Austerity, Renos Gavris’ powerful short film, is rooted in truth. The film ends with a commemoration to Dimitris Christoulas, a retired pharmacist who committed suicide in Syntagma Square in Athens in 2012, right outside the parliament buildings. In his suicide note, he compared the Greek parliament to Nazi-era collaborationists and described how he saw suicide as the only dignified way out.
Although Austerity is not a film specifically about Dimitris Christoulas, it did provide its director and writer with a powerful impetus. “When I was in Boston on the first year of my MA, I started seeing the collapse of the Greek economy. There was a steady decline before I left but it wasn’t as bad as when I was there. The further away you are from a place, the more of an impact it has on you, because you’re not there, you don’t live that situation every day.”
Christoulas’ act resonated strongly, as he knew it would; the Cypriot-born director picked up a lot of information about him not just through Greek sources, but even American sources. “I’m not saying I agree with what he did but…it was a protest unlike any other. It reminded me of the Tibetan monk that set himself on fire, that very iconic image. It reminded me of a poem that we have in Greece called “The Burning Man”, which is about that monk.”
With such a shocking event to build upon, Gavris was faced with whether or not to create a biopic specifically about Christoulas or to take a more creative approach that would describe the pain of what many Greeks were undergoing. In the end, none of the real-life story made it into the film besides the act itself; an interesting choice given the highly political nature of his suicide note. “I didn’t want to make a political film that blames governments, coalitions and corruption. I wanted to make a more personal film, but because of the story you can’t avoid the political-ness of the film, if you like.”
It’s a wise choice too. Given the title, itself a highly politicised word, Austerity could have been a didactic, polemical work. Whilst there is absolutely a place in film for the rage and fury of explicitly political filmmaking, it wouldn’t serve the interiority and humble eloquence of its protagonist, played by the Cypriot actor Antonis Katsaris. For Gavris, casting his star was a rather mundane affair; a chance viewing of a programme on Cypriot TV alongside some lucky mutual connections (Cyprus is after all, an island of only a million or so people), but the collaboration was fruitful.
Katsaris, with his gaunt eyes and hollow cheeks, yet still dignified glare, is an ideal fit for the role, and proved an experienced hand for Gavris to work with. “He was able to identify one or two things that could be improved upon in the story, and I trusted him. For example, in the original script, during the flashback [to more prosperous times] there was actually a wife there in that scene. But Antonis, this is a man who lives alone his entire life and he told me that you don’t need somebody in your life to be happy. I realised that the wife was a weakness in the script. Although she enhances the contrast between the past and the present, on the other hand I’m opening questions that I wouldn’t really be able to resolve…it could have meant that people thought that one of the reasons why he is committing suicide is loneliness, and that’s not the case at all.”
Indeed, by excising that character, Gavris allows more complexity into his protagonist’s interiority, taking the film away from the potential pitfalls of overcooked melodrama, something that he himself understands: “If I didn’t do all the rewrites that I did, it would have been a lot more clichéd! I just dialled it down and dialled it down, just to extract the necessary things.”
He seems like something of a perfectionist, but healthily so, and his focused, analytical approach extends to all areas of the film. “I even had a powerpoint presentation for my cinematographer to show him how I would like the colour to be approached, even notes about the angle of the camera. I had a very specific approach to how I wanted the film to look and the way I wanted it to be shot, but I wasn’t able to also be a cinematographer. I wanted somebody who is good at producing visuals, at taking ideas and interpreting them visually as I’d like them to be.”
With Kostas Stamoulis, a professional cinematography of 25 years, Austerity certainly looks strong. It is a film in many ways about dead ends and the effects of economic claustrophobia. Most important however, is the film’s purpose, which it achieves with grace and eloquence: “Audiences deserve to learn about this thing that happened, why it happened and be aware of the situation as it exists not just in Greece but in many countries. Perhaps they can get out of their comfort zones and their everyday lives and picture themselves in this person’s shoes. We all tried to make this a short film but with a big message.”