Times are tough in Greece, and three films from the country that premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival this week reflect that difficult reality. Dark, surreal and frightening by turns, they zoom in on a society under massive pressure.
From the outside, the Greek financial crisis is easily reduced to an exhausting series of bailouts, austerity deadlines and protests. But to the people who live with the fallout each day, it's an existential threat, and one that raises fundamental questions about their identity as Greeks.
These questions and the crisis itself play a leading role in three Greek films that premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival this week, all of which explore its cultural, psychological and interpersonal effects. Though they each take a different approach to the subject, from the bleak docufiction "To the Wolf," to the surreal "The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas," to the thriller "The Daughter," one thing is made abundantly clear -- things are grim in Greece.
The darkest of the three is doubtlessly "To the Wolf," ("Sto Lyko"), which follows two real-life shepherd families in a down-and-out village in the mountains of the western Nafpaktia region.
"Greece is finished. It's dead. Everyone is suffering. They are fighting for a lost cause," mutters the wizened old shepherd Adam Paxnis as the film begins. And things don't get much better from there, in what directors Christina Koutsospyrou and Aran Hughes describe as an "unsettling allegory of modern-day Greece."
Against the contrasting backdrops of a stormy and inhospitable countryside and their oppressively dingy homes, the two work-worn families, already accustomed to a meager existence, are stretched to their limits, suffering decreased demand for their livestock and cuts to benefits. Scenes document conversations about their debts and whether they should spend their last bits of money on cigarettes or beer. There's another painful moment when it becomes clear there's not even enough money to buy flour.
From the time they began filming in 2010 to when they finished in 2012, the effects of the crisis on the two families had become "quite extreme," says co-director Koutsospyrou. "Most of them lost weight."
The struggle to meet their basic need isn't just physical, though. "There is a psychology behind this crisis and we were trying to present the emotions behind it, the downward spiral," says Koutsospyrou, who adds that there is a general mood of depression in the country.
Nostalgia for 'Past Glory'
This "social crisis" is also part of what director Elina Psykou says inspired her to write "The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas" ("I aionia epistrofi tou Antoni Paraskeua"), a drama that follows aging national television hero Antonis Paraskevas as he stages his own kidnapping to escape his debts and increase ratings for his morning show.
Holed up in a luxury hotel that been closed, he tries his hand at making molecular spaghetti, watches TV updates on his case and frequently plays the DVD of his "greatest hits" from past broadcasts -- including New Year's Eve of 2001, when Greece introduced the euro. He also starts losing his mind.
"My focus was on an existential crisis and a lack of identity," Psykou says. "I think it is very common these days, for example with the people who had a lot of money and then lost their jobs, had their salaries cut, or lost their homes. The character loses his high ratings, and this creates a lack of identity. My country lost its identity too."
Paraskevas's obsession with his celebrity persona reflects a Greek fixation on "past glory" and hero worship, she says. "You see it everywhere, not just in my character but in everyday life," she says.
As a TV presenter, her protagonist is representative of the media apparatus that Psykou says helped establish and perpetuate the crisis through "cultural education."
Psykou's film, though it takes a disturbing turn in the second half, does have a bit of comic relief, at least. But even that leaves a bitter residue. "It's a black humor," she says. "I am highlighting the vanity of these efforts to overcome."
Such efforts can become desperate, as director Thanos Anastopoulos shows in his thriller "The Daughter" ("I Kóri"), in which a 14-year-old girl kidnaps the 8-year-old son of her father's business partner, who she blames for bankrupting her father's lumberyard and forcing him to flee his debts.
The film includes images of the crisis, such as protests in the streets of Athens, that lend to the real-life tension that many Greeks are feeling, but Anastopoulos wanted to explore the effect this has on young people. "Since I am a young father, my view has shifted to how this violence and tension is affecting children and the relationship between the generations," he says. "This next generation is marked by the experience of violence. The situation is tough, and during tough times people tend to make extreme choices."
The film, which deals heavily with the themes of responsibility and betrayal, is the director's "nightmare" and a projection of his fears, he says.
Interestingly, the directors say that they didn't initially intend for the crisis to play such a prominent role in their films -- or even any role at all -- as was the case with "To the Wolf." It began as an unromantic portrait of the last generation of Greek shepherds. "But as our work progressed, the crisis became unavoidable," co-director Aran Hughes says. The filmmakers had planned to center it around a local café, but after economic reforms dictated that the elderly owner would have to keep more detailed records instead of running tabs for customers, it shut down.
"There's a sense that this is an important time and with film you can document this," Hughes says.
The adversity appears to be inspiring a great deal of creativity among Greek filmmakers. "Now there is a solidarity between filmmakers and artists in general," says Psykou. "Of course we want to tell the story of this situation, but there is a new sense of persistence."
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