NEW YORK – Xenia, director Panos Koutras’ award-winning film that is simultaneously entertaining and disturbing, was screened to a full house at the Panoramo Europe film festival at Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image on May 31.
The Festival was co-presented by the Museum and the European Union National Institutes for Culture as a showcase for contemporary short and feature-length films. The Onassis Foundation (USA) and the Greek Consulate in New York are co-organizers of Greek participation in the Festival.
“Strangers in their own birthplace, 16-year-old Danny (Kostas Nikouli) and 18-year-old Odysseus (Nikos Gelia) cross the country in search of their Greek father after their Albanian mother passes away…long the way, they encounter a country that, like themselves, is struggling to find itself,” according to the Onassis website.
They also track down flamboyant but loyal family friend Tasso, played by Aggelos Papadimitriou, who won one of the movie’s numerous Hellenic Film Academy Awards.
Art is not merely self-expression; it is also born circumstances in a given time and place. Koutras’ is Greece of the economic crisis, which helped spawn the Greek Weird Wave of films.
DELUSION OR WEIRD REALITY?
While Xenia and Koutras are not representatives of the genre, there are the surreal elements. The hallucinations of bunnies of various sizes and natures are perhaps expressions of the borderline creative imagination of artists – Odysseus says a number of times that his brother is the more talented sibling – or maybe of the state of Greece today, where nobody knows what is really real.
Amidst the broader theme of toleration, the film explores sexuality and begins with a provocative introduction of Danny on Crete. He eventually finds his older brother, an aspiring singer, slinging food in a sandwich shop in Athens, and they begin a sometimes hilarious but often perilous journey to find the Greek father who abandoned them and their mother.
Getting money is one motivation, but securing their place in the only country they know is another.
Poverty and social alienation – Greece has still not granted citizenship to the children of immigrants with one Greek parent born there – separated the brothers, who have a loving although at times contentious relationship.
Along the way they encounter both right wing thugs who hate their Albanian roots, and, ironically, Albanian kids who bully Danny for being gay.
Xenia’s settings are mainly urban, but cinematographers Hélène Louvart and Simos Sarketzis dazzle with shots of the countryside.
James DeMetro, Director of New York Greek Film Festival, which opens October 10, told TNH “this is one of the most interesting Greek films of the past few years. It covers issues very important to Greeks and yet are universal. The whole idea of being a foreigner in the land of your birth, of bullying and fascism, but what is so beautiful is the relationship between the two brothers.”
The film “got immediate attention and immediate sales in Europe and has been sold for American distribution… but when it won the best picture in Greece, it became the Greek entry for foreign film Oscar consideration,” DeMetro said.
“Kostas Nikouli is terrific – by the way, he is straight – and he starred in a magnificent short called ‘Forever Young.’ They are both non-professional actors chosen from among hundreds actors, and there is such great chemistry between them,” DeMetro said, adding of Koutras, “He’s an original. He is on his way to becoming an auteur.”
DeMetro told TNH that both Koutras and the script writer have said they will not pick up their Hellenic Film Academy awards until the Parliament grants citizenship to those mixed-marriage children born in Greece.
WHAT IS NORMAL TODAY?
At Greek film events over the past few years, comments have been overheard along the lines “why don’t Greeks make movies about regular lives?” Perhaps, some responded, because film makers live by their imaginations. Other noted that art has not been dominated by the urge to create “pretty things” for more than 100 years.
Along those lines, film makers will seek to depict the truths around them, no matter how harsh or painful, but another response could be: not too many people in Greece are living “regular lives” these days.
David Schwartz, chief curator for the Museum, spoke about the Greek community in Astoria, which he feels close to, and about the resurgence of Greek cinema and the quality films coming out of Greece despite the crisis.
Greek Consul Manos Koubarakis also addressed the audience, saying “It is with great joy and pride that the Consulate…supports such activities, knowing that our country’s heavy industry is culture…We tend to refer to our glorious past,” but “I believe we must focus and encourage contemporary artists in order to continue our rich cultural tradition…The film we are about to watch is one great example of modern Greek cultural production.”
Amalia Cosmetatou, the Executive Director of the Onassis Foundation (USA), told TNH that the Onassis Cultural Center “contributes decisively, with innovative initiatives, to the promotion of Greek culture in New York’s cultural life. We support and present Greek artists worldwide, giving them an opportunity to have an international presence at a high level.”