‘I’m not ashamed of any of my films’

In Greece last month for screening of his latest film «Mon Colonel» at the 47th Thessaloniki Film Festival, Costa-Gavras gave this interview about his early life, his departure for France and his subsequent work. Let’s begin with your life history. My life actually consists of two phases. The first was during the (Second World War) occupation of Greece when I lived in my village, where I learned about life. Village people work in the spring so as to have everything they need for winter. There were no dreams. The only dream was for the Germans to leave, and for children that was very vague. What about when you moved to Athens? We were Peloponnesians with heavy accents but we were good at school because my uncle had been the village teacher. But Athens was where our problems began. My father, although not a communist, was against the monarchy. He had fought in Asia Minor and lost all his friends. He was angry with the royal family and so he joined the National Liberation Front (EAM) instead of the other side. He had another reason for doing so: His brother spoke out openly against the communists and was almost killed on two occasions. Joining up was a way of saving his brother. After the German occupation, when the king returned, my father was sent to prison. He was in and out of prison, exiled to the islands. Why did you leave Greece? We could have gone to America, because my mother had a brother and uncles there, but it wasn’t possible because of my father’s record. That also put university off limits to me, even though I was a top student. The only way out for someone like me was to go to France. I knew that in France one could easily find a weekend job and study as well. We boys worked in restaurants; each week in a different place. But that was interesting, as we met different people, learned about life, as well as the feeling of freedom. I will never forget my amazement when for the first time I saw all the newspapers together in one room – from the monarchist to the communist… It was the same at the university, with the large student demonstrations; it was the period of the war in Algeria and Indochina. Of course, at the time I was an onlooker. As a foreigner I couldn’t get involved, but nor was I interested. I thought that was their business. Yet now you have made a film about the war in Algeria. Yes, My French was getting better and what is important is that when I finished the film academy I found work immediately. It was with Yves Allegret, Simone Signoret’s first husband. They all accepted me as if I were French, and only sometimes referred to me as «le Grec.» Then I was asked by Allegret’s first assistant to work on his next film. The film was made by Rene Clair. That’s how I started… Clair was a teacher to me… When I became a director and showed him my films, he reprimanded me for doing closeups of eyes. He was stuck in the traditional way of doing closeups that included the chest, as they do on television today. He thought it was inhuman to show details that weren’t necessary. You yourself believe in keeping a distance from emotions. You have to allow the audience to decide for themselves and the actors to express emotions without showing them openly. Feelings have to come from within. How far does your influence extend over the actors? I think it begins from the moment you choose the actors. The second factor is the scenario, which puts the actors and the dialogue into the proper psychological state. Then there is a discussion about the characters, how the director sees them, because everyone sees the film differently, particularly the actors. Many of them think they are the main part of the film. I explain to them that the main thing is the story and that every one of the actors has to serve it and its characters, not the other way round. When all those things have been put into place, the actual filming is details. The difficulty is in staying as close as possible to that ideal of the film you dreamed of. It appears that it was with Rene Clair that your own dreams began to come to fruition. At that time it wasn’t easy to be a foreigner in France. The only accessible area was production; there weren’t any foreigners in the other stages. Filmmaking was then the realm of the French upper class; you had to have money to make a film, to have studied and be accepted. Today I can say that I was a very good assistant director, but it seemed impossible that having come from Greece, I could become a serious director. When did you start to believe it? When I began my first film and, a few days later, the people the producer had sent to keep an eye on me disappeared. Much later I found out that Yves Montand had told the producer to leave me alone to do what I wanted. You said you retain another feeling from that time. Yes, that as a foreigner I had to behave better than the French. I was amazed that they regarded us as thieves, as Levantines, as they used to say. That made me want to set an example. In doing so, I discovered that French society was not so perfect; I saw its racism. When I heard what they said about Jews, I could only imagine what they would say about Greeks. All that played a huge part in me becoming who I am – whether good or bad I don’t know. However, I have tried to be consistent. So freedom was the price of not returning to Greece? Absolutely. For me, Greece at that time was a hostile place because of the problems it had caused for my family. I didn’t want to come back and it took years to get over that feeling. However, my first thought when the coup happened was that as a Greek I had to fight, to show that I had not become a foreigner. One’s homeland is always one’s homeland. What do you think forms our moral values? Our experiences. Postwar Greece was just dogma, the state, the Church. Young people were attracted by what was forbidden, that is, communism. It took time for me to realize that it wasn’t working, and that what the other side was offering was also false. I became aware that freedom is the ability to choose to do what interests me… to be an actor in life and not an observer. Of course, you had the support of prominent members of the French intelligentsia. Yes, people like Montand, Signoret, Foucault and Debray were the most morally sincere as none of them were dogmatic. They had experienced the postwar dogmatism that said the Soviet Union was the future of the world. I met them later, in 1958-59, when all that was over and they had realized that tanks could not change the world. What did they teach you? How to take a stand on things in each specific situation and why one is for or against an issue. Choices cannot be made with the emotions, nor automatically, they require thought. That is why we go back to the ancients, to dialectics. We cannot remove instinctive reactions from our lives – they are the most human emotions, like falling in love. That is how I felt when I read (Vassilis) Vassilikos’s «Z» and wanted to do something for Greece – I didn’t need to think about it. Everyone wondered who would be interested in a Greek member of Parliament who got killed, or complained that there was no woman in the story. It was the typical anti-film of its time. We looked for actors and for money for over a year. The only positive responses were from the actors, such as Montand and Jean-Louis Trintignant, who both declared their support. In the end, the critics called it the first important French political film. That astonished everyone… When I make a film, I don’t talk about «the truth»… When things happen over a period of months or years and you tell the story in two hours, then you can’t really talk about truth. I believe that the moral of stories or characters is what one can respect in films that concern real people and situations. What was the film in which the truth scared you most? In «The Confession» and later, on a personal level, in «Missing.» A lot of actors whom I wanted for «The Confession» came to tell me I was making a serious mistake and left without so much as a goodbye. Naturally at that time Communism was like a religion. I remember that Montand doubted whether I understood the seriousness of what I had written, whether people would accept it. Not even Simone (Signoret) was sure; she didn’t like the role of the woman who turns against her husband of 20 years and calls him a traitor… With «Missing,» we were against Nixon and Kissinger and every word, every character had to be confirmed by all those involved in the case, otherwise we would have been taken to court. Has defending the weak justified the role you have wanted to play? It has justified certain of my ambitions, my desire to do something to fight narcissism. But the most important thing is that when I look at what I have done – the films that have done well and those that haven’t, I am not ashamed of any of them. That makes me go on. (1) From an interview in the December 24 edition of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement.