BY IRENE KARRAS
When I was a child, my last name was 15 letters long. I took Greek dance lessons rather than ballet or jazz. My parents worked all the time and we didn’t get to do much as a family aside from go to church with other Greek people on Sundays, after which we’d go for lunch, and occasionally, at the end of the day, we would watch a movie together–always a Greek musical rented from my uncle’s friend’s God-brother’s store who kept the pirated VHS tapes in the back storage room. I fell in love with my motherland and with movies at the same time. Or rather, I fell in love with the way my motherland was portrayed in movies.
The films we watched were happy, sanitized movies complete with a blonde, perky lead actress who didn’t look Greek at all–Aliki Vougiouklaki, Greece’s national treasure and our very own Doris Day. Her films, along with many others produced during the period known as Greece’s Golden age of film (1950s-1970s), were simple stories of feisty daughters falling in love–with good Greek men, of course–despite their strict fathers, and the comedy of errors that preceded the inevitable wedding at the end. Aliki was flirty and fun, but not overly sexy, not inappropriately womanly. She was, in other words, not threatening to the patriarchal status quo of the time. And, on top of that, she was married in real life to her usual co-star Dimitris Papamichael, which meant that unlike most actresses, she could retain her good girl reputation. She was kissing her husband, after all. Nothing dishonorable about that!
These movies portrayed a Greece that existed primarily in its own–and the West’s–imagination. They were funny movies, where hard-working young men and women respected their elders and family honour, and, when pushed to the depths of adolescent happiness or despair or anger, burst out into song or dance. One of our favourites was I Ahrontissa kai o Alitis (The Lady and the Tramp). Aliki plays a privileged girl promised to a boring, rich man in marriage by her father. In order to escape, she runs away, dresses as a boy and meets Dimitris’ character, a vagabond type, who takes on the orphan boy, and eventually figures out her secret. A comedy of error ensues–is he helping her because he loves her or because he wants the reward that comes with finding her? True, chaste love wins in the end, and despite their class issues, they marry. Dimitris’ character is one most Greek immigrant men of the time could relate to–poor, educated on the streets rather than in school, trying to earn some money to make a life and always conscious of his place in society. Aliki is the prize–a good woman who can look beyond his station, but who still knows that despite her higher education and privilege, her place as a woman is subservient to the man’s.
These types of films also served as tourism promotion, and many of the motifs are still reflected in the way people today imagine Greece. Here’s a scene from the movie that could just as easily be advertising an island vacation:
Fun, right? Who wouldn’t want to line dance in the Mediterranean? But Greece in the fifties and sixties was not all sunshine and light. It was a country devastated by WW2 and still reeling from a bitter civil war that split the country and left people deeply suspicious of one another. When this movie was filmed, Greece was in the midst of a culturally oppressive military dictatorship, in economic recession, with half its population emigrating to the West (not unfamiliar themes to Greeks of today). Those emigrants faced racism and xenophobia in their adopted homelands, trying to raise families in a comparatively permissive culture, while their children became less familiar and relatable to them every day. Who wouldn’t need a happy distraction in the form of a simple plot line and cheerful denouement with some nostalgic tunes thrown in for good measure? Why wouldn’t a Western-backed dictatorship encourage cultural productions that normalized conservative standards and maintained the status quo?
Despite their superficiality, or maybe because of it, I can’t help but fall under the spell of these films because this nostalgia for an imagined Greece lives in my heart too, part of a collective false memory. These films were an anchor for my parents in a time before satellite TV, before the internet, when overseas calls were so expensive, they were reserved for emergencies and big holidays. I love these films not because they were particularly good, but because of how I remember them, of how I experienced them at the time–not just as films but as prompts for my own parents’ memories and stories. The movies got us talking, and talking about movies was one of the few ways my parents and I could relate to one another.
But there were other films, too, and another blonde heroine–Melina Mercouri, the anti-Aliki. If the musicals made me love film for its social constructivism, discovering those darker Greek films by the likes of Michael Cacoyiannis and Costas Gavras made me fall in love with film as political activism and subversion. My admiration for I Arxontissa was an innocent crush on the safe, good boy who comes to the door and brings your mom flowers, but my passion for Stella was the lingering excitement for the bad-boy who picks you up on his motorcycle and gives your dad the finger.
Stella is a rembetiko, or blues, singer who is in love with soccer player Miltos but doesn’t want to marry him. After she repeatedly rejects his proposals, Miltos books the date and the church and threatens to kill her if she doesn’t show up. It’s melodramatic and brutal and can be read on several levels. On a micro level, Stella is the strong and unconventional Greek woman in charge of her own sexuality and life whom disempowered and disenfranchised men cannot control and thus fear–a subversion of the dominant patriarchal norm of the time. On a macro level, Stella represents Greece who won’t bow to those who would try to own and control her (a reading that can apply to today’s Eurocrisis too). In this scene, the last, Miltos warns her to leave because he will kill her and instead of submitting to his will, she holds his gaze and walks towards him, preferring to die on her own terms rather than to live on someone else’s:
As actresses, both on-screen and off, Aliki and Melina are opposites. Where Aliki is round-faced, girlish and giggly, Melina is older (Stella is her first film and she made it at 35 years old), harsher and in full possession of herself as a woman. Aliki is subject to the men in her life and defined by them in her films as a daughter and as a wife. In most of her films, Melina has no regular male relationships. There is rarely a father in the picture and she often refuses to marry or take on traditional roles. Whereas Aliki remained forever an entertainer, rarely delving into politics in her real life, Melina took up an international campaign against the junta in the sixties and seventies and later became the first female Minister of Culture of Greece, campaigning for the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece right up until her death in 1994. If Aliki was Greece’s sweetheart, Melina was her den mother.
And somewhere in between these two women who were both admirable in their own way and who each represented different aspects of Hellenism and of womanhood was where I tried to define myself. The Madonna-Whore dichotomy exists in every nation, and in many cultural productions. We are, of course, both, not just as women but as citizens of any nation–there is both light and darkness. As I learned to love how movies can spark conversations and memories, I learned also to love both the Greece of Western fantasy–idyllic, joyous ocean paradise–and the more complicated Greece, dark and heavy with its historical burdens and modern tragedies. I learned to appreciate the innocence and wonder embodied in the “good” Greek girl, and reconcile her with the strength and determination of the “bad” one. And in so doing, I learned to love myself a little more too.
Irene Karras is a Calgary-based communications consultant and freelance writer with a fondness for 1950s Greek melodramas, 1980s coming of age movies, weird Canadian films, and, by necessity, PG movies. She blogs at misplacedmysassy.wordpress.com and tweets @irene_karras.