SIFF 2014: Standing Aside, Watching

“All small towns are alike,” remarked director Giorgos Servetas, describing the setting during a Q and A session. But the nameless town of Standing Aside, Watching might as well represent any community of any size and any country with its depiction of power dynamics. The film follows failed actress Antigone, returning to her hometown to reset her life after years away, hoping to settle down and stay out of trouble. The town itself, the kind of place where everybody seems to know everybody else, is a contradictory bubble in the Grecian countryside. Antigone lives in a tiny house and drives a hand-me-down beater of a car, and lives just a couple doors down from a well-heeled middle-aged couple with a gleaming black sedan. Rarely does the film go more than a few minutes without presenting some similar kind of dichotomy; often, shots are split in half: crumbling ghost town on one side, majestic nature (or the very edge of it) on the other, a thin strip of dirt road the only border.

Of course, brutality and corruption lie underneath the placid facade of small town life. The manager of a local scrapyard, Nondas, has formed a sort of old boys’ club, including the local police chief and Antigone’s new, young, mostly helpless boyfriend Nikos. Antigone soon learns that Nondas has been beating and brutalizing her childhood friend, Eleni; a confrontation is all but inevitable.

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This isn’t just masculinity in crisis—there is plenty of that visible, of course, like when Nondas comments on Antigone: “You should be fucking her, but she fucked you”—but an examination of the power structure between sexes. Actress Marina Symeou’s Antigone consistently owns each scene she’s in; whether through an impish smile (imp-icity levels not seen since Amelie) or a fearsome scowl, Antigone projects confidence that no other character can come close to matching—not even Nondas, who seems to run the town (and has enough sway to eventually force Antigone out of her job) but ends up looking like nothing more than a belligerent, spoiled brat when he’s in the same frame as Antigone.

And that makes the ending exceptionally difficult to swallow. Antigone is eventually kidnapped by Nondas and Nikos and taken to a trailer where they plan to rape her—but she’s ultimately rescued by Dimitris, an old acquaintance and ex-boyfriend. Damseled at the last minute, taken again by another man. It’s an ambiguous conclusion that really just raises a whole raft of questions. Nondas and Nikos don’t own Antigone—or any woman—in the way they think they do. But why does Antigone have to be owned at all?