Discussion: The Representation of the LGBTQI+ community in Greek cinema and television

In the framework of the 63rd Thessaloniki International Film Festival, actor, screenwriter, and Agora Ambassador of this year’s Festival, Yorgos Kapoutzidis and Konstantinos Kyriakos, Professor of Theatre and Greek Film Studies at the University of Patras participated in a talk titled “The representation of the LGBTQI+ community in Greek cinema and Television”, that took place with the support of Mastercard. This year, for the first time, Mastercard is sponsoring the Mermaid Award for the best LGBTQI+ themed film in the Official Selection section, with a cash prize of 3,000 euros.

The event was presented by the artistic director of the Festival, Orestis Andreadakis: “We welcome you to a talk about the representation of the LGBTQI+ community in Greek cinema and television. We have with us Yorgos Kapoutzidis, who is also this year’s Agora Ambassador and host of the opening ceremony, and Konstantinos Kyriakos, writer and professor of History of Theatre and Cinema at the University of Patras. He contributed significantly and curated the tribute we had to queer Greek cinema for the 59th Festival. The talk is supported by Mastercard, which has been for years one of the main and valued Festival sponsors and decided for the first time this year to also sponsor the Mermaid Award for the best LGBTQI+ themed film of the official selection with the cash prize of 3,000 euros. Welcome and thank you very much”, he stressed.

“I’d like to thank Orestis and his team”, Mr. Kyriakos said initially. “The Festival is always in line with every artistic sensibility and we are here to offer our individual contribution, combining humanities and life, to discuss things that urgently need to be discussed. I will speak first and you will suffer every academic neurosis. I will say this name: Ntintis Trehantiris. This was a full name during the inter-war period, used to attach certain identity elements to the traumatic characters of some musical plays. I mention this today, when we’re very careful about how we address each other, hate speech continues to lurk and simultaneously, on the other side lurks the hyperbole of political correctness. In some way, by naming something we attach to it an identity”, he said.

“This talk focuses on cinema and TV, which are similar audiovisual media. Many creators have coexisted in television and cinema (Bergman, Kieslowski). Today, this kind of fluidity in these communicating vessels, is an inarguable reality. Never in the Greek sphere, has “high culture” been detached from homoerotic depictions. Before film production was systemized in Greece during the 50s, with the emergence and establishment of various studios, there already were homoerotic representations in art: in literature (Cavafy, Lapathiotis), in painting (Tsarouchis, Diamantopoulos), in theatre (Karolos Koun). There were figures who, in an inconspicuous wat, expressed the sensibilities, the interests, the themes, what we call the genealogy of queer culture”.

Some key-elements on the history of representations

The cinema of the studios during the 50s and 60s, with the mass production of films from that period, reproduced this specific triptych: contempt, ridicule, demonization”, he underscored. “During the era of political transition in Greece, cultured people from Esperia, with a different mentality and up to date with what was happening mainly in France, are making short films for the first time and share these ideas through image. They maintain, however, a truly insignificant relationship with the social reality: they remain “festival films” for the few. Later, a systemization followed, with the circulation of “Amfi” magazine and the establishment of AKOE, and the transition to the abolition of censorship – a hallmark of the whole process. Every script would face a censorship that could be in disguise. There are after all, many ways to silence a group of people”, he stated in relation, before moving on to discuss the period after the 80s until today.

The 80s are an ambivalent decade. Films capturing a certain sociological awareness are produced, withing a homophobic Greek society. All through the 80s, feature films reach the audience and define the Greek people’s gaze, through the politics we describe as “the politics of tomorrow”, the politics that are populistic, but creators still had the chance to produce meaningful films. At the end of the 80s and early 90s, we have the New Queer Cinema, associated with figures such as Alexis Bistikas and Konstantinos Giannaris, Panos Koutras and Aggelos Frantzis. Finally, the last phase is defined by the crisis, the rise of the weird wave, the era of lack of funding for Greek films. Essentially, it is defined by the screening of Strella. Most people in the room, you are children of this era and you have a direct idea”, he concluded and handed the floor to Μr. Kapoutzidis.

“It’s such a pleasure for me to be here”, Μr. Kapoutzidis said at first. “Before we begin, I would like to refer to Ethniki Ellados, which is maybe the boldest series Greek television has seen, when it was broadcasted. In that, Mina Adamaki had made an appearance, who passed away yesterday; an excellent actress and a wonderful person. All the beautiful things we will discuss today, our laughter and our wise talks, I would like to dedicate them to her memory”, he mentioned, overwhelmed.

“I read in a book by Konstantinos about all these characters, the way the gay community has been represented on TV all these years. It is a representation so deficient, and the characters are also so deficient. These people are homeless. We never see them at home, inviting people over, welcoming gay friends. We will only see them occupied with their sexuality, sex is the number one thing in their loves. We almost never see them say “I love you”, and they’ll also never have someone say it to them. It is a deeply deficient representation. At this point, I would like to clarify that all of us here, who have been involved in the representation of the LGBTQI+ community, deserve to be canceled, and I would like to renounce the demon of cancel culture off of us. We have all made mistakes in this representation. What’s important is to from now on seek for ways to improve. Among us, we have also Spiros Bibilias, an actor who has played most of the gay characters ever depicted in Greek TV, someone who has this twisted idea that all people are good, but they’re not. Spiro, even when you die, after the age of 100, we will never hear about it because you won’t be there to post about it!”, he joked, making a reference to the popularity of a latest post. 

At this point, Μr. Kyriakos commented on the influential appearance of Spiros Bibilias in Giorgos Michailidis’ Kathodos, a series so impactful that was criticized for leading young people to drugs and homosexuality. “The government got, after all, also involved in the way ERT would deal with the extremes of this show”, he mentioned, before Mr. Bibilias took the floor: “We faced truly rough censorship. I was then so often called a “faggot” on the street. I am very proud of the gay characters I’ve played. As years went by, I tried hard to make the character likeable, because so many people did it in an obnoxious manner”, he stated.

“In front of me, I see so many young people, liberated in terms of their sexuality”, Mr. Kapoutzidis commented, before wondering why screenwriters haven’t been able to better represent the LGBTQI+ community in cinema and TV. “If you think about it, gay characters will either be funny, or beaten up, or dying of AIDS. I believe the intention was never malevolent, it was just an attempt to make the characters likeable. Think of the fat sir who walks in the room – this would be me after 10 days in Thessaloniki – and is the first one to joke about his weight, before anyone else. He wants to feel okay and to be liked. Becoming liked is our eternal struggle. You have put less of an effort than we have, and I am happy for that. You always think of what to wear so you’re not attacked, how to switch your tone of voice when you order souvlaki. When you sit down after all this effort, to write a gay character, you get wrapped up in these experiences, and you end up “burdening” these people with a variety of elements”, he mentioned.

Mr. Kapoutzidis stressed the urgency to move one step further, and to create characters that don’t have to be liked. To this, Mr. Kyriakos responded that when we laugh at human imperfection, it by no means undermines us. “The biggest “mistake” I made was writing a gay character, when addressing a straight audience. But I don’t want to hurt someone who is like me. I have a theatre to fill, we will find 400 people somehow! All my friends will come, gay and straight. Because you know, I also have straight friends, I don’t care what they do in their bedroom”, he joked. “I hope you understand why the oppressed attempt is part of the creators: we have been suffering. If we want to talk about today, we need to depict the present as it is. You can walk hand in hand, boy and boy, girl and girl. I know, of course, that it’s not easy. I am not insane. Even our love in dramatic TV is depicted as something very sad. Have you seen me in love? I am floating on air! I have never been sadly in love. Love is joy, and this joy has never been represented. But overall, I am not an expressive person at first. I don’t know how to flirt, I am very down to earth, and this shows in my script. But this joy of love within the LGBTQI+ community needs to be seen. Things are changing!”, he stressed.

“When we write a trans character, we need to think of the trans people first”, he said. “This has changed in me, I think first of the people this is directly about”. To a question by the audience about the play Strella by the National Opera, Mr. Kapoutzidis stated: “A big applause for the National Opera for this play, but I stand by the trans community. Trans actors face such difficulty in getting any role. The parts are very limited, and when you don’t get chosen even for these roles, it’s a big deal. The trans community would love it more than us if the play was showcased. I empathize with their “wants”. To a comment by artistic director, Orestis Andreadakis, about the issue of the actor playing a gay character, Mr. Kapoutzidis responded: “straight actors should not play straight characters, and gay actors should not play gay characters, not exclusively. The parts are limited and we need to focus on our work. This is my belief, with a grain of salt regarding trans characters, which are really only a few and constitute an exception”.

To another question by the audience about straight creators and the extent to which they have the freedom to make queer films, without the experience, Mr. Kapoutzidis replied: “We get so restricted. If a straight creator approaches the issue with respect and appreciation, why shouldn’t they do it? Don’t I write about straight people and women? The point is to be loving and in solidarity. I want to show my true self through my own view”. At this point, he asked Mr. Kyriakos if there is any improvement in the representation of the LGBTQI+ community: “The whole sense of improvement is probably non-linear. Representations are perhaps more conscious, but all this fluidity in the audience’s response is problematic. We are not perfect and there is no ruler in our lives”.

At this point, Mr. Kapoutzidis spoke about the audience’s response, in respect to his play, 42497, which takes place in a dystopic future: “The whole planet had been destroyed, on the ground there is 34 degrees at night, and 57 degrees in the day, nothing lives, there is not one reptile alive, and when, under the earth, two boys kiss, someone from the audience yelled: “unacceptable!”. This person did not care about the mass death of everyone! Two boys kissed and he got all passionate. This is what you have to deal with. But I move on. And I write. And I have fun.”

To another question by the audience about the coming out process, Mr. Kapoutzidis commented that it is a very personal situation: “We have a lot of wounds and we need to document them. But I also want to document my joy. We’re human! When I broke my arm and my leg, my mother didn’t ask me on the phone if I’m still gay. My ex-partner told me he was sick of watching gay characters whose main issue is being gay”.

Then, to a question by the audience about camp as an aesthetic choice, Mr. Kyriakos expanded: “What camp achieves is a hyper-irony of gendered identities, with conspirational codes, it is about people with a suspected gaze of their idea of difference. In that sense, it is a whisper in the ear through an extravagance, as an address to a community of people. It is a type of humor which is better understood by those who have adopted it. This was familiarized by the Greek TV audience, and recognized in characters such as that of Nteni Markora from Dio Ksenoi. Camp can occur unintentionally due to bad artistry, but it can also be a carefully curated aesthetic statement”.

In conclusion, Mr. Kapoutzidis said: “I think I have grown up. After a difficult year for television, with the rise of fascism and criminal organization, I was shocked and felt like I had to do something. Here, today, at Pavlos Zannas theatre, I love that you’re laughing, but I don’t do it for you to like me. It comes from my good mood. It starts with me and ends with you. In previous years, I would maybe act camp for you to like me. Now, I am okay with those who do like me. Also, I like myself.”