Labels are a dangerous thing, especially if you’re Athina Rachel Tsangari. The Greek filmmaker is frequently lumped into the emerging genre known as the “Greek Weird Wave” — alongside her close friend and fellow filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos — but Tsangari’s tastes are decidedly American. And with good reason: For more than 20 years, she’s had a major influence behind the scenes of the American independent film scene, even as she has risen to prominence back home in Greece.
Tsangari’s latest feature, “Chevalier” (Strand) opens May 27 and presents the best opportunity yet for audiences to discover her work. A dude movie unlike any other, it features an ensemble of Greek schlubs who embark on a fishing trip that swiftly shifts gears from bonding experience to competitive rabble. Intent on one-upping each other to capture the eponymous chevalier (a precious pinky ring), the men set about playing a wild game that only the most macho can win. It’s funny, surprising and, yes, weird. Tsangari’s unique energy infuses every frame.
It’s also a canny introduction to a talent who has worked in nearly every aspect of filmmaking, with a career kickstarted by a fateful trip to the cradle of American indie film: Austin, Texas, circa 1990.
Tsangari is best known for her 2010 festival hit, “Attenberg,” but her first big break happened years earlier – in 1991, when she met Richard Linklater and ended up with a bit part in his soon-to-be-classic “Slacker.”
“She was a student right off the boat from Greece on her way to New York. She kind of wandered onto our ‘Slacker’ production for a bit,” Linklater said.
The filmmaker was immediately impressed with his new Greek friend. “She had such strong opinions — she’d seen everything. She was so funny and adamant,” he said. “She had a wonderful energy and real cinematic love. So much attitude and creativity.”
Tsangari’s role in “Slacker” was blink-and-you-miss-her (she’s billed as “Cousin from Greece”), but her sensibility was spot on: She arrived in the U.S. intending to study drama at NYU, and instead wound up in Austin just as it became a hub for indie filmmaking. Tsangari soon became a fixture in Austin’s film community, founding the Cinematexas International Short Film Festival, which ran from 1995 until 2006.
She also studied directing at the University of Texas, and as a teaching assistant her students included then-grad student Jay Duplass. “After my class, I think he dropped out of school,” Tsangari told Indiewire. “I don’t know if one is connected with the other!”
Duplass insisted that Tsangari didn’t inspire him to do anything other than to follow his filmmaking ambition. “She was inspired and inspiring,” Duplass said. “She loved film and went deep with each of us about what we were trying to accomplish. I always say that film schools can’t teach you the most important thing, and that is who you are and what you uniquely have to offer, but I felt Rachel was digging for that stuff from us.” One lesson stood out to him: “The best thing I learned from her was to be myself.”
Linklater said “She was everyone’s favorite teacher,” but he knew she was meant for something more. “She had this other calling,” he added. “I was always pushing her to make her films and I’m glad she’s
finally in that groove.”
The Slow Business Of Making A Debut
At UT, Tsangari pieced together her thesis film, “The Slow Business of Going.” The episodic feature follows Petra Going (Lizzie Curry Martinez) as she travels the world in service to a vaguely sci-fi job with the Experience Data Agency, which collects her memories of her travels and are telegraphed to the audience through settings like hotel rooms and a sea barge.
Production really was a slow business. With the sort of scrappy, DIY production that’s a hallmark of microbudget American indies, Tsangari’s film took four years to make.
“We only shot only when I got a grant or some kind of sponsorship from a hotel room or an airline company,” she said. “Two days, we would check into the hotel room and rehearse, and then we would shoot, and then we’d check out and that shoot would be done.”
After her time at UT and her work on “The Slow Business of Going,” which was officially completed in 2000, she dedicated her time to working on projects as diverse as Cinematexas (which closed up shop in 2006), founding her production and post-production studio Haos (headquartered in Athens) and even designing the large-scale videos and projections that appeared during the opening and closing ceremonies of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. It was a daunting prospect for the still-green filmmaker.
“I was part of one of the biggest spectacles in the world watched by billions of people. So basically two years from ‘The Slow Business of Going,’ I started to work on that,” she said. “It was dizzying.”
Tsangari soon turned to producing, working on features like Lanthimos’ 2005 film “Kinetta” and his 2007 breakout “Dogtooth,” along with Nida Sinnokrot’s 2006 feature “Palestine Blues.”
When asked about the break between her directed features, she told Trespass Magazine in 2011 that “I don’t really see the difference” between making a film as a producer or as a director. As ever, the last thing in the world she cared about was labels.
“I feel that as a producer you bring stuff to life. You shepherd it to life. I’ve been mostly hands on with the movies that I’ve produced,” she added.
After nearly a decade without directing, Tsangari’s decision to return came very quickly. “I wrote it after a very long hiatus, after I didn’t direct and was working as a producer,” she said. “One day I just said, ‘I have a story in me and I want to tell it’ and I wrote it in two weeks. Just came right out. Effortless.”
That became “Attenberg,” her 2010 festival hit that follows young factory worker Marina (Tsangari’s friend and frequent star, Ariane Labed) as she embarks on a very strange and very funny sexual awakening while her ailing father falls deeper into a terminal illness.
The film debuted at Venice, where it was nominated for the Golden Lion and Labed won a best actress prize. After a hearty festival run and acquisition by Match Factory, Greece submitted the film as its pick for best foreign language Oscar.
After the success of “Attenberg,” Tsangari served as a creative advisor for the Sundance Feature Film Program Directing Lab in 2012 (which included rising stars such as Jonas Carpignano, Marielle Heller, and Jody Lee Lipes). She made a short film, the all-female “The Capsule,” which screened at festivals like Locarno and Sundance.
By then, she was ready to get back to the slow business of feature filmmaking with “Chevalier,” which started shooting in March 2014.
The idea for an all-male comedy set on a boat sprang from her experience with “The Capsule.” “It was such an amazing experience working with an all-female cast,” she said. “I realized it was really quite interesting to see relations and dynamics and gender and multiples of the same… Then I thought, ‘Let’s see how it will be if I work with a pack of men and how different or same it will be.'”
But the filmmaker doesn’t view the story exclusively in terms of gender. “I didn’t make ‘Chevalier’ to make a movie about men, it’s a movie with men,” she said. “It’s about men as much as it is about humans. I think that if it were a female cast, ‘Chevalier’ would have been quite similar.”
Tsangari also realizes that the films she makes aren’t necessarily for the masses, a sensibility that’s still evident in “Chevalier.”
“I don’t make movies for everyone,” she said. “With every movie, I try to make something different so that I challenge myself with a new type of language through my own filter and my own lens.”
No Easy Categorizations
Although Tsangari has a place in both the American indie elite and Greece’s emerging film scene, she’s not interested in labeling her work or her career.
She balks at being lumped into the “Greek Weird Wave,” a media term that also includes Lanthimos. “We don’t even acknowledge it,” she said. “People who started talking about this hadn’t seen ‘The Slow Business of Going,’ which was way back in 2000. I was a Greek film student, but I was working in America. I had been educated in filmmaking in America. It was an American independent film. Was that ‘Greek Weird Wave’? I don’t think so.”
Lanthimos feels the same way. “Athina’s work is quite distinctive,” he said. “Athina has a very unique filmic language and is not afraid to mix genres or different kind of art forms. She understands cinema as an art without borders.”
Linklater, for his part, is more compelled by her European influences. “Her films are so rigorous – 1970’s European rigor. I love that,” he said. “It’s such a rarity in our current film world. She’s trying to provoke as well as entertain. She’s a unique voice.”
And Tsangari is just getting started. As the filmmaker in residence for the 53rd New York Film Festival this past fall, Film Society Executive director Lesli Klainberg hoped that the program would give Athina “a rich environment in which she can work on her next project by immersing her in New York’s film culture.” Tsangari said that’s exactly what happened as she watched films ranging from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Cemetery of Splendor” to Chantal Akerman’s “No Home Movie” and Todd Haynes’ “Carol.”
“It was something akin to carbo-loading before a marathon,” she said.
That marathon is “White Knuckles,” a project she described as a “screwball, neo-noir, caper, action” feature. “It’s a movie about petty criminals and the head criminal is a woman, and she also becomes ‘against herself,’ like an action hero,” she said.
With “Chevalier” is set for U.S. release this week, Tsangari is on her third draft of “White Knuckles,” which she’s writing with her longtime collaborator Matt Johnson. The pair are hoping to make the film in the English-language — her first since “The Slow Business of Going.”
Tsangari is also back in the academic environment she loves, as she’s currently a David and Roberta Logie Fellow at the Radcliffe-Harvard Film Study Center (she was previously a guest lecturer at Harvard).
“I think it’s really part of this life work, intertwined thing that is working inside cinema in every way possible,” Tsangari said. “Teaching is making film. This sort of invigoration that I feel whenever I decide to go back in teach, and the stuff that I’m learning from my students, this very crucial exchange that happens, is just vital.”
Tsangari has yet to make the jump to Hollywood, though she says that feelers have been out for awhile. “I’m always reading scripts that my agent is sending me,” Tsangari said. “I’m interested in doing something that I’m not the primary writer on, so if the right script and the right genre comes along. I’m really interested in directing a smart action [film].”
One thing she’s not interested in? More labels. “I don’t go to work every day thinking I’m a ‘female filmmaker,'” she said. “If I decide to make a film in Hollywood, we’ll see. I keep hearing about glass ceilings and glass floors and glass walls, so I’ll see.”