The world has heard no end of the financial turmoil and hardship in Greece but human nature responds in wonderful ways and this year’s 18th Greek Festival is ready to prove that even in the midst of a bleak world, the Greeks still have something to say.
Costas Markos, Secretary of the Greek Orthodox Community in Melbourne and Victoria, is one of the founding members of the festival and has witnessed the transformation of a Greek aesthetic over nearly two decades: “At that time the style was more of an underground cinematic cliquish group focusing on the old Greek cinema; but then we saw the emergence of neo-Greek style and today what Greek cinema offers is contemporary truths, whether retrospective or reflective upon the present.”
Audience numbers have also increased and while certainly reflecting a large increase in the Greek population here in Melbourne, it also demonstrates the wide embrace of Greek culture that has happened since the days of the White Australia policy: “When we first began the festival there were about five or six of us and our first audiences were between 700-800. Now we’re proud to say that numbers have hit up to 800,000.”
But what does this year’s festival offer? “Multiplicities, ethnicity, and the 500 Euro generation question,” laughs Markos, “With a hundred and one things in the background these films give voice to wages, isolation, migrants living in Greece, exploitation, education, marriage, you name it.”
What was once a monolithic culture in Greece has now changed, and has done so quite rapidly.
“People are leaving Greece every day,” says Markos, “But they still face many challenges. To enter Australia it’s often ‘How many degrees do you have’ so as to sit out the unskilled applicants.” And while many are leaving Greece, there are still many other migrants from other parts of Europe and Asia that are relocating to Greece, specifically to Athens which has a number of ghettos. “I believe this is a good thing,” says Markos, “It will give colour to a city that is vibrant and help to recover the economic situation.”
With regards to the question of migration and film, it is interesting to note that all the directors have all studied abroad and accumulated a wealth of knowledge to produce their films; however there are still elements of Greece that are associated with the larger diaspora.
“Multicultural society in Greece is what provides values to a society – Greeks who have grown up in Australia for example return to Greece and sometimes are also victims of racism. It’s a common subject especially with migrants from Albania, the Balkans and Russia.”
Other important thematic concerns that are highlighted include shortage of work, cheap labour and the growing sense of antagonism present among the various subcultures. 45m2 directed by Stratos Tzitzis is one such film. The narrative is quite simple, a young woman wants to escape the suffocating atmosphere of her overprotective mother and leave the nest. The problem, unfortunately, is that rent is high, there are a few jobs and without a university education, the future is bleak. The most successful aspect of this film is that Tzitzis has mirrored contemporary society without gimmicks or effects. In fact some scenes are almost painfully slow, but life is like that.
There isn’t a way to fast forward past the painful images we just have to endure them and hopefully come out the other end.
But the Festival isn’t all about bleak futures, and in fact there are plenty of comedies as well as documentaries that reinvigorate Greek music, theatre and arts. My Sweet Canary, written and directed by Roy Sher, is the story of the wonderful Roza Eskenazi and, inspired by her legacy, three young musicians from Greece, Turkey and Israel embark on an exciting musical journey to recount the story of Greece’s original and bestloved rebetiko (Greek style folk and blues) from the 1930s.
It is a journey that takes them from Istanbul to hessaloniki and to Athens as they follow the musical trail Roza left behind. Most of all, it’s a journey into a world that has largely vanished, but whose sounds continue to echo throughout the Mediterranean Basin.
“Films such as 45m2, My Sweet Canary and our opening film last night Need for Lies was a theatrical comedy from the early sixties and is comic realism at its best,” says Markos, “Greeks cinema is changing all the time and being in Melbourne we are witnesses to that change.