Athina Rachel Tsangari approaches dramatic filmmaking like an anthropologist: “I don’t use psychology,” she says. “I prefer biology or zoology. These are my tools.”
The Greek-born filmmaker—whose superbly calibrated second film, Attenberg, focuses on a newly sexual young woman and her dying father—left her native country in the early 1990s to study performance art at New York University. “It was all about the semiotics of everyday gestures,” she says. “It taught me a lot about observing and deconstructing human behavior, movement, and speech.”
Indeed, Attenberg examines the male and female species as if they were “poor little creatures,” as she explains, “desperately trying to crawl from one place to another.” The film was partially inspired by David Attenborough’s BBC nature series The Trials of Life: A Natural History of Behaviour, and takes its title from a mispronunciation of the British filmmaker’s name.
But while Tsangari may have borrowed Attenborough’s “British phlegmatic tenderness,” as she calls it, Attenberg is worlds away from a nature documentary. With its modernist, industrial setting, absurdist wordplay, and dance-like interludes—influenced as much by Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” as Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher—the movie is closer to the approach of Godard or Bresson (whom she also cites as influences).
And yet the film is very much Tsangari’s own singular construction, alternating between socially coded manners and liberating whimsy. “We were very strict in the delivery of speech and the orientation of bodies,” she says, “but there was also this desire to escape from the tyranny of words and propriety.” In one sequence, for example, father and daughter jump up and down on a bed, mimicking the movements and sounds of an assortment of animals, from a gorilla to an albatross.
Attenberg’s central relationship also goes beyond the director’s interest in human behavior and addresses broader questions of national identity. “In a way, [the daughter’s] connection with her dad represents my connection with what I perceive as Greece,” admits Tsangari, who “fled” the country when she was 19 and didn’t return until 12 years later. (She spent eight years living in Austin, Texas, and joined up with Richard Linklater; she appears briefly in Slacker as someone’s Greek cousin.) “I always felt like I didn’t belong.”
But unlike the perverse authoritarian patriarchy in Greece’s recent Oscar nominee Dogtooth, for which Tsangari served as an associate producer, her views about her native country aren’t quite so grim. While elaborating on her complicated connection to her homeland, she aptly describes her film as well: “It’s this sense of loving, but not being sure how to do something good with it—like this self-imploding, self-destructive pathos.”
‘Attenberg’ screens March 31 and April 2