “Dogtooth,” we see perhaps the clearest contrast between these cinemas: the powers-that-be in Ireland have failed their public; in Greece, they’re still fucking them.
The political landscapes and their particularities in Greece and Ireland might well explain the relative radicalism of the former’s narrative tendencies; it’s clear, either way, that these new waves in the respective countries’ cinemas are borne of the same water, however distinctly they may have happened to break. It’s not all too surprising, then, that the latest film from “Dogtooth” and “Alps” director Giorgos Lanthimos will shoot in Ireland this year, with funding from both countries. With its surrealist narrative centered on a society where humans are turned to animals if they haven’t sorted out their lives by age thirty, “The Lobster” looks likely to have the weight of two waves behind it.