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Gender perspective in the films of Pantelis Voulgaris: «From The Engagement of Anna to Brides»
© Yianna Athanassatou
First Publication: Fotini Tomai (ed.) Istoria ke Politiki sto ergo tou Panteli Voulgari Athens Papazisi 2007
 
 
   
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I shall attempt to examine the perspective of gender in connection with three films by director Pantelis Voulgaris: The Engagement of Anna (1972), Stone Years (1985), and Brides (2004). My reference to the first two films will not be as detailed; I shall consider them more as focal points in the director΄s work, indicative of his sensitivity and the steadfast expression of his view on the gender issue.
As an introduction, I would propose that, in all three cases, Voulgaris introduces and demonstrates the gender dimension of major sociopolitical problems. In The Engagement of Anna, we have class oppression—and a culture clash—between servant and master; in Stone Years, there is the issue of political persecution after the Greek Civil War; in Brides we have the grave contemporary issues of immigration and cultural otherness.

The director΄s sensitivity is ideally expressed by his exquisite actresses; Anna Vagena, Themis Bazaka, Victoria Charalambidou and Eva Saoulidou, all won "best actress" awards at the Film Festival of Thessaloniki. In Brides, this collaboration is decisively reinforced by the participation of Ioanna Karystiani, writer and active member of the students΄ movement against the dictatorship of 1967-1974, who wrote the script.

The Engagement of Anna. Today, the dynamic action of feminist movements in western Europe, the USA, and (after the fall of the dictatorship in 1974) Greece, and the phenomenal development of gender studies in cinema, including feminist critic approaches, allows us to examine issues through the perspective of gender; however, this practice was anything but self-evident in the Greece of the early Seventies. At that time, and in his debut as a feature film director, the decision of Voulgaris to place Anna΄s story in the heart of the narrative is particularly valuable and substantially innovative; much more so because the issue of gender had been left out of the political agenda of the Greek Left, and the request for democratisation was being expressed by the New Greek Cinema mainly through political allegory. Anna is a pariah in the system.
She is a woman, a servant, and an internal migrant, a peasant who left her village for the city. Anna is subject to class oppression, cultural oppression, and gender oppression. The engagement is a social institution which, together with marriage, defines one aspect of the management of women΄s fate. As will happen in Brides, the lives and desires of women are managed by others; apparently, Voulgaris became preoccupied with the concept of management of women΄s lives quite early on. I would readily employ the working hypothesis that, although The Engagement of Anna was made before the fall of junta in 1974, it belongs to the period after it. As some sort of herald, it touches on certain subjects which were clearly and articulately expressed following the feminist movement revival after 1974; later, they were brought to the fore through women directors Tonia Marketaki, Frida Liappa and several others.1
In the late years of the junta, Anna΄s character—as  conceived by Voulgaris and Koumantareas and played by Vagena—outlines the oppression of female desire, the submission of the female gender, the inhibitions of women against breaking through the walls of their prison, and frustration as a component of women΄s fate.

Stone Years was filmed in 1985. The film΄s appeal indicates that, at that time, the conditions in Greek society had matured enough to allow the examination of more personal aspects of the Greek Civil War, which had either been unspoken or considered secondary during the "heroic" periods; also, the introduction of personal elements redefines and broadens political subjects. The novel Achilles΄ Fiancée (1987) demonstrates this tendency in literature. All these new readings centre around women: the images of the pregnant political prisoner Heleni, the life of mother and child in prison, the solidarity among women prisoners, the anxiety, the importance of political struggle to women, but also the responsibility and the power women gained by enduring such situations. With reference to the struggle of Greek women for democracy, historian Janet Hart thinks that women were the "new voices in the nation".2 And, in Voulgaris΄ film, these voices are heard loud and clear.

Brides, by Karystiani and Voulgaris, premiered in 2004. This is the era of globalisation, and Greece has changed from a source to a target country for immigrants. Playing a strange game with time, the film takes us back to 1922, when a migration wave of women moves from East to West. Young Greek and Russian women travel from Odessa and Smyrna to the USA, to marry immigrant men of the same nationality.
From the first moments of the film, women dominate the frame. Among the third-class women passengers on the "King Alexander", three characters stand out:
25-year-old orphaned seamstress Niki Douka from Samothrace (Victoria Charalambidou)
20-year-old Charo from Thrace (Eva Saoulidou)
16-year-old Olga from Russia.
Their choices and destiny will prove quite different. Within the limits imposed by their submission, third-class women employ a latent female form of communication (solidarity, confessions, laments). There is stark contrast between their melancholic black-clothed figures and the "modern" choreographer, a caricature of western emancipation (Evelina Papoulia). Within the basic theme of immigration from poor lands of the East to prosperous America, the film also focuses on the relinquishment of women by their own families through their marriage to unknown men, to whom the women are bound by agreements of honour. The fact that Karabulat intends to make prostitutes out of the five Russian women, underlines that both bodies and souls become objects; this is the cruel shared fate of all the brides. Under these circumstances, marriage could be considered a form of exploitation. These women-objects will marry unknown men in order to escape the poverty, misery, and oppression of their homelands. In the film, this is expressed by Charo, who has been cruelly oppressed by her father and is already in love with a soldier fighting at the front. "What do we know about them, Niki? Just their jobs and postal addresses. How will we share our bed with an unknown man?"
Men manage the women in their families; they give away their daughters as wives, since, in the patriarchal system of Mediterranean communities, women have no value outside the family. Often, other women also participate in this process, as guardians of the system of values (female relatives, match-makers etc.). The issue of prostitution, which also connotes the oppression, exploitation and poverty of an entire people, has been examined in various historical periods, both in fiction and film.3 In the case of Brides, this migration from the poor homelands of the East to the prosperous land of the West, which is essentially a move of surrender and submission, this delivery of the brides΄ physical bodies, may denote the surrender and submission of the East to the West.
The central part is that of proud Niki Douka, who personifies the strong Greek woman upholding the code of honour-shame. Niki does not fit the model of the weak woman; this is evident in her dynamism compared to the other women (in the scene with the glasses upon the ship΄s departure), her ability to make a living as a seamstress and learn a foreign language, and also her dauntless attitude towards the Russian procurer Karabulat. The code of honour-shame in Mediterranean societies and the interpretation of women΄s oppression through it is—in my opinion—a key point in understanding the film΄s position on the gender issue.
According to the anthropological studies of Campbell and Peristiany on the value system of Mediterranean societies, the values of honour and shame combine the social identity of gender with sexual relationships and—more broadly—with family and social life.4 "Honour" is the value a person has in their conscience and their community. Men defend honour actively; women do so passively by abiding by the rule of virtue/shame and protecting their family΄s reputation. Another important point is the differentiation between a woman΄s sexual and social identity; the latter is expressed in motherhood. Having taken these approaches into account and in their recent study of the South Mediterranean paradigm, Danforth and Du Boulay (1986) conclude that only by adjusting to male dominance can women acquire power—the only strategy open to women is the management of their own submission.

Taking this investigation on Greek gender identity even further, Chryssi Inglessi and Maro Pantelidou-Malouta set forth the hypothesis of the strong mother within the family.5 When Niki has to choose between the man she loves and the man she is bound to through the honour agreement her family has arranged, and despite the huge internal conflict which will cause her hair to go white overnight, she finally decides to identify with the male values and defend her family΄s honour. "We gave our word". At this particular moment, Niki does not act as an autonomous subject with personal desires, rights, and choices, but as member of a broader group, which is her family. According to Adamantia Pollis΄6 interpretation of the "Greek perception of self", Greek self-perception is based on belonging to a group; the notion of autonomous subject is absent. In the film, this view is expressed when Niki explains to Norman: "If I don΄t replace my sister in the marriage my family promised to Prodromos, none of the women of my family will be able to get married, and my family΄s reputation will be ruined".
This point is crucial to her decision. If she does not abide by the code of honour-shame, not only she, but all the women of her family will pay the cost. As an elaboration on the thought of Chrissi Inglessi, I would suggest that Niki is "a strong woman within her family, but weak as an autonomous subject with personal desires".7 This internal conflict between Niki΄s emotions and the power of the code reminds us of another outstanding film: A Girl in Black (1954) by Michalis Cacoyannis, with Elli Lambeti.
The film was well liked by Greek audiences. In my opinion, this was mostly because of the following combination of elements from the past with references to major contemporary problems:
Nostalgia for the cultural entity of the East as a contributing factor to the Greek identity; a yearning glance towards the past.
Nostalgia towards the impoverished albeit authentic homeland.
Reference to the major contemporary problems of immigration and otherness, as well as the oppression and consequent revolt of women.
Indeed, the placement of events in a past historical era may facilitate awareness and acceptance by the viewer, as it proves both therapeutic and comforting. "Such things happened a long time ago; they΄re far from today΄s reality".
With regard to the interpretation of the text, the question is whether the film would have had such great appeal without the final frustration of Niki΄s desire; what would happen if Niki Douka followed her beloved Norman, just like 16-year-old Olga followed the young sailor? If Niki breached the oppressive family code of honour-shame, would she become another disgrace, another whore?8
Just before Charo jumps into the sea, she lets her hair down in a gesture symbolising freedom; her suicide and the turbulent sea function as symbols of the utopia, the "inappropriateness" of feminine revolt.9
This narrative conclusion of Charo΄s secondary but powerful story undertakes to express the rage for the de-animation of all bodies and souls who travelled—and travel still—from their poor homelands to the other side of the earth.

Footnotes

1. Cf. Yanna Athanassatou, "Oi gynaikes apo tis dyo pleyres tis kameras. Proseggiseis stin anazitisi gynaikeias taytotitas" in Diamantis Leventakos (ed.) Opseis tou neou ellinikou kinimatografou, Greek Directors Guild and Centre of Audiovisual Studies, vol. 2, Athens 2002, pp. 159-170.
2. Cf. Janet Hart, New Voices in the Nation. Women and the Greek Resistance, 1941-1964, Ithaca/London, Cornell University Press, 1996.
3. Cf. Roula Dimopoulou, "Orismoi kai symbolismoi ton epanastaseon tou 19ou aiona sti Gallia", O dekapenthimeros Politis, issue 18, 1996, pp. 34-37.
4. Cf. J. K. Campbell, Honour, Family and Patronage. A Study of Institutions and Moral Values in a Greek Mountain Community, Oxford, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1964 and I. G. Peristiany (ed.), Honour and Shame. The Values of Mediterranean Society, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1965.
5. Cf. Chrissi Inglessi, Prosopa gynaikon, prosopeia tis syneidisis. Syngrotisi tis gynaikeias taytotitas stin elliniki koinonia, Athens, Odysseas, 1990 and Maro Pantelidou-Malouta, "Politiki taytotita, gynaikeia ypokeimenikotita kai dimokratia" in Ch. Lyrintzis-I. Nikolakopoulos (ed.), Koinonia kai politiki. Opseis tis Tritis Ellinikis Dimokratias, Athens, Themelio - Elliniki Etaireia Politikis Epistimis, 1996, pp. 338-362.
6. Cf. Adamantia Pollis, "Political Implications of the Modern Greek Concept of Self", British Journal of Sociology, issue 16, 1965/31.
7. Cf. Inglessi, op.cit., p. 95 ff.
8. Cf. Yanna Athanassatou, Ellinikos kinimatografos 1950-1967. Laiki mnimi kai ideologia, Athens, Finatec, 2001, p. 342 ff.
9. Cf. Christine Buci Glycksman, "Catastrophic Utopia. The Feminine as Allegory of the Modern", Representations, issue 14, 1986, p. 220 ff.


Translated from greek by Zoe Siapanta
 
 
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  Bibliography

Yanna Athanassatou, "Oi gynaikes apo tis dyo pleyres tis kameras. Proseggiseis stin anazitisi gynaikeias taytotitas" in Diamantis Leventakos (ed.) Opseis tou neou ellinikou kinimatografou, Greek Directors Guild and Centre of Audiovisual Studies, vol. 2, Athens 2002

Janet Hart, New Voices in the Nation. Women and the Greek Resistance, 1941-1964, Ithaca/London, Cornell University Press, 1996

Roula Dimopoulou, "Orismoi kai symbolismoi ton epanastaseon tou 19ou aiona sti Gallia", O dekapenthimeros Politis, issue 18, 1996

J. K. Campbell, Honour, Family and Patronage. A Study of Institutions and Moral Values in a Greek Mountain Community, Oxford, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1964
I. G. Peristiany (ed.), Honour and Shame. The Values of Mediterranean Society, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1965

Chrissi Inglessi, Prosopa gynaikon, prosopeia tis syneidisis. Syngrotisi tis gynaikeias taytotitas stin elliniki koinonia, Athens, Odysseas, 1990

Maro Pantelidou-Malouta, "Politiki taytotita, gynaikeia ypokeimenikotita kai dimokratia" in Ch. Lyrintzis-I. Nikolakopoulos (ed.), Koinonia kai politiki. Opseis tis Tritis Ellinikis Dimokratias, Athens, Themelio - Elliniki Etaireia Politikis Epistimis, 1996

Adamantia Pollis, "Political Implications of the Modern Greek Concept of Self", British Journal of Sociology, issue 16, 1965/31

Yanna Athanassatou, Ellinikos kinimatografos 1950-1967. Laiki mnimi kai ideologia, Athens, Finatec, 2001
Cristine Buci Glycksman, "Catastrophic Utopia. The Feminine as Allegory of the Modern", Representations, issue 14, 1986

 
     
 
 
 
 
  Stone Years
  Brides
 
  Victoria Charalambidou
  Themis Bazaka
  Pantelis Voulgaris
  Evi Saoulidou
  Ioanna Karystiani
  Anna Vagena
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
       
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