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At Sundance, a Texan by way of Greece

Posted 12:27pm on Friday, Jan. 21, 2011

One of the most intriguing Texas directors at this year’s Sundance Film Festival isn’t exactly from the Lone Star State. In fact, Athina Rachel Tsangari is based in Athens, Greece, where she’s plays an instrumental role in that country’s burgeoning film scene.

But Tsangari graduated from the University of Texas, and spent more than 10 years living in Austin, working on a number of films, including her 2000 debut The Slow Business of Going. If you look close, you can even see her in a tiny role in Richard Linklater’s Slacker.

A few years ago, Tsangari returned full-time to Greece, where she founded a production company called Haos Films. Their first international success was Giorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth, an extremely dark satire about a very strange family. It won the prize for Best First Film at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and is now on the Academy Awards shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film. (After opening throughout the rest of the country last year, it finally opens Friday in North Texas at the Texas Theatre in Dallas.)

Tsangari is here at Sundance with her second feature, Attenberg, which went into production in a small town outside of Delphi just as the Greek economy was melting down in 2009. When I chatted with her before Friday morning’s screening, in the upstairs lounge at the historic Egyptian Theater on Main Street, she told me that a considerable portion of the film’s financing, including a number of expected state grants, evaporated virtually overnight. The film could only be completed through bank loans and with the help of labor from friends.

The effort has thus far proved worth it: Attenberg, which follows a 23-year-old woman (Ariane Labed, who’s actually French) contending with a dying father, a competitive best friend, and a budding romance, premiered at September’s Venice Film Festival, where Labed won the Best Actress prize.

“I’m not sure this is the right movie for so early in the morning,” Tsangari told me, clearly a little nervous about the reception at a 9 a.m. Friday screening, which was the United States premiere of the film.

Attenberg certainly isn’t easy viewing: It unfolds in slow, elliptical scenes, with the plot only gradually making itself apparent. Starkly erotic moments bump up alongside plainly surreal ones. But Tsangari’s strange vision proves tender and affecting, the rare coming-of-age story that reckons unabashedly with the complexities of human sexuality and the complications of the father-daughter relationship. The writer-director needn’t have worried about the audience reaction; their curiosity clearly piqued, most viewers hung around for the longer-than-usual question-and-answer that followed the screening.

Tsangari and her team are here at Sundance meeting with American distributors. She told me she’s hoping to return to Texas in the next year, to shoot her third feature, a comedy who’s screenplay is already written. She’s also looking forward to Tuesday’s Oscar nominations, to see if Dogtooth makes the final cut in Best Foreign Language Film category.

If it doesn’t, though, she probably shouldn’t be upset for too long: Don’t be surprised to see Attenberg earning Oscar buzz this time next year.

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