Toronto: Christos Nikou on Channelling Charlie Kaufman in the Offbeat 'Apples'

Apples Venice FIlm Festival
Courtesy of the Venice FIlm Festival

'Apples'

The Greek helmer's debut film imagines a digital-free world where a pandemic is causing people to lose their memories.

Christos Nikou was there at the start of the Greek Weird Wave as the assistant director on Yorgos Lanthimos' dark comedy Dogtooth (2009), the movie that launched the absurdist cinema movement partly inspired by the chaos in Greece triggered by the global financial crisis. More than a decade later, Nikou is adding his own twist to the movement with his assured directorial debut. 

Apples is an oddball fable — Nikou cites Spike Jonze, Leos Carax, and Charlie Kaufman as influences — set in an entirely analog world where a new pandemic is causing widespread amnesia. A morose man (Aris Servetalis) is discovered asleep on a tram car and diagnosed as a pandemic victim. Sent to the Disturbed Memory Department of the Neurological Hospital, he is enrolled in a program to help him rebuild new memories. This involves re-enacting specific memorable moments, such as riding a bike or getting in a car crash and then documenting them by taking a Polaroid picture.

Apples, which opened the Orizzonti section of the 2020 Venice Film Festival, will screen in Toronto as part of TIFF's Industry Selects sidebar, a virtual market for global buyers. Alpha Violet is handling international sales of the film, with CAA selling domestic.

It's a strange coincidence that your movie, made before COVID-19, also features a pandemic, albeit a pandemic of amnesia.

It was strange. We did our final test screening of the film that last day before the lockdown in Greece. When we came out of the cinema we were told the country was in lockdown — an odd coincidence. We know there are a lot of similarities with the story in the film and the situation people are living right now under lockdown. Like dealing with loneliness, or uncertainty about the future, or loss. They are elements we have in Apples and that people are dealing with nowadays. But on the other hand, Apples is a fairytale.

How does it feel to be bringing your film out in a real pandemic, at festivals like Venice and Toronto, where people have to wear masks in the cinema?

It is strange, and we all know how badly the film industry has been hurt by this pandemic, with so many theaters closed and productions shut down. But I am optimistic, because film people, we can't really separate our lives from our jobs of making movies. We are all, at the start, film fans and we want to find a way to get back to the theaters, to get cinema going again.

Apples are a metaphor, perhaps several metaphors, in the film. What do you think of when you think of apples?

There are different reasons why I selected this fruit. First of all, it is a fruit that can improve your memory. And then, there is a special personal story. I always had in my mind a very strong image of my father eating an apple. Because my father used to eat seven to eight apples every day. And he had a great memory.

And when he passed away, it was the moment I started thinking of the movie. Because I was trying, in a way, to deal with his loss. But I couldn't. And I was trying to understand how people forget so easily, and how selective our memory is and how we can erase something that hurt us and, in the end, it could be those are the things we can't forget.

There is an irony in the title, I think most people today are using Apple devices in order to store our lives and our memories. Instead of saving them in our minds.

It's not obvious when the story takes place...

That was deliberate. I didn't want it to be dated to a certain time but, like a fairytale, or a Spike Jonze or Charlie Kaufman movie, to be timeless. That's why we set the film in an analog world. If you notice, in the whole movie there are is no internet or mobile phones. We use elements that have almost been forgotten, like Polaroids, like hand-written letters, like tape recorders.

I believe the extensive use of technology has made our brain lazier because there is no need to save something in your mind anymore. Even if we have to walk somewhere, we use Google Maps. We don't remember the experiences that we had even a few days or a year ago.

Your main character is diagnosed with amnesia and put into a program to help him build new memories. This involves him doing bizarre tasks, like having a one-night stand or getting into a car accident, and then taking a picture of it.

Yes, this was really a way of looking at social media, at how people use platforms like Instagram. Where it seems the important thing is not what you do but the picture you have of it. And where everyone seems to be trying to do the same challenges, to do the exact same things, to get the exact same pictures, and have the exact same memories. Even these things, like in the movie, which would seem to be events that would be key in everyone's memory — learning to ride a bike, falling in love — become somehow generic and unmemorable.