Contemporary Greek Film Cultures Goes to America: Breaking New Ground in Greek Film Studies
The second Contemporary Greek Film Cultures (CGFC) International Conference took place at the University of Washington in Seattle, USA, on the 8th and 9th May 2015, following on the success of the first conference (CGFC 2013, London, 5-6 July), which opened up a space for regular meetings of Greek film scholars from around the world. CGFC 2015 was the first Greek cinema conference in the USA, an important milestone for expanding and strengthening the establishment of the field of Greek Film Studies across the Atlantic, where the study of Greek cinema takes place within the broader framework of Modern Greek Studies or Hellenic Studies programmes.
The Hellenic Studies department within the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies hosted this year’s conference in a bid to strengthen the reach and visibility of Hellenic Studies programmes and research within the institution, nationally and internationally; in addition, this was an attempt to broaden the scope of research activities beyond the established, more traditional, areas of enquiry within the Modern Greek or Hellenic Studies domain to include Greek cinema. The organisers, Dr. Taso Lagos and Dr. Nektaria Klapaki, worked tirelessly throughout the process – from a successful bid to host the conference to the successful delivery of the event – in collaboration with the academic committee chaired by Assoc Prof Vangelis Calotychos (Brown University).
In line with the aims of the CGFC 2013, the CGFC 2015 conference aimed at bridging a perceived gap between academia and industry, with screenings, Q&As and keynote addresses from current Greek film creatives. Athina Rachel Tsangari, whose films have successfully represented Greek cinema internationally in the last few years, and Vangelis Mourikis, who has been a key performer in many films of the so-called ‘Greek Weird Wave,’ or New Greek Current, were present for the duration of the conference. Apart from their duties as keynote speakers and distinguished guests of CGFC 2015, both artists attended and participated in panel discussions, informal lunch break chats and the much needed socials after the formal proceedings.
CGFC 2015 teamed up with Sundance Cinema and organised special screenings of Attenberg (Tsangari, 2010) and Xenia (Koutras, 2014), on the 8th and the 9th of May respectively, while To Mikro Psari/Stratos (Economides, 2014) and The Capsule (Tsangari, 2012) were screened at the University premises. Stratos, the film that opened the conference, was followed by a very interesting and illuminating Q&A with Mourikis, who had just flown in from South Korea, where he participated in the jury of the 16th Jeonju International Film Festival. The Attenberg screening was followed by a Q&A at the Sundance Cinema lounge, with Mourikis and Tsangari responding to questions and engaging in conversations in a distinctly amicable and relaxed atmosphere.
The keynote speakers provided an insight on the films they direct (in Tsangari’s case) and act in (in Mourikis’s case), and on the process of filmmaking as well as the collaborations between the directors and the actors. Mourikis talked about his collaboration with Yannis Economides in Psychi sto Stoma/Soul Kicking (2007), Machairovgaltis/Knifer (2010), and Stratos. According to Mourikis, with Stratos the filmmaker showed clearly for the first time his critical approach towards Greece, as this is the only film where a trip back to the filmmaker’s Cypriot roots is featured. In addition, the actor reflected on method and preparation for a role, arguing that a lot is determined by the way a director chooses to work, and subsequently the actor’s creative response to this.
Following the screening of Attenberg, Tsangari and Mourikis engaged with the conference participants in a discussion about the film, Tsangari’s style, and their working relationship. Tsangari reflected on what might consist her authorial signature, and touched upon many issues which have been identified in Anna Poupou’s article “Going Backwards Moving Forwards: the Return of Modernism in the Work of Athina Rachel Tsangari.” The director also noted that due to her education in Classics, she is always very much inspired by Greek tragedy (and comedy); something which she has consciously incorporated in Attenberg. For instance, according to the filmmaker, the silly walks or the dancing interludes that Marina and Bella perform in the film refer to and are inspired by ‘chorika.’ Tsangari admitted that Attenberg is partly an autobiographical film, as she has lived in Aspra Spitia herself, and her mother was French, as Marina’s absent mother is in the film. Another element Tsangari identified as important in her work is that she finds music creating counterpoint to the narrative rather intriguing; and that she always tries to incorporate this counterpoint in her films. She also stated that she is very interested in body movement and that she has used ‘muscle memory’ and language coaching in order to train the actors in Attenberg.
As far as The Capsule is concerned, Tsangari announced that she is turning it into a feature film now that she has finished filming Chevalier (2015). The filmmaker noted that she has been inspired by gothic tales, and in particular by the connection between gothic tales and Greek literature. She further stressed that she used international actresses in The Capsule, since it did not matter what language they speak in the film. However, precisely this linguistic diversity becomes very significant in the film, and enhances its gender politics, the delegates argued.
The exciting discussions continued during the conference proceedings-proper, with analyses of films associated with the ‘Greek Weird Wave’ and contextual positionings relating to the sociopolitical and financial crisis in Greece dominating the panel papers. This ‘crisis discourse,’ as Calotychos put it, (referring mostly to the Greek financial crisis) has fueled Greek cinema and its attraction internationally, having become the main framework by which current Greek cinema is perceived, often pigeonholed. Social. cultural, political and economic crises are themes and framing devices of the stories Greek (festival) films currently tell; and this is continually reflected in the critical analyses (of a rather small number of films, it must be noted) offered by scholars. Having said that, the crisis motif also became a productive link with cinemas from other countries, such as Portugal and Spain, while a very interesting paper by Tatjana Aleksić (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) linked Miss Violence (Avranas, 2013) and sexploitation to Serbian Film/Srpski Film (Spazojevic, 2010). The delegates of CGFC 2015 agreed that, although it is obvious that the current crisis has triggered many filmmakers’ creation, audiences’ interest and scholars’ research, it is rather concerning if the crisis presents itself as the only ‘hook’ for Greek Film Studies, and for Greek cinema internationally.
Indeed, despite the domination of research on films of the ‘Weird Wave’ and themes and contexts relating to narratives of the crisis, the abovementioned concerns were addressed by a handful of papers which rather turned their attention to underexplored areas, such as the use of Greek films in language learning (Elsa Amanatidou, Brown University), Greek horror films (Dr. Mikela Fotiou, University of Glasgow), contemporary processes of adaptation (Dr. Katerina Zacharia, Loyola Marymount University), gender politics and the representation of motherhood in contemporary Greek cinema (Dr. Tonia Kazakopoulou, University of Reading), and lyricism and documentary forms (Dr. Vassiliki Rapti, Harvard University). However, as was the case at the conference in London, practice-based research, or practice-as-research presentations, were absent in this year’s conference, too, together with other areas, such as research on contemporary popular/commercial films.
In addition to the high quality papers and engaging keynote addresses, a very significant element of the conference was the round-table discussion that was generated at the plenary session. The intimate atmosphere of CGFC 2015 and the presence of many of the members of the academic committee allowed for a critical appreciation of the Standing Conference in its current form, as well as reflections about its future. Some of the issues identified were the adaptability and flexibility, the opening up, and the international character of the Conference. It was noted that the current flurry of interest in Greek cinema – this unavoidable, it seems, ‘weird wave’ – has dominated both conferences in the series so far. But the longevity of this research event depends on its ability to embrace new practices and modi operandi, which will respond to new demands of research and cultural activity in the future. Moreover, the Conference was conceived of and seeks to remain inclusive and open, as the nature of its name – Contemporary Greek Film Cultures – atests, embracing, engaging and operating within broad, transnational and cross-cultural contexts. In this respect, its international character and outlook are constitutive parts of the Conference. However, this should not suggest that the Conference will lose sight of its primary aim of helping to establish, demarcate and represent the relatively young field of Greek Film Studies; to this end, the continuation of research activity after each event (such as special journal issues, edited collections, and networking) forms a highly important element of the CGFC conferences, aiming to add quality works to the increasing bibliographical corpus of Greek Film Studies. It was stressed that productive collaboration (among scholars and creative partners) and rigour of work have been and remain fundamental features of all Conference activities.
One of the most interesting provocations in the discussion was the conceptualisation of the ‘contemporary’ in ‘Contemporary Greek Film Cultures’, and how flexible a term can it be. This is a discussion with wider implications, about periodisation in Greek film history for example, but it is also a term that needs to be considered within the context of another constitutive term in the name of the Conference: that of ‘cultures’, plural. Thus, Contemporary Greek Film Cultures includes new writing on all Greek cinema, new methodological approaches, new developments in archiving and historiography, i.e. contemporary explorations of Greek cinema as a whole. However, and while this flexibility in understanding the remit of the Conference is important, a main aim still remains to reflect on cinema as it develops. The frequency of the Conference – a meeting every 2-3 years is being established as the norm – allows for the renewal of films as well as studies.
The CGFC 2015 conference was attended by 22 people, only two of whom managed to travel from Greece, and an additional three presented their work via Skype. The choice of location was a pertinent question, which was linked to the future success of the Conference. The process of selection for the host department was explained by the founders and curators Dr. Tonia Kazakopoulou and Dr. Mikela Fotiou, who informed the delegates of the conditions under which this bid by the University of Washington was successful against others. The active interest, as well as the rigorous presentation of aims and financial provisions, that Dr. Taso Lagos and Dr. Nektaria Klapaki showed in their proposal were deciding elements for the selection. Although the curators realised that the location of this conference would not attract many delegates from Europe, particularly Greece, the perceived centre/s of Greek cinema research, the decision to insist on the international possibilities of the event, and by extension the field of Greek Film Studies, was determined and conscious. In the end, and by the testimonies of all participants, this bet paid off. The small number of delegates, instead of a drawback, proved an asset, allowing for a very productive, collegiate environment; this in turn, and together with the programming that avoided parallel panels, allowed for the conversations to gather momentum by the end, and conclusions about the presented research to be drawn in a more holistic way. Intensive professional networking was facilitated by the friendly environment, and connections between scholars, as well as the keynote speakers representing their industry, were established in a more organic way, devoid of the stress that such necessities of academic life often create.
Building on the strengths of the previous two conferences, a similar process of a call for proposals and expressions of interest by departments/Greek film scholars around the world is currently under way for the third research meeting. This is a process which allows for a truly international event, with the Conference ‘moving’ to different locations each time. New technologies, such as Skype, have allowed and can allow scholars internationally to present their work in these conferences, a practice which is encouraged; however, both instances so far have shown that the physical presence of the scholars in the conferences is essential for important work to be done post-presentation, and for the aims of an academic conference to be fully achieved for everyone. In addition, the curatorial practice in place allows for continuity and quality, ensuring the successful realisation of each event. In this respect, the curators work closely with each organiser/organising committee throughout the process – from proposal to successfully holding a CGFC conference.
The opening up of spaces – geographical and intellectual – for Greek Film Studies is an important pursuit, especially at a time when Greek cinema has itself broken new international ground. The variety of locations allows for different scholars to attend different conferences around the world; at the same time, Greco-and-Euro-centric tendencies (even if these sometimes spring out of practical necessities) are avoided, as are perceived tendencies to ‘lock’ Greek Film Studies within strict boundaries and in antagonistic relations. These are obstacles that need to be conquered. International, cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural collaborations are to be encouraged instead, something which is foundational for the Contemporary Greek Film Cultures Conference.
 Members in alphabetical order: Dr. Mikela Fotiou (University of Glasgow), Dr. Dan Georgakas (New York University), Dr. Frank Hess (Indiana University), Dr. Tonia Kazakopoulou (University of Reading), Dr. Kostis Kornetis (New York University), Dr. Toby Lee (New York University), Prof. Lydia Papadimitriou (Liverpool John Moores University).
 The word ‘Conference’ is capitalised when referring to the standing event representing Greek Film Studies internationally, rather than the individual conferences in the series (at the time of writing, these are London 2013 and Seattle 2015).
 Filmicon has recently become a partner and will be hosting special issues after each conference.