‘World Film Locations: Athens’ Is Equal Parts Film Scholarship and Travel Guide

These essays provide readers with a comprehensive understanding of Athens, its relationship with the cinema, and how that relationship has evolved.

The World Film Locations series, published by Intellect Books, is a true treasure for film buffs and world travelers alike. With each book dedicated to a different international city and edited by a film scholar specializing in the cinematic wonders of that specific city, every entry in the series offers readers a passionate and in-depth look at some of the world’s most enchanting cultural capitals and how they have contributed to the world of film.

To date, the series has covered Los Aneles, Tokyo, London, New York, Dublin, Paris, Mandrid, Instanbul, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Vienna, Reykjavik, Berlin, Mumbai, Melbourne, Helsinki, Chicago, Glasglow, Marseilles, Vancouver, Venice, Glasgow, Barcelona, Sao Paulo, Prague, Liverpool, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Boston, Toronto, Shanghai, Moscow, Rome, Havanna, Syndney, Buenos Aires, Sigapore, Beijing, Washington D.C., and Florence.

Like the medium of film itself, each of these books takes a visual approach to their content. Every page is packed with illustrations, city maps, or location photographs, and the carefully chosen movie stills from an elastic mix of films are accompanied by brief but insightful texts. The real value of these books, however, is in the essays covering the themes, directors, and key historical periods that relate directly and intimately to the city.

World Film Locations: Athens (2014) is edited by Anna Poupou, Afroditi Nikolaidou, and Eirini Sifaki. While many writers contribute to the book’s insightful expositions on specific Athenian film locations, its featured essays, in addition to those written by its editors, include offerings from Dimitris Eleftheriotis, Dimitris Papanikolaou, Athena Kartalou, Angeliki Milonaki, Afroditi Nikolaidou, and Lydia Papadimitriou. As the editors point out in their introduction, all the essays were written and compiled in the midsts of an economic, political, and social crisis taking place in Athens.

This time of crisis, however, coincides with a vibrant time for Athen filmmaking in which the work of a new generation of filmmakers, often labeled the “Greek New Wave”, have projected a “kind of urban nostalgia”. In their selection of essays, the editors seem to have set out to highlight this “constant comparison between the present and the past of the city”.

In fact, Poupou and Sifaki begin the book with “Athens: City of the Imagination”, in which they provide an overview of how the city of Athens has been represented in film over time. They point out how international films have tended to focus on the “stereotypical topics of antiquity and tourism, dealing with the rediscovery of its ancient values and heritage,” while Greek cinema has projected Athens as a city that is in a constant state of transformation with films “about urban reconstruction and demolition, destruction and regeneration, political mutations and crisis.”

They touch on the brief period from the late ’50s to 1967 when Athens was a popular setting for big-budget international films before it became a prestigious location for the best B-movies of the time. They write of the politically relevant auteurs who emerged during the dictatorship from 1967 to 1974, then the films of the ’90s that focus on the transformation of the Athen cityscape, and finally those of the so-called “Greek New Wave” of the ’00s and onward that often represent the city’s decay and obsession with the past.

Following this overview of Athens and its representation in cinema over the years, Eleftheriotis presents with “Open-Air Cinemas in Post-War Athens” a look at the over 400 open-air cinemas that operated in the public squares, street corners, and amongst the newly-built apartment blocks during the ’60s. With a cinema for every 5,000 residents, Athens and the people who called it home obviously created a culture that had the cinema at its center.

Eleftheriotis writes of the national and international films that played at these open-air cinemas, how their patrons went about watching these films (in a far more interactive manner than today’s norms), and the important role these cinemas played in the city’s many communities. He then goes on to write of how the density promoting urbanization and lack of planning laws and regulations of the ’70s, along with the competition from television, lead to the shutting of many of these cinemas. To conclude his informative essay, Eleftheriotis writes about the few remaining open-air cinemas and their current functions.

Papanikolaou begins his essay, “Athens is Burning”, by writing about the Acropolis and how Greek directors have always worked under its shadow in that the decision to or to not shoot it when filming in Athens often defines their films. “If they offer a shot of the ancient rock,” writes Papanikolaou, “they are seen to be making an easy iconographic statement,” but if they do not shoot it, viewers will interpret the decision “as a conscious avoidance, pregnant with meaning.”

Papanikolaou then transitions from this conundrum concerning the Acropolis that has long faced filmmakers shooting in Athens with another more recent one: how to handle the internationally known image of the Athenian demonstrations that occurred in 2009 after the killing of a teenager by police officers. He claims that these lengthy demonstrations have come to define the modern Athens, the Acropolis-City turned City-in-Trouble, and that how (or if) modern filmmakers portray the protests often defines their films. While this is undoubtedly a contrived and limited way to look at a film set in Athens, it’s an approach to criticism that nonetheless helps highlight how such an iconic city can take on an active role in a film.

Kartalou uses “Nikos Panayotopoulos’s Athens”, as its title suggests, to focus entirely on a single filmmaker and his use of the Athens leitmotiv. As a producer of 15 films in 39 years, Panayotopoulo has established himself as a unconventional and unpredictable auteur who, according to Kartalou, creates a “self-reflective cinema under the influence” whose heroes navigate through, and in fact deceptively appear at the center of, a universe made-up of genre exploitation, pastiche, and “ironic glances both at his surrounding reality and cinema itself.”

Kartalou then breaks down each of the director’s films and how he gives the city of Athens a leading role in them. He seems to suggest that, like Jean-Luc Godard’s films do with Paris or Woody Allen’s films do with New York, Panayotopoulos’s films offer the outsider a intimate, deeply personal look at his city, but also the Athenian a unique view from one unique individual’s perspective of their own city.

Although it retraces some of the other writing already present in World Film Locations: Athens, Milonaki’s “Controversies of Space in Popular Greek Cinema” offers a more in-depth look at how the city of Athens is represented in film. She, for instance, writes about the filmmakers of the ‘Athenian School’ who, during the ’50s, “situated their stories in the bustling and vibrant historical centre of Athens, focusing on the neighborhoods around the Acropolis which represented aspects of social bonding and community.”

The neo-realist filmmakers of Italy are also explored in this essay, and she writes of how they “employed a neo-realistic mise-en-scene to chronicle the struggle for survival of the oppressed working-class population living in the neglected neighborhoods of Athens.” While all of the information presented by Milonaki is of value, I wish she would have offered it within the context of a more specific subject, as the authors of the book’s other essays do.

Nikolaidou and Poupou, for example, use “Dirtopia and Its Urban Subcultures” to explore Athenian cinema in the post-dictatorship era. The authors point out how following the fall of the military junta in 1974, the dysfunction of Athens became obvious and filmmakers of the ’80s documented it. Skylines spotted with TV antennas, crowded bus stops, traffic jams, claustrophobic alleys, dark apartments — these became the new markers of the city while youthful subcultures made it to the big screen.

Although the authors provide a long list of Athenian misfits — whether they be junkies, rockers, football hooligans, punks, motorcycle gang members, or disco fanatics — and the films from the ’80s they appeared in, they are also quick to point out that “these subcultures connoting the vices and sins of the city adhered mostly to signifiers of style and not so much to social context.” They, in fact, conclude their essay by suggesting that the defeatist approach of these subcultures and, by extension, many of the movies of the ’80s has left Athens in a sort of unprogressive stalemate.

The last essay in World Film Locations: Athens closes on a more uplifting note. Papadimitriou’s “Athens in the 1960s Greek Musical” covers what was perhaps the most prosperous time, the ’60s, in the modern history of Athens and focuses entirely on the most popular genre of that time — musicals. She details the style and content of the genre’s most prominent filmmaker, Yannis Dalianidis, while tracking his films’ evolution from the cosmopolitan outlook they maintained in the early to mid ’60s to the working-class emphasis they took on in the late ’60s. Because this essay closes out the book and contrasts with many of the previous essays which explored how the political, economic, and social problems facing Athens in recent years has been traced through cinema, it left me with the same sort of nostalgia that is nurtured by the filmmakers of today’s “Greek New Wave”.

When taken together, these essays provide readers with a comprehensive understanding of Athens, its relationship with the cinema, and how that relationships has evolved over the years alongside the city’s own political, economic, and social developments. Like all the other installments in the World Film Locations series, they help explain how film is helping shape our view of the city, what role the city has in film, and how the medium of film can help us better understand the city and its people.

Meanwhile, the many scene breakdowns from upwards of fifty movies set in Athens including everything from Magic City (1955), to Never on Sunday (1960), to The Colours of Iris (1974), to Voyage to Cythera (1982), and on to Cheap Smokes (2000) and Knifer (2010) divide and support each essay, but also help give the book a welcoming pace and a structure that invites readers to return to the book time and time again.

Like the other entires in the World Film Locations series, this Athens installment acts as a great starting point for serious scholars of film just beginning to research the city of Florence and its movies, film buffs with an interest in the city, or world travelers looking to add a point of reference to their adventures.

RATING 6 / 10
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