Venerated by global cinema-watchers as a benchmark of the Greek New Wave, the work of Athina Tsangari presents a strange and fascinating vision that is not so easily categorized or understood. Whether or not the eccentricity of her films affiliates Tsangari to the accolade of male counterparts with whom she shares this critical national title–and sometimes the qualitative descriptor “Greek Weird Wave”–to deny her work’s singularity and to relegate it into this realm of film fest darlings would be to merely confirm our classification of cinema rather than challenge it. And while labeling certain tendencies and pseudo movements according to nationality, gender, genre, or even “weirdness”, creates a trendy shorthand for cinephiles, Tsangari’s career-long habit of rejecting niche markets and thwarting audience expectations complicates the way in which one writes about a group of movies whose strength lies precisely in its skewing of clear-cut descriptors.
In a rare moment of dialogue near the end of Tsangari’s mostly silent short film Fit (1994), Lizzie reveals her inability to (and obsession with) fitting things inside of other things. As suggested by its title, the harmony of objects–whether it’s how many fingers Lizzie can fit into her mouth, how her foot no longer fits into her sock, nor her tongue in Kenny’s mouth–is integral to this 8-minute film. Fit also inaugurates Tsangari’s fixation on foreignness and alienation through an almost scientifically ethnographic lens. These re-occurring themes are conversant with the Greek-born director who spent her formative years as a filmmaker in Austin, Texas and who, like Lizzie, has been estranged from a place that once felt so familiar to her. Perhaps even more obvious than the establishment of a thematic precedent is the fact that Fit’s opening shot bears indisputable resemblance to the film that put Tsangari on the map. Attenberg (2010) begins its unanticipated rampage by assaulting the viewer with a tightly cropped shot of the most awkwardly dispassionate make out session in screen history. I say “make out” rather than kiss or smooch because it seems more appropriate for the uncannily primal and animal-like behavior of lip locking, tongue wrestling, and spit swapping. For over a minute, Marina and Bella make out what to do with each other’s tonsils, and work out the arcana of oral contact in an almost clinical exploration of bodies and sexuality.
While the image quality of Fit appears more raw and grainy than its post-millennial counterpart, the static sound composed from a variety of natural ambient hisses rivals the minimalist score of The Capsule (2012). Striving for different tones of silence and empty noise, Tsangari’s sound designers Leandros Ntounis and Kostas Varympopiotis borrowed from a variety of mediums including VHS tapes, broken records, and electronic acoustics to recreate a sense of quietude without the visual component existing in a vacuum. For the most part, Tsangari’s films convey a meticulously produced soundtrack that mirrors the thoroughly choreographed image it accompanies. Even in her more observational and cinema vérité style short film Marina № 5 / 20:04–21:10 UTC+8 / 31° 10′ N 121° 28′ E (2008)–whose title defines its protagonist, exact time duration, time zone, and location coordinates–the fragmented sequences are non-accidentally overlaid with sound bites from Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai (1948). This piece is the first episode of a larger collective called Instant Instants, which documents a series of encounters throughout China and South East Asia, stripping each site down to its nitty-gritty sensations, relations, and spaces. While this short film stands out from Tsangari’s filmography in its stylistic bareness, it is not the director’s first attempt at compiling distinct geographies and contrasting experiences of modern space into a single work. The Slow Business of Going (2001) is in equal parts a whimsical experiment with nomadic filmmaking as it is a disorienting profusion of genres and techniques. At its core, Slow Business is Tsangari’s discovery of cinema altogether–its limitations, its malleability, and its delicate balance of stasis and movement. As a film student in Austin at the time, Tsangari created this film both as a thesis project and as a sort of autodidactic introduction to a profession that itself would demand a compulsive desire to keep on going, moving, and evolving. And of course, one that would be slow, for filmmaking is itself a slow business.
Tsangari’s avoidance of being both physically and allegorically tied down to a place, culture, gender, genre, or any other methodical criterion for that matter, speaks volumes considering the hype around artificial constructions and built-in addresses. While both Attenberg and The Capsule follow the long-standing cinematic tradition of observing women and telling stories about women, they also develop a new breed of coming-of-age films that differs from the kind of chick flick you might expect from a female director. Rather than your typical boy meets girl high school drama, the films’ subjects come of age through their confrontation with questions about what it means to become part of society and to be subjugated to certain structures of control. Both films delve into Tsangari’s signature fascination with the intimacy and frailty of human relations, and do so without ghettoizing or delimiting those experiences. Thus, the ubiquity of the setting becomes fundamental to the painstakingly private universes in which the characters dwell. It is perhaps telling that despite these two films marking Tsangari’s return to and reconciliation with Greece (after the economic depression was well under way), they can be understood less as political allegories than as invitations to grapple with what it even means to be Greek and to belong to such fluctuating bodies of society.
Shot in Tsangari’s native ghost town Aspra Spitia–whose hauntingly empty spaces are the only perceivable symptoms of the national condition–Attenberg atones the generational imbalance between a dying father, who is leaving behind the non-naturalistic environment he has spent his life building, and his daughter, who is ill prepared to grow up in its overwhelmingly rigid infrastructure. Communicating through their own bizarre gestural language, the engineer and the wide-eyed girl are exiles of their surroundings and of the civil society of humans that shape it. The Capsule similarly takes place in its own self-contained world– one that is further constricted by the short 4-day lifespan of its characters. The cyclical nature in which the women are born, enslaved, and expelled by the house creates a prohibitive microcosm to which the all-female cast belongs and is held captive. It is a film that is equally interested in the human condition, as it is with the inextricability of desire and malice in a closed and tyrannical environment.
Perhaps this unapologetic critique of the cruel interactions that arise in confined spaces culminates in Tsangari’s most recent film Chevalier (2015). Restricted to the deck of a luxurious yacht (which no matter how decadent is also always painfully claustrophobic), six middle-aged men of the leisure class partake in a petty and steeply escalating exposition of machismo. Barbaric, maybe–but in the hands of Tsangari, this merciless surveillance of male antagonism unravels with purpose and sharply humorous grace. It’s Athina Tsangari’s idiosyncratic attempt at screwball comedy–which turns out to be anything but void of familiar experimentations with human behavior. While the decision to embark with an all-male cast deviates from both Attenberg and The Capsule, the absurdity under which the male ego is objectified doesn’t seem so far off from the parallel societies of her previous work. In one of the film’s most iconic shots, the men strip off their skin-tight wetsuits at the ship’s bow. Like the black-clad figures of The Capsule–whose uniforms pay tribute to Michael Cacoyannis’ A Girl in Black (1957)–the six identical lycras commemorate an ephemeral moment in which the characters occupy the same literal and figurative position before the ruthless competition unfolds.
Chevalier is a social satire that immerses you into the dog-eat-dog world of refined bourgeoisie, though the frivolous one-upmanship resonates universally and transcends class, gender and nationality in typical Tsangari fashion. Perhaps noteworthy is the fact that Tsangari’s long-time collaborator, friend, and mentor Richard Linklater examines similar dynamics of power and camaraderie in his most recent film Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)– though in a much smaller and more digestible (or dismissible) dosage. As Tsangari’s first and only full-on talkie to date, Chevalier exhibits the most substantial resonance to the organic and effortless ethnographic portraits that color Linklater’s career. The somewhat improvised nature of its dialogue allowed for a certain degree of the actors’ personalities to sculpt their own characters accordingly– emanating an authentic, Linklater-esque mode of storytelling that Tsangari has admired ever since her interest in cinema was first cultivated on the sets of Slacker (1991). But Tsangari does more than remap, rewrite, and de-contextualize the cinematic nuances she has picked up along the way of this slow business that is filmmaking. Her films resist canonization and cinematic pigeonholes because of their often-discordant confluence of genre and esoteric sensibilities, extemporaneity and choreography, humor and criticism, politics and humanity.
Maybe the most important takeaway from Tsangari’s films doesn’t come from thinking about what they look like, act like, and feel like, what they can be compared to, or what they might’ve been influenced by. Maybe it’s thinking about what they do differently, and teasing out and acknowledging things we’ve never seen before–getting excited about them, and reminding ourselves that cinema will always be a work in progress, and that there’s plenty more where that came from.