The descendants of Plato and Aristotle have done it again. Despite the mass of negative press focussed on the country’s ongoing financial crisis, Greek filmmakers have succeeded in attracting a good deal of attention. This rising modern generation of auteurs has proven to have all the necessary qualities to enhance world cinema. Furthermore, they have stirred a bit of controversy with their unconventional formal approaches. The New Greek Cinema is not dominated exclusively by Yorgos Lanthimos or Rachel Athina Tsangari, and never was, since there are other such exceptional talents as Syllas Tzoumerkas, Yannis Economides, Filippos Tsitos and Alexis Alexio. And this year, new recruits have joined the corps of the Hellenic national cinema. The remarkable Babis Makridis puzzled festival audiences with his cryptic and absurdist opus L. Another equally gifted artist is Ektoras Lyzigos, who, in Boy Eating the Bird’s Food, has created a thought-provoking film addressing Greece’s current state of affairs. Ektoras explains that, due to the rampant crisis, people are being forced to “re-evaluate their whole life and beliefs. It was inevitable that new, genuine Greek films would emerge, because not only the economy, but also the institutions are in crisis. Things have to be done again in new ways.”
Despite the fact that there are several similarities between both of the above-mentioned films, L is a modern fable locked inside a timeless place and embedded in Kafkaesque quirkiness; whereas Lyzigos’ film based on Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger (1890) represents the antithesis, with its social realistic portrayals of psychological realities. The works of emerging Greek talents in the last few years have tended to be labelled, albeit somewhat clumsily, as “weird”, although, Boy Eating the Bird’s Food is rather saturated with civil absurdism.
Moreover, the current Greek economic situation, the loss of illusions and of the notion of national identity, has formed another strong stimulus for young filmmakers. As Ektoras puts it: “I guess times of crisis demand, even more urgently, new forms, new ways to talk about institutions and values that collapse.” The latter is the epicentre of L (and as well Lanthimos’ film Alps), whereas Boy Eating the Bird’s Food revolves around a profound and personal story, albeit one that has implications for the rest of society. The title quite explicitly refers to a situation in which a basic need is jeopardised; an unthinkable circumstance in any mature unprejudiced country with high living standards, let alone the cradle of democracy and the entire western culture. Fortunately, the film goes a good way beyond purely political themes.
The protagonist (impressive and authentic performance by Yiannis Papadopoulos), along with his bird, lives hand to mouth. Resources are running desperately low in his poorly furnished apartment, with its bare, ramshackle walls, and he has few belongings of any real significance. The downward spiral of events starts with an audition for the part of soloist in a Bach chorale, which he fails because of unfamiliarity with the text he is singing. After subsisting on garbage, his main preoccupation becomes feeding his pet canary. The boy seems to be more absorbed by his bird’s needs than his own. Moreover, the decisive will to keep his feathered fellow alive drives all his actions like a bizarre projection of the survivalist instinct.
The film is a fine exposition of everyman’s struggle to endure tinged with a strong social subtext, which soon begins to shift into a very intimate, civil and authentic statement. However, to consider Boy Eating the Bird’s Food as simply a criticism of capitalism, and more notably its most infamous feature, consumerism, would be dangerously short-sighted. Naturally, this is the most manifested theme; however the audience also witnesses the consequences of not being a conformist. The titular character does not comply with some of the most basic conceptions of the system. Therefore, he is a kind of social outcast expelled from the paradise of consumerism only because he is not capable of generating and sustaining enough amount of capital. The possession of tangible things determines ones place, role and identity within society. Nevertheless, the boy deprived of everything but his canary continues in his futile pursuit. He is left bereft of the future.
Although the main character is the primary focus for the entire screen time, and despite the fact that he is ceaselessly followed wherever he moves, Boy Eating the Bird’s Food is not solely a character study. The titular protagonist is not only stripped bare of his social status, his personal background remains obscure for the rest of the film. With his uncertain motives, we can only witness his behaviour in unflattering situations. The director ventured into territory of Robert Bresson. This obvious stylistic inspiration acknowledges without hesitation. Nonetheless, some other important elements enter in the mix. The majority of critics have paid excessive attention to the protagonist, thus forgetting his chirpy little friend. Notwithstanding the fact that the bird is out of frame most of the time, it bears a strong symbolic meaning. The acts of its owner are mostly driven by its existence and needs, alongside some of the basest human urges. Clearly, in the hard times he is going through, the bird becomes the meaning of the protagonist’s life, and also poses as sort of doppelgänger; denoting his solitude and the lack of caring hand (from both mother and state). Last but not least, the canary is an emblem of lost hope. Ektoras sheds a bit of light on the bird figure as it is “aside from an alter-ego of the character, also the catalyst for him to stand on his own feet and take responsibility. And in my mind, when at the end he “saves” the bird, he is in a way saving a part of his own self.”
The bird is the most prominent feature of a broader, more general symbolism which permeates the entire film. And with this imagery emerging in the centre of what is supposed to be a social realist drama possessing traces of neorealism (the whole film serves also as an allusion to the famous de Sica’s oeuvre, Umberto D.), the viewers can enter into another realm; that of allegory. This aggravates the tension of the social drama and enriches gripping spectacle. As a result, the film is reborn into an alluring cinematic poem.
What is surprising is that this uncanny symbiosis not only works on both realistic and figurative levels simultaneously, but it is also executed with skilful precision. The clear artistic vision dwells not only in the film’s poetic style or social realistic form, but also in the intriguingly calculated structure of the narrative. The plot spans three days in Athens and is built upon a surgically precise string of rhythms and events, several of them progressing and a few of them atrophying. “I based the script on some routines, repetitions and leitmotifs. I think that was the way I tried to develop the relationship between the Boy and the bird; the Girl and the Old Man,” the director explains the process of conceiving the anatomy of the story and emphasizing the generic nature of the characters.
Enter the archetypes. Once again, the modus operandi collides with that of Babis Makridis in L. Not only is the Boy stripped bare as a character, represented only by his most core attributes, but the other characters undergo similar treatment, (the girl representing obviously libido, the old man death etc.) whereas their interactions function to crystallise the story into a kind of elegiac conundrum. Moreover, the economics of the storytelling and the stylistic worship of minimalism invoke a major figure of modernism. Without any doubt and to a great extent, Samuel Beckett is lurking in recent Greek films. “I find Beckett more appealing in the sense that he is more condensed; fewer devices with stronger results. I like in Beckett these strong concepts,” the filmmaker muses about his influence. A strong sense of the conceptual was also transferred to his own film. Another Hellenic entry at the IFFR 2013, named km (directed by Christous Nikou) and presented in the “Spectrum Shorts” section could almost serve as a prologue/epilogue (that´s the beauty; it works both ways) to L. What´s more important, it also seals the deal in terms of monstrous Beckettian dominance.
Yet more gentlemen have prevailed in this enigmatic film, the perennial pursuing of the protagonist in his martyr-like fate and the use of lyrical aesthetics are elements evoking the works of some other masters of cinema; the Dardenne brothers. The works of the Belgian sibling duo were labelled “poetical realism”, which is the perfect denomination for Boy Eating the Bird’s Food. It suggests an all-encompassing array of styles and tropes. Furthermore, the naturalism, the constant scrutiny dedicated to the only one chosen character, and the above-mentioned aspects also bring to mind an unforgettable piece of Dardennes’ filmmaking, Lorna’s Silence. However, the social realism does not supersede the psychological one, hence the constant nodding towards the eidolon of exquisite psychological portrayal, Dostoyevsky, more precisely to his schismatic figure of Raskolnikov.
The main protagonist continues to remain a rather cryptic until the very end, yet Lyzigos does not cease to amaze. The Boy’s impotency to articulate his needs is illustrated by his social incompatibility. His emasculation is marked by his castrato like voice. His creepy feasting on a dead man´s food and conscious avoidance of all family members who would like to help him, both serve to exemplify the shattered remnants of dignity. The final encounter with the object of his desire, girl from a hotel reception; and the possibility of satisfaction of all his basic needs at once, together with a peculiar and eerie confession, culminates in a devastating fiasco. Generally unsatisfied (literally and figuratively, as the complex of the film works on both levels at the same time or in two different, yet complementary, modes), the disillusioned everyman keeps going with astonishing endurance. The agony goes on as well.
Unfortunately, the film gained notoriety thanks to a scene depicting a soft-core act of self-cannibalism which polarizes the audience. It’s a shame that it is this scene that has attracted so much attention, because there is another much more compelling one involving a toilet bowl that is so messed up it triggers the gag reflex. It is the very image of absolute desperation. Rock bottom. A tiny and subversive philosophical beauty hides in the notorious bowl as it recalls Žizek’s essay about nations and ideology based on the shape of their toilet bowls. The realistic and lyrical elements collide all the time building an elegant momentum, not only to deliver the messages but enabling us to, perhaps a bit perversely, really enjoy it as a multi-layered work of art. Let alone the zeitgeist effect.
Martin Kudláč is an independent scholar.
To agori troei to fagito tou pouliou (2012)
Directed and written by Ektoras Lygizos
Cinematography by Dimitris Kasimatis
Edited by Gregory Rentis
Cast Yiannis Papadopoulos, Lila Mpaklesi, Vangelis Kommatas and others