Playing a Game: An Interview with Athina Rachel Tsangari

The Greek New Wave filmmaker talks her new film, projects in the work, the filmmaking scene in Greece and more.
Martin Kudlac

The Slow Business of Going

Athina Rachel Tsangari's international breakthrough, the sophomore feature Attenberg (2010), arrived similarly to that of her colleague Yorgos Lanthimos, on the tide of Greek New Wave. While she produced Lanthimos’ rather obscure feature debut Kinetta (2005), and acted as an associate producer and a producer on his Dogtooth (2007) and Alps (2011), respectively, Tsangari's feature length directorial outing actually happened five years before Lanthimos’ in a lo-fi, sci-fi Greece/USA co-production, the formally and genre polyphonic The Slow Business of Going (2000), which revolves around the topics of alienation, rootlesness , memory and new identity.

Tsangari studied literature in Thessaloniki, performing arts in New York, and ethnographic film in Austin, Texas, where she founded and led as artistic director the Cinematexas International  Short Film Festival. She played minor roles in Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991) and Before Midnight (2013) while co-producing the latter. In 2004, the Greek director collaborated on the opening and closing ceremonies of Summer Olympics as the projection designer and video director. With the Summer Olympics began the Greek incarnation of Haos Film, a production outfit Tsangari founded with writer/editor Matt Johnson ini 1997 in Austin.


Attenberg (derived from incorrectly pronounced surname of the naturalist David Attenborough), a semi-autobiographic off-beat coming of age, is wedged along its protagonist Marina (played by the wife of Yorgos Lanthimos, Ariane Labed) between two life forces, libido and mortido. Marina, with flair for nature documentaries and passionate animal mimicking, becomes an observer of human behavior and its rituals. Besides continuing her theme of identity crisis, Tsangari expands the socio-political layer in her cinema through the figure of Marina’s father, whose terminal illness his daughter must cope with. Shots on nearby aluminium factory suggest the source of her father´s advanced cancer and, as Marina reveals, her father was an architect of aluminium shelters, thus becoming a victim of own creation.

The Capsule

In 2012, Tsangari was commissioned to make a film art project The Capsule for DesteFashionCollection. Working on the project with the Polish artist Aleksandra Waliszewska, the result is gothic-chic macabre exploration of female identity—allegedly inspired by Brönte and Buñuel—heavily spiked with the  transgressive poetics of George Bataille. The Capsule can be regarded as a bizarre and corporeal reinvention of a coming-of-age tale due to it fixation on initiative rituals more explicitly invoking sexuality and death than Attenberg did, with Waliszewska’s contribution of disturbing imagery ideally combining both aspects at the same time.


Tsangari’s latest feature, Chevalier, which she calls her personal take on “buddy comedy,” manifests the traits that could be attributed to her signature style: absurdness, genre-bending and gender introspection, in this case adding a focus on group power dynamics. Maintaining the homosocial spirit of The Capsule, the director observes six men trapped on a boat playing the figuratively penis-measuring contest "Chevalier," until the actual penis-measuring comes up as a part of the game.  Less imaginative than The Capsule—though the The Capsule is imaginative by design and due to the heavy involvement of the artist with penchant for all things dark and female—Chevalier unspools as a subversive social experiment, never short of subtly hilarious lines co-penned by Lanthimos’ regular co-writter Efthymis Filippou.

Earlier this year, had the chance to talk to Athina Rachel Tsangari about her cinema and her new film.

NOTEBOOK: In The Capsule you directed all-female cast whereas in Chevalier are starring solely men. Why did  this shift happen?

ATHINA RACHEL TSANGARI: Do you think they are opposite?

NOTEBOOK: Gender-wise.

TSANGARI: It depends how you see gender. You know, I do not see them as opposite, I consider them as complimentary to each other. I get this question a lot why there are no women in Chevalier. The easy answer is, if there was even one female on the boat, it would be a completely different dynamic. It would be about each one of them trying to seduce the woman.

Gender is always a power dynamic apart from the sexual one. And I was very interested in seeing  women and men in them, young boys, teenagers and old men in each one of them. For me, it was clearer in terms of setting up the game – the whole thing of evaluating each other and ourselves where you have one element which is basically the same, so you work in this same environment and then see how the environment is being negotiated.

Otherwise, it would be a different thing like a romantic comedy about getting the girl or having the girls ruining their game.

NOTEBOOK: The power dynamic manifests also in director-actors relation especially in your case when you led all-male ensemble cast and the gender inequality is a big issue in film industry.

TSANGARI: It was a challenge and one of the reasons why I did it was not to prove myself, “I am going to be your boss” or “I will make you suffer” or to get out all of my upbringing as a Greek woman was not my intention.

It was the opposite of that actually. It was really about debunking all the clichés that involve women and men and especially in Greece. You would assume that they would all be supermacho and would not like to be directed by a woman and all that stuff.

I knew it was not true because I have been working with men all of my life without actually feeling sexism. You know, sexism is something we either invite, reproduce or entice in our lives. And I have never felt that because I also fight for who I am but I fight for who I am more as a human being than a woman. Of course, there are glass ceilings everywhere at every single step on that way but if you just go through them opting not to see them, you will earn some scratches on the skin but that’s all.

It was a fantastic experience for all of us. I was scared, I was shaking going to the first rehearsal with my assistant director who is also woman. And I remember actually walking to the boat and saying to my assistant director “Oh my god, Are you ready?” she would reply “I do not know. Are you?”  projecting what is going to happen. They are going to lynch me.

And I was sure to cast the most difficult personalities I could find. I mean, I knew they were fucking difficult, very arrogant and sure of themselves. It was a social experiment to know how they are going to collaborate with each other. And how vulnerable they are going to be in front of each other and I think because we created a very hospitable environment for all of us to be vulnerable and fragile, they completely gave up after the first week.

The first week was tough but I never felt “Oh, here I am, a woman among men”. They never made me feel like that and I made it very clear that I am the director and I knew exactly what I wanted in terms of each one of them but it was going to be a very long process of asking the right questions in order to know that what I want is actually what the film needs.

Once this was established, the rest was a teamwork based a lot on camaraderie. I would get discouraged and one of them would just do something and I would get back on board or one of them would get discouraged… you could imagine there is a lot of insecurities involved, we were playing Chevalier nonstop between us but it was all in very civilized way.

There was not even a single fight and I think it is because for each film, there is always a situation that you have to set up because it is really like going to a war. And if you set it up right and in an earnest way and everyone is clear, the rules are set. It is always like playing a game with rules being really clear.

NOTEBOOK: Is there any particular reason why you decided to shoot Chevalier on an actual boat?

TSANGARI: It was the most difficult scenario and I wanted to challenge all of us to be as uncomfortable as possible. And resolve that. It was a social experiment as much as it was a cinematic premise.

The Capsule was shot whole in a house and Attenberg also was more interior-based, and I had access to this vey boat that belonged to our executive producer. And I liked the idea of these men in a vessel of civilization in the middle of wilderness with no one else around in winter. This is an image of Greece you won’t see.

NOTEBOOK: Some films from Greek New Wave for example by Syllas Tzoumerkas’ Homeland and A Blast or Ektoras Lyzigos’ Boy Eating the Bird’s Food tend to directly reflect the socio-political or socio-economical  situation in the country. Does Chevalier operate in this plane, tackling maybe the country’s patriarchy or political context?

TSANGARI: When I started thinking about Chevalier and writing the script with Efthymis Filippou, I wanted to avoid direct references and didactic or meaning-producing statements. I am really scared of that stuff; that’s why I always try to abstract as much as possible. I believe if we started the development by saying we are going to make a film that is a direct comment on these poor little men who are leaders, it would have ended up being a failed movie.

First of all, I do not know how to do that, but we are all ciphers of our zeitgeist. I felt from the beginning that this movie is going to be very cathartic for me but I did not know why. Making the film was an extremely difficult process for practical reasons. Only casting took me about a year, and when you have a suspension in film that is so much based on characters, and you know the characters will never become flesh and bones until you meet them, the whole casting is a torture.

It was one-year-lasting torture to cast, it was extremely difficult in terms of shooting, you know, we did it in winter, everybody was sea-sick, people trying to negotiate egos, nothing really exploded but it is always uncomfortable. And furthermore to not make a drama out of Chevalier but a comedy, and get the tonality right and then spending almost a year editing it since we ended up with tons of footage. I felt like being a conductor trying to recompose something that had been shot a year ago and make sure that every instrument complements each other. Well, actually, it was a hell.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of casting, why did you decide to bring Anastasious Rouvas, athlete-cum-singer, on board of Chevalier?

TSANGARI: He is the most famous man in Greece. Really the alpha-male and the object of desire of men, women, girls, ladies, little boys, old men… He is the kind of person that has absolutely no insecurities. He has already achieved his status and has nothing to lose other than learning a new ways of forming. And he was a great collaborator. I knew that though, I could sense it. I auditioned him like everyone else, and I was desperate to find somebody good-looking that did not have this kind of thing all the Greek pretty boys have…he doesn’t have that. He was just extremely and sincerely dedicated. He is also a diver, so he understood well what he is playing as the underwater fish hunter. He would actually dive every day, catch fishes and cook them for us, so he was also a caterer. He always came prepared, learnt his lines willing to give the most out of himself like everyone.

We cast a big theatre actor Yiorgos Kendros, a Chekhovian, and he had no idea at the beginning what I was trying to do. He told my producer one day and the other day to my assistant director that he has dreams every night where he murders me in different ways. He would come to rehearsal and he would be angry asking these questions, “Who am I?”, “Who are these people?”, and I never give backstories. I told him to stop asking. “I do not have them and I do not need to know, we will find out by doing this, just carry on.” And he goes, “Is she crazy?”, “Do you really work this way and actors always stay on the project?”, “I am not sure if I am going to stay.”

But in a week, he was completely hooked. At the moment, when they all became friends and  started making fun, it was like a kindergarten. When we came on the set, it would take them literally half a hour to stop bickering with each other. It was really like Chevalier. And this was the idea, once they started loving each other and feeling safe around themselves, they would start suggesting the contests and whose contest it will be in the movie.

The moment we all saw the film in Locarno and we got this reaction, 1500 people laughing at the same time, this kind of bitterness where you recognize yourself, we all play this useless game of who is the best that is so futile in the end.

NOTEBOOK: Have you reached the catharsis you were expecting?

TSANGARI: I came out of it—well, all of us, we came out of it very strong feeling that if you have a sense of community, and now I am aware that it sounds very new-agey or like something picked out of these horrible self-help books—I hope I do not make movies this way—in the end, what comes out of the process, and hopefully of the film once you experienced it, is feeling there is a humanity in there.

The fact that there was so much kinship between us, it was really like we are all part of a team making it happen. There was so much passion, so much camaraderie there, but also very high sense of organization.

Working with quite small budget against the elements and it worked. If that is a paradigm of how you self-organize your community and you make a difference by what you do and the way you do it, it is a reward. And it is also a model how we can be political, social and make a difference just through what we do. You see, I do not believe in governments anymore, I think it’s obvious there is a new regime of politics being replaced by finances. 

NOTEBOOK: That is what you took out of the production of your film?

TSANGARI: For me, yes. You see, I am not my own audience. I cannot see the film objectively and I also cannot say I am very happy because I made a good film, since that is not for me to say. I am very happy with the performances I got, but again, I felt like I was a good conductor.

NOTEBOOK: Can you elaborate the parallel you drew between making your film and self-govern community?

TSANGARI: I do not believe anymore in big ideas and big solutions. When I was in my 20s, I was extremely politicized, a member of parties. I started in youth communist party when I was 14. I was out on the streets always fighting against through the party politics.

And I remember when I was in the States for the first time, I was a student at the University of Texas in Austin and the big riots happened in Seattle at the end of 90s—the first big riots against IMF—that’s where I realized you can actually change a course of events just by crashing a conference, for example, or going out on streets and make faces on cops. And this makes news and suddenly it is a political gesture. I realized you can make a difference from the ground, street-level in your neighborhood and believe it or not, this is what I learnt in USA—the radical activism.

In Athens, there is this area called Exarcheia everyone talks about because anarchists and terrorists supposedly live there and because there is so many socially-minded people living around that area. They are really making a difference. It is like urban politics, the neighborhood taking things into its own hands. Making a difference by what you do with empty bottles, water you drink—just little gestures, really, that’s making the difference. So yes, I do not believe anymore in big solutions but I believe in accumulation of small gestures. 

NOTEBOOK: Your colleague Yorgos Lanthimos said he cannot make his next film in Greece. Could you?

TSANGARI: He could never make The Lobster in Greece and he knew exactly what movie he wants to shoot. Also because of foreign actors, different language, different budget, completely different ballpark. You know, if he wanted to make another film in Greece, of course, that would be possible, but he would have to work with what is available. And there is not much available.

But actually, I like this. I am preparing a film in America which will be done in a completely different way. And it has to do also with the Greek government because they are such idiots since they still have not prepared the law. And that is like the simplest thing they could fucking do and they had not even done that—the law about tax shelter. I mean, hello. We have tourism and we have cinema. And nothing else, so please can you finally give us that fucking shelter? You see the movies that are going to Malta can go to Greece but they cannot even do that, such incompetents and imbeciles.

NOTEBOOK: Some time ago, you said you see the future of Greece cinema bright. Are you still standing behind this statement?

TSANGARI: Sure.  I see it even brighter. There were always little funds in Greece and a lot of complaining and nagging—it is like our national sport. There is little funding available, but considering the size of the country, it is okay, even if it could be better.

Actually, I was never a pessimist but the reality is sometimes grim and the people that run our country are such incompetent idiots that you have to feel like that. You see, yes, there is Greek Film Center, it should fucking work and the little things that are there should be at least functional. But there is a way to do it.

There is always a way to do it. I became a filmmaker in America, not in Greece, where 95% of production is made on nothing, zero to ten grand. And half of the films you see here [the International Film Festival Rotterdam] are made between America and France, for example, on borrowed cameras. And I love that independence and freedom.

Whereas we here in Europe are so used to the state support, we do not have it. So, when I came from the States after I had made The Slow Business of Going, which was funded through grants with France, it had to do a lot with the fact that we were in our 20s and still had plenty of energy. In a way, I am still doing that. I mean, Chevalier needed a lot of friends and energy to get to be made and shot on a boat and look like a million bucks.

You know, in the States they think I am just joking when I say the whole film was made on a boat. They think it is a studio. They would go “So, if it is on a boat, what was the budget? Ten million or something?” 

NOTEBOOK: What it is like to promote a film that is being used to reference a national cinema on the international circuit?

TSANGARI: Touring a film is at the same time exhilarating when can I have talks with people who know my work instead of clueless idiots, which unfortunately happens a lot—and we are talking about journalists, not the film critics. When you come from a small country, my generation and generation after me, you feel the responsibility of representing the cinema of your country. I take that very seriously.

Right now, I wish I was back in Boston because I am currently finishing my script [White Knuckles] but it is so important to meet your audiences. Especially when you are coming from a country that can disappear from the map and nobody gives a shit about except for a month and a half in the summer when it reappears.

If I made Chevalier in English, I think it would have come out as a commercial fare. I think it is difficult to follow subtitles especially for people not used to it, that’s a challenge. But this is also one of the reason why I made the film. I wanted fast-paced Greek film instead of slow silent film of which there is an autonomous genre in Greek cinema.

NOTEBOOK: Film critics and journalist tend to label a certain set of Greek films as “Weird Wave,” yours including. Do you consider yourself a Greek “weird wave” filmmaker?

TSANGARI: No. I hate that label. I consider it insulting and reductive. I mean what does it mean weird? I think this was coined after an interview I did over a phone about Attenberg, actually. It had not started with Dogtooth, because I think it had to be two films in order to become a movement which is ridiculous.

And a movement is movement with lots of similar films, and what is great about New Greek Cinema is that all films are so different. I personally do not see any similarities between Dogtooth and Attenberg other than Yorgos [Lanthimos] and I—we worked very closely with each other. When you work with someone so close, of course you share some sensibilities. You have similar codes. And since we are friends, we watch the same films and thus use the same references.

NOTEBOOK: Would you consider making an episodic format?

TSANGARI: Sure. I am working on one actually now.

NOTEBOOK: A U.S. production?

TSANGARI: Yes. I really love television and I believe it is a completely revolutionary medium right now. Hopefully, it will become something that would catch-up in Greece as well, but it is a matter of training and education. We do not have even a film school.

NOTEBOOK: Your project is fiction or documentary?

TSANGARI: Fiction.

NOTEBOOK: In 2012, you won the ARTE French Cinéma Award for the project Duncharon, a sci-fi “screwball tragedy.” Is Duncharon still a thing and why Chevalier happened before it?

TSANGARI: Sure, but Duncharon is going to take some time to be done properly. I am working on it right now actually, however there is going to be one more movie before Duncharon called White Knuckles. It will be a caper neo-noir screwball, and if everything goes right, I will shoot it in Los Angeles. This is the project I am working on right now. You know, I have a very passionate interest in making a movie that is different from previous one and working with different genres. I am very interested in reworking the idea of what a female action hero is.

Duncharon is something we started seriously developing just now because it is a complicated world-building film, so every single thing needs to be imagined, invented and designed. And that is going to take still a couple of years. I want to be ready for it to make the film I have been preparing for some many years. I do not want to rush it. Have you seen The Martian? You should check it out, I love it…

NOTEBOOK: ...are there any similarities between The Martian and Duncharon?

TSANGARI: Indeed there are. And now I have to change them because obviously, it has been already made. But that is fun. Always.

NOTEBOOK: You will do all the Duncharon designs?

TSANGARI: Yes, I will. I am going to work with an illustrator, but it is basically like creating a comic book.

NOTEBOOK: Is Duncharon already financially backed?

TSANGARI: Not yet. I am not even ready to take it out to markets to seek finances. As I do with every film, and that is why they take so much time, I really want the idea to mature and especially for Duncharon. I have to invent basic stuff like what would a table look like. If there is even going to be a table in the film at all…

NOTEBOOK: Regarding of what you said about communities and self-help, would you consider crowd-funding?

TSANGARI: Sure, of course.

NOTEBOOK: Maybe for Duncharon?

TSANGARI: We will see. I really believe in crowd-funding. It is great and I wonder why we do not do it more in Greece. Maybe it is a cultural thing. I am not sure. I did not have to do turn to crowd-funding yet and I believe that if you do not need the money, it is better to let them go to projects that actually need the support more.

NOTEBOOK: Crowd-funding platforms seem to become a new venue for film in digital infrastructure.

TSANGARI: Perfect! I have absolutely no problem with that. In any way films can be seen, I am not a snob in terms of format. I feel like I am in a sacred temple when I see a film in movie theatre and I am so grateful they exist, but at the same time, I am happy to be able to watch The Knick on my iPad while I am waiting in an airport and I want to shoot myself. So there I am watching this masterpiece.

I am not nostalgic. I love all of these explosions happening every day. Every single year is like a hundred years. So we are actually experiencing science-fiction of the present and I am very fortunate to be part of this hugely transcendental era of the mankind’s history.

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