With its strategic position between Africa, Asia and Europe, Greece has found itself unwittingly at the center of the refugee crisis over the past few years. The country has become the first entry point into Europe for 1.2 million refugees since 2015. Yannis Sakaridis wrote his FIPRESCI award-winning drama Amerika Square in response to the current situation. It’s a rare work that looks at multiple sides of a very complex situation and has been selected as Greece’s Oscar entry in the foreign-language film race.
What Sakaridis didn’t know when he started shooting was just how much the real-life situation around him would parallel the film’s storyline, as the crisis became more and more dire. When he shot the film at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, there were nearly 7,000 people arriving to the country each day. As his shooting locations became flooded with refugees, they ended up becoming a part of the film, playing various extras in the background.
The film takes place in and around Amerika Square, a gathering point for refugees trying to find a way out of Greece. “Basically what you see in the square and what’s happening in the film was exactly what was going on,” says Sakaridis. “We went to shoot in the square and literally there were people everywhere, like in Casablanca, waiting for a piece of paper or for a smuggler or for a fake passport in order to get away.”
In Sakaridis’ film, three different stories converge in the square. Nakos is an unemployed racist Greek who dreams of the more prosperous Athens of his youth. He lives at home and can’t find a job. There is a mass exodus of young Greeks from the country while more and more immigrants are filling his apartment building. He blames the thousands of refugees living in his neighborhood for his own struggles and fantasizes about ways to get rid of them. He ends up hatching an ill-conceived plan to poison their food.
Billy is a tattoo artist who tries to help an African singer, Tereza, a young victim of exploitation. They meet when she comes to him for a tattoo that says “Refuse to sink.” Billy covers Tereza’s previous “Property of Mike,” tattoo, and vows to help her escape Greece by boat.
Tarek, a Syrian doctor, and his daughter have escaped the war but find themselves stuck in Athens, trying to find their way to Northern Europe. Tarek negotiates an escape plan with a smuggler named Hassan which requires handing over his life savings.
For Sakaridis, it was important to show the various sides of the story, rather than just paint one group as good or bad. “This banal racist is sort of old-fashioned. He realizes that his area is full of foreigners suddenly, and he can’t move,” says Sakaridis of Nakos. “We see him with love and we try to understand him. We don’t just blame him.”
And while Billy has a similar educational background as Nakos, Sakaridis says he sees the world in a completely opposite way. “This is not a class thing. You’re not born a racist,” observes Sakaridis. “You become a racist when something clicks in your mind, an imbalance.” It’s only when Nakos encounters the kindness of Tarek that he realizes the horror of his actions.
“It was really desperate people in a really horrible situation,” says Sakaridis of the time. He remembered filming one refugee from Afghanistan and giving him some money afterwards, who then took it and rented a hotel room for one night so he and all his friends could shower. “This guy hadn’t had a shower or a bed for months.”
In addition to the symbolism of Amerika Square as a place of different nationalities coming together in search of a better life, the symbolism of the tattoo plays a large role in the film as the one thing no one can take away.
“Tattoos are the only thing you can carry without having the danger of losing it,” says Sakaridis. “You can lose your money, your clothes, but the tattoos are always there. People coming from Asia or Africa would get a tattoo before their journey, such as ‘I love my mom,’ or ‘Jesus saves me.’ But the most famous one at that time was ‘Refuse to sink.’”
Sakaridis believes his film represents a particularly tough time for Greece, but fortunately today the situation is much better. “Our minister of migration, considering the situation, has done more than is humanly possible,” he says of Ioannis Mouzalas. “You go to Athens and you don’t see people living in the streets. They are able to find shelter.”
Sakaridis recently showed the film in a modernized refugee camp (one with A/C and WiFi) outside of Athens with Mouzalas. The migration minister is a doctor who has led efforts to combat the refugee crisis since 2015, and has himself slept in camps more than 50 nights this year. Many refugees came up to them afterwards, recognizing their own stories in the film.
Mouzalas provided his own metaphor for Sakaridis that has since stuck with him, one that also mirrors the film: “He said to me that with the refugee situation, you will never have a sort of bliss at the end. It’s not like childbirth. It’s more like finishing a cancer operation. The patient still lives, somehow in better conditions, but you haven’t actually gotten rid of the cancer. It’s just a very sober reaction to it. There’s no glamour in this work.”