After this year’s Kolkata International Film Festival, the film that has stayed with me is a Greek film, Yannis Sakaridis’s “Amerikan Square.” The film covers a thorny political theme within the ambit of a genre film, roughly that of black comedy. In many ways, it’s a film that one could imagine Coen brothers to make if they were to explore the contemporary European political landscape.
The film has three narrators and these stories intertwine to unravel differing standpoints within the political landscape.
Nakos is a disenfranchised angry white man, unemployed at the age of 38 and living with his parents. When the film begins, Nakos’s comments regarding the infiltration of refugees on the streets of Athens appear almost objective, a mere recognition of the fact. But slowly, remarks and actions pile up. Early in the film there is a scene where Nakos introduces us to all the residents of his building. He counts the outsiders as a loss and the number of Greeks as victories, almost like counting score in a football match.
Nakos’s friend Billy is a tattoo artist who runs an illegal tattoo parlor and a bar with his sister Nadia, an activist. Billy maintains a cordial relationship with Nakos since they are neighbors and friends from childhood. Billy, unlike Nakos, sees in the landless refugees a will and desire to live, to survive against massive odds, unlike him and the people around him.
Billy notes in the middle of the film that refugees know where they are headed, even though they are not allowed to legally do so. On the other hand, those who are allowed to move chose to stay in Athens in spite of a dwindling economy. To counter Nakos’s increasing outrage against “outsiders,” viewers meet Billy’s love interest, a black singer, on the run from two men. During one of their early encounters, Billy’s pickup line is “God is Black.” Those are their words of farewell too.
The last character to drive the story is a man named Tarek, a Syrian refugee on the move with his daughter, headed northward of Greece. Through him we encounter the various modes and routes that refugees use to move across Europe. The narrative of the three characters cross and separate by the end of the film, though saying more would give away too much.
I found it fascinating that the film depicts Greece during the period of radical left political party Syriza’s rise and thereafter, yet there is almost no sign of utopianism or overt left propagandizing (except for the presence of some anarchist graffiti). The only overtly political link is provided when Billy tells Nadia not to spend time painting graffiti.
Instead, the movie tries to tackle questions that the revolution in Greece left unanswered: How can we all live in the age of globalized capital when some of our neighborhoods face violence? What does it mean when temporary settlements are an “American Square”? Does “Amerika” stand for multicultural capitalism with inter-ethnic animosities? Can any amount of governing of American Square change the world outside it like Nakos envisions, or does the world outside the “Square” only slip in and out in this age of global capital?
Tarek tells the viewer early in the film how his journey has reoriented his view of borders. He and his daughter are the products of border. Still, they invest in borders, by paying for their illegal modes of infiltration without proper documentation. Though the conclusion is cynical and Nakos’s increasing racist outlook and angst shows no sign of diminishing, it also provides us the first building blocks towards comprehending the monstrosity of the present predicament.
The film is a timely portrayal of characters and issues plaguing much of the world today. The fact that it manages to do it as a popular genre film with a fast-paced narrative is commendable.
Debarun Sarkar is an alumnus of English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad and Presidency University, Kolkata where he studied English and Sociology respectively. He currently lives in Calcutta and divides his time between writing and freelancing.