Panos H. Koutras: The evolution of queer cinema in Greek culture

Although a difficult task that necessitated a great deal of artistic subtlety, Greek directors such Panos H. Koutras have managed to broaden the audience of films featuring queer representation. This achievement was not only particularly challenging due to the country’s latent homophobia, but also culturally necessary as it allowed for a new lgbtq+ perspective when bearing in mind that fresh perspectives are what make culture such an important aspect of civil society.

Panos H. Koutras. Photo Yann Rabanier ©Liberation

Greece has always had a good relationship with culture and more specifically with cinema producing directors such as Yorgos Lanthimos, Alexis Damianos, Theo Angelopoulos, Michalis Cacoyannis and Panos H. Koutras. Many of these directors are also internationally recognized. As a country undergoing a severe crisis, Greece is producing a very unique style of cinema.

Indeed, on Friday 23 April, 2010 the Prime Minister of Greece, Yorgos Papandreou announced the Government -debt crisis and proclaimed the initiation of an EU “support mechanism”. Despite the crisis the greek film industry managed to survive because of European fundings which was a huge relief. 

Whilst the change in political and social conditions affects immediately the art factor and specifically the film industry, small productions from Greece managed to succeed despite the financial limitations. This exemplifies the importance of maintaining culture despite difficult political and economical circumstances. Culture is of the highest importance to a country’s identity and spirit as it instigates debates and dialogue. In that regard, culture can be considered the guarantee of freedom of opinion and expression as it feeds off of pluri-perspectivism.

In case of a totalitarian regime for example, generally the first course of action on their behalf is that of censorship (censorship of books, of art and of cinema). The freedom to speak and be oneself freely is at stake in artistic and cultural freedom.  For a long time, history has marginalised and even repressed both politically and violently gay culture.  Thankfully, it managed to survive underground and illegally, thanks to the mobilization and courage of queer men and women until it was finally introduced into mainstream culture, and somewhat ceased to be the object of persecution.

Indeed, in an interview with Panos H. Koutras, the Greek director states that queer culture became a part of the cinematographic universe only in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, even though it had been a part of the industry since the 1970’s when it was designed for a niche and specific public. It seems obvious to suppose that men and women were queer well before the 1970’s and furthermore the 1990’s, but due to political, social and traditional opinions was not a part of the film industry.

Koutras revealed himself to be passionate about the fact that queer cinema should and is no longer an underground reality.

It was underground in the 60’s with Andy Warhol as one of the first in American cinema, which was really the first movement that put queerness at the table as he filmed queer people

Panos H. Koutras
My Hustler (1965) by Andy Warhol  ©imdb

And if it isn’t underground in Greece anymore, it is undoubtedly thanks to the efforts and films made by talented directors beginning with Michael Cacoyannis whose footsteps were quickly followed by Alexis Bistikas, Konstantinos Giannaris and Koutras himself. Such efforts were all the more considerable in Koutras’ opinion due to what he describes as invisible yet “hypocritical” homophobia still present in Greece. Indeed, if the director mentions a certain “fear of homophobia” in Greece.

Each country has a different way of expressing its homophobia or conservative values. In Greece, there is mild hypocrisy but in a soft way which means that you feel accepted. It is a phenomenon that exists even beyond the LGBTQ+ society.

Panos H. Koutras

Koutras says that although he is happy that Greece is not “a dangerous” country for a queer person to live openly in, it does remain difficult to be openly queer “we do not have gay politicians nor gay athletes. Now some people started saying that they are gay but still, we do not have a gay or lesbian prime minister or even politician.”

However, one can only imagine that the introduction of queer films into the cinematographic industry of Greece was not an easy task. In the 1960’s for example, director Michael Cacoyannis made movies that could only be interpreted as queer themed by an alert and knowledgeable viewer. His allusions to queer relationships amongst his characters were as subtle and uncertain for the public as was his own sexuality which remains a question still today. Koutras mentioned that

Cacoyannis made his films full of queer themes and he showed a twisted image of society, definitely a different way of approaching the image of Greek society.

Panos H. Koutras
Zorba the Greek (1964) by Michael Cacoyannis ©imdb

According to Koutras “ The movement of Greek queer directors started in the 70’s and then the 90’s with the director Alexis Bistikas, Konstantinos Yannaris, where the moment of the immigration problem comes in as well.”

For example, the 1991 film “The Tie” directed by Alexis Bistikas tells the story of young Panayotis who leaves his natal village in Sparta for the big city of Athens. However, precarity soon obliges him to prostitution on Omonia road where he is picked up by an older man; the two of them embark on a relationship that broadens both of their minds, as well as sexual experience. 

The tie (1991) by Alexis Bistikas ©imdb

Following Bistikas work, Panos H. Koutras directs the film “Strella” that came out in 2009 and was internationally acclaimed during the Berlin film festival.  He remembers that

Before Strella I think we did not have a film with a Trans woman as the lead actress, so in that sense yes I was the first one directing a film like that

Panos H. Koutras

A poignant film features marginalized characters not often depicted on screen such as prostitutes, ex-prisoners and drug-addicts, but first and foremost features a transexual main character. Although the film subject is daring and innovative, Koutras maintained that it is not a film about transexuals. The true theme of “Strella” is that of dysfunctional family relationships. 

Strella (2009) by Panos H. Koutras ©imdb

The true innovation regarding the admittance of queer issues into mainstream cinema operated by Koutras in “Strella” lies in the fact that the film can be considered a queer revisting and reinterpretation of age old questions regarding family and human relationships. The queer dimension of the movie is secondary and thus taken for a given, openly disguised behind issues that affect us all and thus shattering sexual and indentity related normes imposed to genre, familial ties and love. In the interview with Koutras, the director himself said

So the subject of Strella it wasn’t just a theme of a trans woman but it was also about the abandoned, loneliness, love and of course the dysfunctional family for sure

Panos H. Koutras

It becomes obvious that the importance of admitting queer movies into a country like Greece’s culture lies in what makes up the importance of culture itself: allowing for a new perspective on an old subject to be discussed. 

BEGKAI Entlira-Aikaterini

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