«Έι,» the conspiratorial voice of my uncle would echo, down the phone to my father. «Έχω ελληνικό βίντεο. Έχω κασέτα. Ελάτε απάνω να τη δείτε.»
In the 80’s, the answer to the question “How do you fit 100 Greek Australians into a living room?” was that supplied by my uncle above. Within half an hour of receiving the phone call, we would be ensconced in his living room, jostling for position along with the entire extended family, on velvet couches or leather bean bags, in front of a doily covered Rank Arena television apparatus, exclaiming impatiently as my uncle inserted the cassette tape into the video player.
At this time, a ritual, developed through a multitude of previous screenings would always be enacted. One uncle would wait until the exact moment when the cassette was being devoured by the recorder and then remark that BETA was better than VHS, causing another to rush to indignantly extol the many virtues of VHS. Invariably, the argument would revolve around the fact that BETA was a letter in the Greek alphabet and thus, superior to any other non-Greek named apparatus. Just before they came to blows, we would yell at them to pipe down and they would only desist having been nudged in their bellies by our aunts. The film was about to commence.
Γύφτικη Κομπανία, starring the enigmatic Tamtakos was the first Greek video I remember viewing in this communal setting. In its aftermath, for it changed our lives forever, for years to come, we would see our uncles sidle up to their wives, pinch them and ask: «Ψιτ, do you like the γύφτος Grik?» Further, upon witnessing a nubile for the times actress offer the amorous and possessed of immense sex appeal Tamtakos his choice of breast or thigh for his personal delectation, only to have the great syncretist demand «μπουτόστηθο,» this too became enshrined in family ritual. Every Christmas, the carver of the Turkey would ask: “What would you like? Breast or thigh?” The only acceptable answer was, in homage to Tamtakos, a bit of both, «μπουτόστηθο,» highly symbolic of our antipodean, hybrid, composite reality.
In the days when trips to Greece were few and far between, cable television did not exist and communication with the motherland came by means of rushed telephone conversations conveyed on rusty phone lines and grainy repeats on SBS television, Greek videos were our sole window into the Greek world. Mostly of low budget and flimsy plot, we would scour them eagerly for pointers about the way Greeks dressed, spoke, or behaved. We learned for example, that when Greeks answer the phone, the proper form of address is: «εμπρός,» or «μάλιστα» and not «αλάου,» that when bidding someone goodbye, the term «χαίρεται» is invariably to be preferred over «μπάμπαϊ» and that the word «οράιτ» does not exist in Greek and should probably be replaced by «εντάξει.» Furthermore, except in terrible reconstructions of the Ottoman era, we were shocked to learn that in Greece, people lived in cities, not in villages, they swore and had a great deal more sexual freedom than what was the case among our compatriots in the colonies.
This was evident in the civil war film Τα Χρόνια της Θύελλας, which many an extended family subjected its progeny to, its rationale being that anything Greek is good and that at any rate, they may learn some history. In the quick survey I was able to conduct, most communal family viewings around Melbourne reached the point where ELAS leader Aris Velouchiotis is portrayed as trying to convince EDES leader Napoleon Zervas not to accept British gold, before all hell broke loose as right or left wing family members would spring up, direct expletives at the television and each other and then come to blows as they advanced their own interpretation of history. While the various uncles tried to re-ignite the civil war and their wives tried to separate them, younger male progeny would watch on, there being no one to turn off the television at the point where the young girl looking for a husband appears bare-breasted, performing magic, in order to attract a man. This was, for an entire generation, a singular coming of age moment, performed under their oblivious parents’ supervision.
Videos of this nature could readily be obtained in sundry purpose-created Greek video shops all around Melbourne. Our local, in Airport West, now repurposed as an Italian kindergarten, was specifically devoted to Greek videos and to enter therein, as we did on an almost weekly basis, was to enter into a veritable shrine to Modern Hellenism. Just like a propaganda wall in a Soviet country, the covers of the videos all bore similar pictures: here Thanassis Vengos, there Tamtakos but everywhere the ubiquitous, haunting image of the spectral Stathis Psaltis. Psaltis was an enigmatic art-form of a kind that we had never encountered before. Living in a topos and in an era where the acceptable face and practice of Greco-Australian masculinity was embodied in the existence of George Michael, Stathis Psaltis was something new: the anti-Christ of cool, the inverter of the classic aesthetic and the harbinger of liberation from Greco-bourgeois prudishness. I remember an uncle gulp when asked to translate the title of one of his movies during a family viewing: Και ο πρώτος ματάκιας. If you were Psaltis in the Greece of the 80’s, decades before spycams were invented, being a peeping tom was not only socially acceptable, it was downright laudable. In those days, when football celebrity Warwick Capper’s ability to get into his impossibly infinitesimal shorts was the wonder of Victorian society, being able to get into Stathis Psaltis’ claustrophobic jeans was to subvert the very laws of physics. So many of us tried, and the ensuing effects upon the birth rate of Greek Australians are yet to be scientifically appraised.
Just before the large section dedicated to war films, all sporting jackbooted Nazis bearing down upon muscular Greek heroes and their lithe, miniscule-waisted heroines, videos emblazoned with the image of the character that caused more BMX biking accidents in Greek Australia than anyone else: the priest-icon Παπασούζας. Through him, we learned that rather than being an antiquated institution dedicated solely to its own self-perpetuation, the Greek Orthodox Church had a social mission, whose chief mode of expression was doing wheelies on motorbikes. It was in attempting to emulate his outreach that so many of us learned to navigate the streets of inner Melbourne, all the while teetering upon the precipice of causing ourselves grievous bodily harm.
When the great singer Manolis Angelopoulos died in 1989, we flocked to the video stores to rent a copy of his (of course) televised funeral and when we first discovered Λάμψη, the Greek televisual counterpart to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it was to the Greek video store that we reverted, for what was in fact, the first mass binge watch, in Melbourne.
One by one, the Greek video shops began to vanish in the 90’s. When our local shut its doors, we were caused to search further afield, ending up at Akturk video, where Turkish, Greek and Italian VHS titles graciously coexisted in total harmony, a last bastion of multicultural migrant Melbourne, before the onslaught of cable television piped straight from Greece destroyed our unique syncretic vocabulary and mannerisms forever.
Though critically endangered, the Greek Australian video shop as an institution is not totally extinct. Vestiges of it still survive in suburbia, with cultural icons such
as Athens Video in Northcote, a suburb in which the pioneering and much beloved Video Star and Stavros Video are enshrined in local lore, tenaciously clinging to a precarious existence, at least until recently; reminders of our age of innocence.
It is this era, the era of film so deliciously bad that it is exquisitely good, an era that shaped a generation and helped it navigate the discontinuity between its agrarian roots and mythologies and an emerging urban modern Greece, on its own farcical terms, that ought to be commemorated and celebrated by the annual Greek Community Film Festival. It is a phenomenon that deserves to be examined and reappraised in detail for it played an intrinsic role in the construction of the contemporary Greek Australian identity in the way that other Greek films, though significant and screen-worthy in their own right, did not. We can thus relate so much more to the memory of Έλα ν’ αγαπηθούμε ντάρλινγκ than to watching The Orgasm of the Cow, eyebrows raised, though both experiences are ingrained within the social psyche of the Greek-Melbournian.
Here’s hoping that following on from the undoubted success of this year’s upcoming Greek Film Festival, that next year’s will be a celebration of Psaltis, Papasouzas and the springtime of Greek Australia.