Under the shadow of a disintegrating economy, Greece has produced a handful of the most bizarrely disturbing films about highly dysfunctional families in recent years.
After Dogtooth, Attenberg and Alps, Miss Violence, co-written and directed by Alexander Avranas is the darkest of the bunch by some distance. Beginning as it means to go on, with Angeliki throwing herself off the balcony at her eleventh birthday, the ensuing investigation into what her family continues to insist was an accident is chillingly presented like the best of early Michael Haneke. (read my review here)
I spoke to Avranas about the film’s economic symbolism, the so-called ‘Greek New Wave’, his abstract way of shooting and how he went about directing children in this story of domestic abuse.
Vérité: The domestic abuse visited upon this family is in many ways symbolic of the economic abuse of a nation. How did you intend to get this across without ever directly referencing world events outside the apartment in the film?
Alexander Avranas: This story is based on real events and domestic abuse happening around the world. Just like with the economy, this a moral crisis. I wrote the film in 2011 when were in deep economic trouble in Greece. The Greek people knew exactly who to blame for this but never tried to come up with any solutions or do anything about it and that’s an idea I wanted to explore with this film.
Why do think these films coming out of Greece, Dogtooth, Attenberg, Alps and now Miss Violence all revolve around highly dysfunctional families?
All these filmmakers are taking a position on our current society and the family is the best way to talk about this in abstract and symbolic ways because family itself is like a small society. Also family has as much control as ever these days in Greece because people aren’t so culturally educated.
What do you think about the way the press lumps all these films together as a ‘Greek New Wave?’
I don’t believe there is a ‘wave’ and I don’t care for labels, but they all have the feeling of being Greek tragedies. None of the filmmakrs have personal connections like the Nouvelle Vague who were friends with very specific political and philosophical concerns.
But have we come to a tipping point with Greek cinema of this sort, where we’re now expecting films which are bizarre, highly mannered, twisted and dark? I can’t help but feel I’d have been even more shocked by it if I hadn’t already seen the other films we’re talking about.
Doghtooth and Alps are very symbolic and Miss Violence is very realistic. My film has a much more emotional approach and the language and acting styles of those films are also totally different. The only thing they have in common is the darkness because they all in some way reflect reality, and the reality of Greece right now is far from beautiful.
Talk about the film’s close compositional emphasis on bodies and why you often cut the heads off of your actors in the frame.
I was the camera operater on this film so in a way that has something to do with wanting to be close to my actors, and I also wanted to tell the truth… but only part of it, because this family can’t deal with the whole truth. It’s right in front of their eyes the whole time but they don’t want to see it and I wanted to express this by how we see the characters.
I was constantly aware of my being like a voyeur watching this and the feeling that the father was always watching everybody.
It was so important to get the right apartment and this one had two corners from which it was possible for the father to control everything. How they move in the space, there’s also a feeling of everyone controlling everyone else, because I was constantly changing the objective way of shooing and the POV of the character. That feeling of looking and being watched comes from how I shot straight on at all times like a documentary, no canted angles. That game of perspective includes the audience in the changing POV and makes them a ‘watcher’ also. It’s a way of directly connecting them to the story.
There’s the violence of sexual abuse off-screen, but of the violence we see on-screen, the father isn’t the only abuser in this family is he?
The psychology of the film is based on Stockholm syndrome. The father is equally cruel to everyone and so together, the family become used to violence. We have many scenes of family members slapping each other and in a weird way this becomes a form of love.
Themis Panou’s performance as the patriarch is terrifying for how contained it is, were you constantly telling him to keep it small on set?
All the time. This was his first leading man role and his previous experiernce is in amuter theatre, not film, and this film being mostly about faces, I was very precise with him about what I wanted from every silent look he’s giving other people. He’s a mostly silent character, so every time we saw his face it had to express something of what he wasn’t saying. We had almost a year of rehearsals and research. Those rehersals were held in the same apartment where we shot so we could work out the camera in relation to the performance. In a way has the easiest role because like the character, he is always performing and playing the king of this household. He has the most do and physical actions to occupy him in what is otherwise a very still film, so in a way he was hiding behind the actions.
What was your approach to directing children in such disturbing material?
We spent ix months casting the kids. Once I found them I talked to them as adults not young children. I told them the whole truth of the script and left nothing out. The parents were very supportive and their children had the feeling that they were doing something good to help kids in these situations in real life. I was always thinking about people in the audience that had gone through something like this themselves and being respectful of that, so it was important to tell my young actors everything and be very specific. I had a great time working with them.
What has the audience reaction been like in Greece where this film will have he most resonance?
It starts a conversation they don’t want to have, but just getting them to think about it is important, it doesn’t matter if the reaction is positive or negative. In Greece everyone is having a bad time, so they want to go to the cinema and have fun for two hours. Those who do see it won’t want to talk about this film in part because it is so controversial, but also because I don’t think they’ve really understood it. We don’t really have film critics in Greece and so the people don’t really have the power or the need to discuss films in that way. They’re not excepting reality from cinema, and this film is the reality of hundreds of abuse stories in Greece in a time when people want to feel protected.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on June 20, 2014