Interviews | Suicide Girl: Athina Rachel Tsangari

By Adam Nayman

“How do people do it?” This is the question posed by Marina (Ariane Labed) to her best (and only) friend Bella (Evangelina Randou) in the opening scene of ATTENBERG. Marina is asking about French kissing, which she’s never tried before—nor anything else of that nature. Though still about two decades shy of becoming her depressed industrial seaside town’s equivalent of the 40-year-old virgin, Marina seems headed willfully in that direction. Bella proves a patient if surly tutor, and the pair’s sustained bout of educational tongue-wrestling, shot comic-book-panel style against a stark white wall, gives Athina Rachel Tsangari’s second feature a show-stopping cold open. Marina’s sincere query resonates long after the session has ended, however. One might say it announces ATTENBERG as a kind of anthropological drama.

These concerns become more explicit as the film continues. When she’s not tending to the two-woman band of outsiders she’s formed with Bella—they’re glimpsed in interstitial sequences silly-walking their way around town, out of either boredom, Monty Python fandom, or both—Marina tends to her terminally ill father Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis), a former architect whose decrepitude reflects that of the crumbling factory town he helped to design. Spyros is philosophical about dying: “The 20th century is overrated,” he growls, welcoming oblivion. His preferred method of distraction is to watch Sir David Attenborough documentaries with Marina and then imitate the animals in a shared and revivifying ritual of physical and mental regression.

In more lucid moments, Spyros isn’t shy about broaching the issues of his impending mortality with his daughter: he wants to be cremated, which is a major procedural hassle in Greece, where 95% of the population is Orthodox and the process has only been legal since 2006. In turn, Marina confides in him about her lack of interest in sex and men. These conversations, combined with the shrieking, chest-beating play sessions, indicate a familiarity that transcends, and is perhaps distinct from, simple familial affection. The boundaries between suitable and unsuitable topics for father-daughter discussion don’t seem to have ever been mapped out: when Marina asks Spyros if he’s ever imagined her naked, he doesn’t take the bait, but he doesn’t admonish her either. (“There’s a reason why we mammals have taboos.”) The only cue we get that there’s something inappropriate about the exchange comes via Tsangari’s framing, which places them at either end of a symmetrical hospital interior, quietly insisting on the space between.

The implication that Marina’s ornery, odd-duck personality has been inherited, and maybe even cultivated, by her father has led some critics to compare ATTENBERG to fellow Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ caustic Dogtooth (2009). Not only was Tsangari one of Dogtooth’s producers, but Lanthimos also appears in ATTENBERG as a pivotal character, a young engineer who arrives on the scene and piques Marina’s interest by defeating her at foosball. Lanthimos’ film was about a trio of siblings in naive thrall to parents who have systematically limited their understanding of the outside world, until the incursion of rogue VHS tapes bursts the bubble. When we spoke last year, Lanthimos denied any intentions of political allegory but the film, which suggests a Haneke-like sitcom (it’s all funny games until someone loses a canine), seems clearly intended as an authoritarian critique.

ATTENBERG isn’t so easily pegged. Tsangari has described the subsequent not-quite-live triangle between Marina and the two men—one representing the known world on its last legs, the other the terrifying possibility of something new—as being evocative of classical American Westerns. For me, though, the film that came to mind while watching ATTENBERG was Claire Denis’ 35 Rhums (2008), which also sketched the difficult yet necessary adjustment of an intimate and problematic father-daughter bond. Tsangari’s precise images are antithetical to Denis’ sensual cinema, but what she shares is a knack for physical casting and for wringing revelations from bodies, especially Labed’s. The actress’ performance, which happily won the Copa Volpe for Best Actress at Venice, would be opaque but for the loquaciousness of her movements, from the furtive way she eats a sandwich, to a bizarre bit of business with her bare shoulder blades to her wild gesticulations in the throes of her baser urges. (And there’s a great slapstick moment where she face-plants onto the bed next to her lover).

Denis might also appreciate the careful curation of ATTENBERG’s soundtrack, which balances songs by Jacques Dutronc and Françoise Hardy (whose “Tous les garçons et les filles” underlays a lovely sequence of tennis courts at night) against a number of tracks by the seminal American post-punk band Suicide. The anti-hit-parade culminates in a reading of the lyrics to Mariana’s favourite song, “Be Bop Kid” in a darkened hospital room (“it’s a song about life/real life”) that’s as unexpectedly and unfathomably affecting as the deployment of The Commodores’ “Night Shift” at a critical juncture in 35 Rhums.

The prevalence of Suicide in ATTENBERG speaks to more than the quality of Tsangari’s record collection, however. Alan Vega’s deceptively minimalist musical aesthetic, dissonant squalls laid over sprung, propulsive rhythms, finds a mirror in the director’s m.o. Texturally, ATTENBERG is as hard and blank as the wall in its first scene, with dim muted interiors and mostly empty streets, but it has a furious, racing pulse, which spikes as thrillingly and irregularly as a purposefully miscalibrated drum machine.

The beat resides in Marina’s question: “How do people do it?” If Tsangari is vague about what that “it” really is—French kissing; sex; connecting with a stranger; accepting the death of a loved one; reconciling civilization and our baser urges—her representation of the “how” is never less than arresting. Taking a cue from its excitable British namesake, ATTENBERG displays a keen but finally humble fascination in the mysteries of the human organism.

****Cinema Scope: You started your career as a film student and curator in Austin, Texas. Can you talk about that period and the short film festival that you helped to found?

Athina Rachel Tsangari: We started Cinematexas in Austin when we were students. We wanted to create a showcase for avant-garde work, because apart from the Austin Film Society, which Richard Linklater had just started, there was no exposure for that kind of cinema. We showed 30 films in the first year, but by the last year it was a 400-film program. We had guest curators: Jim Jarmusch came and did a selection of his favourite short films, and Todd Haynes came, and also Robert Altman sent us his shorts. Herzog came, too. It was strange having all of our heroes there. Scope: Can you account for why these sorts of filmmakers gravitated towards such a small festival? Tsangari: I think it’s because they didn’t feel the pressure that a larger festival might put on them. It was a really relaxed weekend with crazy students who were passionate about film. It wasn’t about selling anything, or about appealing to a jury or dealing with a market.Scope: Your first feature, The Slow Business of Going (2000), originated out of your thesis film at the University of Texas? Tsangari: The Slow Business of Going started with two questions: 1) what would happen between a man and a woman who just met, in a hotel room, if no sex was involved?; and 2) how would it feel if your job was to be a human hard drive that offered public downloads?Scope: The film is shot entirely within hotel rooms, yes? Tsangari: All in hotel rooms, shot in nine different cities all over the world. The idea was that the encounters of the characters would happen in all different places in the world, but really it would have been the same if they’d just stayed in one place, because when you travel and keep moving, space becomes homogenized. Scope: What was the inciting idea for ATTENBERG?Tsangari: I started with the question “Have you ever imagined me naked?” that Marina asks her father. I thought about what would happen if a girl asked her father that, and how he might respond. I tried to imagine the rest of the conversation. I knew that it would be something against white walls, which is one of the clichés of how Greece is depicted. White walls, blue skies, I wanted to turn that upside down.Scope: How did you settle on the location?Tsangari: Even though I grew up there, the town is a place that I had completely wiped out of my mind. I spent five years there before my family moved to Athens, and then we went back there for a few summers. So when I was trying to think of the right place—the right non-place—in Greece, Yorgos Lanthimos and I went to see it, and it seemed like it was a ready-made set for a movie. Scope: Is the town’s economy actually in bad shape?Tsangari: The town was built in the ‘60s for the factory. There were 4,000 workers. And now there are 800 people there. One of the reasons that this has happened is because of advances to the automation process, just like in the United States, in Detroit or Pittsburgh. But, you know, I didn’t sit down to try to make a social-political commentary.Scope: It does seem important that Spyros is an architect whose health is failing in sync with this place that he helped to design.Tsangari: It was important that the characters all had archetypal roles or positions in the film. The father is dying, as a representative of the 20th century in Greece. He was the architect of this social experiment that was designed with hope in mind. He was part of a visionary generation that was betrayed by history. Scope: Maybe it’s this idea of a father figure at the heart of a failed experiment—or else seemingly cultivating strange, antisocial behaviours in his daughter—that has led people to compare ATTENBERG to Dogtooth.Tsangari: Yorgos and I have tried to figure out why people think the two films are similar, and we can’t figure it out. The similarities are only incidental.Scope: Well, both films do concern children who are products of an unusual home life. I’d also say that there are some similar formal techniques, although your film is less aggressive. Would you agree that the film is, to some extent, about coming to terms with an unconventional home life?Tsangari: I left Greece when I was 19 and I made a big decision to return. It was a big deal for me to go back there to make a film. When I was thinking about what I really knew to talk about was about the imposition and blackmail of your family. Your family molds you in ways that are destructive. In Dogtooth, it’s more like science fiction, but you know in Greece, children leave the house when they’re 30, or even 40, only when they get married.

Scope: When I interviewed Yorgos last year, he denied that Dogtooth was a movie about Greece, or any sort of an allegory at all. Tsangari: I can’t speak for him. For me, it was crucial that the father-daughter relationship was one where both parties were trying to make it more equal. They were trying to negotiate the curse of the family tyranny. There’s an underlying pact between them. Scope: That seems to relate to the animal strain of the film: their relationship has an animalistic quality. And of course they share this fondness for regressive behaviour. Those scenes where they imitate the nature programs are exhilarating but also sort of frightening. How did you rehearse and direct those parts of the performances? Was there a lot of choreography involved? Tsangari: We were very strict in rehearsals when it came to body language. We were very precise about who was sitting, who was standing, and who was lying down. We wanted those animalistic urges to just erupt, out of stillness. It was exhausting in rehearsal, and the fatigue was coming out through the dialogue, which was very repetitive. It had to somehow explode. So I had them start to devolve, as you said, into different animals. We watched David Attenborough documentaries, and everyone picked their own animals. So each person was like a gorilla or a fish or a bird or a cat.

Scope: The idea of finding and expressing character through movement also figures into the dance interludes with Marina and Bella.Tsangari: People call what they’re doing there dance, but we call it silly walks. The two girls had to create their own code of behaviour and movement in this place where they’re outsiders. I like it when characters become ridiculous or self-mocking, so we started by doing penguin walks or whatever came through our heads, but because we all love Monty Python we moved on to that, started copying them, and then improvised variations.Scope: John Cleese never put his hand on his crotch, but I can see the homage. The way that those bits are bracketed off from the main action suggests that you’re using them as counterpoint, or as a strictly rhythmic device.Tsangari: The idea was that they would frustrate the drama on purpose. It’s like in Greek tragedy—you have the chorus, which is simply moving across the stage chanting, as a commentary on the plot and then you continue. Each silly walk if you notice is a commentary on the plot.Scope: So you had that structure in mind from the beginning. Tsangari: Initially, I thought the film would be structured as a Western, but with interludes as a musical. To me, we had a typical story of a Western: two main heroes in a small remote town, and then a stranger comes to town and changes the equilibrium. There is a showdown, someone dies, life goes on, but it doesn’t. That idea was a structural tool for me more than anything. It helps me, working with genre as a template and then stripping it down. I don’t separate form from content. To me they’re inseparable: Siamese twins not separated at birth. So ATTENBERG was meant to be Western + science fiction + screwball comedy + Greek tragedy. It’s also none of these things, of course. But I used these various genres’ “genetic” codes to keep me in line with archetypal narrative structures, and rescue myself from naturalism. So I could also talk about what I borrowed from sci-fi or screwball, but since we’re talking about the Western: it’s in the way the heroes enter and leave the frame, opposite from one another. In the opening scene, for example, they’re pistoleros, but with tongues instead of guns. The ranch is now a company town. There is a mysterious man in black who comes to town to make trouble, and ultimately save the brave one’s self-respect. There’s the fated death of the unsung hero. There’s a final showdown between two rivals who love each other to death (literally!). The finale is a bittersweet resolution: the town is standing, but its people are doomed. Scope: Another, more readily apparent influence is obviously the work of David Attenborough: besides the fact that his programs figure into the world of the film, there’s an almost anthropological aspect to the way you look at your characters.Tsangari: When a friend introduced me to Attenborough’s TV series, I was taken aback. You know, it’s not what I previously considered “grand cinema.” Attenborough crept up on me. I watched Bresson, then Attenborough, then Fassbinder, then Attenborough, then Buñuel, then back to Attenborough. And somewhere in the middle, I thought, my god, humans, we are just another species, utterly alien, incomprehensible, and utterly spectacular. I suddenly felt that I’m part of this species, but if I extract myself from my “civilized” context, without a soothing voice explaining to me who I am destined to be, this soothing voice be it God, or Bresson, I am just another Borneo slug, or Gallic donkey, or an Andalusian goat. Scope: Can you talk a little bit about Ariane Labed? The film would be unthinkable without her performance, but I know that she didn’t even speak Greek when you cast her —she had to learn her lines phonetically. Tsangari: It’s a strange thing because we followed the script verbatim without improvs in the dialogue scenes, sort of like reciting a poem until it acquired a meaning through sound. And yet Ariane developed, completely intuitively, her own Marina. I never explained to her who Marina was, and she never asked. We had this unspoken pact right from the start: we never discuss character. Our work was pure voice, pure body, pure language. I am not interested in Method acting, bringing in back story, talking about psychology. I worked with the cast as if the script was found footage and we had to re-enact it knowing nothing about its origins and its embedded meaning. This was sometimes frustrating—for all of us—but we kept going through the motions, as if we were replaying an Attenborough doc in order to understand the behaviour of a species unknown to us. In a purely animalistic way, Ariane became very involved in the formation of Marina’s character down to the most minute, imperceptible details. She started transforming right before our eyes, and by the time we were in the town shooting, she was Marina. She had gained weight because she didn’t think Marina should be too skinny: Marina had to have a nice little pot belly. She acquired a new walk, a new posture, a new voice even…It was her first film, and she worked like hell for her role. She didn’t speak the language, but she would stay up all night rehearsing the Greek accent and trying to understand the words down to her bones. It’s funny, because when you meet Ariane she is a rambunctious woman living life at its very fullest, quite the opposite of Marina.Scope: What’s the filmmaking climate like right now in Greece?Tsangari: It’s really bad right now. It was bad while we were making ATTENBERG. The news of the financial meltdown hit when we started shooting and we knew we weren’t going to get any money from the Greek Film Centre, and it was going to get worse and worse. The new cinema law is about to be submitted to Greek Parliament for vote, after a year-long wait, following the most crucial public discussion in the history of Greek cinema on the state of production. The “Filmmakers in the Mist” group formed by a majority of active filmmakers last year is largely embracing it. It introduces the basic stuff that’s been supporting cinema everywhere else in Europe, but not here: meritocracy in funding, tax credits, tax incentives for co-productions, mandatory investment of the 1.5% of TV channels’ revenues into film production, re-vamping of the antiquated structure of the Greek Film Centre, a new Greek Film Commission etc. The “old powers,” i.e., the old guard who has dominated our cinema for the last 30 years, are fighting against it, because they feel threatened. The big irony is that they are represented by film unions who still operate under a strange (unique to Greece!) amalgam of a Soviet feudalism regime. It is surreal what’s going on right now. The lawmakers in the Ministry of Culture seem more radical—addressing the “now” of cinema as art and industry—than the union forces that doggedly oppose the change. If this doesn’t happen, Greek cinema will crash down. It’s sort of like Argentina ten years ago, although I guess the crisis helped reinvigorate Argentine cinema.Scope: It created the Argentine New Wave.Tsangari: I’m completely against the idea of “waves,” and the idea of “national cinema.” It’s a tool for buying, selling, and exporting products. It’s a way of homogenizing the films of a particular country. It’s as if critics are like Sir David Attenborough watching these little colonies of insects growing next to each other, thinking that they’re connected despite each one having its own DNA.Scope: Every sperm is sacred.Tsangari: I think it’s going to be difficult for critics to call it a “new wave,” anyway, because all of the filmmakers are so different from each other. Films like Plato’s Academy (2009), In the Woods (2009), Strella (2009), and Dogtooth are all unrelated animals.Scope: Seeing as how you moved away from Greece for a decade before returning there to make ATTENBERG, do you consider yourself a Greek filmmaker?Tsangari: No. I do not believe in national cinemas. In order to make cinema, I am necessarily a nomad, a stranger, and an infidel.Scope: That said, do you see any traces of the Greek cinema of the past in the work of your contemporaries? You mentioned the “old guard”: does someone like Angelopoulos still matter to a newer generation of filmmakers—even ones like yourself who deny the idea of a national cinema? Tsangari: It’s not easy to pin down Greece as a country. Is it part of the East, the West, the Mediterranean, the European Union, or the Balkans? Is it the cradle of civilization, or just another IMF wreck? Are we half-Arabs, half-Turks, half-slaves, or half-blacks? Are we First World or Third World? Are we the only European country with a Soviet-nostalgic Communist party in parliament, or a rabid, racist country of undocumented aliens? Angelopoulos began making films at a similar existential crossroads, when Greeks were first asking similar questions. It’s been 40 years. He mattered because he lasted. We’ve all been, in one way or another, under his shadow. We are being suddenly woken up from a long stupor and slumber, and we hate it because we are deeply conformist. And we love it because now we are half-awake, instead of fast asleep.Scope: That’s a good note to end on. Maybe one more question: why is the title in all capital letters?Tsangari: It looks nicer.