Athina Rachel Tsangari Brings International Flair to Independent Comedy

Greek Filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari's Indie Comedy Has Global Flair
Courtesy of Athina Rachel Tsangari

Watch out, Judd Apatow — the sub-genre of funny films about men-children forced to wrestle with the trials of adulthood while stuck in outrageous circumstances is getting some international flair, in the form of “Chevalier,” the third feature from Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari.

Opening May 27, the deadpan comedy features a cast of schlubby Greek dudes who embark on a fishing trip in the Aegean that devolves from bonding experience to competitive rabble: Intent on one-upping each other to capture a precious pinky ring (the eponymous chevalier), the Greeks set about playing a wild game that only the best man can win.

“Chevalier” is funny, tight, and appropriately weird, Tsangari having infused her unique energy into every frame. Yet despite her frequent lumping into the emerging genre of Greek Weird Wave (alongside filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos who, like Tsangari, isn’t enamored of the term), Tsangari’s tastes are decidedly American.

The filmmaker may be best known for her 2010 festival hit “Attenberg,” but her first big break happened years earlier — in 1991, after she arrived in the U.S. intending to study drama at NYU, but instead wound up in Austin just as it was becoming a hub for indie filmmaking. It’s there that she met Richard Linklater, and ended up with a bit part in the classic American indie “Slacker.” The role was blink-and-you-miss-her (she’s billed as “Cousin from Greece”), but her sensibility was spot on.

Tsangari became a fixture in Austin’s film community, founding the Cinematexas International Short Film Festival, which ran from 1995 until 2007. She also studied directing at the University of Texas, where, as a teaching assistant, her students included Jay Duplass, who would go on to acclaim as an independent director, writer, producer, and actor.

“After my class, I think he dropped out of school,” Tsangari says, laughing. “I don’t know if one is connected with the other!”

Duplass makes clear there was no connection. “She was inspired and inspiring,” he says of his former teacher.

While “Chevalier,” like “Attenberg,” is a Greek-language film, Duplass considers Tsangari to be of his American indie brethren.

“The American filmmaker side of her came up exactly as I did,” he says. “We were both in Austin in 1991 when it was becoming apparent that a normal person, [who was] not greenlit by Hollywood, could make a film.”

During her time at UT, Tsangari set about piecing together her thesis film — which would become her feature debut — “The Slow Business of Going.” Production really was a slow business — the film took four years to finish, and was made in the scrappy, DIY style that’s often seen in the American indie scene.

“It was shot in episodes,” she says. “We only shot when I got a grant or some kind of sponsorship from a hotel room or an airline company.”

That dogged determination also extended to “Chevalier,” which bowed at Locarno last year before going on to play a bevy of other festivals, including Toronto, New York, and SXSW.  Strapped for both cash and time during the shoot, Tsangari and her crew utilized their primary set, a boat, as location and living space. American indie spirit, straight out of Greece.