CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The best-known Greek-themed movie in recent memory had the words “big” and “fat” in the title, a $5 million filming budget and was shot in North America. These days, despite an economic crisis that has made the country a regular staple of the news, the film industry in Greece is experiencing such a surprising revitalization that Greek movies made on Spartan budgets are winning prizes and critical acclaim at international festivals.
The Modern Greek Studies program at the University of Illinois will showcase a selection of these new movies in a Greek Film Festival March 2 and 3 (Friday and Saturday) at the Art Theater in downtown Champaign. Marina Terkourafi, the program director and a linguistics professor, calls this event the “first” Greek film fest, because she hopes it will become an annual event.
“There has been an outburst of artistic activity in Greece,” she said, “because people feel the need to express themselves when they’re not heard by the politicians.”
About four years ago, as a means of protesting outdated movie-making regulations, Greek filmmakers organized a boycott of the competitive portion of the nation’s annual film festival. Calling themselves Filmmakers in the Mist (alluding to near-extinct gorillas), the 200 or so members of this group resorted to “guerrilla” filmmaking – creating movies out of barebones budgets.
“What is happening is that people perform in their own clothes, they are filmed in their own houses, the actors are not paid,” Terkourafi said. “They work with the director because they are friends. And these are award-winning actors.”
However, their frustration with the Greek government and the lack of luxurious trailers and craft services doesn’t have a starring role on screen. The movies feature universal themes – intergenerational relationships, what it’s like to be young, leaving home, life in the big city, exploring sexual identity. With the help of a Chicago-based group called The FilmHellenes, Terkourafi chose the seven films that will appeal to general audiences to be shown at the Art Theater.
The festival will open with “The Guardian’s Son,” made in 2006, about a young television reporter who visits his family’s ancestral village and is drawn into staging a “return of the dead” prank in an effort to save a local landmark from demolition. “It’s not sentimental and it’s not cynical. It’s quite upbeat and has some humor in it,” Terkourafi said. Directed by Dimitris Koutsiabasakos, the film won a special jury award from the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival in 2006. It will be shown at 7 p.m. March 2 (Friday).
The festival will close with “Attenberg,” a provocative tale of an awkward, naïve 23-year-old woman coping with her father’s impending death while attempting to learn how to navigate adulthood, guided by one friend and the wildlife documentaries of David Attenborough. This film, directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari and released in 2010, has won awards from festivals in Argentina, Canada, Germany, Italy and Romania. It will be shown at 9 p.m. March 3 (Saturday).
Each film will be introduced by Vassiliki Tsitsopoulou, a visiting lecturer on Modern Greek studies. “This semester, we’ve been fortunate to be able to offer a course on contemporary Greek culture and film, which Dr. Tsitsopoulou is teaching,” Terkourafi said. “We had been hoping to organize a Greek film festival for some years now, and this time, the stars seem to have aligned.”
Other films in the festival:
“Plato’s Academy” (2009), a tragic comedy directed by Filippos Tsitos, is about a nationalistic shopkeeper who suddenly finds out an Albanian immigrant is his brother (9:15 p.m. March 2).
“The Silent School,” (2010), a documentary by Irini Sargioglou and Marina Leontari, takes viewers inside the old Orthodox world of the Theological School of Halki (2 p.m. March 3).
“The Guide” (2011), directed by Zacharias Mavroeidis, about a geeky college student tasked with taking exchange students on scenic tours, uses the loveliest parts of Athens and the Greek islands as backdrop to a story about stereotypes and sexual identity (3 p.m. March 3).
“Without Borders” (2010) is a road movie of sorts, about an elderly Greek man who travels to the United States in search of the 7-year-old girl he helped raise. It was directed by Nick Gaitatjis (5 p.m. March 3).
“Gold Dust” (2009), directed by Margarita Manda, is the story of three adult siblings grappling with the notion of selling their family home (7 p.m. March 3).
Terkourafi said the Greek community already has welcomed the festival in the form of corporate sponsorships, but she believes the lineup will appeal to anyone curious about life in modern-day Greece, as well as to anyone interested in good films.
“Because of the university, and because this is Roger Ebert’s town, people are used to high standards in film,” she said. “This kind of filmmaking that comes from the heart is really much closer to other kinds of artistic productions. In Greece, filmmaking is not something that people do for money. In Greece, cinema is a labor of love.”
All the films in the festival are in Greek with English subtitles. Tickets are $9 per movie, or $25 for a festival pass. Student passes are $20.
The Art Theater is at 126 W. Church St. in Champaign.