Iconic Talks powered by Mastercard: The Evolution, Challenges and Future Visions of the LGBTQI+ Portrayals in Greek TV and Cinema

The discussion, titled "Iconic Talks powered by Mastercard:  The Evolution, Challenges and Future Visions of the LGBTQI+ Portrayals in Greek TV and Cinema" took place on Saturday, November 11th, at Pavlos Zannas theater. The participants of the discussion were: Vasilis Kekatos (filmmaker), Dimitra Papadopoulou (actress and screenwriter}, Dimitris Tsiklis (actor), Zacharias Mavroeidis, (director and screenwriter), Andreas Lambropoulos (actor), and Fenia Apostolou, (actress, choreographer and director). The conversation centered on the evolution of queer cinema, the evolving landscape of gender identity in the film industry and also what we can expect in the future. Mastercard is supporting the Mermaid Award for the second consecutive year, which is awarded to the best LGBTQ+ themed film in the official programme, accompanied by a 3,000 euro-cash prize.

The discussion was moderated by the artistic director of the Festival, Orestis Andreadakis, who welcomed the audience to the discussion and introduced the speakers: "Welcome to the iconic talks powered by Mastercard, about the portrayal of the LGBTQ+ community in Greek cinema and television. Iconic Greek artists and filmmakers from both film and television will share their personal experiences, shedding light on the challenges and strides that have been made in the representation of the LGBTQ+ community, while addressing the contribution of film and television to shaping positive attitudes towards the LGBTQI+ community itself in Greek society. We couldn't ask for better and more fitting speakers than the people next to me. I now give the floor to Vasilis Kekatos, who won the 2019 Cannes Golden Palm for Best Short Film and Queer Palm with The Distance Between Us and the Sky, a queer encounter that made history in Greek cinema. Now, he is continuing in exactly the same direction with the TV series Milky Way, which started airing a few days ago on Mega TV. I should also mention the exceptional spot “Violet” he created for the Festival, for its 60th edition. In my opinion, it is the most beautiful short film with a queer theme," he said.

"Vasilis, you made a conscious choice to depict people in the LGBTQ+ community. Was inclusivity your goal?" was the initial question posed by Orestis Andreadakis. Vasilis Kekatos first touched upon the two awards at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival: "In 2019, we took home both the Short Film Palme d'Or and the Queer Palme d'Or, which has been blatantly dismissed as the 'lesser' of the two. If we hadn't received the Golden Palm, it might not even have been mentioned, I believe. However, this award was very significant for us and was a source of pride. To begin with (as far as I know at least) I am not queer, but my father's brother was, at a particularly difficult time, the late 70s, early 80s. Especially because his family was a harsh, patriarchal, working-class family of immigrants from Australia, who had returned to Athens. They were not educated people, my grandfather had been taught just how to survive. At some point, my uncle Spyros turned and said, at the age of just 16, that Orestis is not his friend but his lover. I've been thinking about this moment for years, in a middle-class living room in Kypseli. There were no punches thrown with his father; however, he sent him to Australia, perhaps believing that he was doing it for good, so that Spyros would live the life he wanted without being hounded. My uncle carried that trauma all his life, and he passed away young, at the age of 49. In a way, The Distance Between Us and the Sky was in honor of his memory. His funeral in Cefalonia was a closed-coffin ceremony, because we wanted to remember him in good shape and health. I remember people asking me if we didn't open the coffin because he'd been stabbed by the bad company he used to keep. My parents never hid my uncle's sexual identity from me, which helped a lot as we never discussed 'acceptance.' Instead, it was a given in my home," he initially stated.

"There's always this suspicion from people; 'why do you write this and why do you write that,' I find this conversation unbearably boring. For my part, I try not to appropriate the trauma. In The Distance, I am not speaking exclusively on this subject, but on courtship in general, which is universal. It was suggested at one point that if this film hadn't been about gay people, it wouldn't have been a success. Since the film was about gay people, what else exactly was it supposed to say? In that era, the highest praise one said about the film went as far as 'I wasn't thinking they were gay.'" Vasilis Kekatos went on to say how lucky he feels to be sitting next to Dimitra Papadopoulou and how much he appreciates the character embodied by Giannis Bezos in Aparadektoi (All of Them Unacceptable): "For there to be such a character in Aparadektoi, he had to be funny. It made sense at the time, and for many years afterwards, that a gay character had to be funny, both on television and in film. Otherwise, they might have been highly traumatized, evoking sympathy from the straight audience. Most acceptable nowadays is a gay character who doesn't stand out too much, who looks masculine with a deep voice, gay to the point that it won't bother the viewer." He then discussed the Milky Way creative team's attempt to break out of that mold and create a queer character as he would want him to be, not according to the viewer's wishes.

Then, Orestis Andreadakis gave the floor to Dimitra Papadopoulou, asking her about the iconic character played by Giannis Bezos in Aparadektoi and how she made the decision to introduce a gay character to Greek television: "It was something absolutely normal for me,"replied Dimitra Papadopoulou. "That was my friends and my everyday life. From a little girl I have known I don't fit into boxes. I couldn't conform to the 'get married, have kids, be a good girl' mold. I was watching a movie recently, an old black and white movie, and I was thinking that before I was even born the way I was supposed to live was predetermined. Roles were assigned, and couples embraced predefined norms. When I was 15, the phone lines were often mixed up and I found myself talking to a 16-year-old boy, Alexis, who wished to undergo surgery to become a girl. I immediately felt the need to protect and encourage him. Of course, it was something new to me, but my instinct was to spontaneously support this child. At some point, we lost contact and years down the line, I was reunited with a bright girl, a happy person. It was the first realization in my mind that a person should rightfully go where their soul leads them. In college, I had a gay best friend and I took on the role of supporter and advocate once again. For my friend Dimitri, the dating part was far from simple. Then a blessing came into our lives: laughter. We laughed at the way he was looked at, this approach liberated us, we made fun of our idiosyncrasies. This approach became a way of life," she explained. Later, she spoke about her efforts to create a series with Giannis Dalianidis: "I would tell him I wanted the main characters to be an unmarried couple and he would reply: 'Dimitra, that's not possible. You don't know Greece.' I understood then that I was living in a completely different Greece. When I accepted the offer to create something of my own, to bring my own concept to the small screen, I realized how ready society was to love a character like Giannis from Aparadektoi. I think the comedic aspect was cathartic, laughter expands the soul. Giannis became a part of our lives," she stated. 

Immediately afterwards, Orestis Andreadakis passed the floor to Dimitris Tsiklis, known for his role in Wild Bees (Agries Melisses). He inquired about the extent to which the representation of the LGBTQIA+ community has evolved today and how it is received by the audience. "First of all, thank you to ANT1, the Festival and Mastercard, I'm delighted to be here today alongside all these exceptional artists, especially Dimitra Papadopoulou who started it all with the character embodied by Giannis Bezos. You gave us the thread to approach a character in a unique manner. When I met with Lefteris Charitos, I agreed to take on the role with the stipulation that my character would not be a caricature, but a man with sensitivities that stem from his personality and not from his sexual preferences. The kissing scene has been so controversial, and it's actually quite funny to see society shocked by two lips touching but remaining impassive in the face of violence. I wanted to change the central narrative of the straight couple, to make way for other narratives that include self-love, friendships, same-sex couples," he initially commented. "At first, I didn't realize the impact it would have, but after the kiss was aired, I understood how far behind we are as a society. My life changed a lot, but I received a lot of love, both from Wild Bees (Agries Melisses) and Chelidoni, the play I did afterwards. There were of course the negative comments, but that's when I realized how much we need to pursue these kinds of productions and speak for every person struggling to be free in this world," Dimitris Tsiklis stressed.

Orestis Andreadakis, after referring to the recent and pioneering tribute of the Festival to queer Greek cinema, gave the floor to Zacharias Mavroeidis, director of the film The Summer with Carmen, and asked him about the journey that Greek cinema has gone through to reach a successful portrayal of the LGBTQ+ community: "Cinema reflects the image of society. If we take a look at Drama's short films, we will find an abundance in terms of queer character depictions. Aparadektoi had a huge impact as a television product. Giannis had temporal and narrative parity, the fact that he was cohabiting with a straight man was progressive and I think that was why it had such an impact on audiences. I think in the coming years we'll see even more portrayals: the spectrum of queer stories is huge and we have a lot of stories yet to see," he shared. He went on to say that when something challenges us, it serves as a mirror, pushing us to question what exactly it is that challenges us. 

Next, Orestis Andreadakis asked Andreas Lambropoulos how he approached the role of Nikitas in The Summer with Carmen: "When I went through the casting process, I was quite preoccupied with the idea of portraying a gay role. Ι grew up in a very working-class family, in an auto repair shop, and my father is a tinsmith. When I talked to him about the gay character, his response was 'why do you care?' Later, during the filming, I would come home with pink and tiger-striped hair, and he would ask me if I went to the set or to the hairdresser. I learnt a lot in this film, I loved my character, I was very anxious not to present him as a caricature. I was interested in talking about a person, I was never concerned with his sexual identity. We've made it such a big deal, whereas love is the simplest thing: two people happily holding each other's hand. As a new generation our main concern should be love, because our societies are full of hate. We ought to talk about such characters and write about such characters because they exist," he concluded.

Then, Orestis Andreadakis stated that evidence of things moving in the right direction is Fenia Apostolou, the first transgender woman to play Philoctetes at Epidaurus, embodying a cis female role. "Fenia, do you think Greece has become more hospitable? Can we be optimistic? How can we contribute to inclusion?" he asked, addressing the next speaker. "Thank you for the invitation. In relation to human rights and inclusion, you do realize that if we are still discussing how the public can accept a gay character then we are at infancy stage for transgender characters. We cannot be seen on our own, we are still at the beginning of a difficult journey and what has been done so far is not merely by chance. Personally speaking, I had a ten-year career, before I came out as transgender. Everyone knew I had worked in the field of art, in organizations where you need to have artistic merit to become a part of them. In art we never stop evolving, we're in the early stages for transgender characters. This year many strides have been made, in important institutions, such as the Greek National Opera with Strella, which until recently was considered off limits. The presence of transgender people is essential to the aim of inclusion," she initially remarked.

"Once, an assistant of mine made the following remark: as a transgender person you merge two worlds, you have the rationality of a man and the sensitivity of a woman, and as such you have the whole universe in your hands. This year, the first Syrian immigrant woman was featured in the theatre, while I performed a cis female role at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus. Being a transgender person, it is evident that we are far behind in representation and, compared to the other interviewees, I speak like a toddler. It takes a lot of effort to be visible and not one dimensional. Many times, trans characters are played by men masquerading as women, while there are trans actors available. In art, of course, there is freedom. This year, for our part, we proved we can still exist in art, yet we do not want the process to feel like opening the door to a 'poor relative'." I hope, having a positive outlook, that everything will work out for the best. To incentivize filmmakers, a playwriting/scriptwriting competition with trans/non-binary people could be established," she added.

At that moment, Dimitra Papadopoulou questioned whether it is forbidden for a straight man to portray gay roles, as was the case with Giannis Bezos in Aparadektoi. Fenia Apostolou replied that in art there are no restrictions and everything boils down to talent, remarking that transgender actors do not have many opportunities to star in any kind of role. Orestis Andreadakis pointed out that when the visibility of transgender characters and actors is achieved, then there will be the possibility for these roles to be embodied by non-transgender individuals as well. Zacharias Mavroeidis, in turn, traced the root of the issue to who holds the microphone and the platform to narrate the stories, emphasizing that until now this privilege has been largely reserved for straight men.

In response to a remark from the audience regarding the importance of not portraying a gay character in a script solely in terms of his sexual identity, but based on other aspects, as well, Vasilis Kekatos agreed, adding: "When we reach the point where queer people are equal members of society and art, then we will be able to talk more about other stories. At this stage, it's important to be a bit more confrontational. Today, I opted to share a more militant sequence from Milky Way precisely because violence is always directed towards the queer character, but in this particular instance we witnessed some violence perpetrated by the queer character, which is an interesting twist. Changes are slowly taking place and discussions like this one are well underway. Year by year, diversity will be more and more present in our lives," he stressed, while noting that Giannis in Aparadektoi paved the way for us to get to Milky Way.

Then, Zacharias Mavroeidis referred to how the struggle for inclusion and representation is perceived by heterosexual audiences who are sympathetic to this process: "Many times, our heterosexual 'allies' in the struggle for representation, although well-meaning, find it difficult to put themselves in our shoes and realize that society is not our ally. They are also unable to empathize with our experience: growing up, you are aware of having something inside you which will upset your loved ones. Sometimes you work it out through art, but it's still an inner challenge," he said. Dimitra Papadopoulou concluded her own statement by quoting Odysseas Elytis'; 'One day the past will surprise us with the power of its timeliness.' The audience and the speakers then mentioned the underrepresentation of stories about same-sex female couples on Greek television and in Greek cinema. 

Wrapping up the event, Orestis Andreadakis expressed his gratitude to the speakers for their presence, as well as to Mastercard for being the sponsor of the event, ending his statement with the hope that one day we will reach a high enough level of inclusion so that transgender characters are not exclusively treated based on their sexual identity in film and television.