Standing Aside, Watching (Na kathesai kai na koitas): Toronto Review

Standing Aside, Watching Film Still - H 2013

Standing Aside, Watching Film Still - H 2013

A Greek tragedy with Western influences in which a woman has to face a male-dominated small town.

The second feature of Greek director Yorgos Servetas stars Marina Symeou, Nikos Yorgakis and Yorgos Kafetzopoulos.

TORONTO -- A Greek actress called Antigone leaves the big city behind to return to her stagnant and stifling village of birth in Standing Aside, Watching (Na kathesai kai na koitas), from writer-director Yorgos Servetas (The Way Things are Determined).

Clearly allegorical and drawing not only on classical Greek tragedy but also, grippingly, on the codes of the Western genre -- with a stranger arriving (or rather returning) to a small-town community rife with unspoken tensions and the constant specter of macho violence -- this ambitious second feature is coolly distant and initially somewhat schematic but grows more complex as the story unearths the austere and uncaring nature of contemporary Greece, Greeks (especially male Greeks) and the practically abandoned Greek countryside that together give rise to a lawlessness that seems hard to stem. Kiev-born, Cyprus raised actress Marina Symeou is mesmerizing in the lead as a strong woman who, like Sophocles’ heroine, defies the male-dominated structures that have corrupted the world she lives in.

This Toronto world premiere should have no problems traveling to other festivals, though distributors are likely to balk at the film’s relentlessly bleak tone which, though necessary, will make this a tough feature to sell in an already overcrowded marketplace.

The films of the Greek Weird Wave, spearheaded by Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg), has drawn the spotlight to films from Greece even though they eschew any sense of realism and don't offer any direct commentary on the state of the financially ruined country and its disenfranchised-feeling citizens. This void has partially been filled by smaller if often not less impressive films, including Wasted Youth and Boy Eating the Bird’s Food, which were both (executive) produced by Watching's young producer Konstantinos Kontovrakis, who seems to have an eye for stories that are anchored in a recognizable reality yet often rely on classically inspired storytelling conventions that give these strongly resonant contemporary tales a solid narrative backbone.

Standing’s title references people’s tendency to first notice things that aren’t right but then decide it’s easier to pretend they’re none of their business, something Antigone (Symeou), a former actress who’s come back from Athens to her unnamed birthplace, seems almost incapable to do. Her relationship with Eleni (Marianthi Pantelopoulou), a childhood friend who works in the same school where Antigone is hired as a teacher, perfectly illustrates this. Eleni’s in an abusive relationship with a married man, Nondas (Nikos Yorgakis), who’s out on parole and clearly bad news. But no one, including Antigone’s younger and newfound boyfriend, Nikos (actor and dancer Yorgos Kafetzopoulos), who works at Nondas’s junkyard, seems to want to interfere, something Antigone finds hard to swallow.

Initially, scenes such as Antigone’s search for a job, the reconnection of Antigone with Eleni and Antigone’s meet-cute with Nikos, seem to run on autopilot as the different elements are all moved into place too quickly to be really credible. But once Servetas, who also wrote the screenplay, has established all the relationships, he impressively manages to construct an entire community out of just a few characters and he finds beautiful visual metaphors for the community’s often troubling power relations, such as a sequence in which Nikos, who’s practically a slave for Nondas, is forced to scrub the latter’s back in the shower after a weight-lifting session.

The small seaside town where the events take place may be unnamed but as suggested by cinematographer Claudio Bolivar and production designer Elias Ledakis, it is a desolate place that inspires little human warmth and has seen better times. The choice of a junkyard as one of the key locations clearly has a metaphorical dimension and cutter Panos Voutsaras’s successions of shots of abandoned places in which nature slowly seems to reclaim whatever was made by man further suggests that the countryside isn’t a place where one can hide from the current crisis, which not only has an economic component but also a moral and psychological one. Like the cold-colored photography, Io’s score is calmly minimalist and functional.

The film's strong final stretch has both the inevitability of fate as well as a strong underlying sense that tragedy could have been prevented.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (City to City)
Production Companies: Blonde Audiovisual Productions, ERT, Feelgood Entertainment, Heretic, 235, Stefi
Cast: Marina Symeou, Nikos Yorgakis, Yorgos Kafetzopoulos, Kostis Siradakis, Yorgos Ziovas, Marianthi Pantelopoulou
Writer-Director: Yorgos Servetas
Producers: Fenia Cossovitsa, Konstantinos Kontovrakis
Director of photography: Claudio Bolivar
Production designer: Elias Ledakis
Music: Io
Costume designer: Triada Papadaki
Editor: Panos Voutsaras
Sales: Heretic
No rating, 89 minutes