Outtakes 2010: Strella, Eyes Wide Open

FILM, Film Festivals

Sick of the fact that whenever Hollywood deigns to portray a homosexual couple, one of them ends up dying? The Outtakes Film Festival (Auckland, Rialto Newmarket, May 27-June 2; Wellington, Paramount Theatre, June 3-9) is back with another extremely diverse and fascinating collection of films to emphasise that life is, after all, diverse and fascinating. Two of this year’s features, Strella and Eyes Wide Open, offer quite contrasting depictions of a society, and yet their social commentary and aesthetic successes also highlight the fact that Outtakes showcases some impressive films.

Greek drama Strella (A Woman’s Way) initially begins as a touching love story: a recently released convict Yiorgos (played with convincing intensity by Yannis Kokiasmenos) finds himself falling in love with a mysterious transvestite Strella (Mina Orfanou, a revelation in the role). Strella is a Maria Callas-referencing prostitute, but underneath her toughness is a deeply sad person. Soon enough, the film morphs into something much darker and much more hard-edged. In some respects, the Strella bears similarity to another Greek production, Dogtooth, which divided New Zealand International Film Festival audiences last year (though to be fair, minus the outrageous humour and shockingness of that film). Both feature snapshots of a Greek family and relationships that underscore the effect of abuse, close-mindedness, and cruelty of the past—modern Greece appearing to be a society which is failing to negotiate with its violent history, grappling with the roots of its famed mythology, and comprehending how this history is impacting on its present situation. Strella is strikingly filmed, whether it’s the beautifully constructed romance, or the gritty portrayal of the seedy and hustling streets of Athens. The urban milieu becomes as much of a character as the humans. However unlike Dogtooth, Strella offers a glimmer of hope—a reconciliation of sorts offering a moving way towards the future.

Whereas Strella, for all its darkness, bursts with life, Eyes Wide Open (Einaym Pkuhot) is much more austere. And the setting couldn’t be more different. Set in an ultra Orthodox area of Jerusalem, it follows Aaron (Zohar Strauss), a devout butcher and father of four who falls in love with a young drifter (Ran Danker), kicked out of his religious training. While the two are mutually and inexorably drawn towards each other, Aaron’s love affair draws the ire of his conservative neighbours, and demolishes his family life. The film, while occasionally veering towards stereotypical situations, maintains a hard-edged tone. Eschewing melodrama, director Tabakman’s unobtrusive camerawork and his actors’ understated performances guarantee that emotion is wrung from glances, silences, and moments of contemplation. This means that the film doesn’t have to say much, instead relying on a highly convincing subtext to carry through its narrative. The controlled mise-en-scène adds to the repression present as the old cobbled streets and murky grey palette suppress the raging emotions beneath. Eyes Wide Open’s success is in this desperately sad subtext: the conflict between conforming to one’s social group’s wishes, and conforming to one’s own desires cruelly played out.

‘Strella’, Dir. Panos H Koutras
Greece, 2009; 111 minutes
‘Eyes Wide Open’, Dir. Haim Tabakman
Israel/Germany/France, 2009; 90 minutes