Freaks, geeks and Greeks

This year was no exception, with 120,000 people opting to be there AND be square.


Across the pond, “Star Wars” fans were treated to their own nerdgasm when the British Supreme Court allowed prop-maker Andrew Ainsworth to continue creating replicas of stormtrooper helmets, despite protests from George Lucas.

Bollywood is enjoying a steady recovery following a cricket glut in India, but for me the week’s big story came from my family’s homeland.

Several years ago I interviewed Michael Cacoyannis, the director of the iconic 1964 film “Zorba the Greek”.

But when I heard about his death on Wednesday, many of his other works flooded my memory.

Melbourne’s 14th annual Antipodes Greek Film Festival had screened a trilogy of ancient Greek tragedies by Euripides that Cacoyannis adapted to the screen – Elektra (1962), The Trojan Women (1971) and Iphigenia (1977).

When I spoke to him over the phone from Athens, he told me they remained his proudest on-screen achievements. This coming from a man who’s most famous film won three Academy Awards.

Cacoyannis grew up in a house that overlooked an open-air cinema that screened silent movies. But his desire to become directly involved in filmmaking didn’t come until he moved to England to study law.

Ironically, the Second World War gave Cacoyannis a “path for freedom.” He began working for the BBC when it still produced Greek literary programs. It was here he met several artists who sparked his interest in film and theatre.

“Film is all about what finally gets across from the screen to the audience,” he said. “There are no set rules except sincerity, truth and avoiding boredom. It must leave a fresh impression which enriches the viewer’s life. Whether it’s a drama or a comedy, they take home something that is valuable emotionally.”

Returning to Greece, he directed what became some of the country’s first independent productions that attracted international attention. Euripides’ influence on Cacoyannis came in the early 1960s when he wanted to adapt Elektra to the screen.

“There were two versions,” he remembered. “I was waiting for Sophocles’ text, but by mistake they gave me the Euripides version. When I read it I was not only enthralled, but I found it very infusive and it was just made for the screen. I’ve often said if Euripides was alive today, he would be delighted with the cinema because it goes deep inside people’s characters.”

Elektra went on to receive two awards at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. Two years later came Zorba the Greek – his most commercially successful film.

“(Alexis Zorbas) is like a storm brewing throughout our lives with its dangers and its benefits; approaching strangers and talking to them, his open and outrageous expressions,” he explained. “He’s unconventional, free and charming, but has many weaknesses and faults.”

Like Zorbas himself, Cacoyannis insisted on maintaining a sense of freedom in his work. Despite having many acquaintances in Hollywood, his efforts to avoid filmmaking in America persisted through years of lucrative offers.

“I resented the idea of belonging to an American stable of film directors; being told what to do and having my work controlled,” he said. “The reason my films were so successful was because of freedom. I was never a Hollywood film director. I could have become one much earlier, but I stuck to my way of working and I never wavered.”

In the 1970s he made the next two instalments of his Euripides trilogy – The Trojan Women, featuring Hollywood stars Vanessa Redgrave and Katharine Hepburn, and finally Iphigenia.

Cacoyannis prided himself on being an actor’s director, and always established a close relationship with his stars. But the fact that his works on stage and screen managed to transcend so many cultures – from theatres in New York, to Universities in Japan, to cinemas throughout Africa – remained his biggest accomplishment, both professionally and personally.

“My films, apart from their success, made me welcome in many countries and opened many doors,” he said. “They have a much wider appeal than I imagined, because they touch the very basics of human emotion.”