Some thoughts on Dogtooth/Κυνόδοντας, Greek cinema abroad and voice

A belated Happy March 25th/Greek Independence day to Greeks, Greek-diaspora and Hellenophiles around the world. In honor of this ethnic holiday, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on the global Greek voice in cinema, thanks to the recent success of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth/Κυνόδοντας.

There was an interesting post on the Hellenic Voice Facebook page a few weeks back that I couldn’t help from responding to. There was a tiny bit of controversy about the press around Dogtooth/:

Discussion on the Hellenic Voice
The Hellenic Voice asked: Should Greeks and Greek Americans feel a sense of pride that the film Dogtooth was nominated for an Oscar? The Greek consul general of Los Angeles held a reception for the makers of the film, but the dark comedy has been widely criticized for its story of a couple who imprison and torture their children…
My response: I think there’s a perception the any movie in Greece/from Greece should be some kind of Zorba-esque postcard about how beautiful our islands are, come spend your tourist dollars here and find love on the beaches, et cetera. That kind of thing. Which, safe to say, is horrendously clichéd and it seems there’s every few years someone who tries this general pastiche and it usually flops (see: Opa, etc). The fact that Dogtooth happens to be from Greece and that it is a stand-out art film is something to be proud of BECAUSE it helps encourage and foster the film arts in Greece and encourage more Greek talent to explore this art. Sure, it’s not a movie you show your yiayia [grandmother] but not every movie shot in Greece needs to be Mamma Mia.

I need to make the important caveat here that this is about Greek films that are most commonly consumed outside of Greece. It’s fantastic that there are many Greek film festivals popping up in the diaspora – New York, LA, Montreal – that celebrate the diversity of film available.

To develop on this a little more, what we see a lot of outside of Greece fall mainly in one of these two categories:

  • Movies by Greeks about Greece/Greeks for The World (often what I call “Greek Island P**n”) [later edited this word as my blog was getting traffic for ALL the wrong reasons!]

  • Movies by Greeks about Greece for Greeks

What I’d like to see more of are:

  • Movies for The World that happen to be by Greeks that are not (overtly) about Greece

—and Dogtooth is a great example of film in this vein. And we are sorely lacking in this category. Now, admittedly, I am no expert on Greek cinema, but when I try to think about movies like this, why is it that the only other film that stands out in this category is Z—a stellar masterpiece of a film—but it was made in 1969! True, at its core it is an incredibly important story about Greece, but it’s not overt and it thankfully never resorts to tourist-bait storytelling.

I’m glad Dogtooth made it big. It’s a Greek movie where the fact that this movie takes place in Greece or is about Greeks (and it isn’t, really) is not the central point. That we’re not focusing on one of our Great Ethnic Struggles, to me, is a sign of progress in maturity of Greek film and how people receive Greek work. It’s not that the Greek/diaspora story has been told – that story is never over! – but we’re no longer at a point where we feel obligated to educate people about our basic ethnicity and identity when we have the stage. Now, our background can take a backseat to the creativity we want to convey and instead of the Greek story being the center, it becomes the lens. It’s an influencing factor but not the main event.

So often media of a people becomes its sole loudspeaker and platform to tell its story to the world and it becomes a representative of that people, whether they like it or not. Lots of Greek-Americans that grew up in the the U.S., Canada and Australia got non-stop references to Zorba the Greek and Never on a Sunday from the well-meaning public. In my own generation, it was the same experience but with My Big Fat Greek Wedding. (Thanks, Nia Vardalos!)

It’s a sign of huge progress that the Greek identity has become a bit more secure with itself, as have the various Hyphenated Greeks, that movies from ‘us’ are no longer about Telling Our Story, but Telling A Story—a story that no longer has to be about us.