While Greece continues to suffer through a financial crisis, the country’s young film-makers probe and question, offering fresh insights into the country’s heart, soul and dilemmas. Wasted Youth, from director Argyris Papadimitropoulos teamed with German director Jon Vogel, is an important new film and an exhilarating one. Author Franz Kafka once wrote of the novel: “I think we ought only to read the kinds of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” The same could be said of film.
Wasted Youth fits the criteria. Like Dogtooth and Tungsten, the film is experimental, original, and disturbing. A young man was shot to death by the police during a night of partying, setting off the 2008 riots in Athens. This film takes inspiration from that real incident that turned the country upside down and made international news.
“We made the whole thing in ten days on a shoestring budget,” Papadimitropoulos told a New York audience. “We just decided to jump in.” Much of Wasted Youth was improvised. The result: a film that resonates with immediacy. Young Harry, 16, played by amateur Harris Markou, whom the directors selected for his skate-board skills and good looks, meets his buddies in Athens Constitution Square. It’s summer. They skate, smoke joints, and try to meet girls.
A scene with Harry and his father provides a heart-breaking insight into Greece now. Once the patriarch ruled. Now Harry returns home after a night out to find a nervous, troubled dad, who gently slaps Harris (no floggings here) and then pleads with him. He can’t take his son’s behavior. Harry needs to communicate with his father. He needs to get a job. The father takes off his shirt, and we’re witness to a thin, pale, spiritually impotent man in his undershirt, smoking a cigarette, his eyes filled with desperation.
Harry will visit his mother in the hospital where she’s recovering from an injury. According to Papadimitropoulos, she represents the “broken back of Greece.” A friend of the director’s played the mother. Harris’s actual pals played his friends in the film, all amateurs. Other roles were taken by professional actors, and intriguingly by film-makers who took small roles. For instance, a director plays a policeman. Says Papadimitropoulos, “We are a community of film-makers.”
Actor Ieronimos Kaletsanos scores as the brooding Vasilis, the policeman who will be Harris’s tragic nemesis. We see Vasilis stretched to his limits, a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He returns home after a long night shift to take a shower in the steamy heat and have perfunctory sex with his anxious wife. When it’s over, she rubs her eyes as if waking from a bad dream. Vasilis, although not a stock character, could be the Greek Everyman. He’s fortunate to have a job, but it’s minimum and frustrating. Yet he’s afraid to try anything new. His friend wants him to invest in a pizza shop. Vasilis ultimately rejects the idea. He’s afraid to lose what he has. Like Harry’s father, he finds himself alienated from his teenage daughter who largely ignores him as she tunes in to her ipod.
In Wasted Youth, the big, warm, argumentative but supportive Greek family has shrunk to the nuclear family with one child and, in Vasilis’s case, a mother who lives with them and passes her time watching TV.
Vasilis rides at night with his cop partner, a man addicted to flirting and watching pornographic films. They push vagrants off of the sidewalk and try to keep the peace. Ultimately, they encounter Harry and his friends outside a club. There is a confrontation. A gun is fired. Harris is shot dead and the film ends with his friends hovering over him, and the cops leaving the scene.
Vasilis did not fire the gun, according to director Papadimitropoulos. We could fault him here, for side-stepping this tragic move. (As a result of the real-life shooting, both policemen are currently serving prison terms). We could also critique the directors for falling in love with the skate-boarding Harris, holding the camera on him for too- long minutes. But the cinematography is brilliant. What makes Wasted Youth special is its empathetic embrace of a heart-breaking world in transition. It doesn’t pass judgment. But it raises questions and, just as important, keeps us cinematically engaged.
“As a citizen, the easiest thing to do is blame the politicians for the last 30 years of fake prosperity,” Papadimitropoulos said. “But I think we are to blame, too, because we took that pill. We said, ‘Let’s take the easy way out, even though we know it is not right’. Now we’re paying the price.”
Papadimitropoulos has made an impressive USA debut with Wasted Youth, his second feature. The film was chosen to open the 40th Rotterdam film festival, and was shown in New York at the Disappearing Act IV Festival.
Wasted Youth will be shown at the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival in June and at the New York Greek Film Festival in October.
Born in 1976 in Athens, Papadimitropoulos studied media and film in Oxford and Athens. In 2003, he directed his first short, Pendulum. In 2008, Argyris made his first feature film, Bank Bang, which became a major commercial hit in Greece, and won the First Time Director Award from the Hellenic Film Academy. He has directed more than 100 commercials, and started his own production company, Oxymoron Films.