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Greek New Wave Cinema: Giorgos Lanthimos & Panos Koutras

Picture of Erasmia Vellis
Erasmia Vellis
Updated: 23 November 2016
In recent years, Greece’s image has been embodied by magical Mediterranean beaches, vibrant party destinations, and glorious, ancient temples. Many travelers are also very keen on places such as Epidaurus, considering it as the place of the generation of theater. As prolific as Greek theater is, the cultural landscape is changing, and Greece’s ancient drama is being replaced by a new kind of alternative cinema called The Greek Wave.

Beyond the spectacle of ancient Greek theater, the film industry is flourishing among the new generations. It’s not a random coincidence that one of the world’s most ‘in crisis’ countries is also producing the most unique and socially aware cinema. The contemporary crisis and the political and social problems have created a new wave of directors, each with their own distinctive voice, whose work transcends national boundaries. Although the change in political and social standards affects cultural practices and particularly film activities, these relatively small budget productions are rewarding and well worth watching, despite the financial limitations. But who are the most significant directors and works emerging from the Greek Wave?
The most major and well known representative of The Greek Wave is Giorgos Lanthimos. Through his films, he makes the audience rethink sexuality, freedom, family, social isolation and normative relationships using weird, shocking, and bizarre images and dialogues, projected by a fresh, retro aesthetical perspective. His first internationally acknowledged movie was Dogtooth,  one of the 2012 foreign film Oscar nominees, presenting an ‘abnormal’ Greek family controlled by an authoritative father, who isolates his three children from society and implements primitive rules to control them. The family members live in a 1960s villa and the children aren’t allowed to have any kind of social and physical interaction until one of them loses a ‘dogtooth’, or incisor.  Due to the lack of social interaction, their understanding of the world is naïve and limited but their human curiosity to explore what is behind this rule, leads to a shocking yet ultimately beautiful denouement.
This patriarchal conceptualization is a comic and ironic statement of Greek society’s evaluation of family, as well as a critical statement against the everyday authority institutions. Contrasting with the typical Greek family in Hollywood comedies, the concept of family in this case is a shocking, comic tragedy and it is difficult to grasp its meanings immediately, although its powerful visual content has a universal character. Lanthimos understanding of extreme family suppression and obedience can be applied and widened to any universal context, making it an intensely powerful film.

Another seminal director is Panos H Koutras, with his film Strella particularly standing out. Inspired by the social conventions against the country’s transgender and gay communities, this movie is a positive manifestation of a transgender woman’s happy ending, taking place in the heart of Athens. Strella’s story –a subversion of the Green name Stella – even though extremely subversive and groundbreaking, addresses the many cases of transgender women dealing with everyday problems within a close, conservative society.

The whole film sketches the marginalized transgender Athens community and their activities living a suppressed life in the city. Strella is a young woman and artist performing in one of the most transgender historical centers of Athens, Kukles. Her iconic line from the trailer describes perfectly the film: ‘Hi, my name is Strella and my friends say I am bit jazz.’ Indeed, Strella’s life as a transgender woman is ‘jazz’, trying to find a family sense of belonging and happiness in a complicated world. Despite its heavy subject matter, the films gives a positive perspective towards the future and stimulates positive feelings for suppressed communities.

In his next film Xenia, Koutras again approaches suppressed social groups, that of migrants, by following the life of two immigrants from Albania and their journey to find their roots and sense of belonging in Greece. After their mother’s death, finding themselves strangers in their own place, the two brothers seek their birth father in Greece. Through their journey, they realize that the country is struggling to find its identity in the same way that they are trying to find themselves. These kind of interconnected concepts of family, immigration and social conventions mixed with a feeling of nostalgia and positivity for an unpredictable future shape a new line of films which challenge the norms of Greek society.