Xenia-Cannes 2014: Interview with the director Panos X. Koutras and the two leading actors
On the 7th day of the 67th festival of Cannes Jannis Patlakas and Maro Kakosimou discussed with the director of the film “Xenia”, Panos X. Koutras and the two young leading actors Nikos Gelia and Costas Nikouli. We had a conversation about the movie and the treated issues, such as racism, xenophobia, homophobia. Problems that thousands of people in Greece deal with everyday. We also talked about humor’s impact on difficult situations, as well as about the financial problems that followed ERT’s closure.
Yannis: Odysseas (Nikos Gelia) at some part of the movie says that he feels that the whole world is his home while his Ukrainian friend answers him that there is no place she feels like home.
Nikos Gelia: No, she says “We will feel strangers everywhere” and I answer “Or we will feel everywhere like home”.
Panos Koutras: This dialogue is important. I think that, at least for me, it’s one of the key-phrases of the film. It’s a philosophy of life: everyone belongs where he chooses to belong and no one can forbid that.
Yannis: So you rather see yourself as a Greek person or as a “citizen of the world”?
Panos Koutras: It’s not about what you see. It’s about everyone’s right to be able to state whatever he wants as his country and his nationality.
Nikos Gelia: As long as it’s not a matter of initial identities or facts entered by someone other than the person itself. The choice is on the person.
Panos Koutras: Especially when you are born, when you’ve grown up in a country that denies that right from you. That’s scandalous.
Yannis: We all have in our minds examples of people who, just like the film’s heroes, have grown up in Greece and, however, don’t have the right on Greek citizenship. They keep applying for that and they just wait. Mr Koutras these years Greek cinema treats really often family issues. Kinodontas (Dogtooth), Miss Violence, Xenia.
Panos Koutras: Others before them too. My films are all related to family since Moussaka (The Attack of the Giant Moussaka, 1999).
Yannis: Do you believe that the reason for that is the fact that nowadays the Greek family deals with a crisis?
Panos Koutras: Family is one of the classic topics in the whole field of literature or cinema, I don’t think we are inventing the wheel. I mean it’s a classic topic but clearly family in Greece, just like in other Mediterranean countries, has a bigger importance than in other countries. So it is reasonable that when you want to talk about a situation, you approach it through the family topic. I think that it has always been used as a topic.
Marw: So you don’t believe that all these dysfunctional families, just like those presented in contemporary Greek cinema movies are being used as a way to build a metaphor, an allegory.
Panos Koutras: I don’t know, everyone uses that in a way that he/she wants, but if you check out the Greek movies of the 60s or 70s, from Dalianidis’ musicals up to the melodramas, family has always been there. It’s undoubtedly a common point, just like it’s common in the majority of Greek movies to film Athens, I mean they are movies about the city.
Marw: So we are talking about our origins. That too is a part of our Mediterranean culture, to look for them and stay as close to our origins as possible.
Panos Koutras: Family is a big institution. “Motherland, family, orthodoxy”: Greek society is built on them. If we suppose that things go terrible in Greece, just like in the rest of the world, there is some reason for that. One of these reasons is family. So let’s talk about family. Maybe it would be right to talk about religion too, which is also, to my mind, one of the reasons that things go terrible in Greece. So why don’t we make films about priests? (laughs). At the moment let’s focus on family and maybe the next cinematografic wave will be dedicated to the Church, who knows?
Yannis: One of trailer’s lines is that in Greece it’s better to be gay than Albanian. Is that true?
Panos Koutras: No, it’s not exactly like that. Odysseas says “You are both Albanian and a fagot. And that can be even worse.”
Costas Nikouli: It’s the double minority.
Panos Koutras: Yes, it’s the minority inside the minority, a double minority. Greece is a really homophobic country.
Nikos Gelia: And xenophobic at the same time.
Panos Koutras: Xenophobic, homophobic, and a week ago an inquiry showed that it’s also the most anti-Semitic country in Europe. It’s also a very hypocritical country because everyone fucks everyone and nobody says a word. And on the one side we know who is gay and who is not, but on the other side there are no gays or lesbians in Greece except for two people. There is hypocrisy.
Marw: So you think that it’s something about which public personalities should be honest, or that this would make society even more homophobic?
Panos Koutras: Society doesn’t have to do with that.
Marw: Last year in France, after the law for gay couples’ marriage and the following reactions to that, there has been a part of the gay community claiming that marriage was not something that they themselves had demanded, given the fact that all the advantages provided were already covered by the French agreement of cohabitation (PACS- Pacte Civil de Solidarité). So they believe that this law reinforced the homophobic drift.
Panos Koutras: No, I don’t think so. It’s clear that we have to speak out. That’s what I answer, since the guys have to do nothing with that sport. (laughs)
The trailer of the movie Xenia which will be projected in Greek cinemas in October. Read Cinefreaks’ opinion about Panos Koutras’ film Xenia.
Marw: What can cinema change?
Panos Koutras: Cinema cannot change the world. Full stop.
Nikos Gelia: It can give some signs, some incentives.
Panos Koutras: It can make people think.
Yannis: What would a fascist say about the film?
Nikos Gelia: They would see us in the street and kick our ass. I don’t think they would ever be interested in watching a film like that.
Costas Nikouli: To start with, I think that Greece itself depreciates Greek cinema.
Nikos Gelia: And we should not forget that the ordinary Greek’s culture is clearly influenced by television and American action cinema. You can check out the ticket numbers.
Yannis: One of the things that I liked, as well as everyone in general as it seems, was the comic thing. We may talk about serious issues, but we watch the heroes facing their difficulties in a mirthful way, maybe due to the fact that they are young.
Panos Koutras: That’s life and, yes, you’re right on that. When you are young, when you are a teenager, you are kind of a roller coaster. It’s up and down. At the moment you cry you start laughing. Even danger has not the same meaning as it has to me, for example, when it comes to something dangerous. Even death doesn’t matter; it doesn’t exist as a concept. It’s really different the way I see death from the way a 16-year-old sees it. So the film simply followed the heroes’ action on that. Clearly they are two kids that react, that’s the only thing for sure. They don’t passively accept things.
Nikos Gelia: They fight. They have been fighting for a life. They vindicate what they want.
Marw: Do you believe that humor is the beginning of tolerance, lenience? That when we make fun of a situation we gradually accept it?
Panos Koutras: Humor is a big luxury we can have when we see thing from a distance. Thanks to humor you see things from a distance. It’s a critique you make on things, from a distance. And we have the luxury to have it. I don’t know if they can have the luxury to use humor when it comes to a bombardment in Syria. We may be in a difficult situation, but we are able to deal with it. And you can surely react.
Marw: Golden Dawn (Chrisi Avgi) is treated with humor by the media and the television, most of all by satirical programs, is that good or bad?
Panos Koutras: I don’t think this is either good or bad. Yeah, why not?
Nikos Gelia: It’s a part of our character. In Greece, as well as in the whole world. Humor exists in human beings. If you react or not, that’s a personal matter.
Panos Koutras: I’ll say that again, treating a problem with humor, is like seeing that problem from a distance, with a critical eye. Yeah, maybe that can prove to be helpful in some way in order to weaken it. That doesn’t mean that when you treat something with humor you consent to that.
Yannis: We will inevitably guide our conversation to the financial issue, that has been a serious matter even before the film was chosen to participate at the festival of Cannes. After ERT’s closure lots of problems arose, didn’t they?
Panos Koutras: It has been really difficult and it is really difficult. It has been a big slap in the middle of the filming and made the completion of the film and the post production really hard to do. And it is still hard. The problem is not completely solved. But I guess it will be. I have hopes. Because it’s a big economic gap which we cannot cover by any means, and if it will not be covered somehow we will end up in prison. (laughs) But I guess and I hope that NERIT will assume ERT’s responsibilities. At least they have promised that.
Yannis: It’s horrible, indeed. I remember the last time we had talked, after Berlinale and Strella, the question was the same and the answer exactly the same. “I hope not to go to prison because of loans”.
Panos Koutras: Really? Yes it’s my fate, I keep saying that all the time. (laughs)
Nikos Gelia: Going to prison?
Panos Koutras: No, my fate is not going to prison; it’s just that every time I make a movie I have to deal with difficulties.
Nikos Gelia: Each difficulty can lead to a positive result.
Panos Koutras: Maybe. But I don’t want to believe that. I’m not one of those who think that the more problems you have the stronger reason for you to be alive. It’s rather the opposite. I have always been thinking that life should be easy. Maybe I am being punished for that.
Yannis: Now about the guys. What is your relation to Albania? Are you both from there?
Panos Koutras: Yes, they have origins from Albania. Nikos was born there, Costas in Athens.
Nikos Gelia: I was born in Albania. I finished the first class of primary school there, and then I got here in Greece and I repeated the first class. We experienced ourselves all this thing treated by the movie, which is one of its basic topics. Racism, difficulties, problems with bureaucracy. The whole situation in Greece, the special frame predetermined for emigrants. Especially racism, I’ve deeply experienced it. But there is hope. And I see that when it comes to children of a second generation. It weakens more and more. After all we grow up together, we go to school together. Young children don’t think like that anymore but the previous generations still keep that in mind. But whatever you do human is a racist.
Panos Koutras: I believe that and I’ve said that before, human is born to be a racist. His course is to become civilized and stop being a racist.
Nikos Gelia: It’s a matter of education.
translated from Greek by Stamatina Katsiveli