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Γιάννης Σακαρίδης

Yannis Sakaridis – Thessaloniki film festival 2016

Interview With Director Yannis Sakaridis

We sat down and spoke with director and editor Yannis Sakaridis, the man responsible for the critically-acclaimed movie “Amerika Square”. After making a splash at film festivals around the world, including the LAGFF (Los Angeles Greek Film Festival), “Amerika Square” has been picked to represent Greece in the race for Best Foreign Language Film nominee.

Sakaridis, who also co-wrote the script, told us about the inspiration for his story, “Amerika Square”‘s reflection of modern Greek society, the state of Greek cinema, and what it’s like to be in Los Angeles trying to get nominated for an Academy Award.

Tell us a little about what inspired you to create this script.

When I came back from London, after 18 years, I went to Amerika Square and I felt this area was closer to whatever I was doing in London. This was a neighborhood that was closer to the center of town, had a multicultural feel to it, and it was a neighborhood that had a lot of background, a lot of artists.

I got interested in that place and I started writing something on how a local person reacts to all this inflow of refugees – at the time it was a lot of African migrants. So when all the Syrians started coming we did more research and I co-wrote the script with a young writer who had just finished a novel called “Victoria Doesn’t Exist”, and we based the racist character on that novel.

So we put all our research and work together, and I wanted to do something which was political with a touch of reality, a recognizable sort of social background, but at the same time fast, a lot of storytelling, and then also funny. So we put all this mix together and then we developed it, and we based the Syrian guy on a true story.

Watching the film, it felt like a lot of the main Greek characters reflected the prevailing Greek viewpoints on immigration – do you think the film could change anyone’s mind in Greece?

The film follows a story in a way that we don’t blame people, or we don’t say “this racist guy is really bad”; there is empathy with all viewpoints. We understand where he’s coming from and we understand that you’re not born racist, you just become one, and also that we as a society have a need to educate these people and show them the other way.

So we don’t really want to dictate something, we just want to show the situation and peoples’ positions and raise questions about issues, and people can take whatever they want from it. Of course we hope they might change. After all, movies are a spiritual thing; you sit in a darkened theater and watch something with friends and loved ones and sometimes that can change your mind – that’s what we hope.

Amerika Square Trailer
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What was the casting process like for this film?

While we were developing the story, we knew some of the cast as we wrote the script. So I knew Yannis Stankoglou would play the tattoo artist, and Vassilis Koukalanis was in my mind for the Syrian guy. So we definitely work towards the actors and the actors bring a lot of themselves into the character and vice versa.

As far as preparation, I don’t do a lot of rehearsals, I do a lot of talking with the actors and I fully trust them. So then when we get on set we fully improvise the script, and we don’t do a lot of takes so it looks very much like real life. That’s the way I like to work, I think probably informed by my British background, and people like Mike Lee and Ken Lodes, who keep the script to themselves and let the actors react to it.

I’m more experienced as an editor than a director. I loved going to London and work on really good projects from a very young age, did a lot of feature films, documentaries for British television, lots of trailers. I can edit, so I can bring something together, so I have confidence on the set that I can bring all this together.

What was it like to switch into the director’s chair from editing?

Editing, like writing, is very lonely work, so when you get into the director’s chair it’s a little scary – you think what are these people doing here? It’s a little intimidating, but after you realize the power structure and the dynamics on set, it’s great – you get to work with really amazing actors, and I care about the actors a lot and let the rest of the films sort of evolve. The actors I worked with, I knew they did incredible work in the theater, and they bring a lot of experience and a lot of concentration into their work.

57ο Φεστιβάλ Κινηματογράφου Θεσσαλονίκης
What do you think of the state of Greek cinema?

However, there is still a lot of interest in Greek art, and because cinema is a mirror and reflection of a society, people want to see Greek film to suss out what’s going on there. Thte last few years, there have been a lot of Greek films in festivals, that have won international awards, and I’m in a position where I can say now that there are different styles of Greek films, and “Amerika Square” is very close to poetic realism with a bit of humor. That’s always popular, and we won four or five different audience awards, so the reception of the film has been great, and we sold the film to six different countries.

So in general, our generation has brought Greek cinema to the international stage, and at the same time we have started proving that there is not only the Lanthimos style, there are different styles as well. There is a variety of different genres coming out of Greece now. I still see however that though this movie did very well in other continents, European Film Festivals still have very specific ideas about what they want from Greek cinema, and it definitely is still in that known Lanthimos style. In the few European festivals we went to, we did win awards so we still did relatively well, but we did better in Asia and Africa.

Since you’ve been to a lot of international film festivals with this movie, what do you see the reaction being to Greek films abroad?

Well Greece is generally loved as a country and a culture, so it’s easy – China, India, everywhere you go. We’ve been in trouble for some years of course, and we’ve been in headlines – a lot of people, taxi drivers and such abroad, kept asking me “are you having problems there, what are you going to do, etc.”. Even refugees were asking “how are you surviving?”

How do you feel representing Greece at this level, with your film in the running to be a Best Foreign Language Film nominee?

I never in my wildest dreams thought this would happen. I had planned to be starting another production in the UK right now, and I got this news and I got a bit overwhelmed. We realized, we barely have money to even go to LA, nevermind advertise our film and everything else that is needed. But here we are, we’ve made it work, and we’re going to try to show our film to as many people as possible, make as much noise as possible, and see what happens.

Of course, we are still in the running as one of 92 countries for five final selections, who are all campaigning in LA from early September to mid-December, so I know there is still a lot of work to be done. But hopefully, the Academy Board members will connect with the story and vote for our film.

[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)