Staring at me for a moment, Tsangari asks: ‘Did you find them eccentric? Why?”
I respond that my definition of eccentric is behaviour opposite to what is considered normal.
“So eccentric is people who imitate animals or walk in a funny way?”
“You never do it?”
“You should” laughed Tsangari. “It’s liberating.”
Thus is the philosophy of the woman behind Attenberg, the (dare I say it) eccentric Greek coming of age drama which is currently in Official Competition at the Sydney Film Festival.
Attenberg focuses on Marina (Ariane Labed), a 23 year old woman living in the industrial town of Aspra Spitia, who begins to explore the never-been-region of sexual experience, while arranging the upcoming funeral of her cancer stricken father Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis).
The film also marks Tsangari’s return to directing features 10 years after her debut The Slow Business of Going. Yet during that decade, the Greek born filmmaker has kept herself busy with many different projects.
“During that time I worked on the Athens Olympics, as part of the creative team on the opening ceremony” said Tsangari. “Then I founded my production company, with my partners Matt Johnson, Maria Hatzakou who used to be a festival programmer for the Athens International Film Festival, and also with Giorgos Lanthimos, who is a film director.”
“I produced Giorgos’ first film Kinetta, and also collaborated with friends of mine on a series of documentaries, which I also produced or worked as an editor or camera man…they were collective projects, shot in difficult places like Palestine, Gazza and Tehran.”
Any distinction between director or producer is quickly swatted away by Tsangari. A filmmaker is a filmmaker, regardless of the title.
“I don’t really see the difference,” said Tsangari. “I feel that as a producer you bring stuff to life, and there is a thing called creative producing, which means by the way you choose a project and how you want to be involved. You shepherd it to life. I’ve been mostly hands on with the movies that I’ve produced.”
For Tsangari, Attenberg not only proved to be another one of those “hands on” experiences, but a defining chapter in her relationship with her native land Greece, which she left to study film in New York and Texas.
Tsangari grew up in the town of Aspra Spitia, and used it as a symbolic backdrop for her country’s recent struggles, as well as her own complex relationship with her homeland.
“I left Greece out of my own will,” said Tsangari. “As soon as I graduated from school, I got my scholarship and really wanted to go to New York. So I guess there was something in me that me that I didn’t fit in Greece.”
“Some people go to the psychoanalyst, and some people make films and figure out this sort of catharsis. So I made Attenberg in Aspra Spitia, which is a town that very much represents Greece and a vision of another Greece that never really materialised, and inserted a character who feels estranged from her environment and slowly she starts belonging more.”
It is that estranged, quirky nature of these characters that has separated Attenberg from other entries at the Sydney Film Festival. Sequenced funny walks, mimicking of animals and awkward tongue wrestling all feature.
Yet while some might see such behaviour as a little too weird, don’t expect Tsangari to apologise.
“We had enormous fun improvising, and I am completely non-apologetic about explaining why I want to use it”, said Tsangari. “When I watch cinema, I very much want to be challenged and startled. Maybe I might not understand why I like something or why something is there, but just the fact that something sticks with me and gets me thinking, or gets me annoyed, is something that I enjoy.”
“Because it was so structured around this series of negotiations between the characters, this sort of bare bones negotiations, I was really interested in interjecting these interludes, sort of like the Greek chorus in a Greek tragedy. But also to have fun!”
All fun aside, Attenberg is Tsangari’s representation of the depressing depths her country has found itself, but also of the bright future ahead of it.
“[Attenberg] does sort of express what my father’s generation is experiencing right now,” said Tsangari. “It’s a generation where the 60s and 70s really tried to bring Greece to the contemporary world. To westernise it, to bring it out of the third world that it had been for centuries, and now there is total bankruptcy and everything.
“My generation experiences that and all of the generations after me, there are people in the streets in their 20s right now who are rebelling against tyranny, and patriarchy, and corruption, and all of the fundamental things that have engrained in our society and damaged it.”
“So yeah, there is a lot of pessimism in Attenberg, but at the same time there is something really liberating. The moment you realised things have hit the bottom, things will start looking up. I’m looking forward to imagining how Marina will develop. She is set free. She has nothing, so she is free to start all over again.”
Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari
Cast: Ariane Labed, Vangelis Mourikis, Evangelia Randou, Giorgis Lanthimos
Images provided by SFF