New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Films by Greeks have had an exciting reception in New York in the month of April, a promise, perhaps, that the upcoming New York City Greek Film Festival (NYCGFF), in October will be an unprecedented success. The first was Maria Iliou’s “Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City (1900-1922)” which ran at the Quad Cinema for three weeks starting on April 5, and the US premiere, and on April 18, of “What if…” (“Av” in Greek), written and directed by Christopher Papakaliatis (also the protagonist of the film) shown at the Museum of the Moving Image in Long Island City. And to be screened at a yet to be established date is the documentary “Greek American Radicals—The Untold Story”, directed by Costas Vakkas.
“What a success!! We added the second theatre and they both sold out!” John Restsios, partner in TERRET Entertainment–which co-presented the event with the New York City Greek Film Festival–told the GN during the buzzing pre-show reception (food and wine provided by STIX Mediterranean Grill and airfare for Greek participants provided by ATLAS Travel).
Retsios’s vision was responsible for the entire event. “I saw the film in Greece, and thought: This is a love letter to Greece,” Retsios told the GN, “I said ‘Wow, it’s not your typical Greek film’, and it needs to be seen globally. Papakaliatis was doing events in Brussels and in other places. He called us up and said, ‘Let‘s do it in the US’. I said, ‘Yes, I do want to bring it here’, and called the New York City Greek Film Festival, partnered up with them, we got the venue and we’re doing this lovely event. Asked how global distribution will be arranged, Retsios said that it would be achieved market by market. It will be shown in San Francisco and film festivals in Los Angeles and at the New York City Greek Film Festival in October.
With discussion of Greece’s economic crisis appearing almost daily in the international media, Papakaliatis’s exploration of the effects of the biggest European economic crisis on people, how it can destroy a couple, Demetris (Papakaliatis) and Christina (bright emerging actress, Marina Kalogirou), is especially timely, helping to bring the reality of how the crisis affects ordinary people to non-Greek audiences. “What I was trying to say through Antonaki (Giorgos Kokovikos) and Elenitsa (Maro Kontou), the older couple who appear as narrators throughout the film is that they are evidence of true love, that true love exists and can live on. ” said the director, “The best way I could narrate that was to say it through those two people who are the history of Greece”.
Without revealing the story so that viewers will experience the full impact of the films’ interesting premise: How accidental are life’s occurrences? Is it possible to escape your fate? It is enough to say that two parallel stories about the protagonists, Demetris and Christina (portrayed by Papakaliatis and Kalogirou in both) unfold in totally different ways after two seemingly chance occurrences: 1.) Demetris decides to take his dog, Lonesome, out for a walk in the street and 2.) Demetris decides to simply let Lonesome out into the garden. “What makes the script unusual is that it approaches a story from two different angles, like examining two sides of a coin”, says Papakaliatis about the film, which takes place in the unique and beautiful prime setting of the Plaka in Athens, “Each story requires a different narrative, different aesthetics, different atmosphere and photography”. Cinematographer Giannis Daskalothanasis keeps these stories lively and absorbing.*
“It’s a great response tonight,” said David Schwartz, curator at the Museum of the Moving Image before the film began, explaining that the museum experienced a great expansion and renovation two years ago. “We are one of the main venues of the New York City Greek Film Festival, and this will continue in October…. I see the festival’s Program Director, Jimmy DeMetro,” he said to applause, “he’s the one who gets all the top films from Greece.” Mr. Schwartz went on to introduce George Stephanopoulos, moderator of the discussion with the director, and John Retsios, both of whom were applauded, as well.
Retsios addressed the audience with some rhetorical questions. “What if the Greeks didn’t invent comedy and drama. What if I didn’t love entertainment. What if I didn’t move to New York twelve years ago, I wouldn’t be here welcoming you to the US premiere of the number one box office hit in Greece! Thank you all for coming… you will laugh, you will cry. It’s a love letter; it’s so beautiful. We all love Greece, and we all love Christopher Papakaliatis. After much applause, the sympatico Papakaliatis thanked the audience, saying in Greek, “To be here among you is a great joy and a great honor for me. When I spoke with many of you before the film I was truly glad to realize that you love our country very much… “ All of his ensuing comments were in fluent English.
In the discussion that followed the screening, Papakaliatis, a successful screenwriter who decided he wanted to do a love story that was completely different from his many previous TV series and TV episodes, answered the question “Why is this film so popular in Greece? saying, “What I understand from the Greeks is that many different kinds of people, young and old, men and women, found out about themselves from this film. The big success of the movie is that everybody identified with it.”
Responding to a comment about a scene in the film in which an infidelity is realized Papakaliatis said, “The movie is about what’s going on in relationships, as well. The relationship was like the crisis; things like this are part of it.” Another person followed that up with, “Is that something the Greeks want hear? Is that how they think?” “No,” the director answered, “These kinds of things you don’t think about. If you start to think you may lose it. Especially things that have to do with love, with cheating, with the crisis, with emotions.”
“I think this is a quality film that people are going to like a lot, and not just because they’re Greek and it’s Greek film. But it’s a foreign film, and foreign films are a hard sell… Greek films being no exception. I know it’s been shown in Paris and in Brussels, and I know it’ll go around the world, so how do you think it’s going to play to a non-Greek audience,” asked another viewer. “I’m not sure because it’s something very new for me. What I know is that with a film you have a passport to all the countries of the world because of the festivals. I know, of course, that it’s not easy for a Greek film to have an international career. It’s very difficult because of the language and many, many things, but, especially in these times, I want to show the world that Greece has some of the very best pictures, as well… not only what’s seen on the news and the internet. You can have a great time in Athens!” he said to uproarious applause.
An NYU film student asked the director for tips for young filmmakers. “If you are not in love with what you do, if you’re not passionate about it, and if you’re not obsessed with it, there’s no way you’re going to succeed,” he advised.
Note: Greece is in the air: a new movie shot in Greece, “Before Midnight”, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, directed by Richard Linklater and shown in the Tribeca Film Festival was sold out, with about one hundred hopefuls without tickets waiting to get in.
*For the complete cast and crew of “What if… “ Go to http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2400283/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm#cast