[Herald Interview]

By Kevin Lee Selzer

Intersecting lives of migrants, Greeks explored in kinetic drama

Busan — Director Yannis Sakaridis portrays the Greek crises through the prism of one small Athens neighborhood in “Amerika Square,” which held its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival on Tuesday.

The director sat down alongside actor Yannis Stankoglou, who plays coffee bar and tattoo parlor owner Billy, with The Korea Herald before the premiere.

“(Amerika Square) was the Via Veneto of Athens — a lot of artists … actors, all the sort of cultural establishment was there,” Sakadiris said in describing the importance of the neighborhood.

“The area was booming during the ’60s, then basically through the ’90s and the last 10 years it’s the modern Casablanca,” he said, calling it the first destination for refugees who come to sleep, meet and find smugglers, documents or a solution for a way out.

“We always wanted to make a film about this vibe, this thing,” the director added, also mentioning the racist Golden Dawn party that set up in the square around 2010.

The result is a kinetic and fast-paced 87 minutes that borrows from documentary style and moves between the three main characters, who also share turns narrating the film.

Greek crises brought to screen at BIFF

Actor Yannis Stankoglou (left) and director Yannis Sakadiris pose at the Busan International Film Festival on Sunday. (Kevin Lee Selzer/The Korea Herald)

First is Nakos, Billy’s lifelong friend who is a “solid, banal, racist, but without the guts to do something with his hands,” according to the director. He places the blame for Greece’s problems — and his own unemployment — squarely on the shoulders of foreigners, and concocts a plan to rid his neighborhood of them.

Billy, on the other hand, is a “classic rebel character from the ‘50s and ‘60s” with “something burning inside him,” as the director described. With his businesses, he is financially better off than others around him and “it’s very important that he’s doing tattoos,” actor Stankoglou said, as the art helps him escape reality.

Billy is forced to face reality when Tereza, a woman trafficked by the same men who are his clients, comes for a piece of art. She “brings reality to his tattoo room,” director Sakadiris said. “The reality is … these guys are … criminals. They take women, enslave them and use them for money.”

Finally, there is a Tarek, who has traveled from his homeland Syria with his young daughter en route to find a new life in Germany.

“I used to believe in borders, but not anymore. Now I believe borders are business. A big business that makes lots of money. Like war does,” Tarek narrates in the film.

To research the character, Sakadiris spent two months guided by a Syrian man through the underground market of Amerika Square, seeing firsthand the real economy there.

“There’s a lot of money — that’s what we’re saying in the film, is business,” Sakadiris explained. “It’s all going in circulation, and everybody is involved.”

Greek crises brought to screen at BIFF

And it’s not just the refugees moving, the director pointed out. “There’s a mass exodus of brain going out from Greece,” he said, particularly among young people with degrees but no job prospects. “There’s no hope really. … It’s a slow death at the moment.”

Director Yannis Sakaridis screened his first feature film, “Wild Duck,” at BIFF in 2013. Now, “Amerika Square” is among 35 films in the festival’s Flash Forward category, which highlights international filmmakers’ debut and sophomore efforts, and is among 10 films competing for the $20,000 Busan Bank Award given to the audience favorite. Sakaridis said he was eager to premiere his latest film here because of the positive experience he had in Busan before. And on future plans, he says he hopes to produce for others and wants to bring Korean films to Athens.

“I like Korean cinema. Every time I come here, I don’t have enough time to watch all these films,” the director enthused. “From people like Kim Ki-duk all the way to the great action films here.”

“Amerika Square” will be shown on two screens at Megabox Haeundae on Friday at 1 p.m. For more information, see www.biff.kr.

By Kevin Lee Selzer (klselzer@heraldcorp.com)