CULTURE

Constantine Giannaris: A clear voice in the static

THESSALONIKI – Greece has always had an ambivalent relationship with one of its finest filmmakers, Constantine Giannaris. There is little more to attest to this than the fact that even though he’s been making full-length films since the mid-1990s and featured regularly at prestigious film festivals around the world, this year’s Thessaloniki International Festival tribute to his entire body of work is the first to be held on Greek soil.

This body of work is neatly analyzed in the TIFF’s relevant publication ? the festival produces a fine book of essays on every filmmaker featured in a tribute ? that covers the breadth and depth of Giannaris’s career, from his time in Britain in the 1980s, all the way to his latest feature, ?Man at Sea,? with essays by experts on his work and comments written by the filmmaker himself.

The editor of the publication, Giorgos Krassakopoulos, describes this uncomfortable relationship with Giannaris as based in the fact that he cannot be labeled: ?We like to pigeonhole everything, putting it into tidy, but often thoughtless categories. We like to group things together in a way that makes them easy to classify, to compare, to disparage, to reject… Constantine Giannaris burst on the scene ‘from the edge of the city,’ with a talent and a cinematic language that refused to be labeled.?

London

The self-taught, 52-year-old filmmaker has been ‘bursting’ onto scenes and stirring things up since the 1980s, when he lived in England in a squat with Jimmy Somerville (later the frontman of Bronski Beat and The Communards), while he was supposed to be getting a degree in economics and history. A part of the active gay rights scene of that era, Giannaris and Somerville signed up to participate in a pioneering project launched by British TV’s Channel 4 for a collective documentary on the lives of gays and lesbians.

?It was the early 80s, when [Margaret] Thatcher was reigning supreme and a group of gay and lesbian kids could still roam the streets with a camera, freaking out prim and proper ladies who suddenly realized they were being interviewed by a lesbian,? write Giannaris.

Meanwhile, as Giannaris reveled in the ?out-and-proud? movement in the UK, here in Greece the door to the closet remained firmly shut, and filmmakers were either navigating the entirely different reality of the post-Junta era, where left-wing politics were concerned with attacking the vestiges of the bloody dictatorship, or churning out crowd-pleasing fodder reflective of a happy, new society.

?Filmmaking was the perfect outlet for me,? writes Giannaris, who saw it as an extension of his own involvement in left-wing politics ? ?a very anti-Stalinist libertarian leftism, mind you, where the number one priority was personal freedom.?

He took what he could from politics — ?it taught me how to conduct a dialogue, how to think, how to deliver a speech and get my ideas across? — and moved on when he felt there was nothing more to be had there, sensing the gradual demise of the left-wing an Labour movements under the onslaught of Thatcher’s regime.

His discovery of filmmaking also coincided with the end of the great celebration of gayness in Britain brought on by the AIDS epidemic, which became a catalyst for Giannaris’s frenzied filming of here-and-there scenes, using whatever technology he could get his hands on and experimenting with different forms and styles.

?I was living like a maniac. We were all living with the possibility of AIDS hanging over our heads, a threat nobody dared face… We were all working feverishly, like something was burning our insides,? writes Giannaris, whose first professional filmmaking projects were of music videos for his friend Somerville’s bands.

According to film critic, author and screenwriter Tony Ryans, ?to some degree, his subsequent films reflect these beginnings: their imagistic approach to the questions of gay desire, their carefully crafted visuals and their tendency to narrative abstraction all have roots in the activist/avant-garde traditions of the 1980s.?

His entry onto the international stage in the late 1980s was at the beginning of what would later be known as New Queer Cinema, which aimed at presenting the queer view of the world and challenging the conventional, i.e. straight, narrative of history.

Wieland Speck, a filmmaker, co-founder of the Teddy Award (exclusively for LGBT topics) and director of the Panorama section of the Berlin International Film Festival who was responsible for putting Giannaris on the map, saw in his work all the elements of queer cinema, which ?exercised its political power by using provocation as an art form that spoke directly and unfiltered to larger groups of viewers ? viewers who were hungry for change and willing to take any inspiration that might help to overcome the many forms of convention.?

At this time, in 1987, Giannaris was part of the orbit of Derek Jarman and other gay activist directors, and his ?Jean Genet is Dead,? about love in the time of AIDS, a project funded by Channel 4 and the BBC, earned him the invitation to Berlin.

In 1990 Giannaris won a Teddy for his homage to the Greek-Alexandrian poet C.P. Cavafy, ?Trojan,? a kaleidoscope of images that celebrates his poetry, his homosexuality and his life. Had he been working in Athens at the time, not only would the project have been stillborn for lack of funding, but the portrayal of this side of one of our loftiest national symbols would unlikely have passed muster with the intellectual establishment.

A few projects later, including documentaries, shorts and medium-length films, Giannaris became disenchanted with the gay movement. ?3 Steps to Heaven? became what he describes as ?a conscious break with my past? and his ?farewell? to London, after receiving rave reviews at Cannes and a lackluster reception by the British public in 1995.

?Before I left London, I went through a huge creative crisis; almost a bona fide depression,? writes Giannaris. ?I didn’t know where queer cinema was going, where I wanted to go… I was fed up with the whole gay scene, I was fed up with everything in London, I was almost fed up with myself.?

Athens

Meanwhile, Giannaris, who was born in Athens but grew up in Australia when his parents emigrated there, began to notice the enormous social and cultural changes taking place in Greece in the early and mid-1990s; a euphoric period for the country that was beginning to come out of the shadow of the post-Junta era and redefining itself as a part of Europe, with all that this entailed in terms of new-found prosperity that coincided with the first massive waves of immigration from the collapsing Eastern bloc to Europe.

?What was happening in Athens at the time was something very raw,? he reminisces. ?Athens was completely in your face, at least for those who wanted to see. Obviously there weren’t many, since no one had spoken about it, aside from a cinema that was anti-racist, assertive, with a narrative style we had seen before and with a very specific left-leaning attitude and humanistic mentality.?

In this society, which he describes as having been ?20 years behind the one I had left,? Giannaris found something he could sink his teeth into.

?I adored Athens of that era. After the moneygrubbers and mildew of London, I found a city where life was more accessible… There was an osmosis, a period where everything seemed possible and old cliches were dying.?

Armed with new passion and a bit of money, Giannaris embarked on a film to record the new zeitgeist, but, instead ended up making one of Greece’s most topical and thought-provoking films.

?From the Edge of the City? (1998) saw Giannaris, the child of immigrants, focus on another Other, an Other that was consigned to the fringes of Greek society, the economic migrant. The subversive director was making waves in his first domestic outing with his intense portrait of a group of young men from the Black Sea region of the former Soviet Union, or Pontus, a historically Greek region, who were at home neither here nor there. He shows them, without bent or prejudice, trying to find their place in society and to acquire the trimmings of a good life by turning tricks or committing petty theft. He interviews his non-actor actors and puts them center-stage. He does not apologize for admiring these young men; he shows their beauty, their brutality and their false bravado. There is nothing humanistic, sentimental, moralistic or exotic about ?From the Edge of the City.? It just told it like it is.

Though the film was warmly received by audiences and critics alike, mainly of the art-house variety, Giannaris had opened Pandora’s Box, had thrust an issue that was safely pushed to the back of most Greeks’ minds to the forefront, foreboding the medley of problems that uncontrolled illegal migration would one day bring.

?This game between the ?regular? and the ?Other? is a tough game, and about power more than anything else. A game whose codes and esthetics [Giannaris] understands very well,? writes journalist and blogger Gazmed Kaplani.

Giannaris already knew from his experience as a Greek in Australia and a gay activist in London, how the Other ultimately bodes. Instead, he earned a reputation as a ?fringe? filmmaker.

His reaction to this very pigeonholing mentioned by Krassakopoulos was ?One Day in August,? in which he challenges that petit-bourgeois notion that Greece is a classless society. His hero, again a young migrant man, breaks into the homes of three families in the same apartment block during the August 15 national holiday. Giannaris shows him wandering around their apartments (representing different social strata) trying on their lives for size, while they, each on their respective journeys, navigate their own personal problems. Giannaris makes us think about how our society is structured, without shaking a finger.

?I was enjoying myself for the first time in ages and I felt ready to explore the things I had been carrying around inside me for years… I finally felt I could go back and look them in the eye through a perspective that wasn’t aggressive or confrontational,? writes Giannaris.

With ?One Day in August,? Greece fell in love with Giannaris because here, that weird guy who started by making gay films, who made so many itchy around the collar, who had no academic background in film to justify the level of provocation he dished out and who came to Greece without playing the game of the local film establishment, showed that he gets the country.

The love, however, was short-lived, because the filmmaker, in the eyes of much of the public, sided with the Other over his own in ?Hostage,? a 2005 drama based on the real hijacking in 1999 of a Greek bus by an Albanian migrant. Giannaris was attacked, physically and verbally, by members of extreme right-wing groups and screenings of ?Hostage? were picketed by religious zealots. Much of the media, politicians and talking heads also went on the warpath against him, criticizing the film in the most scathing terms, though it was in part a reaction to their own breathless and sanctimonious ?this is what happens when the migrants get uppity? response to the original event.

?The country’s reaction made me wonder how Americans are perfectly capable of accepting films about tough, ugly stuff, without sending Sydney Lumet to the firing squad, but we’re not? What does the fact that they threw me to the wolves really say about us, a ?left-wing,? non-imperialist society?? Giannaris asks, debunking an almost-nationwide delusion.

It took Giannaris until now to recuperate from the backlash from ?Hostage.?

?I went through one of the worst periods of my life. I clammed up, I moved away from the film industry, I was dissed by the advertising world and I dissed them right back… All around me the country was still basking in the afterglow of the Olympic Games, the empty affluence of a belle epoque before the declaration of war.?

The issue of immigration, however, continued to eat away at the filmmaker, who sees it as one of the most defining issues of the 21st century, as the situation in Greece spiraled into the worst economic crisis in recent history.

?I was cooped up in this inner-city apartment, loathing everything around me. The minute I walked out the door, I’d bump into beggars with their hands stretched out, junkies shooting up, a daily avalanche of violence and squalor… I realized that I’m walking around the neighborhood I had chosen to live in and that I’m so fed up with the situation that I can feel these extremely contradictory racist thoughts rising up inside me. It was totally unconscious. And spontaneous. Racist feelings I never expected to have. That’s when you realize that racism is truly inherent in our destiny and in our cultural ? if not our biological ? code. The question is, how hard are you willing to fight against it?? asks Giannaris.

To address this feeling, he made ?Man at Sea,? in English this time. Set on a tanker, the story is about a captain who rescues a group of illegal migrants floating at sea during a vulnerable moment in his life, but soon grows tired with their growing needs and wants and begins to resent them. After premiering it in Berlin in February, Giannaris went back to the editing suite with the film and will be presenting his director’s cut in Thessaloniki.

Kicking in doors

If there is one thing that Giannaris can be accused of maybe it’s of being fickle. But, imagine how dull his body of work would be had he embraced but one cause, genre or style. Instead, he has given us a rich tapestry of isms that he has built up, deconstructed and destroyed with equal speed and measure.

He has also proved a clear, honest voice that tries to be heard through the static that with such inevitability builds up around any social issue once it becomes the property of sensationalist media and attention-seeking political groups.

?Constantine Giannaris is a filmmaker in every sense of the word: he always creates an ecriture with images through densely written scripts, fast-paced editing and inspired photography. Sensitive to social issues and constantly searching for new artistic forms, he sheds light on the complex relationships of his characters with their ancestors and descendants, with good and evil, with pleasure and pain. Through his work, the gaze of the Other leads to another way of seeing the world,? according to Stephane Sawas, associate professor of Modern Greek studies at the INALCO Sorbonne Paris Cite.

Conservative Greeks can keep cowering in their closets and ignoring the world changing around them, but they should be warned, because Giannaris is not done kicking in doors.

The tribute to Giannaris will be traveling to Athens’s Greek Film Archive in December.