In this article, the term economic ‹trouble zones› is used to refer to the crises suffered by Argentina from 1998 to 2002 and by Greece from 2009 to the present, while exploring the relationship between socio-economic emergencies and cinema. During these periods Argentina and Greece experienced severe and comparable debt crises and recession, unprecedented in recent financial history. During the same periods, two exciting new cinematic trends, the so-called New Argentine Cinema (NAC) and the Greek New Wave (GNW), impressed critics, festival-goers and international art-film audiences.
My intention is to demonstrate that – paradoxical as it may sound – contemporary Argentine and Greek film production achieved success both despite and because of financial crises.1 I will present the socio-economic conditions during the aforementioned periods in Argentina and Greece, briefly examine the aesthetics and the warm reception at international film festivals of the NAC and the GNW, and describe the new modes of production adopted by both the Argentine and the Greek film industries.
Although the term economic ‹trouble zones› could be interpreted in various ways, it is used here based only on the financial data of the Argentine and the Greek economies during the crises, the severe toll on the Argentine and the Greek societies, the way these crises were covered by the international media, and the surge of creativity that evolved under adverse circumstances. Before we analyse the NAC and the GNW, we should further delve into the socio-economic conditions from which they emerged.
Chronicle of the Argentine and the Greek crises
Argentina entered a period of financial difficulties in 1998 and Greece in 2009. The two countries adopted austerity measures and reforms aiming to control the public deficit and restore market confidence. In Argentina, the government of Fernando de la Rúa has passed several austerity bills since 1999 under the pressure of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Additionally, a debt swap exchanging short-term debt with new debt with longer maturities was announced in November 2001. Despite this agreement, Argentines have started to withdraw large sums from their bank accounts because they had been worried that the situation would deteriorate. Subsequently, measures, which are informally known as ‹corralito› limited access to bank accounts in December 2001.
On December 5th 2001 the IMF refused to release a tranche of its loan, due to the failure of the Argentine government to reach budget deficit targets. Pot-banging protests, in Spanish widely called ‹cacerolazos›, had been organised. After violent demonstrations, president De la Rúa eventually fled the presidential residence in a helicopter on December 20th. Subsequently, Adolfo Rodríguez Saá, the new interim president, declared the country’s default. In January 2002, the peso-dollar parity2 (in 1991, 1 peso was fixed at 1 U.S. dollar) was abandoned, inflation and unemployment worsened and the exchange rate reached nearly 4 pesos per 1 U.S. dollar. When the situation was stabilised, elections were called for and after Néstor Kirchner was elected as the new president on May 25th 2003, the peso slowly rose and economic recovery achieved.
In Greece, after George Papandreou was sworn in as prime minister in October 2009, consolidation plans were endorsed to calm the alarms raised by credit-rating agencies and the international institutions about the sustainability of the Greek debt. However, these reforms didn’t pay off and Papandreou announced on April 23rd 2010 that he would request financial aid from the European Union (EU) and the IMF. In exchange for the implementation of adjustment programmes, Greece would receive support packages. Moreover, similarly to Argentina, Greece made a debt-swap deal with its private-sector lenders in March 2012.
After several austerity plans, Alexis Tsipras was elected prime minister in January 2015. Tsipras suddenly declared a referendum on the new bailout agreement, to take place on July 5th, after several months of negotiations on the Greek programme. Subsequently, a ‹bank run› occurred: many Greeks tried to withdraw money from their bank accounts due to anxiety that Greece would exit the eurozone, and then, measures were implemented including limitations on personal bank withdrawals and transfers to foreign banks. Although voters overwhelmingly rejected the EU bailout terms, the Greek government agreed on further spending cuts and economic reforms in exchange for a third bailout on July 13th to avoid bankruptcy. These have been followed policies in Greece to the present, their goal being to help Greece regain access to the bond markets.
The economic policies followed in Argentina and Greece shaped the Argentine and Greek societies. The Argentine GDP dropped by almost 20 per cent between 1998 and 20023, which was characterised as «the sharpest fall experienced by any capitalist country of some significance at least since World War II»4. Additionally, the unemployment rates reached 20,8 per cent in 2002.5 As for Greece, the GDP dropped by 26,8 per cent between 2008 and 20136 and unemployment rates have risen to 27,5 per cent in 2013.7 Unemployment amongst 15- to 24-year-olds increased to 58 per cent8 by November 2014, highlighting the lack of opportunities for the country’s youth. Thus, the financial instability and the massive unemployment rates affected the Argentine and the Greek population, which both tried to survive the crisis by adapting to the new reality or by emigrating.
Argentina and Greece under scrutiny
Last but not least, the Argentine and Greek crises attracted the attention of the international media for several reasons. Events such as the restructuring of the Argentine and the Greek debt the latter characterised as the largest ever sovereign default9, were not only historical and exceptional, but they could also affect investors and institutions around the world.
The social turmoil and the local populations’ suffering in these two geographically peripheral countries generated great interest. The ‹corralito›, the ‹cacerolazos›, the escape of De la Rúa in a helicopter, the riots in Syntagma square, and the ‹bank run› in Greece were covered worldwide, putting Argentina and Greece in the international spotlight. Moreover, due to the duration of the recession periods, international audiences have been following Argentina’s «tango»10 with the IMF and the «Greek tragedy»11 for a long time. Thus, having presented the similar socio-economic contexts from which the NAC and the GNW emerged and the remarkable force of the crisis that hit both countries, we will explore if and how it influenced them in terms of aesthetics, international recognition, and production.
The New Argentine Cinema and the Greek New Wave
A new generation of Argentine and Greek filmmakers have distinguished themselves at international film festivals shortly before and mainly during the crises of 1998 to 2002 and 2009 to the present. When the film Pizza, birra, faso (Pizza, Beer, and Cigarettes, Adrián Caetano, Bruno Stagnaro, AR 1997) was presented at the Mar del Plata International Film Festival in 1997, and Mundo grúa (Crane World, Pablo Trapero, AR 1999) won the awards for best director and best actor at the first Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Film (BAFICI) in 1999, it became clear that a new group of filmmakers was going to mark a new beginning for Argentine cinema.
Some of the NAC films that followed, such as La ciénaga (The Swamp, AR/FR/SP 2000) and La niña santa (The Holy Girl, AR/IT/SP 2004) by Lucrecia Martel, El bonaerense (AR/CL 2002) and Familia rodante (Rolling Family, AR/SP/BR/FR/DE/UK 2004) by Pablo Trapero, Esperando al mesías (Waiting for the Messiah, AR/SP/IT 2000) and El abrazo ptido (Lost Embrace, AR/FR/IT/SP 2004) by Daniel Burman, won various awards at international festivals and initiated a new era for Argentine cinema in terms of film aesthetics, production and distribution. This cinematic trend has been termed by Latin American film-studies scholars12 as the New Argentine Cinema.
In Greece, a new generation of directors appeared who, like their Argentine colleagues before them, brought rejuvenation to cinema in their country.13 In 2009, when the sovereign-debt crisis started in Greece, Kynodontas (Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos, GR 2009) won the prize Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival and, surprisingly, a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards (Oscars). The international success of Kynodontas was followed by the production of critically acclaimed and award-winning films, such as Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari, GR 2010), Miss Violence (Alexandros Avranas, GR 2013), and I Eonia Epistrofi Tou Antoni Paraskeva (The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas, Elina Psykou, GR/CZ 2013).
Kynodontas, along with other films by Lanthimos and Tsangari, have been characterised as «weird»14 by critics from the English-speaking world and the term «weird wave of Greek cinema»15 became associated with recent Greek production. However, other films, such as Hora Proelefsis (Homeland, Syllas Tzoumerkas, GR 2010), Adikos Kosmos (Unfair World, Filippos Tsitos, GR/DE 2011), I Ekrixi (A Blast, Syllas Tzoumerkas, GR/DE/NL 2014), and Suntan (Argyris Papadimitropoulos, GR/DE 2016), do not necessarily share the characteristics of the Greek ‹weird› aesthetics. Several terms16 have been used to define recent Greek film production, including Greek New Wave (GNW), which stresses the break of the new generation of filmmakers with previous practices in terms of film aesthetics, production and distribution.
As for the aesthetics of the NAC and the GNW, there are great differences between the two ‹dominant› tendencies within them. The NAC had been perceived as ‹neorealist› by international audiences and critics – at least initially – as certain films touched social issues, such as Pizza, birra, faso and Mundo grúa. Critics and scholars compared the NAC to Italian neorealism17 due to common themes, such as poverty and unemployment, the use of reality as a point of reference, the use of nonprofessional actors and non-studio locations and the low-budget methods of filmmaking. In films such as Pizza, birra, faso and Mundo grúa for example, nonfamous or amateur actors appear who play characters that live on the margins of society. Additionally, these films portray everyday life situations, are grainy and, in the case of Mundo grúa, black and white, which can be attributed to both economic necessity and artistic choice (Abb. 1).
Despite touching on contemporary issues in crisis-stricken Argentina, the films of the NAC resist symbolic or allegorical interpretations and show contempt for the didactic approaches to political filmmaking of the older generation of Argentine filmmakers such as Fernando Solanas.18 It should be added that the ‹neorealist› trend of the NAC has been challenged by central figures of the NAC, such as Lucrecia Martel, who prefer to experiment with form and narrative and create films that do not conform to the characteristics of the aforementioned movies.
The contemporary Greek films that first caught the festival programmers’ and the critics’ attention were the ‹weird› movies by Lanthimos and Tsangari. These stylised films usually portray everyday characters in absurd situations and often have weird premises, an eerie atmosphere, absurdist dialogue, grotesque humor, or show violence and illogicality. The subjects of Lanthimos’ and Tsangari’s films do not refer to the current socio-economic conditions in Greece. Interestingly, this didn’t prevent the critics and the scholars from looking at these movies through a certain prism. On the contrary, according to Erato Basea: «More importantly, (some of) the Greek New Wave films’ opaque meaning encouraged film critics and scholars to read this cinema as an allegorical critique of neoliberal politics in crisis-era Greece.»19
Apart from the ‹weird› Greek films which stand in-between visibility and invisibility of the crisis, there are other GNW films that rather satisfy the viewers’ expectations in terms of narrative transparency and continuity and are more clearly linked to the specific socio-economic context. Films such as Hora Proelefsis, I Ekrixi and Adikos Kosmos adopt a more realistic approach and reflect on topics of relevance to contemporary Greek society brought about by austerity measures and recession, such as: poverty, unemployment, migration, hopelessness, despair, xenophobia, homophobia, crime, social deviance and rebellion (Abb. 2).
Independently of their aesthetics, the directors of the GNW are forced to create films with very restricted budgets, like their Argentine colleagues. Apart from the spirit of collaboration between them which allows the Greek filmmakers to finish their projects by helping each other, they exploit the possibilities of new technologies. Although directors such as Lanthimos insisted on Super 16 mm, shooting in video and transferring to film has become the norm for independent filmmakers in Greece since the 2000s20 and exemplifies their attitude that form has to be modified in line with available resources (Abb. 3).
The NAC and the GNW have been warmly received internationally, as they were selected to be screened and often awarded at international film festivals. Mundo grúa, for instance, won the Tiger Award at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2000, La ciénaga the Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2001, and El abrazo partido the Jury Gran Prix (Silver Bear) at the Berlin Film Festival in 2004.
Similarly, Filippos Tsitos and Antonis Kafetzopoulos won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the Silver Leopard (Best Actor) for Akadimia Platonos (Plato’s Academy, Filippos Tsitos, GR/DE 2009) at the Locarno Film Festival, the director Athena Rachel Tsangari and the protagonist Ariane Labed were awarded the Lina Mangiacapre Award and the Volpi Cup for Attenberg at the Venice Film Festival in 2010, and, also at the Venice Film Festival, Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou won the prize for Best Screenplay for Alpeis (Alps, Yorgos Lanthimos, GR 2011) in 2011. Miss Violence won several prizes (for instance, the Silver Lion for the director and the Volpi Cup for the protagonist) at the same festival in 2013.
The artistic recognition of these two generations of Argentine and Greek filmmakers at film festivals is very important for the further distribution of their films in countries worldwide, usually in arthouse cinemas. The reason is that, since the vast expansion of the «film festival networks»21 in the 1990s, it is hard for art and world films like the ones created by these directors, to be distributed without a festival prize or extensive exposure in the course of the annual festival circuit.
This exposure and the subsequent prizes depend on the selection criteria of these festivals. As de Valck explains,22 most of the festivals follow the «dogma of discovery», whereby new art/world films are discovered and new waves/cinemas from peripheral countries, such as Argentina and Greece, are recognised: «Festivals are increasingly looking for mind-blowing discoveries similar to the one generated by the archetypal French New Wave.»23
If the festivals «actively select»24 the films in their programmes, it would be fair to assume that, apart from their aesthetic values, another parameter why recent Argentine and Greek films attained success, is the amount of attention paid to Argentina and Greece due to their financial difficulties. According to Lydia Papadimitriou, the Greek financial crisis «at the level of publicity at least, turned ‹Greece› into a keyword that made people who would not otherwise have taken notice of Greek cinema, do so».25
Additionally, the film festivals have had an impact on film production since the 1980s with many of them introducing production funds for developing countries, such as the Hubert Bals Fund of the Rotterdam Film Festival, or funding instruments, such as Works in Progress of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. These funds are usually used for the development of a project or the post-production of a movie. Films of the NAC and the GNW, such as Mundo grúa and I Eonia Epistrofi Tou Antoni Paraskeva, benefited from these funding instruments.
Although the creation of these funds can be attributed to a deep cinephilia, as in the case of Hubert Bals, it could also be criticised because the ‹discovered› films/new waves from peripheral countries and/or the developing world may not only be screened at the festivals, but also produced for the festivals.26 This could be problematic since the festivals, as producers of these films, could impose their criteria, such as film aesthetics or subject. This can be particularly problematic when these films come from developing countries such as Argentina, and/or economic ‹trouble zones› like Greece.
The other side of the coin is of course that the support of these filmmakers by festival funds has been important for the completion of Argentine and Greek films. However short-term they may prove, festival funds have contributed to the completion of several Argentine and Greek projects and to the subsequent success of the NAC and the GNW in times of financial crunch.
Lastly, as to film production, the recession and the financial instability had a major impact on the Argentine and the Greek film industries. As a result of the crises, the state funding available for film production in both Argentina and Greece was significantly reduced. As a response to that, Argentine and Greek films were filmed with the minimum of investment. In Argentina, some of the NAC films were created by working on weekends and with the help of friends. Similarly, in Greece a system of «labour exchanges»27 was used according to which filmmakers worked without pay for each others’ films.
ΜMost importantly, the Greek and Argentine filmmakers had to find new, transnational funding instruments to finance their films. These included co-productions with international companies, funds, foundations such as the French Fonds Sud Cinéma, and institutions such as the French National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image (CNC). Many NAC and GNW films, such as Akadimia Platonos and La niña santa, had been completed thanks to coproducing with European and other international partners.
With regard to foundations, their criteria are usually dependant on the country of production, since they are predominantly intended for countries of the developing world, and on the ‹quality› rather than the anticipated popularity of the films. This can influence several aspects of the movie just like in the case of film festival funds. These foundations often give financial assistance rather than fund a film in its entirety. The Fonds Sud Cinéma28, for instance, constituted financial support granted by the Institut Français and the CNC intended to help filmmakers from countries of the South. Its aim was to promote cultural diversity and it actually helped several Argentine filmmakers, such as Pablo Trapero and Lucrecia Martel, to accomplish their projects. As for the institutions, the CNC launched a bilateral funding programme for co-productions with Greece (and Portugal) in 2014, its goal being to support «Portuguese and Greek filmmakers, whose talents are recognised worldwide and yet whose projects suffer from the economic crisis and the frailty of public funding».29
In this article, I tried to explore if and how the financial difficulties in Argentina from 1998 to 2002 and in Greece from 2009 to the present affected the aesthetics, the international reception and the production of the NAC and the GNW. It seemed contradictory that during the two countries’ worst recessions in decades, Argentine and Greek filmmakers were creating art films attracting international attention. However, the success of the NAC and the GNW proves otherwise.
This does not mean that there is a direct link of causality between the emergence of the NAC and the GNW and the debt crises in Argentina and Greece, nor does it mean that a financial crunch is a necessary requirement for aesthetic innovation in film. Some of the factors that led to the NAC and the GNW, such as the improvement of film education in the 1990s in Argentina and in the 2000s in Greece, bear no relation to the financial difficulties whatsoever. Additionally, there have been numerous masterpieces throughout film history that were produced far from economic ‹trouble zones›.
With respect to the NAC and the GNW there remain several questions still open. These may concern, for instance, the relation between the limited budgets and the aesthetics of the aforementioned films, their transnational production specificities, and their reception and funding by the film festival circuit.