Costa-Gavras’s children were his greatest production; weaned on the classics, schooled in the arthouse. The renowned Greek director forbade trash entertainment and would instead treat his offspring to the best of world cinema: Bergman and Kurosawa, masterpiece after masterpiece. Never mind that the kids were barely out of short trousers and struggled to read the subtitles that scrolled across the screen. In the end, no surprise, it became a borderline ordeal.
“Kids build themselves in opposition to something,” says Romain Gavras, the film-maker’s youngest son. “I watched Tarkovsky way too young. All the masterpieces, way too young. My dad fed them to me from the age of seven. So my rebellion at the age of 12 or 13 was to kick against all of that. I said I hated Tarkovsky and that my favourite film was Die Hard.”
Gavras is now 41, a film-maker himself, with a picture in competition at this year’s Venice film festival. Athena is a strident, searing account of social unrest in the Paris banlieues; a tale that frames urban warfare as an archetypal Greek tragedy; a film hailed by Sight & Sound as “the most exciting political thriller since Children of Men”. It’s not Kurosawa and it’s not Hollywood, although it lifts liberally from both camps. In the heat of battle, riot shields all around, Gavras appears to have made peace with his past.
“Family is everything,” we are told in Athena, which is sparked by the killing (reputedly by national police) of a teenage boy and charts the desperate response of his brothers: steadfast Abdel (Dali Benssalah), revolutionary Karim (Sami Slimane) and venal Moktar (Oassani Embarek), the local dealer. Gavras shot the film in the housing projects of Évry-Courcouronnes, a southern Paris suburb, on an Imax camera the size of a fridge. He gives us swirling teargas, a rain of molotov cocktails and 250 extras plucked from the local community. The tale rampages through the projects, but it constantly circles back to home.
I meet Gavras the morning after the premiere, in one of those crumbling ornate Venetian hotels that might conceivably be about to crumble round our ears. The director (imposing, authoritative, bushily bearded) looks to be constructed from more solid material. But appearances are deceptive; he describes himself as a mishmash. “Basically, I feel like all the brothers in the film. I’m Abdel, the wise one who wants to stop the violence. I’m the young kid who wants to burn the world.” He winces. “And I guess I’m also the horrible brother who only wants to protect his own interests.”
Drummed out of Greece for his communist sympathies, Costa-Gavras took his concerns to a global stage. He tackled political discord in his homeland in 1969’s Oscar-winning Z, the Chilean coup in 1982’s Missing, and US far-right extremism in the 1988 thriller Betrayed. His films were angry and urgent, but they provided a clear moral compass, pointing the way to a better tomorrow. His son’s film, by contrast, pitches towards chaos.
“Things were simpler in my father’s time,” Gavras says. “There was a stronger sense of right and wrong. You had the conservative forces that were in power versus the forces of the new generation who were trying to change the world – and that felt like an option. But today I don’t have that confidence. The film is very pessimistic. The old hope isn’t there.”
It is funny, he says. People always talk about his father, the great director, now 89 and semi-retired, when the titan of his family is really his mum – “the toughest person I’ve ever met”. Michèle Ray-Gavras worked as a rally pilot and a journalist before moving into film production. She covered the war in Vietnam and was captured by the Viet Cong. “I think she was with the Viet Cong for about two months, but in the worst region where they were in the tunnels getting bombed with napalm all the time by the Americans. The stories that my mum tells me are insane.”
He was brought up in Paris, in a strict leftist household. “Fed on Greek myths. No Walt Disney movies allowed. And to be honest, I get it. The Lion King is a royalist movie. Everyone kneeling in front of the king. But all the narratives are like that. A girl has something special inside her. Same thing with superheroes. They don’t work hard to have their superpowers. They get bitten by a spider and all of a sudden they’re magical. What does that teach: that one day you’re going to win the lottery. That’s why the only good superhero is Batman, because he doesn’t have superpowers, he’s just a rich vigilante.”
He shakes his head. “Don’t tell kids they’re special. I have a 13-year-old daughter and I’m always telling her: ‘This stuff doesn’t exist. Life is work. Don’t expect a superpower.’” It sounds as though he’s come round to his parents’ way of thinking. “Yes,” he says. “But I haven’t shown her any Tarkovsky yet.”
Gavras co-wrote Athena with the film-maker Ladj Ly, who won a César for his powerful 2019 banlieue thriller Les Misérables. He has known Ly for decades. They spent time together as kids, and are co-founders of the arts collective Kourtrajmé, which became his second family. Gavras was the child of the Oscar-winning director; Ly the son of a Malian dustman, raised on the housing estates of Les Bosquets. But that was the strength of Kourtrajmé – that breadth of experience, that stew of diversity. “For me, with my artistic middle-class background, to hang out with Ladj – it was like two worlds colliding. But it was never awkward because I was never trying to be street, never pretending to be something I wasn’t.”
This was the mid-1990s. The time of digital video cameras and video recorders that could be used as editing decks. The Kourtrajmé collective started out shooting guerrilla-style documentaries around Paris. From here, Gavras shifted into making concert films and music videos for the likes of Justice and Kanye West. Along the way, he had an idea for a blackly comic parable of discrimination, set in an urban dystopia that persecutes redheads. The concept was so neat that Gavras deployed it twice: in the controversial video for MIA’s Born Free and for his 2010 debut feature, Our Day Will Come.
Some directors are at pains to distance themselves from promos the instant they graduate to motion pictures. Gavras loves them. They embody the kind of cinema he wants to make. “But in France you get burned in the town square for that. There’s the argument that it’s style over substance, which is wrong, because in movies the images always intertwine with what it’s saying. But that thinking all comes from the French New Wave, which people still think is new because it has the word new in it. Cinéma vérité. The noblest art. Whereas my favourite movies are visual films where you don’t get a message. You get feelings and emotions through the power of the images.”
It’s a weird situation, he says. He never felt daunted by his father’s reputation. He was perfectly happy making his own kind of pictures. But then he began work on Athena, with its marriage of Greek tragedy and highly charged social commentary, and realised he was edging on to his dad’s natural turf. “So I feel enormous pressure having this film attached to my name. Because it is also my father’s name.”
Alternatively, his career could be framed as a modern-day Lion King: the tale of the rebellious young prince who ascends to his birthright. That early exposure to arthouse cinema must have had some effect after all. Gavras’s brother, Alexandre, is a film producer. His sister, Julie, is a film director. Is there any Gavras child who hasn’t gone into the family business?
Yes, he says, one. “I have an older brother who runs a bed and breakfast. He was saved by the film gods, or the bed and breakfast gods.” Gavras shrugs. “Maybe he’s the happiest. No Greek tragedy for him.”