Call it the first law of Netflix, or of the platform movie. Within a minute, or at most two, something violent has to happen in a new title. Something that forces the viewer to look through, instead of scrolling through the increasingly blurry range of subcategories.
Director Romain Gavras (41) and screenwriter Ladj Ly (44) were determined to honor this law with Athens, their tragedy inflated to war-film proportions about an uprising in the French suburb, which will premiere on the pay channel on Friday. The apparently uninterrupted and fabulously filmed opening scene lasts a good ten minutes. The toss of a Molotov cocktail heralds the storming of a police station, whereupon the young perpetrators barricaded themselves in a captured police van like a medieval fortress. quarter hurry, waving the French flag. Because the whole thing was filmed with a refrigerator-sized Imax camera, the image is Hollywood-worthy blockbuster-quality. At the same time, the way in which people navigate between the people in the swirling masses make it seem as if they are turning handheld.
Simple question to the filmmakers, who queue up in Venice for a conversation with the press, a day after the world premiere of Athens. How could they film this like that? ‘Blood, sweat and tears’, sums up Gavras. ‘We first rehearsed for months, with actors and a small camera, to understand how the choreography would work with the actors. And then we started adding elements, step by step: the extras, the fireworks. We only got well after take fifteen. I think we needed about 25 for the opening scene. With all the explosions, yes, every time. We worked on the details for each take. Sometimes we had a great shot, but there was just that one extra who went wrong or tried to get into the shot. Or then the actor couldn’t get his motorcycle helmet off, right at the end of the otherwise perfectly executed choreography of the take. That happened to us twice.’
Netflix provided 15 million euros in budget: little for an American action film, generous for a French production. Gavras: ‘We wanted to make everything real. Even with the highest budget for computer effects you still feel that it is not real. When my daughter watches a Marvel movie, I hear her say all the time: CGI, CGI (computer-generated imagery, red.), fake, fake. You also know with such a superhero movie that what you see is impossible, while everything you see in Athens is possible. The camera is everywhere. And by filming in this way you give urgency to what you see. By the way: it’s also just more fun for the director to work like that.’
Gavras’ father is Costa-Gavras, the now 89-year-old Greek-French cinematographer who caused a furore in 1969 with z, his Oscar-winning political thriller that inspired the Black Panthers, among others. Son Gavras, raised by his politically engaged parents under a strict Disney ban, stood out for directing incendiary and violent music videos for artists such as MIA, Jay-Z and Kanye West. He scored a hit in France in 2018 with his smooth crime film The World is Yours.
Gavras and screenwriter Ly have known each other since they first picked up a camera. They are both members of the French artist collective Kourtrajmé. Ly broke through as a director in 2019 with Les miserables, his 2019 Oscar-nominated feature film about derailing (police) violence in a French suburb. The director and screenwriter grew up in such a concrete place many kilometers from the Paris city center, as the son of Malian migrants. He directed his first and controversial documentary there 365 days à Clichy-Montfermeil, about the weeks-long riots of 2015. Ly: ‘I experienced those riots from the inside, they took place downstairs near my flat. Of Athens we place the viewer in the heart of the consternation, we nail him to his seat. In this way we want to convey something essential about those riots: that you don’t have time to think or reflect when you’re in the middle of it.’
In Athens three brothers face each other when a video shows their brother being killed by police brutality. Karim is the undisputed leader of the mob of fighting youth, Abdel the decorated soldier who preaches ‘calmness’, Moktar the drug mobster who only serves his own interests and trade. Meanwhile, the French mobile unit surrounds their neighbourhood. Gavras: ‘The film is constructed like a modern Greek tragedy, in which characters cannot escape their fate. Their own will gives way. The pressure of that first act of violence is too strong, what unfolds after that is inevitable. That blueprint of conflict is timeless, I think. And to convey that timeless idea in the film, we gave parts of the besieged quarter the appearance of a castle wall of sorts, with those battlements. And that’s how you see officers with shields in such a turtle formation, like Roman soldiers.’
The French suburb, also called banlieue, has often been the arena for excellent French cinema. From the classic La Haine by Mathieu Kassovitz to the Golden Palm winner Dheepan by Jacques Audiard from 2015. Or Bande de filles by Céline Sciamma and the Oscar-nominated Les misérables (2019) by film-maker Ladj Ly, the screenwriter of Athena.
The director, when asked by one of the journalists whether his film can also incite young people to violence: ‘It is always the same discussion: are it the video games that make children violent? I tend to think it’s the society, the cultural and social context. Films are a reflection on society, I don’t think they give such an impulse. Are you going to smoke because Marlon Brando smokes in a movie? Okay, a movie can inspire you to wear a shirt like Tony Montana, but to Scarface looking doesn’t make you a drug dealer.’
And is he now also a political filmmaker, just like his father? ‘I do not know. My father’s answer to these kinds of questions is always that everything is political. A superhero movie is also political, because that movie says something about the cultural influence that America is washing out on the world. I don’t like preachy movies. When someone tells me what to think, I usually go against it – that’s my nature. With a good film you feel something inside, only then does your brain start analyzing.’
below Athens the share of far-right groups in the conflict, which may have played a role in the battle between the residents of the neighbourhood, is dormant. “I believe such forces have influence, but I don’t want to focus too much on them. The film is also about the tragedy that takes place between the brothers. And there are always forces pushing humans toward conflict, ever since the Trojan War. Sometimes that is the government: like US Secretary Colin Powell in the Iraq war. But tomorrow it could be something or someone else again. Maybe Elon Musk from the moon, who knows?’
Gavras and Ly’s film is reminiscent of the Egyptian Oscar submission here and there clash from 2016, for which filmmaker Mohamed Diab mobilized large numbers of extras with flash mobs. The spectacular shots sometimes turned into real riots when the police arrived. ‘Our organization was very strict,’ says Gavras. “Almost like a military organization. We filmed chaos, but organized chaos. And I know what can happen when you shoot conflict scenes like this, thanks to the music videos I’ve directed before. If the two groups you pit don’t really know each other, things can get really tough. In front of Athens the youths from the neighborhood and the stuntmen who play the cops trained together for months. When you know each other so well, such a scene is more like a dance.’
So no one got hurt at Athens? “What’s your definition of injured?” Gavras replies. ‘Someone goes through his ankle: a bobo, as we call it in France. No one lost their eye, or arm.’