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Interrogating Biopolitical Realism: An Interview with Author Dimitris Papanikolaou on the Greek Weird Wave

What is the "Greek Weird Wave"? We sit down with Dimitris Papanikolau, Greek film scholar and author of the book "Greek Weird Wave: A Cinema of Biopolitics" to outline the history of this cinema movement.

First published in Issue 003 of Film Club 3000, available now.


The cover of "Greek Weird Wave: A Cinema of Biopolitics" written by Dimitris Papanikolaou

What is biopolitical realism? It is a term created by author Dimitris Papanikolaou to describe the wave of Greek cinema released in the late aughts, perhaps a more thought through term than the “Greek Weird Wave” which was quickly coined by non-Greek journalists and stuck as the official name to describe this influential movement in world cinema. Steve Rose of London’s The Guardian can be recognized as popularizing the phrase, and The New York Times’ John Anderson went further with pushing it forward as the term-to-go-by in his 2013 article highlighting Greek cinema. However, it could be argued that out of all, Dimtris Papanikolaou would know best. Papanikolaou’s book “Greek Weird Wave: A Cinema of Biopolitics’’ is one of only two books available on this period of Greek film, and his decision to look at cinema from a biopolitical perspective allows access to a whole new world of understanding these films.

I sat down with Papanikolaou on a video call, where he talked with me from Paris about this term, “I jumped on a chance to encounter this obnoxious term ‘weird wave’.” He noted how colonial the very idea of the term was – Greek filmmakers attempting to share their art, to allow others a look at their realities and they were met with having their work called weird. Papanikolaou didn’t find that this was such a huge problem, though. “I thought, okay we’ll play with that. I’ve wanted a term to showcase what I believe was a biopolitical reality, and the very strange biopolitical realism that all of these films were managing.”

A Cinema of Biopolitics

Everything started with a book on the Greek family.

Papanikolaou had decided to venture out and create a book based around the representation of the Greek family in cinema. During his research he realized that the more recent films were not about the supportive network of kinship that is normally perceived to be the Greek family, but explored families that were violent, abusive, and oppressive to the point of explosion. Slowly all of the content that surrounded him – smaller films, theatre, performance art – they all returned to this idea of an  explosive Greek family. Then the Crisis hit.

“My generation lived through what was called the Greek Crisis. Around 2008-2009 it seemed that everything in Greece broke loose. First with social strife: in 2008, following the killing of teenager Grigoropoulos by a policeman, you had huge  mass demonstrations all over the country. They seemed to be about a malfunctioning society, and not only about police brutality. And then, very shortly [as a result of the global financial crisis] you have every single side of the economy falling apart. So, very early on, we were aware that something huge was happening, something historical was happening in our country.” The Greek Crisis, referred to henceforth as simply the Crisis, began to bring international attention to the country, but not necessarily positive attention. However, at the same time, Greek’s cinema also began to be noticed. “It was at that time that some films with families in tatters started becoming more and more acknowledged both nationally and internationally. It’s the Dogtooth moment.”

The Dogtooth moment. Dogtooth, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, is the brutal display of a husband and wife couple who keep their children ignorant to the world outside of their home even as adults. “I remember seeing it in the Winter of 2009 and I remember thinking this is a very awkward film. And then it grew on us that it was something more than that.” It grew indeed, going on to win the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes Film Festival in 2009, an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and love from critics internationally. Did it take a financial crisis to turn international audiences toward the cinema of Greece? Still, at the core of it all was family.  “So the family started it all, and suddenly the films came. It was as if I had made the frame in my mind and every single film I was watching was actually adding to it.”

Papanikolaou had been thinking about these sub-themes in Greek cinema: violence, intergenerational gaps, family (as) archive, (queer) kinship, oppression. Just as he was forming thoughts on these themes it was as if the Greek Weird Wave was being formed in real time. The book is a product of long gestation of many years of work, including his own work as a social activist – in particular, queer activism. As he was putting together the book and crystalizing his ideas around biopolitics, in September 2018, a trans-queer activist and acquaintance, Zak Kostopoulos/ Zackie Oh, was killed in broad daylight in Athens – an act of everyday violence and of police brutality captured on camera by passersby. Papanikolaou found himself mobilized, along with many other Greek citizens, to underline the  deeper social issues that once again this brutal killing was foregrounding. Indeed, the last chapter of “A Cinema of Biopolitics”, is dedicated to the killing of Zak Kostopoulos.

Mary Tsoni and Angeliki Papoulia in Dogtooth. Courtesy of Shotdeck.
Wasted Youth starring Haris Markou. Courtesy of Mubi.

The 2011 film Wasted Youth (directed by Argyris Papadimitropoulos and Jan Vogel) mirrors the real life murder of 15-year old Greek student Alexander Grigoropoulos, an event that spurred another moment of social unrest in the form of riots that took place for a month, and were described in the newspaper “Kathimerini” as “the worst Greek has seen since the restoration of democracy in 1974.” So Greece was in the midst of terrible financial straits and crippling social conflict, but the films that began to gain traction were in the end the ones that took a more allegorical integration of political issues.

Papanikolaou describes a fission in Greek film: there were the films that were in direct response to specific events or the general social issues like Wasted Youth, or The Boy Eating the Bird’s Food, which follows a young man who is struggling and must steal bird food to survive, or even Yorgos Zois’ Casus Belli, which also explores food insecurity in Greece. “The films that became much more successful abroad, [however], were films that were working at a much more allegorical level.” These were the films of Lanthimos, like Dogtooth and Alps, or Athina Rachel Tsangari, who directed Attenberg. Papanikolaou wanted to discover how he could push these more allegorical films to see how they also related to reality.

There was a challenge in putting together such different films as the extreme violence in Alexandros Avranas’ Miss Violence,  the allegorical films of Lanthimos, films that fell in the middle from Syllas Tzoumerkas, the eloquent film study of Tsangari, and the social realism of Papadimitropoulos – a much more diverse collection of films than the simple phrase “weird” could seemingly contain. “Lets play with the term weird, and start foregrounding its obvious limitations — [because, you see], you want “The Top 20 Greek Weird Wave films” to be available on [an international]  platform, in order to be able to [persuade producers to fund] your next film about a racist killing in Central Athens.”

This is where the term  “biopolitical realism” comes from. “I wanted to create [a term] that would at the same time include the allegorical films of Lanthimos and of his close colleague Tsangari, and, say, the queer films of Panos H. Koutras, who works with issues of queer identity, migration, citizenship and racism, and I wanted to bring them together.” In the midst of all of this uncertainty and conflict, the cinema of Greece somehow managed to craft a cultural exploration larger than it all. Inside of all of its multiplicity there was a core similarity – not “weirdness”, which today seems like a gross oversimplification, but a biopolitical reality and the efforts to make a noise within it. Biopolitical realism as the link between all these films gives autonomy to these filmmakers as artists who were allowed to create art within their situation, but not be defined by it.

A Cinema of Dislocation

While the beginning of the Weird Wave can often be attributed to both Tsangari and Lanthimos’ international success, Papanikolaou posits that the Weird Wave had been bubbling up in the background for years. “This is a generation that, before the Crisis, was working on a number of projects — including the 2004 Olympics — as well as other very commercial projects. Lanthimos was doing advertising and comedies. At the same time a larger group of people had started preparing what you saw as the Weird Wave, preparing the moment of explosion.” Angeliki Papoulia is an actress and longtime collaborator of Lanthimos, playing Older Daughter in his film Dogtooth. “[Papoulia] has become the darling of European cinema at the moment. There are film festivals in Europe that do a Papoulia special,” Papanikolaou told me. “Before that, though, she was in a theatre group with [her co-protagonist in Dogtooth] Christos Passalis called blitz, a theatre group that actually specialized in talking about identity, dislocation, the feeling of not belonging, of being marginalized, on various levels including gender and national identity, the fear of fascism rising, the fear of the fortress Europe.”

The blitz theatre group was founded in 2004, and Papoulia acted, co-directed, and co-wrote all of the group’s performances in Greece and across Europe. The group’s website states “...everything is under doubt, there is nothing to be taken for granted, neither in theatre nor in life.”

Ariane Labed, the star of Attenberg and who would later marry Lanthimos, is another good example. She was born to French parents and came to Greece at a young age. In college she met Greek director Argyro Chioti and, in 2005, together they co-founded the theatre group VASISTAS – a physical theatre all about dislocation. A big part of Labed’s work around dislocation was her heavy-accented Greek. Fast forward to 2010’s Attenberg, with Labed at its center and in a film, arguably, completely being about dislocation and one’s inability to connect with others. Then there is Michelle Valley, the Mother in Dogtooth. “ [Valley] is a Swiss actress who came to Greece in the 80s and started playing in Greek art cinema without knowing the language.” He goes on to explain that she always had this dislocation, and in, say, films like Morning Patrol (1987) and Singapore Sling (1990), a deadpan delivery that may remind one of what actors later do in many a Lanthimos film.

I decided to bring up a recurring theme that I often found in Greek Weird Wave films: loneliness. He was quick to challenge this, “I think the dominant theme is dislocation rather than loneliness”. Dislocation, a term I had never really thought about but that made so much sense when looking back at this collection of films. He would go on to explain, “In South Europe, we realize more and more how much a part of the Global South we are. South Europe has a longstanding reason why we feel dislocated. In Greece you’re supposed to be thinking of yourself as European, but you’re not enough. You’re in the East, but are supposed to be thinking of yourself as belonging to the West. You’re supposed to be working with new Neo-liberal models of production and social control, but then again you don’t have the economy for that. We tend to be highly educated because we have free education, but then again we’re being told not to believe in that education because it’s not as good as it is elsewhere. “

Dislocation rather than loneliness, it made so much sense. Such a thin line between the two words but a world of meaning that exists between them both. Dislocation speaks to more of a disturbance or a change, and is, even if ever so slightly, different than what loneliness is. He went on to joke, “I wouldn’t say that I see more lonely people in Greece than elsewhere. In a Greek restaurant everyone talks to you — they will not let you be alone. That’s perhaps the most unrealistic thing you see in recent Greek films: that you see people eating alone.” This idea of dislocation is something you can see very clearly in Attenberg, in Papadimitropoulos’ Suntan, and in Lanthimos’ Alps, among many other Greek films historically.

“Loneliness is just the tip of the iceberg”, he says. It is just the tip, indeed, but he doesn’t completely downplay Greek cinema’s connection to the feeling. “Rather than loneliness, I would say that what characterizes recent Greek cinema is emptiness. Greek cinema is a cinema of empty spaces – to extreme degrees.” Suntan begins with a Doctor arriving on the Greek island of Antiparos in its off season, certainly lonely but more attention is drawn to his being thrown into a new and empty place – a summer-paradise  island during a time when no one occupies it. “It’s not about them being lonely, it’s about the street being empty.” He goes on to bring up The Truman Show, the 1998 film about a young man who has to live in a TV studio 24/7, thinking that this is the only possible world. “Was [this film]  about loneliness or dislocation? That kind of constructed emptiness – fullness and emptiness.”

A Cinema of History

In 2021, in the midst of the pandemic and lockdowns, Greece celebrated its 200th year of independence. Suddenly, there was an international move to examine the country’s political and social history. Along with this, came the need to review Greek cinematic history; Papanikolaou became part of a team that curated a special festival, and published a book, “Motherland, I See You: The Twentieth Century of Greek Cinema”. It was an effort to showcase the fact that Greek filmmakers had been making a point to look back at Greek film history for quite a while. While the Weird Wave was finding its footing, the Greek film industry was simultaneously being shaped by a film movement called FOG – a double entendre meaning Filmmakers of Greece and also representative of the filmmakers themselves trying to find their way through their current fog. FOG would put together screenings and after-screening parties inspired by films  that had been forgotten to time, an effort to actively reshape their own understanding of their national cinema. Suddenly, a cinema tradition that had been forgotten was being revitalized.

Eternity and a Day, 1998 Palme D’or Winner, directed by Theo Angelopolous

“Film canons are the international canons. It’s difficult to have a national canon thriving and if there exists one, it is often a popular cinema tradition [...] Avant-garde film, arthouse film does not a very strong national canon make.” He points out some filmmakers that had been successfully added to the international canon, like Theo Angelopoulos whose film Eternity and a Day won the Palme D’or at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, or classic realist films like Nikos Koundouros’ The Ogre of Athens. What began to emerge around 2010 however, was an interest in curating Greek film history as a contemporary platform of inspiration and expression. Often many actors known for starring in Weird Wave  films would be presenting films from the past. Papanikolaou recalls a time where Angeliki Papoulia spoke beautifully at a screening of the 1956 film A Girl in Black, by another realist Michael Cacoyannis. In this moment of historical film appreciation the other shoe dropped when filmmakers began to realize that they couldn’t find some of these films. Some went from door to door, actively searching for historic Greek films that had been lost or damaged. He describes the work they were doing as a sort of “genealogical exercise”.

Papanikolaou explains that during this period a filmmaker, Niko Papatakis, began to be re-discovered. “He did a film just before the great dictatorship of ‘67 called Shepherds of Disorder, which I remember watching for the first time again in the 10s in a screening. I remember thinking, ‘Lanthimos is there already [in 67]’.” He goes on to describe Papatakis’ film, how it includes characters speaking in stilted or monotone dialogue, how violence is a leading factor, and how it pushes against the Greek family. “It shows that the Greek family is a center of exploitation or abuse within the system.”

“We forget [how difficult it is] to find our own cinema traditions, and it has to be curating. It has to be getting together with people. It has to be fighting. It has to be creating interesting communities.”

The Shepherds of Disorder (1967) directed by Niko Papatakis. Film at Lincoln Center, 2018.

This line of thought led into our next point of conversation: accessibility, especially as it pertains internationally. “Accessibility is the issue,” he declares. So many great films that are impossible to access outside of Greece, or that are similarly lost to international audiences. He goes on, “We subtitle Greek films, we digitize Greek films all the time even to send as screeners to festivals, and then we forget about this and there’s no way to watch.” There is initial access but oftentimes, as time goes on, films become only accessible to those rare film viewers who are willing to go out and search endlessly for them. This is where the importance in archiving world cinema comes in. “We forget [how difficult it is] to find our own cinema traditions, and it has to be curating. It has to be getting together with people. It has to be fighting. It has to be creating interesting communities.” All types of communities – communities of watching, communities of cin-archiving, communities who demand their audiovisual history and are ready to fight for it, as Papanikolaou puts it.

“Sometimes in film studies we forget that history, writing, film criticism, film viewing, and film archiving are all [existing] together.”

A Cinema of the Future

What happens in the wake of a monumental national film movement in a small country like Greece? Of course more films were created. Yorgos Lanthimos is now Greece’s most known filmmaker, an internationally received auteur who weaves through different genres and continuously pushes his skill as a filmmaker. Athina Rachel Tsangari continues to work internationally as a director and producer, in both film and television, and even produced Richard Linklater’s 2013 film Before Sunrise which shot in Greece. She has a new film that will be released in 2024. Christos Nikou, who Papanikolaou describes as a “disciple to Lanthimos”, has gained international attention as a director of Apple TV+’s Fingernails. Inside, another 2023 film starring Willem Dafoe, is directed by Vasilis Katsoupis, a filmmaker who he points out is from the same generation that the Weird Wave stemmed from.

For better or worse, international attention has been captured due to the title “Greek Weird Wave”. However, Papanikolaou looks towards the future.

He says he notices a new development in cinema coming from Greek filmmakers, films that build upon the practice of “weird” but tackle social issues that are realistic in a very classic way. These films all attack specific issues to do with work, education, exploitation, racism, and gender violence in ways that do not let the form become documentary. “In order to do biopolitical realism, as Truman in The Truman Show knew very well, you have to be both documentarist and awkward. To somehow dislocate that camera that follows you around in the film, that biopolitical ordering that has you,” he explains. The aspects that make these latter films  feel like a documentary are there co-existing with the weird. “I see all sorts of interesting things happening there about the body, about showing Neo-liberal politics. But at the same time, with all the formalist background that they have with the weird wave, getting the viewer in to feel pain. To feel dislocation. In a couple of recent Greek films I was even surprised to see the extent to which they even employed a certain type of magical realism — without losing their documentality.”

He references a Greek-American, Araceli Lemos’ film Holy Emy (2021), which blends mysticism with the very raw reality that exploited migrants have to face in Greece. Something similar is what Evangelia Kranioti does in her medium-length Obscuro Barroco (2018). In fact, every filmmaker Papanikolaou poses as being at the forefront of this new look into Greek filmmaking is a woman, which is of note as Tsangari is really one of the very few leading female figures in the Greek Weird Wave. He highlights Konstantina Kotzamani, who directs a 2019 film Electric Swan, and a film by Sofia Exarchou in 2023, Animal – which he describes as a feminist answer to Suntan. Exarchou has roots in the Weird Wave, having served as 1st AD on Wasted Youth and Koutras’ Strella: A Woman’s Way. “[These directors] have a tendency to do more and more social realism with the weird [in a way that] actually takes my vote.”

Perhaps we are moving into a new era of Greek cinema, only time will tell. What is clear, more than anything, is that this movement in cinema is one that will remain firmly stamped in the annals of film history. Dimitris Papanikolaou’s book exists forever as a great record, and his knowledge is treasured as a historian and expert on Greek cinema. As we neared the end of our time he left me with something, as earnest as possible, that encapsulates the Weird Wave and mirrors my hopes for the future of the Greek film industry, “It’s very nice that Lanthimos has happened, that he exists. He is just the tip of an iceberg, though.” Papanikolaou hopes that people will keep taking a dive

Stills from Animal directed by Sofia Exarchou, Holy Emy directed by Araceli Lemos, and Electric Swan directed by Konstantina Kotzamani


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