Athens-born Fokion Bogris is among the generation of Greeks who have spent most of their adult lives in the shadow of austerity measures and a seemingly never-ending economic crisis. Like many of his country’s filmmakers, the self-taught director, who turned 40 last year, continues to persevere, even as the coronavirus pandemic has compounded the challenges for an already cash-strapped film industry. “In these extreme conditions there is a great drive for cinema, but there is also great pessimism,” he told Variety.
Bogris nevertheless returns with his first feature film in over a decade, “Amercement,” which he directed off a script he co-wrote with Panos Tragos. The film world premieres in the Meet the Neighbors competition of the Thessaloniki Film Festival, where it will be available on the fest’s VOD platform on Nov. 8. “Amercement” is produced by Chase the Cut, in collaboration with Authorwave. Chase the Cut is handling world sales.
Bogris’s sophomore feature tells the story of Vangelis (Vangelis Evangelinos), a small-time drug dealer living in the rough-and-tumble southeastern suburbs of Athens. Struggling to find a steady job so he can leave behind his life of petty crime, he’s forced to move in with his sister (Maria Baloutsou) and her boyfriend, Petros (Stathis Stamoulakatos), a low-level gangster who takes Vangelis under his wing and forces him to choose exactly what type of life he wants to lead.
Ahead of its world premiere, Bogris spoke to Variety about his film’s depiction of Greek masculinity, the appeal of certain cinematic clichés, and bringing the rarely seen underbelly of Athens to the screen.
The story and characters in “Amercement” are based on real-life events. Can you tell me about how this story came to you?
In 2013 I met the man on whom our script was based. He was a cousin of my close friend. He told me his story and I found his relationship with his sister’s fiancé very interesting. And then how these three people found themselves under the same roof, as a family. So to this man, I owe much of the film’s authenticity. He even gave me the clothes from his closet to dress my protagonist, Vangelis Evangelinos.
Vangelis is a small-time crook who’s trying to make good, but unfortunately, he’s unable to break free of the crimes of his past. How much of this do you think is specific to Greek society, and to what extent it allows people to redeem or reinvent themselves?
Although this is not the main theme of the film, the story of Vangelis is a typical story of a character in an attempt to leave behind [a life of crime] and do something legal. Like Dustin Hoffman in “Straight Time.” In the cinema we have often seen these characters fail at [going] legitimate and return to what they know how to do best. I like this element in the script, even though it sounds like a cliché. There are some clichés that we love. And since they are true to the true story, why not? The formal sector rejects people with criminal records, and I think this is both a Greek phenomenon and a global one.
You’re a few years older than Vangelis is in the film, but you’ve also lived most of your adult life under the shadow of the same economic crisis that forced him to turn to crime. What has it been like for you as a filmmaker living and working in a time of endless crisis, austerity, and financial uncertainty? Do you think making movies, while perhaps harder now, is even more urgent?
Your question is on-point. When we started this script I was 34, as was the actual person I relied on. I was anxious to make this movie before I turned 40, so I could relate to my hero. I was afraid that if I grew up a little more I would lose contact with his world. My generation is rather unlucky. Before it could recover from the financial crisis, it was hit even harder by the new crisis that came with the pandemic. As well as by the fascist government which has as its clear purpose the annihilation of cinema and culture in general. [Editor’s note: Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s center-right New Democracy party won a landslide victory in elections in July 2019.] In these extreme conditions there is a great drive for cinema, but there is also great pessimism. I do not know. If I do not manage to make more films, I may have the same ending as my protagonist. (Laughs.)
Petros is a violent, sexist, homophobic thug who exemplifies many of the ugliest characteristics of toxic masculinity. “Amercement” is clearly a rebuke to men like him, and Vangelis’s own gradual evolution in the film points to a different way forward for a young Greek male. Do you think the “Petros” type is a dying breed in Greece?
Indeed, Petros’s character is all these things you say, and I’m glad you saw the film that way. Vangelis’s protagonist also carries sexist and homophobic elements. The film essentially wonders if the character can eliminate them and make the evolution you are talking about. The young males in the story are all toxic in one way or another, and that was intentional. As for Petros, I’m not sure if he is a dying breed; in my area I have often met people like him. To be precise, my neighbor is something like that. I have relied on him a lot for Petros.
You worked very hard with your actors to make sure their dialogue and characters appeared natural and unrehearsed. Can you tell me about that process, and why it was important to the aesthetic of the film?
Thank you for this. The biggest wager in this film was that of the performances, that is, to be able to get to the truth of the actors. I gave a lot more weight to it, more than anything else in the movie. For a start, I believe that it was a good choice of actors, which is the most important thing. I am lucky to have this great cast, even in the smallest roles. In the rehearsals we threw out the script and worked with improvisations. I tried to find elements in each actor that are common to his character, elements that are experiential, so that he is as involved as possible. I also worked with some non-actors who were performing in front of a camera for the first time, and they were awesome. They could stand next to professional actors. Beyond the issue of aesthetics, I believe that true interpretations are a key way to gain the viewer’s interest. The Greek public is tired of theatrical and television performances, I think it is asking for more truth.
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