The Dogtooth co-producer reveals how her latest Greek drama, Attenberg, is in fact her sci-fi debut.
Dogtooth producer Athina Rachel Tsangari’s most recent film Attenberg (named after one of the character’s mispronunciation of Sir David Attenborough) is about a girl who, baffled by the behaviour of her own species, imitates the birds and bees she sees on TV. On the surface, Attenberg explores human bodies, relationships and landscapes. But beneath exposed bodies and collapsing Greek architecture there is an inherent questioning of tradition. LWLies sat down with Tsangari to explore these sparse landscapes, cultural taboos, and what it means for a Greek girl to fly the nest.
LWLies: When did you realise you wanted to make movies?
Tsangari: I guess at University, I started projecting for the film department, just for pocket money, and I just got infected with the bug and decided I wanted to make films. So my first connection with film, I guess, was threading it through reels in projection rooms.
In a similar way, Attenberg looks at human nature and, in particular, how humans react to mechanical objects. Would you agree?
Well, the relationship between industry and nature is something that I'm fascinated by. It's kind of the cinematic genre that I'm more interested in, you know, the future and science-fiction. I see Attenberg as a bit of a science-fiction film anyway.
In what way?
There are times when the town seems to me like a lunar colony, you know, it looks kind of empty.
Like a space to be explored?
Yes, it could be anywhere. And also the way people explore each other as if they’re aliens, an alien species.
There's also something very honest about your characters. Do you see film as a way of exploring the truth too?
It takes me a really long time to decide what's important and what I want to say. Each film is like a truth-detector, there’s an organic process where everything comes together. When I start writing I don't know where it's going to end up, whatever course of action the characters take on the page. And in rehearsals we work a lot, not so much on improvisation, but mostly on the actors bringing their own personalities to the characters, making the characters their own. We could not be extravagant with the film, so rehearsals were very important, to get it just right.
There are certain scenes where this is clear, like the dance sequences. What were you trying to say with these dance routines?
Actually, these were not in the script, but kind of developed as we were rehearsing. There is so much sitting across from each other in this film that, after a while, you get stiff and you get anxious. So we wanted Marina and Bella to resist that and do something a bit ridiculous. It's what girls, best friends, do and it makes sense to them but seems ridiculous to the rest of the world.
Your films touch a lot on taboo. The family relationships in both Attenberg and Dogtooth even verge on becoming incestuous at times. But your characters never fully embrace these taboos, so why bring them in?
I don't like to compare those films. I think they're quite different. In terms of taboo-breaking I think, in Attenberg, the real taboo is cremation, because this is not allowed in Greece. For me it was kind of like a twin struggle, twin exploration of desire between father and daughter. For the father to want to die the way that he chooses, to say goodbye to the world; and for Marina [the daughter] to say hello to sexuality.
Like a rite of passage?
Yes, a rite of passage for both of them. In Greece it's kind of a taboo to have this kind of buddy relationship [between father and daughter]. But it is important to me that there isn't anything that lies between Marina and Spyros. It’s the opposite… they’re trying to be friends but at the same time they keep their distance from each other. But they’re basically alone in the world, they only have each other, but they don’t want to be dependent on each other.
The protagonist, Marina, is obsessed with the Planet Earth TV series and even imitates the animals. Were you trying to show that we are not so different from our primates?
I don’t really talk in terms of psychology. I prefer to talk in terms of biology.
But isn’t that evolutionary theory?
I suppose, yes. I mean there are some issues there, things I got from observing people around me. The whole antagonistic relationship between Bella and Marina, where we love our best friend, it’s something that all girls have experienced, you know. Basically you grow up and you love that one person who you have chosen to be your best friend and you sort of dance together. And then you grow up and you find out about the world and you make trouble and sometimes you’re not always trustful… And probably this one person is the first person you’re going to betray. There’s a lot of betrayal in a lot of girlfriends’ relationships.
Do you take a lot from personal experience when making your films?
The process is like filling up this receptacle which is like my consciousness, my soul, and then right before I do something I just dump it all out. I try to cleanse myself, to follow my instincts, and just be true to my characters. And I’m not any of my characters… I’m not Marina, Bella, Spyros, but I’m probably somewhere in between them all.
Are you working on any other films at the moment?
We are actually finishing two science-fiction scripts right now. I’m really interested in humour in science-fiction. I think Moon is a really good recent example, something like that refers a lot to domesticated science-fiction, which is what I like.
Like ET phoning home?
That’s a classic movie, a movie that’ll never grow old. I like robotic characters, like ET, who are these true characters, and you really care for them. They are familiar. It’s something I have been developing in an intimate way in my films and something that, after Attenberg, I want to become more direct.