Standing Aside, Watching seems easily comparable to a Western – we have a sparse and beautifully shot landscape coupled with an overwhelming sense of dread, an outsider whose actions see the seemingly placid township reveal its sinister underbelly, an intentionally slow pace building to a violent climax – but director Yorgos Servetas seems more in debt to Haneke than Ford, his feature a cutting look at modern Greek society through the eyes of a woman who refuses to sit idly by.
Antigone (Marina Symeou), whose name should merely be a cultural reference point rather than strict literary guiding line, is a failed actress turned English language teacher, who returns to the small seaside village where she grew up. She tells her uncle, with whom she stays, that it has to do with money, though her regression appears to be more aligned with how underwhelmed she is with the outside world, the opening voiceover talking of what promise she saw in the future as a child in the 1980s and the depressing capitalistic reality she sees now. Upon her arrival home, she reconnects with an old friend, Eleni, a teacher with a penchant for shoplifting who has found herself caught in a cycle of domestic abuse at the hands of Nodas, a local businessowner and thug. Antigone herself begins a mostly physical relationship with Nikos, a much younger man who happens to work under Nodas. There is also a weakly explored subplot involving an old flame of hers, Dimitris, who fades merely to a plot device.
The “standing aside” of the title is in reference to the way in which inaction has seen the town fall into a trap of dangerous stasis, gender roles harshly defined and enforced, economic necessity resulting in an overreliance on both physical and financial protection from Nodas. The corrupt police chief tells Antigone at one point, “I am the guardian and keeper of their boredom”, and what we see of the town seems to reflect a fear of change – one of Antigone’s neighbours calls her out for taking care of a stray dog, which would bring diseases to their streets, Antigone’s uncle claims only the old can live happily in the town. Through this framing of the town Servetas attacks modern Greek society (perhaps more clearly a smaller section of society) as ignorant and complacent; the treatment of women becomes the narrative drive, Antigone echoing her literary namesake in rebelling against the rule of men. In this vein it is similar to In Bloom, the Georgian feature that places two young girls at the heart of a society with a troubling approach to women, though where that film subtlely approaches the issue, Servetas is more blunt, though it remains effective throughout.1
The most impressive element of the film might be its cinematography, courtesy of Claudio Bolivar, who deftly cycles through mysterious and beautiful shots of the hillside and village area whilst also capturing a stasis in frame – we hold on a road slightly too long, the muted colour palette complementing the narrative well. Like the recent Iranian film Fish & Cat, the intentionally dull image creates a sense of entrapment – though more clearly seen in the looping narrative of Mokri’s film, here the literal entrapment of the arduous train journey is coupled with a shot of windmills marking out a border of the territory, a burned down forest creating a false sense of space. The musical score by io, oddly reminiscent of some of Reznor and Ross’ work on The Social Network, pulses with a modernity not reflected in the imagery – the music is part of that trend of revisiting and reinventing 1980s electronica, cleverly referencing and commenting on the opening voiceover.
Whilst eschewing much of the oddity that has defined recent Greek cinema, Standing Aside, Watching is a fairly assured feature that manages to be more powerful than its quite simple interlocking narrative through its ability to craft a sustained sense of dread and its potent attack on societal complacency.