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Romain Gavras on his fierce drama ‘Athena’ said, “I don’t think films can change the world”

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Romain Gavras on his fierce drama ‘Athena’

Athena Romain Gavras
Athena Romain Gavras

Audiences may have anticipated what would happen given that the drama’s setting was a banlieue, or high-rise neighborhood, in Paris. Since Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 cult hit “La Haine,” banlieues have frequently appeared in French social realist films, including Celine Sciamma’s “Girlhood,” Ladj Ly’s “Les Miserables,” Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s “Gagarine,” which won the 2015 Palm d’Or. Their combination of hardship, unquenchable vigor, and dramatic tendencies provided the grit on which many a movie pearl has formed.

Gavras did not linger in search of the pearl. He has used grit to chafe against history, observing in the banlieue the evils and injustices that humanity has suffered since history and fought against. It turned into a turbulent setting for him to create what he called a “story of the near future.”

His brawny interpretation of a Greek tragedy, centered on three brothers in the throes of grief, at war with The Man and each other, singed the eyebrows off critics and left jaws on the floor (“One of the greatest films I’ve ever seen, Here is a review from CNN. Gavras sat down with CNN to talk about his shocking new movie before its debut on Netflix on September 23.

Romain Gavras: It’s almost become a genre in France – it’s been (in movies for) 30 years. That culture is the mainstream. Usually, it’s treated as a social realist type of film. We wanted to bring a Greek tragedy aspect into it; almost like a myth of the near future. It is set in France now, but it could have been set in the Trojan War, medieval wars, maybe a war in the future with Elon Musk on the moon. Because the situation is an archetype of how a war – a civil war, more specifically – can be ignited in real time.

Athena Romain Gavras
Athena Romain Gavras

Did the banlieue or Greek tragedy grab your attention first?

I think Greek tragedy. We chose to make it about the intimate pain of brotherhood, where their pain and rage and way of grieving is going to spill over neighbourhoods and then spill over the nation. The territory (of the banlieue) is fertile for those conflicts, but the way of unfolding that story was the key for us.

Is Greek tragedy’s language and narrative structure relevant to you as a filmmaker?

We wanted to make a film that is what cinema does at its best – and it’s a weird word, but entertaining. It’s the way you translate it. We took away from it the real time element, the unity of place, making characters become heroes or anti-heroes.

Your assertion that film doesn’t have a moral obligation intrigues me.

I think we have a responsibility to towards our beliefs and towards cinema. Sometimes people are going to say, “violent films, music videos, video games and rap music are going to make the kids angry and riot.” I think it’s education, lack of money – real problems – that creates situations of tension. I think films can change cinema; I don’t think films can change the world. Sometimes – and Hollywood does this – there’s self-aggrandizing, where they think, “Oh, cinema is going to change the world for the better.” There have been a lot of films that have tried to do that and the world has just gotten sh–tier and sh–tier.

Athena Romain Gavras
Athena Romain Gavras

When did you choose to make this movie with such a series of prolonged takes?

Quite early on. Tragedy starts with sunup and finishes with sunup. Twenty-four hours for a film is almost a real time experience. We wanted to be within that real time experience. Those long takes do that because you don’t jump in time.

How long did the choreography and rehearsal approach require you, your cinematographer Mathias Bouchard, and your cast and crew?

We rehearsed the whole film for almost two months, like you’d rehearse a play or an opera, with a small camera, the main actors pretending there were fireworks and extras around them, to see the dance between the camera and the actors and the rhythm. There’s no CGI in the film, we do everything for real. The planning, weirdly, was almost military and very precise to create chaos in front of the camera.

I presumed there was some CGI incorporated into it. Your insurers must have enjoyed how efficient everything else was.

Because it’s a Netflix film, we literally had security people on set, insurance or whatever. A team making sure we were not doing insane stuff. First, they want you to shoot everything green screen because it’s the way people do it, but I feel you lose a lot when you do this. My 13-year-old daughter, she sees CGI everywhere, she’s like, “fake fire,” “green screen.” It’s not precise but it’s a feeling you have. And I don’t think you have it in this film.

You stated that this is a Netflix production, which brings some special chances and difficulties for a French film (Netflix films cannot play in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, and rare screenings of Netflix Original titles in French cinemas in 2021 sparked industry backlash). What motivated the choice to adhere to them?

It was a very simple decision: I could not have made this film without Netflix. A French studio would not have given me the budget to do it and would have probably pushed me to get huge actors – and I think it’s better to have new faces. It’s great on the big screen, but at the same time, the first time I watched “Star Wars” or “Apocalypse Now” was on my TV. I had all the freedom that (I wanted). I made the film that I wanted to make.

Athena Romain Gavras
Athena Romain Gavras

What will be your future plans after this demanding production?

I plan to sleep mostly. No, I think I’m going to feed myself. I love to read and watch films, and for two years I’ve just been in the tunnel of work. For a director, it’s very important to feed yourself. So I’m gonna do that mostly and think about the next film. It’s not lined up yet. I’m gonna think about it pretty hard.

“Athena” is available to stream on Netflix on September 23.

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