Wonderland speaks with Sofia Exarchou, director of Park, to discuss everything from gritty social commentary to sex and wild dogs in her debut feature film.
You’re a feral Athenian teen. Your days are hazy and monotonous. You spend them running wild in the only home you’ve ever known, the rotting 2004 Olympic stadium. Time passes through violence. You fist fight with your gang and operate a Pit Bull mating business for cash.
You’re experiencing life inside Park, Sofia Exarchou’s much anticipated debut feature, part coming of age love story, part gritty social commentary. Exarchou, an Athens native, belongs to a new generation of filmmakers behind the avant-garde cinematic movement branded as Greek New Wave. Many critics have linked the birth of the genre with the economic turmoil the country has faced over the last 10 years. While Park is lighter on the weird and heavier on the realism than the genre’s forerunners – Dogtooth (2008), Alps (2011), Attenberg (2010) – it maintains focus on themes of alienated youth and works to destabilise national identity.
The setting of the abandoned 2004 Greek Olympic stadium is laden with metaphorical significance. The arena is often referred to as Greece’s ‘white elephant’; the space now resembles one of the country’s ancient ruins rather than a £6 billion state-of-the-art government built sports venue. What was once a source of hope and pride for the country now serves as a relentless reminder of its collapse.
With Park Exarchou seems to be digging through the rust and rubble from this collapse and looking at what’s been left underneath. What she finds is youth, 21st century youth that has been saddled with the country’s collective nostalgia for a ‘glorious past.’ Despite their lives of rusted, dirty pools and grimy showers, the kids in Park try to forge their identities, to experience love and tenderness but, like the arena itself, sink lower and lower into the earth, pulled down into a decaying rubbish pit. Unable to even dream of what might be above the pit’s walls, they are swallowed up, along with all hope for the future.
Let’s begin by talking about the film’s distinct and highly symbolic setting. What gave you the idea for using the abandoned Olympic village in Athens?
I wanted to portray a group of kids living in an abandoned place in a social environment that gives them no escape and no hope for the future. I wanted the place to remain somewhat abstract so that it could take place anywhere in the world. Of course the Olympic Village has a lot of symbolic meaning for Greece. The Olympic games in 2004 provided a great deal of hope for the whole country but ultimately marked its collapse. Now it exists as this no man’s land not because of a war or something like that but as a no man’s land created by the Olympic games and I find that fascinating to talk about.
The film features a brilliant set of amateur actors. I’m curious about how you cast the film and what traits you were looking for in your actors?
When we were in the second and third rounds of casting we started doing group auditions so that we could see how the actors would relate to each other. We tried to create a dynamic group that would be full of different characters. At the beginning of shooting I did a lot of improvisation with the kids so that I could determine which elements of the characters pre-existed within the actors. I wanted to know who was more aggressive, who was funnier, who was stronger and who would become the leader. The script created the characters but I wanted to see the real kids inside the characters, I tried to let them be themselves within this environment.
All of the characters, particularly Anna, seem to perform their feelings with their bodies. I was wondering what methods you used in directing the actors to convey so much brilliant emotion but with so little dialogue?
This was a big part of improvisation. The script called for a lot of aggression so we used a lot of warm up games to help the actors reach that place. In fact the arm wrestling scene was a warm up game, it started as a small scene in the script but because we did it so many times it became something important to the film. I think the emotion in the film stems from the fact that these kids are teenagers and the energy that the film calls for is all there inside of them. It’s in their bodies and the way they act so I really tried to let them express that and then I just put the camera close enough to capture it. The actor who played Anna was also a dancer and an ex athlete in her real life so she shared a lot of similarities with the girl in the script. She had trained to be a gymnast but she had to stop around age 16 which was very difficult for her but it meant that she really understood how important the character’s injuries were. We worked a lot with that.
In terms of physical space, to what extent is the idea of environmental determinism at play in the film? I got the feeling that the park itself is in some way responsible for the actions and fates of the kids. How did you work with the set to communicate this during the process of filming?
The film is all about the connection between the space and the kids, it revolves around the idea of depicting the outcome of putting such young people with all this energy and the dreams they have for their lives inside a place that gives nothing and that has no life. The place has a lot to do with the kid’s actions because they are trapped there so all of their animalistic behavior stems from this tension in their everyday lives. When we work with the kids and the set it was all about ‘ok now you’re trapped in the lockers and you are hot and you want to have a shower let’s try to express this feeling and create a reaction when the water comes out.’ The space isn’t totally responsible for their actions but it is their only way of life. The kids are twelve, fourteen years old so they’ve spent almost all their lives in this aggressive place and that aggression becomes a part of who they are.
The viewer is made to feel as if they too rove wildly about the park with the kids. Can you talk about the camera technique that you used in conveying this sensation and why this was important to the narrative?
That was a big part of what I intended to do. I wanted the viewer to experience what it’s like to live like that; that was the most important element of the film to me. When I started the writing the script there was no high narration or big drive for the kids. I did this because I wanted to be honest about their reality, the fact that when you live in a place like this it’s very rare to have any big dreams. I didn’t want to build a mainstream narrative where the protagonist dreams of doing something with their life; the protagonist’s biggest dream is just to escape this place. I wanted the audience to try and inhabit this psychological place during each moment of the film, either by keeping the camera trained closely on the kids or by the way the kids move within the frame. This was all done in the hope that the viewer would leave the cinema with a small sense of what it’s like to live in a place like this, and when I say a place like this I mean any kind of place with the same problems. I tried to be really conscious of this.
The film seems to portray sex as something hostile and violent but also as something starkly intimate. How did you strike this critical balance?
Sex is a huge aspect of the film. It’s a subject that says a lot about the relationship between Anna and Dimitris but it can also be found in the tourist resort, with the character of the mother and with the dog mating. The kids are trying to express themselves through sex but it’s very difficult for them because their environment is so aggressive. This is where the struggle originates. The kids have feelings and you understand there’s a sensitivity to them that they’re trying to communicate this but that they don’t know how. This struggle comes through in different ways throughout the film but sex was the most important vehicle for exploration.
The narrative feels very much propelled by a search for national identity. Could you talk a little bit about the significance behind Anna and Dimitris’s interaction with the British teens on holiday?
I think the film talks about the concept of home, finding a place, finding a father or finding somebody that will take care of you, so it’s a search for something that involves all of that. Of course national identity plays a big role in this search. The film is about Greece, and all the identity issues bound up in the Olympic games, how we feel about our national identity and what makes us proud or shouldn’t make us proud. This idea is communicated through the kids, the feeling that they’re searching for something real. They are ready to go after it and they hope that there will be something out there for them. The sequence with Anna, Dimitris and the British teens was important to the film because it’s the one moment when they’re given the chance to relate to kids their own age and they hope they will find and feel something through this. They’re ready to sing the English songs and be part of the same games. Ultimately they don’t find what they’re searching for and the sequence becomes a sad moment in the film.
Park is rich in symbolism. It feels as if the wild dogs represent certain character’s identity, what was your intent in likening the humans to animals?
It started with the image of two kids who supervise dog mating; it was one of the first ideas I wrote down about this film. At first I didn’t realize how important it was to the story but gradually everything around this subplot began to hold meaning for me. I wanted to depict these kids almost as orphans. They’re alone; moving around this place that makes them so aggressive, and this image of them seemed very close to one of stray, wild dogs. I wanted to show what happens when you trap an animal or a person by drawing a parallel between the two. I also wanted to emphasize the way the kids try to care for the dogs and treat them well even though they haven’t had parents that look after them. I thought this would develop the viewer’s understanding of the kid’s emotions and the depth of their feelings. The parallel between the dogs and the kids makes us afraid that they will share a fate and this cycle shows the viewer a lot about what it’s like to live in this place.
The film clearly articulates a specific anxiety about the decay of human beings, specifically Greek society in this case. The end feels very bleak and hopeless and we sense the continuation of a destructive cycle. What are your thoughts on the wider political climate in Greece and the country’s future?
I believe that as a director you show the reality, you depict a world, and then you leave it for the viewer to experience and decide how they feel about it. After screenings there are always people coming to me and asking if these children are alright now and better off because they were in the film. The answer is no, they are not better because they just played a role in a film, they’re still immigrants trying to survive in a crisis-stricken Athens. I would really like to make a film with a lot of hope and have people coming out of the screening happy but the reality of the situation is so much sadder than the film. I’m not just talking about the Greek reality. I’m talking about Europe in general. For instance, most of the abandoned facilities that I used in the film are now used as a home for Syrian refugees. The story I tell might look bleak or sad but the reality of it already far surpasses what I depict in the film. I would like to find something positive to say as a response to this question but the truth is that my feeling about Europe right now is that we’re in huge crisis and that we have to find a new way to think about things and we must act as soon as possible.
For a closing question Sofia, what are your thoughts on representation and diversity in the film industry from the perspective of a female filmmaker?
I like that this is something that we’re talking about more. I think that whenever there’s more conversation about a subject it means that something is going to get a little bit better at least. I hope we reach a point where neither I nor any other female filmmaker will have to answer this question because it treats female direction like a genre film. I hope one day there will be no concept of a female director or a male director and that we can see a film without needing to discuss gender of the director. I still think there is a lot to be done before everyone can be treated the same. I believe that the core of cinema as an art form is diversity; there are so many different people working in the industry, so many different ideas being put together and so many different minds. We have to embrace that and we have to work toward that direction in every possible way.
Park is screening at the BFI London Film Festival. You can get your tickets here: PARK
Thursday 13 October 2016 20:45, Vue West End Cinema
Saturday 15 October 2016 15:30, Prince Charles Cinema