Greece combines young energy and ambition with indifference and defeat
Country fares well in culture and sports, but not on the diplomatic and economic fronts
With seven Bafta awards and one Oscar to its credit, the Irish-Greek film The Favourite has kept director Yorgos Lanthimos in the spotlight as one of the world’s most prominent experimental film-makers.
Lanthimos appeared as one of the leading Greek avant-garde cineastes with the prize-winning Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011). The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) – both starring Colin Farrell – brought him into the international arena, with Oscar nominations and prizes at Cannes, Los Angeles and the Baftas.
Lanthimos is not the only Greek director on the international scene: Chevalier (a sort of “boy-band meets #MeToo”), directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari (Lanthimos’s one-time collaborator), won Best Film at the London Film Festival 2015. But there is more to Greek achievement overseas than Lanthimos and Tsangari. In the US, Greek basketball champion Giannis Antetokounmpo is an NBA all-star with the Milwaukee Bucks, labelled “the Greek freak”, while in New York, teenage designer Despina Kotsis is already making a hit with her “Greek-centric” streetwear, Minx NYC.
And in tennis, Stefanos Tsitsipas shot to fame and a No 12 world ranking when he won five grand slam singles tournaments and beat Roger Federer at the Australian Open this year. Antetokounmpo has called him “the next Greek freak”, signalling a period in which Greece is performing well above its weight in cultural and sporting events.
Do I have to say that Antetokounmpo is black (a naturalised Greek citizen, the son of Nigerian immigrants)? Or that Tsitsipas is half-Greek, half-Russian? In some people’s eyes these men are not Greek at all. Golden Dawn, Greece’s neo-fascist party, branded Giannis Antetokounmpo and his brother Thanassis as “chimpanzees”.
The Macedonian problem keeps resurfacing, and there is always a war-waiting-to-happen with Turkey
“Greeks have never been black,” they said. The fascist criterion for Greekness is four Greek grandparents – in Ireland, a similar criterion would rule out the de Valera/Ó Cuív families, Leo Varadkar and Paul McGrath.
From an up-and-coming “Greek director”, Lanthimos has become a “director from Greece”. The distinction is not so subtle: he may, like the Antetokounmpo brothers, be Greek by birth, but he has achieved his status today outside Greece and largely without Greek help. What he does is international, not necessarily “Greek”.
Greece isn’t doing so well on other fronts, particularly the diplomatic and the economic. The Macedonian problem keeps resurfacing, and there is always a war-waiting-to-happen with Turkey. Young people continue to emigrate, despite the increase in the minimum wage – from €586 to €650 per month.
Prime minister Alexis Tsipras declares, “The time has come for a new Greece.” There are many who would tell him very emphatically how that is to be achieved: not only the majority who are impoverished by the austerity regime which has shrunk wages and pensions and drastically increased the cost of living.
Those who are struggling to set up small businesses; those who are trying to export crops in niche markets such as wine, cheese, yoghurt and olive oil, and those whose expertise in science – especially in robotics – goes unrecognised and unrewarded can all tell Tsipras how to build a new Greece. And filmmakers, for whom there is almost no incentive at home.
Winning would confirm Tsipras as an ace manipulator but a failed statesman; losing would allow the conservative New Democracy to continue with elitism and austerity
“Growth and recovery should have a direct impact on people’s lives,” says Tsipras, neglecting the fact that the economy is not growing at the rate necessary for recovery and that any growth will not impact directly on the ordinary citizen.
A sceptical EU
While Greece has theoretically exited the bailout era, the post-bailout era features continued monitoring of economic performance by a sceptical EU. No one knows whether Tsipras is trying to win or lose the next general election, which could be just around the corner.
Winning would confirm him as an ace manipulator but a failed statesman; losing would allow the conservative New Democracy to continue the programme of elitism and austerity at Brussels’s behest and to inherit all the fallout from Tsipras’s failures. Since neither side has much street-cred these days, especially with would-be entrepreneurs, there’s not much to gain or lose.
I often wonder if I am living in two countries: that of young energy and ambition and that of indifference and defeated hope.
But on the domestic front, there is one recent Greek triumph of remarkable value: the rediscovery of the first opera written by a Greek composer with a Greek libretto.
First performed in Corfu in 1867, the parts of The Parliamentary Candidate were lost until 2017, when it had its “second premiere”. With vote-buying at election time as its central topic, it deserves a place in every opera house in the world, but particularly at Wexford, which specialises in lost or neglected works, where it would demonstrate Greece’s capacity to show that what goes round comes round, and give audiences even more to consider about Greek achievements abroad.