Unusually for me, these past few days I’ve attended three Greek community events in Melbourne, each of which have given me pause for thought – a lot of pause and a lot of thought – on cultural theft, political fear-mongering and feminism. Given my week ended with last night’s International Women’s Day screening of Zorba the Greek, it’s feminism that occupies my thoughts most prominently today
Gary Foley’s talk, Reclaiming your Cultural Heritage, was a passionate call to arms for each of us to consider by what right one institution can claim justified ownership over cultural artefacts stolen under shameful circumstances. Compelled to make notes on the talk right away, I tweeted all the way through – and here’s my Storify of that thread.
The Retrial of Socrates at the Hellenic Museum was a low-key yet all-star production of a format originating from Chicago and presented at the National Hellenic Museum in the US. Important contemporary voices such as Lex Marinos OAM and Julian Burnside AO QC brought the ancient issues to bear on our own troubled politics, where once again, civil and human rights abuses proliferate under the public justification of state-of-exception responses to terrorism. Here’s my Storify of the evening’s performance.
Zorba the Greek is a damaging and ultimately destructive account – or to use Zorba’s own repeated term, a catastrophe – of sexuality which justifies male cruelty against women, rather than celebrating a confident and expressive sexuality that empowers all genders. The plot is broadly known to you: a chaotic Greek man railroads the ordered life of an Englishman with Greek heritage who Zorba calls “Boss.” My response as a feminist focuses on the film’s depiction of bodies and of sexuality – a film in which, of the three women who are presented as sexualised, two die and one is near invisible.
Women’s bodies in Zorba the Greek are either disguised in shapeless black dresses, or marked clearly as sites for male desire, which leads to their destruction. The key figure is The Widow, a woman of strength who goes about her daily business alone, despised by the women and lusted after by the men. She walks confidently, wearing a widow’s black but choosing fitted garments that flatter her body. Ignoring the social convention to avoid men’s spaces, she enters the kafenio with a force which is presented with memorable intensity, to demand the return of her goat which has been stolen by the idle men to tease her. When she dares take a lover by sending the kindly Boss some Christmas sweets, and the son of a community leader then drowns himself in anguish over his unrequited love for her, she is attacked by every man in the village and hissed at by the women when she tries to attend the young man’s funeral. Zorba protects her from being stoned to death, but as soon as his back is turned, the young man’s father grabs her by the hair and cuts her throat. She lies dead, her body stretched out on the ground.
Zorba travels to the nearest city and goes on a bender with Boss’s money, making promises to Boss that he knows he won’t keep. He spends a few days in the arms of a prostitute, Lola, who we see either standing in her vaudeville dress, or lying on a bed while her half-dressed body is described by Zorba as a site for his pleasure, dictating a letter to Boss. Back in the village he has made commitments to Hortense, the flamboyant French four-time-widow, and those commitments have been reinforced by Boss, offering the delicate lies that men expect women wish to hear. The moment Zorba marries Hortense, she takes ill and dies, her home ransacked by the villagers in a gleeful frenzy as she lies dead, her body stretched out on her bed.
The movie ends with the iconic dance lesson, Zorba teaching Boss in a zembekiko style the dance now known as the Zorba: the man’s body, intoxicated, almost drunk, almost stumbling yet catching himself, standing proud, regaining enough balance to make a confident kick and still recover equilibrium. Men’s bodies in the film are depicted as tall, standing upright, wearing fitted clothing (with the exception of the monks in counterpoint to the old women), strong and virile, with an intensity that’s ready to transform into violence. The zembekiko is the dance of the man alone; to interrupt its performance is by social convention a sin. I have always enjoyed dancing it myself.
Reclaiming your cultural heritage: the return of Aboriginal artefacts from the British Museum vis-à-vis the case of the Parthenon Marbles was presented at The Greek Centre on Thursday 5 March 2015.
The Retrial of Socrates was presented at the Hellenic Museum on Saturday 7 March 2015.
Zorba The Greek (1964, screened on DVD in English with English subtitles) was presented as part of the Hellenic Museum’s Summer Cinema on Sunday 8 March 2015. IMAGE: Still from Zorba The Greek showing The Widow (Irene Papas) entering the kafenio to demand the return of her goat.
Let’s Go Greek… Entaxi! was one of two Greek variety shows on Channel Ten on a Sunday morning, prior to the advent of SBS.