Author’s Note: The interview presented below is the first in my ‘Diaspora Dialogues’ series. The aim of these dialogues, is to discuss Greek Cinema as a wider institution and when possible, connect it to the migrant experience in Australia and abroad.
My first interviewee is Greek-Australian independent filmmaker Bill Mousoulis. Since 1982, he has made over one hundred films, in both Australia and Greece, including ten features. Additionally, Bill occasionally writes about film and has founded several landmark websites including Senses of Cinema, Melbourne Independent Filmmakers and Pure Shit: Australian Cinema. You can purchase most of his films here.
As someone who came of age during the Greek Cinema boom in Australia, can you describe your first exposure to Greek Cinema?
BILL: Yes, my parents did indeed attend the Greek cinemas in Melbourne in the late ’60s, early ’70s, especially the Astor in St. Kilda and the cinema (the name escapes me) on Bridge Rd, in Richmond. My memories of these excursions to the cinema are hazy, however and as a child I was not entranced by the cinema (that came later, when I was eighteen or so). I also had some experience of Greek cinema in Greece itself, as our whole family spent six months in Greece when I was nine years of age. That, together with the films seen in Melbourne, gave me some idea at least of Greek cinema, or a certain type of Greek cinema – the popular melodramas of the time. One Aliki Vougiouklaki film burned itself into my memory – the tear-jerker I Maria tis Siopis. And I became aware of the great comic Thanasis Veggos. As for Greece’s art cinema, that would have to wait till I was a young adult and growing cinephile, ten years later. My main discovery of Greek cinema however was as a full adult, when I was forty-five and started living in Greece for some years.
For first generation migrants, the cinema wasn’t just a place for entertainment but a safe haven to socialize with others who were experiencing a similar cultural diaspora. Did your parents use the cinema as a place of socialization?
BILL: Whilst my parents did indeed go to the Greek cinemas in Melbourne, it wasn’t a big deal for them I think, in terms of socializing with fellow Greeks. My parents were also not very cultural, so they had no great passion for Greek cinema or art in general. My parents did of course socialize – first of all, with their immediate siblings, and there were plenty of those. Secondly, through broader excursions (picnics mainly) with people from their particular region, and my father was someone who helped organise such get-togethers. So, the cinema-going was more like an added, extra thing for them. But they valued it, no doubt. I just don’t remember it being a primary thing in their lives. And, sadly, what happened gradually for my parents after that was an assimilation into Australian life, giving them a “double identity”. Slowly, the connection to the motherland wasn’t that crucial to them, as they drank in the idea of Australia as the promised land of prosperity (and peace too let’s not forget, away from wars and the Military junta of the late ’60s).
How do you feel about the representation of Greekness in Australian productions such as Aleksi Vellis’ The Wog Boy and Ana Kokkinos’ Head On?
BILL: I’m pretty indifferent to mainstream depictions of Greekness in Australia. There are always clichés and stereotypes, when it comes to other cultures, and the Australian writers and directors reveled in that somewhat. I don’t mind that, in the creation of comedy. When it comes to more serious drama though, unfortunately, the clichés can tend to still remain. I value Christos Tsiolkas as a writer, I think he is strong artistically, so Head On had some unusual and pertinent things in it, obviously about identity and alienation, but it was still cliché-ridden, and just badly directed (I quite like Kokkinos’ other films though). Tellingly, there are very few Australian mainstream features (or even indie features) that deal with Greek migration and displacement. Even though there have been many Greek-Australian directors in the past 30 years, like Alkinos Tsilimidos and Aleksi Vellis and Nadia Tass and many others, hardly any of their work has Greek themes in it. So the “sample size” is quite small. In a way, Greek-Australian cinema is non-existent. “Out of sight, out of mind”, as the saying goes.
You’ve worked as a critic in Greece and also shot two features there including your most recent Songs of Revolution in 2017. Can you describe your experiences working in the country?
BILL: For me, living and working in Greece roughly between 2009 and 2017 was a great experience, one that I never envisaged I would have as I did various film activities in Australia in the ’80s, ’90s and deep into the ’00s. I wasn’t a traveller and also wasn’t concerned with my own “Greekness”. I was Australian – born in Australia, with English as my mother tongue, and all my work was done in Australia. But in 2008, I visited Greece for the first time since my time there as a kid in 1972, and I fell in love with the place. There was no “nostalgia” for me, or pressure from my parents to spend time there (in fact they became incredulous that I wanted to keep staying there), it was simply falling in love with European life, and in particular the loose and free type of life in Greece. Sure, visiting European film festivals and meeting favorite directors was a buzz, but there was also a buzz about Greece for me, it was after all my heritage, and knowing the language meant that I could connect with it, truly connect, even if it took a few years to get my language up to a truly comfortable level. And the Greece I found had nothing to do with all the Greek clichés I was familiar with back in Australia. I connected, of course, not only with a living, breathing, contemporary Greece, but also an alternative one (anti-establishment, anti-capitalist). The two features I made in Greece were exciting to make, and there was no issue doing them at a “no” budget level – Greeks know all about doing things for passion and love, money is never an issue. I also received more respect (but probably not as much recognition) in Greece as an indie filmmaker, compared to Australia. European art cinema is my forté, after all, and Greece can appreciate that, being in the midst of Europe after all.
To continue from the previous question – What is the film culture like in Greece? Are there cinémathèques and film societies?
BILL: The film culture in Greece is superior to the film culture in Australia, if that’s what we’re comparing. Greek film culture is steeped in European film culture, there are many connections with other European countries. The major film festival, the Thessaloniki one, is a rich and exciting event. Film festivals in Australia, while offering the best of world cinema, are “outside” of that world cinema. Greece is more in the midst of the world cinema, especially European cinema obviously. Directors from Europe travel to Greek festivals easily, and an organisation such as the Athens Cinémathèque can put special events on and get the directors to appear, from France or Germany, or anywhere nearby there. The cinemas on the ground in Greece also completely love European cinema – at any given moment there is always a Buñuel film playing, or a Godard, or a Pasolini. And it should also be mentioned that almost every Greek film (including more “indie” ones) are released theatrically, with great media coverage.
The late Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami declared that “No film is apolitical. There is politics in all film. Any film that is anchored in a society, any film that deals with humanity is necessarily political”. Do you agree with this statement? If so, how do you think Greece’s current political landscape reflects the kind of films being produced in the country?
BILL: I think some films are more political than others, clearly. But every film certainly reflects the country it was made in. As for Greece, well many films are quite political in a direct, literal sense! It’s in fact the main question for Greek cinema, i.e. how it situates itself in the current historical moment of the socio-economic crisis (of the last ten years). Even if a filmmaker chooses to make an apolitical film, even that is a political motion for that filmmaker. And there’s been plenty of those types of films in the past 10 years. In fact, the Crisis has not created a wave of “political” films in Greece, it’s created a wave of “weird” films. The breakdown of the capitalist myth in Greece has initiated other breakdowns – within the ideas of family, church, state, etc. In a way, it’s been a liberating time for Greece and Greek cinema. The Crisis has brought Greece into modernity, and, for a brief moment in 2015, into radical rupture (even if that path was not ultimately taken). As for now, and the coming years, I imagine Greece will “normalise” itself, within the capitalist paradigm, and its cinema will withdraw back to more conservative forms. But that doesn’t mean that Greece’s perennial underground (its political activism and spirit of resistance) won’t continue to exist.
To conclude – What are some Greek films that have left their mark on you, whether it be emotional or intellectual?
BILL: Yes, there are numerous films I’ve loved, from Greece. From the commercial cinema, Thanasis Veggos is a cherished favorite. The films he directed, yes, but also others, such as O Katafertzis or a famous one like O Papatrehas. Angelopoulos? Indeed, but he’s inconsistent and, at worst, bombastic. Of his work, I love Landscape in the Mist in particular. Voulgaris’ It’s a Long Road is a great film. Panayotopoulos’ Idlers of the Fertile Valley is a masterpiece (and his later work is quite delightful too). Papatakis’ The Photograph is extraordinary. The early work of both Koundouros and Cacoyiannis are worthy, The Ogre of Athens probably the standout. Ferris’ Rembetiko moves me tremendously. Marketaki’s The Price of Love is a fine film. Of recent films, Lanthimos’ Alps is striking, as are Athanitis’ 2000 +1 Shots and Yannakakis’ Joy, and also the work of Yiannis Economidis.