Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Strella, by Panos Koutras, one of the stars of Cheries-Cheris

Cheries-Cheris, Paris, 2009

Strella, (Also called, “A Woman’s Way,”) is a delightful film by Greek cult director Panos Koutras. How do you top “The Attack of the Giant Moussaka,” his 1999 film about a giant slab of casserole that suddenly threatens the city of Athens? This problem may have been weighing on the director’s mind for much of the last decade heavier than greasy béchamel and eggplant could ever weigh on his stomach. He first went with a surrealistic melodrama with a wicked mother and a burning Acropolis, (“Real Life,” from 2004) but didn’t really hit his stride until now with this much more believable, yet still unusual story. He knew he had to forego the Moussaka’s bargain basement Almodovar kitsch, but it took him and his co-writer Panajotis Evangelidis this long to really master the element that makes the Spanish director’s films work: the subversive gay plot.

Strella is about a pre-op trans who meets a man just out of prison after doing 15 years for a crime of passion. Their relationship starts out very steamy, but hits a few obstacles as they come to terms with their respective pasts, and with Strella’s complicated social life. The film includes many “non-professional” actors in their first movie roles, most notably Mina Orfanou who plays the title role. Mina is first among a whole bevy of trans in this film, ranging from the young twinks to the older grande dames of the night, all natural actors who give the film great authenticity. In contrast to all of the wigs and hormone treatment, is the macho actor Yannis Kokiasmenos who gives a very sensual and sexy performance as Yiorgos, the older man whose release from prison not only means freedom, but also separation from his cellmate. To say that Yiorgos is emotionally torn by this new and uncomfortable situation is an understatement, considering the secrets he must come to terms with during the length of the film.

One of the most interesting and gratifying thing about this story is how well the problems are resolved by the end. Before this, the only gay themed Greek movie I had seen was the depressing story of murder and intrigue “Blackmail Boy” (2002). I somehow managed to miss Katakouzinos’ “Angel” from the 1970s, but I guess I’ll save that one for some suicidal rainy day. For now, I will savor the good feelings that I am left with from “Strella.”

Strella premiered at the Berlinale earlier this year, and in France at the Gay Film Festival Cheries-Cheris that took place in November, 2009 at the Forum des Images. Hopefully, it will soon have a commercial run in Paris so that those who missed it the first time around will get a chance to see it.

Oh, sorry, did the mention of moussaka make you hungry? Here is a small taste of that earlier film:

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December 13, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , | Leave a comment

Orestes: Pasolini Lost in Africa

Appunti per un’Orestiade Africana. Pasolini’s genius shines through, even when he stumbles.

In 1970, Pier Paolo Pasolini went to Africa to shoot film and make notes for a possible film based on the trilogy of Greek tragedies, the Oresteia by Aeschylus. The resulting documentary has a great impact in two ways: showing what a potentially great film this could be, given the resources and talents of the great filmmaker, and showing what a disastrous concept that this project really was. The project was eventually abandoned, and the reasons why may be evident right here in this film.

murderofAgamemnon

Pasolini begins by giving a short synopsis of the trilogy Oresteia in voiceover, as we see the faces of people on the streets of Uganda and several other countries. After the synopsis, he begins assigning these people possible roles in the first play, Agamemnon. There are returning warriors, an unfaithful wife and plotting offspring and just like that, we are drawn in, because we can immediately see the larger than life characters of greek tragedy merging with the throbbing humanity in these images. The magic is powerful

Agamemnon

Agamemnon

and there is the feeling that Pasolini could go on just like this with his project, narrating the action in voiceover, and depicting the scenes simply with the faces and gestures of the people.

In fact, maybe Pasolini should have gone ahead in just that way, making this his private Greek tragedy overlaying a collage of fascinating African scenes. At least then there would be an honest distinction between the European fantasies and the African realities. Everyone would have come together on their own terms and would be able to go their separate ways at the end.

But Pasolini believed in the correctness of his approach, and the beneficial effects of the progressive forces he represented. He had high hopes for his film. However, the scenes with the African students in Rome brings this high flying project crashing back to earth.

About ten minutes into the documentary, we are transported to an auditorium at the University of Rome. Pasolini is there with a group of African students, all male, all dressed formally, many wearing jackets and ties. He explains to them that he wanted to make this film in Africa because he saw so many similarities between modern Africa and Ancient Greece. So the question that he puts to the students is, should he set the story in 1960, at the time of independence, or in 1970, that is, in the present day. The question seems incredibly banal, superficial and irrelevant. Doesn’t he want to hear the students’ opinions on anything they have just seen, or is he just interested in some technical advice?

The faces of the students are like stone. This is 1970, they certainly know that they are in the presence of one of the great artists of the new “revolutionary” Italy, the part of society that is really their hosts and protectors in this storm tossed and politicized Europe. Yet they seem torn, and unsure what to say. In many instances, the

Ethiopian student

Ethiopian student

speaking of just a few words is enough to allow a break in the impassivity and let through a peek at the sea of discomfort beneath. One student, from Ethiopia, speaks in measured objection to the concept, and seems to be controlling an urge to shout out his protests. He doesn’t know Africa, he knows Ethiopia, you cannot generalize about the whole continent. Another student objects to the use of the word “tribes” and wants to refer to races and nations instead. Pasolini’s response sounds insensitive and dismissive, telling him that it was the European colonialists who had drawn the maps of Nigeria, and thus Nigerian history was a falsehood. The student is visibly frustrated, but keeps his counsel, and accepts the great filmmaster’s observations.

The students know something is wrong, even if they can’t quite put their finger on it. But Pasolini is oblivious. The rebel, iconoclast and literary revolutionary pictured himself outside of the colonial and imperialistic hierarchy of European and Italian history, as though his good intentions alone were enough to subtract him and cleanse his project of the stain of colonialism. We never see a frank and open discussion of the meaning of the director’s relationship with his subject, Africa, no matter how many times the students dance around the problem with their inarticulate answers. It is difficult to watch.

Mercifully, the African footage comes back on, following the storyline of the second play, The Libation Bearers. The action is brutal and murder is the pivotal action in this play. The tone is different in this footage as well. There are scenes of war, executions, mourning, graveside rituals. Some of this is newsreel

Orestes

Orestes

from the war in Biafra, Nigeria. Pasolini may be in over his head here, but he pulls it off, bringing these scenes together with the help of the words of the iconic Greek drama. The Africans in Pasolini’s viewfinder grow immensely symbolic, and he finds the main character, Orestes, in the person of an exquisitely expressive African man who calms the air with his powerful presence. Once again Pasolini reminds us of his unequaled sense of cinematic art and his deep understanding of what is beautiful in a man. But then there is the musical interlude, a combination of exquisitely hysterical riffs by the Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri, and some excruciatingly absurd singing by two African American singers, Archie Savage and Yvonne Murray. He sings overly legato lines in a Paul Robeson bass voice that could be effective, but she has a problem coming to terms with her segments. This is operatic, in the way that opera sounds when caricatured by someone who hates opera. And Miss Murray certainly looks like she hates this gig. Her voice is annoyingly shrill and hollow at the same time, her melody repetitive and impoverished. This is the exact opposite of bel canto, and if there were a performance indication at the top of her page, it would probably say something like “a squarciagola.” In other words, shout like a hoarse hyena.

In the second session with the students, Pasolini begins with a question about whether these Africans identify with the character of Orestes discovering a new world. He gets the same cryptic and troubled answers as before. He does manage to get them talking about the uniqueness of the African soul, though, when he switches to a discussion of the power of traditional culture to ameliorate the effects of modern consumerism. But when he asks them how he should continue the story, and how he might render the transformation of wrathful Furies into forgiving Eumenides, he is back to talking about his project as though it were a game or a masquerade. These students are talking about their destinies, the lives and deaths of their countrymen, their own identity, and Pasolini wants to focus on the minutiae of scene building for his film. In all, there are no smiles in this room, no enthusiastic confirmation of Pasolini’s insight into Africanness, no spontaneous identification with the African Orestes.

handsupThe African footage returns with the final play, Eumenides, as its focus. Pasolini searches for the way to present that transformation of the Furies. He shows scenes of street dancers, processions, wedding receptions. These are wonderfully evocative scenes, and his possibilities seem to multiply before our eyes. Truly, Pasolini could make a great film out of this project, in spite of it all.

But Pasolini must have been profoundly disappointed by the responses from the auditorium, and considering the depth of his knowledge and his appreciations of irony, and his genuine humility, I don’t think that the true nature of the problem escaped him for very long. His questions had ignored the real problem that was there as plain as day. Could this Greek Orestes have any significance to the African situation, and indeed, why should it? Did he have the license to make such a film, using Africans as his workers, forever ordered here and there and never given the chance to make their own decisions and create their own tragedy as they saw it? Wouldn’t his film be in many ways just another exercise in colonialism?

For some reason, Pasolini never completed this project. In a way, it is a great pity, for Pasolini could have simply ignored all those extraneous implications, could have followed his own artistic muse, and created a

DVD

DVD

personal work of immense beauty. But being such a politically engaged artist, he could not travel alone, he had to have a revolutionary context, and sadly, that context did not exist. Thus, the documentary remains, a solitary, powerful statement showing the tragic disconnect between European and African, and judging from the difficulties encountered by both Pasolini and his musicians, the inability of either one to truthfully express the beauty of Africa using the tools of European art. Perhaps someday it will be possible, but not in 1970, and probably still not today.


Critique by Anne-Violaine Houcke in Critikat (en français)

May 23, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment