Sometimes, a country’s misery unleashes an outpouring of creativity. In Greece, the younger generation of filmmakers has reinvigorated the nation’s cinematic output “with a stubborn hold on their own identity” (Standard). One of the leading lights is Athina Rachel Tsangari. Some international critics herald her as a representative of the so-called “Greek weird wave,” even if she personally rejects the label. Her films are funny in both senses of the word; sometimes the setting is surreal, as in Attenberg (2010), The Capsule (2012) and the films she produced for Yorgos Lanthimos, Dogtooth (2010) and Alps (2011). Many of the films depict human experiments, such as her most recent film Chevalier (2015), which was nominated for an Oscar and follows six men aboard a yacht, who bet on who is “the best,” comparing every possible criterion – from erections to furniture-building ability. Though the film at first glance appears to simulate a realistic chamber play, in actuality it is a darkly funny parable about competition in a neoliberal society. Mining influences ranging from Buñuel to Aristotle, the director also finds inspiration in animal documentaries because, in her own words, “we are all predators – both men and women.” When directing her films, her approach is rooted in biology instead of psychology. As she explains, “I don’t believe in method acting or similar acting techniques; for me, it’s all about the body.” With Chevalier, Athina Rachel Tsangari manages to paradoxically create feminist cinema in which the female characters stand out through their absence. It is also the first film that she did not write herself. The buddy film was awarded best film at the BFI-London Film Festival in 2015. In Sarajevo the film received a Special Jury Mention, and the entire cast won an award for best actor. Esquire selected Chevalier for their list of the 25 best films of the year.
Athina Rachel Tsangari began her career in cinema by accident: In 1991, she had a bit part in Richard Linklater’s cult classic Slacker. Yet this small role led to a decades-long “love affair between life and work,” as she once described her relationship to filmmaking.
Born in Myrina, Greece, in 1966, Athina Rachel Tsangari continues to write, direct and produce her own films as well as those of other filmmakers, serving for example as co-producer of Before Midnight (2013) from Richard Linklater. In 2013, she was a member of the jury for the Berlin Film Festival, chaired by Wong Kar Wai. As an auteur, she has created numerous shorter films, three full-length productions as well as two episodes of the BBC series Borgia (2014). Her first feature film, called The Slow Business of Going (2001), is part of the permanent collection at MoMA.
Raised in Greece, Athina Rachel Tsangari first studied visual arts and film direction in Thessaloniki and later in New York and Austin. Her thesis film from 1994 was nominated for a student Oscar. In 2015/2016, she was awarded a fellowship for the Radcliffe-Harvard Film Study Center.
Her film Attenberg (2010) depicts “what is likely the worst kiss in the history of film” (The Guardian). The initiation story is both quirky and disturbing: Set in a small Greek village pervaded by an ineluctably creepy atmosphere, the film follows a 23-year-old protagonist who is caring for her dying father. The character is fascinated by David Attenborough’s animal documentaries because they fuel her aversion to other humans. By challenging taboos, Athina Rachel Tsangari’s film raised quite a few eyebrows in Greece, such as when the daughter asks the father if he has ever thought about her naked. The film also questions the religious taboo against cremation. The film’s leading actress was honored as best actress at the Venice Film Festival, while Athina Rachel Tsangari was awarded with the Lina Mangiacapre prize for her direction.
In The Slow Business of Going (2001), the mysterious Petra Going travels around the world on her quest to collect experiences for the “Global Nomad Project.” In the film, her debut full-length feature, she constructs a multilayered visual universe, only to later destroy it. The script was a collective undertaking, which heightens the film’s experimental character.
Text: Maike Wetzel
English translation: Amy Pradell
Photo: Still: Chevalier