Famed political director returns home to bring the Greek financial crisis to life

At 86-years-old Greek-born French director Costa Gavras has been one the most widely-acclaimed directors of political drama of the last 50 years. A self-professed staunch Communist, his storied carrier includes Z, which garnered him a best director and adapted screenplay Oscar nomination for a fictionalised account of the assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakisin 1963 and the military dictatorship that ruled Greece in the late 1960s and 1970s.

In 1982, Gavras directed Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek in Missing, a film that told the true story of the search for American journalist Charles Horman who was disappeared by the CIA-backed military junta that overthrew Chile’s Marxist President Salvador Allende in 1973.

Gavras continued to mine deeper political material in 1989’s The Music Box with Jessica Lange and Armin Mueller-Stahl, which told the story of an American-Hungarian lawyer who later discovers that her elderly father was a member Hungary’s Nazi-collaborationist Arrow Cross Party.

Though born in Greece, Gavras left for France at age 18 to study law. As the son of a prominent member of the Greek Communist Party, or KKE, Gavras was unable to study or work in Greece and has spent his adult life outside of his home country. In his latest production, however, his attention has taken him back to his place of birth as he has created a cinematic adaptation of the namesake book by Greece’s former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis.

Adults in the Room is Gavras’ first film to be shot in Greece and recounts the torturous negotiations between Greece and the EU during the country’s debt crisis in 2015.

New Europe’s Federico Grandesso sat down with Gavras at the recently completed Venice Film Festival for an exclusive interview to discuss the director’s latest film and his view on where Europe is headed after a decade of economic hardship and a new Commission preparing to take over the reigns of the EU institutions.

New Europe (NE): How much was the former Greek Finance Minister (Varoufakis) involved in your project?

Costa Gavras (CG): About the role of Varoufakis in the film, I used his book, but he did not write the screenplay. I just asked him about some technical or economic issues that were very complex. He gave me some suggestions about the way they were speaking because they used a special language among them.

NE: Do you think that there was a strategy, even in the press, during those days in 2015 to “boycott” Varoufakis?

CG: Yes, and a Greek journalist wrote a large article explaining that there was a strategy to stop him. There was also a French journalist based in Brussels, Jean Quatremer, who also wrote about that. To tell you the truth, it was necessary to read different media and put everything together. Varoufakis had to leave, but at the same time there were people in the Greek government who had to stay in the cabinet just to accept the EU deal.

NE: Who is the “bad guy” in the film?

CG: I was not interested in the personal life. I never approached the EU leaders you see in the film. This is not a tribunal and I don’t want to condemn anyone. For my story I was interested in the how, what, and why they did what they did. I don’t think these EU leaders are bad people. They are only doing their job defending something, even if it is against the society. They just have to follow the rules. I think (German) Chancellor Angela Merkel and (France’s then-) President François Hollande were able to succeed in pushing their idea that Greece must stay in Europe. They won out against Germany’s former finance minister (Wolfgang Schäuble), who had 80% of Germans backing a Grexit (a forced Greek exit from the EU).

NE: There is a lot of truth in the film. Which parts are fictional?

CG: I didn’t want to do a documentary or a historical movie. This a show and what you see in the meeting rooms and during the political dialogues I tried to keep it very real. Then there are some moments, for example, when they go to the ECB they start speaking about money, money, money so I made a kind of joke with a carousel when Varoufakis is talking with his wife.

NE: In the film we see a discussion about a possible Plan B for Greece. Was there ever a real alternative option?

CG: Yes. They studied the possibility to change to a sort of abstract currency because it wasn’t possible to create paper money in only three days. The other option was to keep euros in circulation, but with a stamp on them to note a different price. All these possibilities, however, were impossible in the end. In the EU legislation, you can bring a country into the Eurozone but you can’t throw a country out. So the only way to kick Greece out from the euro was to block the economy through the ECB.

NE: How was to shoot your first film in Greece?

CG: We were obliged to shoot a large part of the movie in Greece because the Greek theatre actors had a very small salary and were unable to come to the rest of Europe. These very talented actors are paid only €10 every evening by the theatre. It was a good experience. I found very good technicians in Greece and we very easily built the set for the Eurogroup meeting room in the centre of Athens.

NE: Did you ask to shoot the film in any of the EU buildings or try to collaborate with the institutions in Brussels?

CG: I was there and I visited everything and I took photos everywhere. The problem was, like I said, that several theatre actors couldn’t travel from Greece to Brussels. So, it was better to shoot in Greece. At the end, I didn’t officially ask to shot on the premises of the EU buildings, but I suppose that they wouldn’t have allowed us anyway.

NE:What do you think about the European Left as it is now?

CG: The Left was not very coherent with its own philosophy and values, I think. Recently, the Left’s policies are very close to the Right’s, and sometimes even close to the extreme Far Right. There are no clear delineating lines any more.

I think the economic agenda of both the Left and the Right is the same. Europe is built up only on its economy, it’s like a supermarket. I don’t see any policies for culture, education, social issues, etc. This situation started 15 years ago with EU Commission President (José Manuel) Barroso and continued with President (Jean-Claude) Juncker.

NE: Is there still hope for a major change with more citizen-oriented reforms in Europe?

CG: After Barroso and Juncker, now I have some hopes with Mrs Ursula von der Leyen. That’s firstly because because she’s a woman and she has an interesting past. There are lots of EU decision makers who are ready to reform Europe. The proposals of President Emmanual Macron are very interesting, but it will not be easy and it will take time.

NE: Can cinema change society?

CG: I think that cinema, on the whole, has changed the world since the very beginning because we were able to “meet” other people, but I don’t think that a movie can change society. I think that all movies are political, even the most stupid ones. Art means dealing with thousands of people, and there is a political responsibility there.

NE: Is what happened to Greece a modern version of a Greek tragedy?

CG: Yes, this is a real Greek tragedy because 500,000 highly educated people left the country and are now in France or Germany enjoying a good financial situation, but they will never come back.