By Iota Sykka
“Everything about the current situation urges you to become a passive receiver. But you also have to be a transmitter and create something; the days of lifestyle dictating our lives are over,” film director Menelaos Karamaghiolis recently told Kathimerini. “If there’s anything positive to come out of the ongoing crisis, it’s that everyone’s saying: ‘Get back into action and find your weapons.’”
The director found his own in “JACE,” a new feature film based on real-life stories which has it all: corruption, crime, migration, child exploitation, illegal organ trade, prostitution and drugs, but also sensibility and social and political denunciation. The protagonist, an ethnic Greek orphan from Gjirokaster in southern Albania, is a young man bereft of parents, homeland and roots.
The youthful-looking 50-year-old director’s seventh feature film was made on a budget of 800,000 euros – large by Greek standards, according to the director – and features a stellar cast.
“I tried very hard for the story to have structure and a sense of development. Naturally I took a number of narrative risks. There is also a new kind of hero, the anti-hero. The lead character grows up thinking he’s Greek and that one day he will make it there. But when he finally does, he’s still an outsider, a stranger in both countries, a man condemned.”
“We live in an area of Europe where borders have changed dramatically in the last 30 years,” said the director. “This creates a false notion of what terms such as ‘local’ and ‘nation’ mean.”
The young Menelaos dreamed of working with actors. As a child, his greatest joy was watching films which he could later return to and act out while playing with his toys. He discovered the world of cinema early on, as having the chance to tag along with his older siblings often gave him access to movies which required parental guidance.
“It was a major revelation in my life,” said the director. “To the point where I came up with a plan to leave my hometown, Thebes, and come to Athens to be able to watch films.”
When something troubled him as a teenager, he sought the answers in the images on screen. This is still the case.
How easy was it to talk to the real-life victims of the stories narrated in "JACE"?
People open up when they trust you. The movie was based on extensive research during which I was helped by policemen with firsthand experience in a number of cases and who actually led me to the victims.
What about the perpetrators behind the crimes?
When you talk to these people you need to contain your anger if you want to go really deep. It was both fascinating and painful, especially when you realize that we are living in a safe micro-haven.
Has anything in particular about that research stuck with you?
A few short, laconic responses, three words amid the silence. They kept asking and I tried to answer the following question: “Why should my life turn into a movie?”
How did the Albanian actors react to the script, given that they had to portray their countrymen as brutal?
Outside of Greece there is no prejudice when it comes to depicting people in a good or bad light. But the reaction in Greece, however, was along the lines of “Are you going to show policemen accepting bribes?”
Has the film changed your perception of the situation in central Athens neighborhoods such as Aghios Panteleimonas?
Coming into contact with all these people made me realize that those who turn into lawbreaking social outcasts have somehow been pushed into this – it is not a life choice. Greece has always been at the crossroads. The point is not who comes and goes, but what these people are allowed to do in order for them to fight for a more normal life.
What is it that scares you with regard to Greek society today?
The kind of racism leading to civil strife. We are a highly divided society which is currently unable to accept anything new.