Human Rights Film Festival

Amerika Square screening was held at the New York launch of the Global Migration Film Festival organised by IOM – UN Migration at 3 UN Plaza – Danny Kaye Centre.

Cinema and Migration. It’s a magical bond that began over a century ago when filmmakers, many of whom were immigrants themselves, began making movies about a world on the move. Their films brought the dramatic, poignant and comic stories of migrants to diverse audiences, through a language of images and emotions that were meaningful to every culture.

The Global Migration Film Festival was launched by the UN Migration Agency (IOM) in this spirit. The festival features new films that capture the promise and challenges of migration for those who leave their homes in search of a better life and the unique contributions migrants make to their new communities.

IOM’s first Global Migration Film Festival in 2016 took place in 89 countries. Some 10,000 people attended 220 screenings at cinemas, universities, cultural institutions and other venues. The festival hosted 13 feature films and documentaries and nearly 200 short films about and by migrants, as well as dozens of post-screening discussions and side-events.

This year’s festival will take place from 5 – 18 December 2017 in countries and venues to be announced later this year. All screenings will be free of charge.

Screening of Amerika Square in Zurich at the Human Rights Film Festival

Amerika Square - Film Review - Kolkata 2016

Vassilis Kukalani is part of a panel after the screening of Amerika Square in Zurich at the Human Rights Film Festival.

Since 2015, the Human Rights Film Festival Zurich takes place each year on the occasion of the International Day of Human Rights on 10 December. The programme reflects a variety of human rights themes in different geographic and social contexts. We show compelling films that combine a convincing artistic language with the exploration of pressing human rights issues. Topics include flight and migration, the war in Syria, women’s rights, LGBTI-rights, responsibilities of multinationals as well as the relation between resources, energy and human rights. Panel discussions after the screenings widen the scope of the programme and offer the possibility to contextualize and discuss the films. The festival thus offers a platform for passionate dialogue between films and human rights.


Greek crises brought to screen at BIFF

9:00 PM PST 11/23/2017 by Ariston Anderson

Director Yannis Sakaridis’ ensemble drama examines displacement from multiple perspectives, but refuses to pass judgement.

With its strategic position between Africa, Asia and Europe, Greece has found itself unwittingly at the center of the refugee crisis over the past few years. The country has become the first entry point into Europe for 1.2 million refugees since 2015. Yannis Sakaridis wrote his FIPRESCI award-winning drama Amerika Square in response to the current situation. It’s a rare work that looks at multiple sides of a very complex situation and has been selected as Greece’s Oscar entry in the foreign-language film race.

What Sakaridis didn’t know when he started shooting was just how much the real-life situation around him would parallel the film’s storyline, as the crisis became more and more dire. When he shot the film at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, there were nearly 7,000 people arriving to the country each day. As his shooting locations became flooded with refugees, they ended up becoming a part of the film, playing various extras in the background.

The film takes place in and around Amerika Square, a gathering point for refugees trying to find a way out of Greece. “Basically what you see in the square and what’s happening in the film was exactly what was going on,” says Sakaridis. “We went to shoot in the square and literally there were people everywhere, like in Casablanca, waiting for a piece of paper or for a smuggler or for a fake passport in order to get away.”

Amerika Square - Film Review - Kolkata 2016

In Sakaridis’ film, three different stories converge in the square. Nakos is an unemployed racist Greek who dreams of the more prosperous Athens of his youth. He lives at home and can’t find a job. There is a mass exodus of young Greeks from the country while more and more immigrants are filling his apartment building. He blames the thousands of refugees living in his neighborhood for his own struggles and fantasizes about ways to get rid of them. He ends up hatching an ill-conceived plan to poison their food.

Billy is a tattoo artist who tries to help an African singer, Tereza, a young victim of exploitation. They meet when she comes to him for a tattoo that says “Refuse to sink.” Billy covers Tereza’s previous “Property of Mike,” tattoo, and vows to help her escape Greece by boat.

Tarek, a Syrian doctor, and his daughter have escaped the war but find themselves stuck in Athens, trying to find their way to Northern Europe. Tarek negotiates an escape plan with a smuggler named Hassan which requires handing over his life savings.

For Sakaridis, it was important to show the various sides of the story, rather than just paint one group as good or bad. “This banal racist is sort of old-fashioned. He realizes that his area is full of foreigners suddenly, and he can’t move,” says Sakaridis of Nakos. “We see him with love and we try to understand him. We don’t just blame him.”

And while Billy has a similar educational background as Nakos, Sakaridis says he sees the world in a completely opposite way. “This is not a class thing. You’re not born a racist,” observes Sakaridis. “You become a racist when something clicks in your mind, an imbalance.” It’s only when Nakos encounters the kindness of Tarek that he realizes the horror of his actions.

“It was really desperate people in a really horrible situation,” says Sakaridis of the time. He remembered filming one refugee from Afghanistan and giving him some money afterwards, who then took it and rented a hotel room for one night so he and all his friends could shower. “This guy hadn’t had a shower or a bed for months.”
Greece entry Amerika Square

In addition to the symbolism of Amerika Square as a place of different nationalities coming together in search of a better life, the symbolism of the tattoo plays a large role in the film as the one thing no one can take away.

“Tattoos are the only thing you can carry without having the danger of losing it,” says Sakaridis. “You can lose your money, your clothes, but the tattoos are always there. People coming from Asia or Africa would get a tattoo before their journey, such as ‘I love my mom,’ or ‘Jesus saves me.’ But the most famous one at that time was ‘Refuse to sink.’”

Sakaridis believes his film represents a particularly tough time for Greece, but fortunately today the situation is much better. “Our minister of migration, considering the situation, has done more than is humanly possible,” he says of Ioannis Mouzalas. “You go to Athens and you don’t see people living in the streets. They are able to find shelter.”

Sakaridis recently showed the film in a modernized refugee camp (one with A/C and WiFi) outside of Athens with Mouzalas. The migration minister is a doctor who has led efforts to combat the refugee crisis since 2015, and has himself slept in camps more than 50 nights this year. Many refugees came up to them afterwards, recognizing their own stories in the film.

Mouzalas provided his own metaphor for Sakaridis that has since stuck with him, one that also mirrors the film: “He said to me that with the refugee situation, you will never have a sort of bliss at the end. It’s not like childbirth. It’s more like finishing a cancer operation. The patient still lives, somehow in better conditions, but you haven’t actually gotten rid of the cancer. It’s just a very sober reaction to it. There’s no glamour in this work.”

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.

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Amerika Square Trailer

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.