Sydney Film Festival – Interview: Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg)

Interview: Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg). By Simon Miraudo.

Attenberg is the new film from Athina Rachel Tsangari, producer of last year’s controversial black comedy Dogtooth, and it’s becomes apparent early on that it is cut from the same cloth. One of the most talked about films of the 2011 Sydney Film Festival, it stars Ariane Labed as Marina, a socially-awkward young woman who, inspired by the works of Sir David Attenborough, begins a clinical examination of her body and sexuality. Cue plenty of awkward sex scenes, failed French-kissing sessions and interstitials in which Marina and her friend walk around imitating the animals featured in Sir Attenberg’s (geddit?) docos. We spoke with Tsangari about her love for film projection, her frustrations with the Greek film industry, and her five favourite movies of all time (or rather, the exact moment of the interview).

Keep an eye on the blog for a video of this interview in the coming days!

SM: Do you remember watching any films growing up that planted the seed, or inspired you, to get into directing?

AT: Too many. What list do you want? (Laughs)

SM: Did you feel that way growing up? Did you have to break it to your parents that you wanted to get into filmmaking?

AT: Of course not. When you grow up a girl in Greece, you don’t think that you’re gonna be a movie director. You think you’re gonna be a housewife, maybe a doctor or lawyer or teacher or something that’s respectable by your parents.

SM: Not filmmaking then.

AT: No. Actually, I decided quite late – in my early twenties – because up until then, I studied philosophy, and comparative literature and then I studied performance studies; theatre. Cinema came through the back door.

SM: Tell me about that. I understand you moved to Austin at a young age, so when you did decide to get into performance, what was the inspiration there?

AT: I had found this really amazing interdisciplinary program , and I had just learned that really amazing English word, ‘interdisciplinary’ and interdisciplinarity in studies; basically mixing things together that are not necessarily mixed or combined in the academic world, which is something I love to do. I love to combine things that don’t quite fit with each other, and my first short film called Fit is about that, where the main character says, ‘I can’t quite fit things inside other things’. So, it was a program that’s called Performance Studies, and back then, at the end of the 90s – middle of the 90s – it was quite a revelation to think that I could study theater and anthropology and dance and semiology and ethnography and philosophy at the same time. And through that I got into using my video camera to observe New York, because I was studying at NYU, so I became quite obsessed with documenting stuff around me. I was working as a part-time projectionist for some money, because I was a scholarship student, and the film school was three floors above Performance Studies at this school, and I would take the elevator and arrive in a completely different world, and watch all the student films. And then slowly I started getting ideas.

SM: So, it was a pretty organic process.

AT: Yeah. Also, way before all that, my parents had sent me to Austin, when I had graduated from high school to learn English, and I had met Richard Linklater while he was making Slacker and he gave me a small part.

SM: Oh, right!

AT: You know, the Greek cousin. So I was really inspired by that; by the idea of making a film with your friends, with whatever small means you have available to you. Working with non-professional actors and making an organic film about life around you, as you experience it.

SM: Slacker really kicked off a movement at that time, with that style of filmmaking.

AT: Yeah, so I feel very, very grateful and very lucky that I was … you know, basically it was my second day in the states as a youngster, knowing nothing about cinema…

SM: And you’re put in ‘the movies’. You mentioned that you were a projectionist. Can you sit in a cinema today, and not look for the cigarette burns, and not think ‘it’s too dim’? Does it feel like you’re still working?

AT: Yeah, I love that, actually. I always drive the projectionists of my own films crazy. Because I’ve worked with 35mm, 16mm, Super 8 with the platter system, the self-threaded system. I love that; to touch celluloid. That’s the reason film is rapidly becoming one of these dinosaurs that our world has, and cinema itself will be a dinosaur pretty soon. So I want to keep shooting on celluloid as much as I can, even if film projection is ‘faulty’ projections, I still like the persistence of vision; a flickering thing.

SM: So you wouldn’t do what David Fincher did during an early screening of Benjamin Button? He wasn’t happy with how it was being projected, so he shut down the screening midway through the film. You wouldn’t do that?

AT: No, I’m not David Fincher. I’m not that guy. Maybe, when I get to make the films that he made, maybe I can have the right to be so particular (laughs).

SM: It’s been 10 years since your first feature film. Has the idea for Attenberg been around that long, or did you come to it a bit later?

AT: No, the idea of Attenberg came quite sudden, and as I was writing. Not before. I was sort of confronted with a deadline and a blank screen, so it came out intuitively and quite suddenly .I wasn’t really thinking about directing a film all these years; I was teaching and exhibiting films and producing and also working as a projection artist, because that’s what I do as my day job since independent cinema, especially in Greece, is a hobby; it’s not funded. It sort of came out in France, during a writer’s residence, and I was lucky enough to get funded right before the country collapsed and the Greek Film Center shut down. So I was shooting less than a year after the script was written and we were premiering In Venice just four months after production.

SM: Wow. That’s a very fast turnaround,

AT: Yeah, I think it’s probably not going to be repeated this way again, ever.

SM: That’s a shame. The lead character in the film is – I wouldn’t say obsessed – definitely intrigued by David Attenborough, and the way he approaches nature and the way he studies it. And she applies that clinical exploration to herself and her friends and her own body. How did you come to that connection between Sir David Attenborough and sexual exploration?

AT: I don’t know (laughs).

SM: It just came naturally.

AT: It’s just making these connections that the brain makes. You don’t know where they come from. It’s not something logical, it’s not rational. As I said, I’m a big fan of combining things that are not readily combinable and creating little universes – private universes – and idiosyncratic personalities.

SM: Well the film has a very memorable opening shot with the two lead characters clumsily learning to kiss, and it also ends with a lasting, lingering shot. Did you have those images in place as you were writing? Were they always in place as your opening and conclusion?

AT: Yeah. Completely. The whole film was pre-blocked and rehearsed with all of the cast, with these very specific shots in mind. I cannot really separate acting and content and form from each other. They’re all very intricately…and I’m too much of a control freak to leave anything up to chance. So it was painstakingly choreographed to every last detail. Even the silly walks, which the girls do, or the animals playing between father and daughter on the bed, is of course improvised, but when we actually arrived to shooting, it was completely choreographed. There was nothing left to chance.

SM: With such a small turn around, I suppose you had to approach it that way.

AT: Yeah. Also, by the time we started shooting, we knew the Greek Film Center was basically shutting down. And we knew that we had very little film in our disposal, so I could not do more than two takes, or three. Exceeding that would get us over budget. We had a very modest budget to make the film and I did not want to shoot on video. We worked a lot before hand, in rehearsals, and getting the rhythm of the scenes ready, and getting everyone feeling quite comfortable with each other, so when it came time it was just executing. Which is the opposite of the way I did my first film, The Slow Business of Going; it’s completely the opposite of the way I’m going about the new film I’m preparing.

SM: It paid off, because the film was selected by Greece as their official entry for the Academy Awards for 2012. So congratulations.

AT: Thank you.

SM: And I understand you produced Dogtooth last year which was nominated for an Oscar, and you’re also producing Alps, the new film from Yorgos Lanthimos. Can you tell us a little about that film?

AT: I don’t want to describe Alps; that’s up to Yorgos to do. It’s a film that’s being completed right now. We’re going to premiere it in Venice. It’s definitely a Yorgos Lanthimos film. We did it in, again, whatever means necessary. Very small independent production again; no money, lots of help from our friends. We’ll keep going this way (laughs), because there’s no other way to make films in Greece right now.

SM: And what about your next film?

AT: Again, I’m quite hesitant, because I’m not sure how easy it’s going to be to get another film off the ground. We’re a very small production company and we can’t keep asking people to work voluntarily, and for us to basically make films as this very expensive hobby while we all have day jobs. It’s been already sort of six years/seven years that we do this back to back with films. So we’re getting a bit exhausted (laughs). I have a script that a friend and collaborator of mine, Brian Poyser, co-wrote for another black comedy; another coming of age, but for a much older woman, that I want to shoot in Austin this year, or next year, or as soon as possible. It’s a science fiction comedy that I want to shoot partly in Greece.

SM: At the start of the interview, I asked if there were any films that inspired you when you were growing up, and you said there were too many to mention. But I do like to end by asking for your five favourite films, and I know that is an almost impossible task for most people.

AT: It is! I can give you the five favourite films that pop up into my head at this minute.

SM: This very specific moment in time.

AT: OK, so: Barry Lyndon, by Kubrick. McCabe and Mrs. Miller, by Robert Altman.

SM: Good films to project, that you’re choosing. They’re meant to be projected on the big screen.

AT: Yeah. Oh yes, masterpieces. Au Hasard Balthazar, by Robert Bresson. You should see that film.

SM: OK, I’ll put it on the list.

AT: How many did I say? Three. Uhh (long pause). Days of Heaven by Malick, and (long pause) Le Samouraï by Jean-Pierre Melville. One more…

SM: No that’s five. You passed. You’re free!

AT: Yay! We did it!

Discuss: What did you think about Attenberg?


  1. Sydney Film Festival – Video Interview: Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg) | Quickflix® DVD & Movie Blog - June 19, 2011

    […] spoke with Athina Rachel Tsangari, writer/director of Attenberg, at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival. Check out our chat […]

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