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Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg

The Greek director's award-winning new film focuses on a young girl's obsession with David Attenborough documentaries

Picking up the Grand Prix at the New Horizons International Film Festival in Wroclaw, Poland on Sunday was Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg. The film is set in the visually striking modernist factory-town of the Greek director’s childhood. Its title comes from a mispronunciation of David Attenborough – whose nature documentaries 23-year-old protagonist Marina (Ariane Labed) is fascinated by.

The mimicry of animal behaviour is just one of the tropes in this elegantly austere and stylised, yet playfully comic rumination on the geometry of bodies and socialisation’s demands, as Marina confronts her repulsion with sex and her architect father’s imminent death. While the film bears echoes of recent Greek hit cinematic oddity Dogtooth, which Tsangari co-produced, its language - as she elaborated on in Wroclaw - is very much her own.

Dazed Digital: How personal was the film?
Athina Rachel Tsangari: Attenberg was not a strictly autobiographical film, but at the same time as an artist, you are a carrier of your zeitgeist. And instead of doing psychoanalysis I make films. So there’s lots of this stuff that is percolating there without me knowing that bursts out, with such an urgency that there’s this sense if I don’t make this film I’m gonna die.

And exactly like Sir David Attenborough has this distance but at the same time this immense tenderness towards his subjects I wanted this throughout the film. It starts as a film that has a cold distance and then slowly as Marina starts desiring her body temperature starts going up and the film temperature goes up. It becomes more and more emotional. But hopefully never sentimental. Because I hate sentimentality as a person. Although I cry a lot I’m more in contact with the austerity and the drama in the sense of ancient Greek tragedy rather than the drama-queenness of contemporary Greece.  


What role does body language play in it?
Athina Rachel Tsangari: It was written in a very austere way with very, very austere repartee between the characters, sort of like my interpretation of screwball comedy, and I call it screwball tragedy. I was very, very strict and compulsive-obsessive about it and it was all about intonations of language, literally like conducting a music piece but made out of words. Going always back to the root of Greek tragedy it was important to have the chorus interludes with the animal dances or what we call silly walks in the film. It was a way to express all this animality in the characters’ heads in a way that was non-verbal. Usually in films you have violent expression, people hitting each other, or you have super-erotic expression, so people really get it on when they have sex. Because I really wanted to have this consistency in the film’s language they had to do something to show that they’re different, and they love being freaks, and “fuck you”, and “we just play penguins, and we touch our vaginas, and we are sort of pistoleros but with our vaginas”, and you know, stuff like that.

DD: How much does Attenberg relate to Greece’s current situation?
Athina Rachel Tsangari: I wrote it when the first riots were going on in Athens in December 2008, so it was under the influence of this burst of rage and sense of betrayal we all felt. I had been in the streets every day protesting with all my friends, like the rest of Athenians. Though I did not set out to make a film about Greece I think the character of Spyros the father and the bitterness and cynicism that he has really expresses what my father’s generation and my generation feel right now. But at the same time I think that Marina a bit like me is half-in half-out of her society, she’s a bit of an alien, and sometimes this kind of distance that you have from things helps you be more alive, more awake, after she loses her dad and her virginity, in a way she’s a free person, she starts from scratch all over again. I think that’s a good way to talk about Greece right now. Greece has lost her dad and her virginity and now she’s ready to really grow up, so it’s a rite of passage and it’s very tough and it’s very melancholic. Every time I go back to Greece I feel this sense of melancholia in Athens, everywhere. The worst is the moral depression, but at the same time people are really starting to think and examine, and this is the first time that during my life this has happened.