In recent years, much of the world watched in disbelief as Greek leaders bickered with allies and each other while the nation’s economy spiraled toward record depths. How ironic that the one bright light piercing the national gloom could be found emanating from an industry that usually requires the suspension of disbelief.
Today, even as Greece continues to sputter under the weight of crushing debt, Greek cinema continues to bathe in acclaim – at least abroad. As Variety writes:
Yorgos Lanthimos’ ‘Dogtooth,’ which won the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2009, earned a foreign language Oscar nomination. Athina Rachel Tsangari’s ‘Attenberg’ was nominated for a Golden Lion in Venice in 2010, the same year that Syllas Tzoumerkas’ debut, ‘Homeland,’ premiered at the fest’s International Critics’ Week. This year, Yorgos Zois’ ‘Interruption’ had a Venice debut and Lanthimos’ ‘The Lobster’ was a hit at Cannes.
In July, a third bailout seemed to finally place Greece on the road to recovery (though some found such prognostications premature). The time seemed ripe for Greek cinema to regain a foothold at home and offer escape from a new reality – the ceaseless wave of refugees from war-torn Syria and other migrants washing ashore on Greek isles.
But Greek filmmaking has struggled to gain traction at home. Variety reports: “From a peak of almost 12 million tickets sold in 2010, fewer than 9 million were sold last year. And after 31 feature films were released in 2011, just 17 hit the screens in 2014.”
With filmmakers getting more financial support from abroad than from the home box office, producer Maria Drandaki told Variety that the market has shrunken considerably since five years ago, when the economy bottomed out. Variety further chronicles the challenges:
A political shake-up at the state-funded Greek Film Center last year has slowed its disbursements. Pubcaster ERT — abruptly shuttered by the government in 2013 — has been slow to commission since being reinstated in June. And last month, the government abolished a tax on ticket sales that had been a significant source of coin for Greek producers.
Greek filmmaking foundered under military juntas fond of censorship until the 1980s, when, according to Al Jazeera, it found a patron in the internationally beloved actress-turned-politician Melina Mercouri. As the minister of culture, she decreed that the industry receive generous government support. But that only opened the door to unintended consequences, as Al Jazeera explains:
An old guard dominated by powerful labor unions was entrenched at the Greek Film Center, controlling the purse strings that largely dictated which movies could get made. Among the younger generation of filmmakers, a growing mood of defiance began to brew, with many feeling that corruption and cronyism were preventing new voices from emerging.
At least movies were being made, and what they lacked in daring and controversy they made up in profit, albeit at a snail’s pace.
But in 2009 a cadre of younger filmmakers dissatisfied with the status quo perceived an opportunity to force change and seized it. After dozens of actors, filmmakers, directors and producers boycotted the country’s longest-running film festival, a group calling itself Filmmakers in the Mist took center stage, according to Al Jazeera:
The group lashed out at the government’s slow-moving efforts to overhaul film legislation. They urged officials to introduce financial incentives for local producers, enforce a legal mandate stipulating that TV stations invest 1.5 percent of their annual net revenue in new film productions, and end the political meddling that was hampering industry growth.
That certainly got the Culture Ministry’s attention. Unfortunately, just about then, the economy began the free-fall that would usher in the current age of austerity. Not surprisingly, filmmakers took to chronicling the desperation and hopelessness wrought by the financial meltdown, and the world provided an audience eager to witness the chaos through a native’s lens.
“Strange, idiosyncratic, politically charged” films became the rage outside Greece, per Al Jazeera. The filmmakers became adept at creating on shoestring budgets without losing any of the bleak impact. The result: The rise of a new Golden Age of Greek cinema that, ultimately, owes little to its fellow Greeks.
Except that the filmmakers need their fellow Greeks — for who better knows the reality that they are so painfully deconstructing? Like storytellers everywhere, they desire affirmation. And who is better suited to give it than fellow survivors of the still raging crisis?
September’s election, which saw Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza Party triumph over its rivals — no doubt surprising many observers — may prove to be a boon for filmmakers. As Al Jazeera reports, ERT announced in November that it would soon issue a call to fund new co-productions for the first time since the state broadcaster returned to the airwaves after a two-year hiatus. There’s also new hope that, with the Greek Film Center recovering from its upheaval, money will soon start trickling in to permit unfinished projects to be completed.
And with the red tape that restricted their work for two decades apparently having finally run out, filmmakers find themselves hoping that Greek filmgoers will return en masse to the darkened movie houses of the nation long celebrated as the birthplace of drama in the Western world.