CULTURE

Living and leaving Astoria

Up until the Sopranos got upstaged by the Portokalos earlier this summer, the Greek-American presence in the US entertainment field was rather slim. But now that Nia Vardalos’s Toula has found happiness, the way for more Greek-American characters has been paved. One of them is Alex, the hero of Nick Efteriadis’s 2000 film «Astoria.» «Greek Americans have gone through so much, they have become very practically minded people,» said Marisa Stefatos, executive producer for distribution and public relations of «Astoria,» to Kathimerini English Edition. «They are very low-key and private. Basically, we are not organized about promoting ourselves. Maybe there is also a little kind of low self-esteem, because from being the pinnacle of civilization and to have fallen, it is very difficult. Someone needs to have some kind of vision.» Currently in Athens to promote the film, Stefatos herself has ties to the district of Astoria. «Greek Americans are very much tied to their culture; especially the younger generation. They go to the cafes together, they listen to Greek music, they try to keep their culture alive,» she said. «They are away from their motherland, they love Greece even more than the Greeks do. Greece represents some kind of dreamland, which is a kind of reflection of what ancient Greece means to us, and that is something that Alex in the film is connected to. He is an example of a young Greek American who yearns to go back to his roots to study where he comes from.» Described as «charming» by the New York Times, the film, the New York Newsday noted, gave «the neighborhood the cinematic equivalent of a big, tender hug.» «It’s about the struggle to hold on to the American Dream,» said Stefatos. Set in the Queens neighborhood known as Little Athens, in Astoria, the film follows the journey of 28-year-old Alex and his desire to flee his neighborhood in order to pursue an ambitious dream: to reach the lost tomb of Alexander the Great. Reality quickly sets in, however, as the family business needs his attention and his father faces soaring gambling debts. Written and directed by Efteriadis, the film has already been the recipient of various awards, including winner of the silver medal at the Houston International Film Festival, best actor and best supporting actor at the River Run International Film Festival, while at the same time being part of official screenings at the Santa Barbara and Kudzu Film Festivals. Through its US distributor, well-known independent film distributor Neil Friedman and his Menemsha Entertainment company, it opened to an exclusive screening at the Village East Cinemas in Manhattan on April 5, 2002, before moving to Astoria and then to Long Island. Forthcoming screenings include Boston, Chicago, Baltimore and New Jersey, always one theater at a time, concentrating on a Greek-American audience and the power of word of mouth. Given Vardalos’s success with «My Big Fat Greek Wedding,» can a film like «Astoria» benefit from what appears to be good timing? «I think that it is great to have such an ally, even though the ally is so much larger than we are,» said Stefatos. «We are hoping to come in on the endtail of the Vardalos film, because it will give another angle of culture; but the Vardalos film really opened doors.» In practical terms, Stefatos’s visit to Athens includes organizing a screening for local distributors, while she is also looking into the possibility of a screening at the upcoming Thessaloniki International Film Festival. «My first goal here is to get the film into Greece and pass on the message that Greek-American culture is strong and represents our youth, the openmindness of young Greek Americans.» As a young Greek-American woman herself, Stefatos got involved in the film through Astoria’s highly active Greek Cultural Center. «The film really touched me and I felt that I could do something about it in terms of helping an independent director but also in promoting Greek culture. The message of the film was very strong and I feel that it is important to keep Greeks united. We are very competitive amongst ourselves and I feel that through the arts there can be a type of understanding, and through film which is one of the most powerful mediums.» Born and raised in Boston, the film’s director graduated from Dartmouth College in Film Studies and moved to New York in 1989 to attend Columbia’s master’s program in film. Since then, Efteriadis has shot various shorts, including «November 17» and «Hit Men,» as well as a documentary on «The Greek Americans of Boston.» He is also a member of the Actors Studio. His current projects including working on three screenplays. In «Astoria,» which is his first full-length feature film, Efteriadis focused on the juxtaposition of the dramatic and the comic, very close to real life. The film’s leading actors – Paige Turco, Rick Stear, Ed Setrakian and Joseph D’Onofrio – are not of Greek origin, but the music is, having been composed by the Thessaloniki-based singer and composer Nikos Papazoglou, who makes his debut into feature-film scoring. Funded by private investors, «Astoria» drew moral support from the local community. Going against the grain is how Stefatos described the struggle for the promotion of independent films. In this case, however, the challenge was doubled by the ethnic factor. «The rules are not spelled out for you and you are in uncharted territory,» said Stefatos. «In this case, I want to raise awareness of this being the first really independent Greek-American film which has kind of made it, a little bit in a revolutionary way.»