Yannis Sakaridis • Director
by Joseph Proimakis
- First unveiled in the Agora, Yannis Sakaridis’ well-travelled refugee drama Amerika Square returns to Thessaloniki seeking gold in the International Competition
No stranger to the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, Yannis Sakaridis’ well-travelled refugee drama Amerika Square [+see also:
interview: Yannis Sakaridis
film profile] (which world-premiered at Busan before heading over to Chicago) was first unveiled right here at the Agora’s Crossroads Co-production Forum as a project looking for funds. Although it was temporarily put on hold, the director returned to the festival as a competitor for the Golden Alexander with his feature debut, Wild Duck [+see also:
film profile], and almost a decade after his first visit to Thessaloniki, Sakaridis finally returns with Amerika Square, once again aiming for gold in the International Competition.
Cineuropa: You first presented Amerika Square right here in Thessaloniki a little less than a decade ago, but you had to shelve it and move on to Wild Duck. When you went back to Amerika Square a few years later, did you find it to have been prescient in terms of how the refugee crisis had spiked, or did you need to update it?
Yannis Sakaridis: Finding ourselves in the middle of the biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time, we did indeed need to update some of the story. In 2008, the majority of the refugees living near and around the Athenian square in question were mainly African. When we started researching again in 2014, far-right extremist party Golden Dawn had already come and gone, but had left its mark on the square. We spoke with a lot of Syrians who offered a different perspective on what was going on, compared to what we had had in mind a few years back: the square has turned into a modern-day "Casablanca", where thousands of people in search of a smuggler are waiting for a fake passport or a seat in a truck or a boat – anything that will transport them to Western Europe.
When you came back to the film, you implemented Yannis Tsirbas’ novel Victoria Doesn’t Exist into your script in order to enrich your plot with the far-right social movement that has recently emerged. Was there also some research involved regarding the struggles of refugees trying to cross the Greek border?
Yannis Tsirbas' novel is spot on: it deals with a banal racist, Nakos, who wants his neighbourhood back as it was in the 1980s, when he was a kid: a white, middle-class, prosperous, Greeks-only neighbourhood. Now, in his late 30s, he’s unemployed and still lives with his parents. In typical racist form, he blames the refugees for his unfortunate situation and has a nasty plan to solve his "problem". Tarek, on the other hand, who is based on the true story of a very real individual, is like many Syrian refugees who try to escape war by crossing the Mediterranean. He comes to Amerika Square in search of one of these smugglers who profit from people’s misfortune, indifferent to their suffering, and in some cases even causing it themselves. At the same time, however, these people are the only door deliberately left open by a corrupt system, well orchestrated when it comes to bombing and destroying, but completely lost when it comes to rescuing and rebuilding.
Your film’s political viewpoint hinges heavily on the delicate balance between the likeability, disillusionment and lurking menace exuded by the lowbrow character of the anti-refugee wannabe mass-murderer Nakos. What made you think of Makis Papadimitriou, a very clean-cut, light-hearted actor, for such a dark role?
Makis Papadimitriou is a genius whose work I have always loved. He read the novel, and when we met, he analysed the story and its themes even better than I could. He just got it. The character, however, is a very humorous one. He’s a very light and very sensitive individual; he’s not all evil and darkness. He is a banal racist, whose racist tendencies are actually quite hidden, and he’s too afraid to beat someone up, or be part of a neo-Nazi hit squad, for instance. He’s also very fond of the rebellious, rock’n’roll qualities of Billy’s character (Yiannis Stankoglou), the tattoo artist whom Nakos grew up with, living in the same building. He’s probably the kind of guy that would vote for Trump, but never admit it.
Is the film’s phenomenal success on the international festival circuit going to be a weight on your shoulders when you set out on your next project, or are you waiting for the Greek public’s verdict when the film comes out in local cinemas?
I would love my films to work on both the festival circuit and with cinemagoers in Greece. The film’s aim is to sketch out credible characters in a recognisable setting, without losing sight of the bigger social picture.
Any thoughts on what your next project is going to be?
I’d like to do something in Asia – in India or Korea.