The legendary French moviemaker, Costa Gavras, who was conferred with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the ongoing Mumbai Film Festival, told me during an interview the other day that cinema was one way of meeting people. It was a window to the world. “You can see places, people, beautiful people, naked women”, he winked at me.
But for Gavras, who was born Greek and who went to Paris in 1954, cinema was not only a window to a brand new world of artistic liberty and personal freedom, but also an escape from an authoritarian regime at home. Also, “I came from a poor family, and I could not study in Greece. But in France university was free. It still is. Students could get reasonably inexpensive lodgings. Work was available. I survived by doing odd jobs, like cleaning cars in the evening or at weekends”, Gavras reminisces about his first years in Paris, when he landed in Gar de Lyon.
More than all these, what was most important to the director was the freedom. “I could read any newspaper. I could read any book. There was also another attraction in Paris. The Louvre. It was a kind of magic place for me, where I could discover the world, Egypt, India and so on, through the artefacts there in the museum”.
Now at 80, and nearly six decades after his bewildering first day in Paris – where people spoke a language he did not understand – Gavras is one of the most celebrated directors the world has ever known, indeed one of the most feted filmmakers in France, a man whom the nation loves to call its very own.
With over 20 movies behind him, Gavras took his first nervous steps in quite the right direction. He studied at Sorbonne in the 1950s, an association he does not want to let go. For he still lives close to the renowned university in the Latin Quarter. A naturalised French citizen, he was knighted by France, and in 2007 was elected president of Cinematheque Francaise.
He was born Konstantinos Gavras in 1933 in a tiny village in the Peloponnese, Greece. His father was a Left-wing activist who fought royalty during the Nazi movement. But after the war, with the defeat of the Communists, the man lost his job as a tax official and was jailed. While the family suffered in poverty, Gavras had to face obstacles as well. He was not allowed to join a university in Greece, and was refused a visa to study in an American film school. He was in every conceivable way a victim of the Cold War.
But these political events not only drove Gavras to France but also invoked in him a strong political sense that we see in his cinema. Joining a movie school in Paris, he grew up under the influence of men like Truffaut and Godard, and though the French New Wave fascinated him, he found it difficult to make films that were 'interiorised and intimate' – a style adopted by the French auteurs.
Gavras' second movie (his first was a detective thriller, The Sleeping Car Murders in 1965), Shock Troops (1967), crystallised his commitment to political cinema. He once quipped: “My mother used to stay away from politics, because my father went to prison. But if you reject politics, you reject a lot of relationships. The worst thing in society is individualism."
Soon after, Vassilis Vassilikos’ novel, Z, came by – about the 1963 murder of a Greek Member of Parliament and takeover of power by the military – Gavras turned that into a gripping screenplay (along with Spanish writer Jorge Semprun) and film. Z was shot in Algeria, and ended with a list of things that the Greek colonels had banned.
More importantly, Z began with a curious disclaimer which we India would find it shocking. It said "Any similarity to persons or events is deliberate". Released in 1969 on the heels of the 1968 students’ and workers’ protests in France and elsewhere, Z was a roaring success. A powerful satire of Greek politics, it was dark, it was witty, and it brilliantly caught the outrage of the military dictatorship in Greece then.
Gavras’ 1970 The Confessions firmly affirmed his political stamp on cinema. About a Czech Communist, Artur London, forced to make a false confession in Stalinist times, the movie was a telling commentary on the seamy side of political life. Gavras averred that his generation of Greeks in the 1940s “probably thought Communism was a solution. But, at least in Eastern Europe, it was a dictatorial system with no respect for human beings except the party leaders”.
His 1972 State of Siege narrating the gruesome story of the murder of an American official by Uruguayan guerrillas completed the political trilogy. Shot in Allende’s Chile, before he was killed in the Pinochet coup, State of Siege underlined Gavras’ view on the slain Marxist leader. Gavras called Allende a "naive but deeply honest politician. I knew he couldn't succeed. When you saw people occupying factories and estates, I thought, if they don't stop this, it will be a tragedy. I was hoping it wouldn't happen."
By now it was more than clear that Gavras was determined to tell political stories, and so strong was his resolve that he even got Jack Lemmon to do Missing – an engaging work about Charles Horman, an American journalist who disappeared in the aftermath of a U.S.-backed coup in Chile in 1973 that also deposed Allende.
Missing was made in Hollywood, and everybody wondered why Gavras had picked Lemmon. He is a comedian, they were puzzled. But Missing did not miss the eye of the Cannes jury in 1982 where the picture won the Palm d’Or, and Lemmon walked away with the best actor trophy. That year, it also got several Oscar nods, including ones for best film and best actor.
Two of his most recent movies – Mad City (1997) and Ax (2005) – are riveting portrayals of men who snap under the pressure of job loss and the current economic crisis. In a way, these were also covertly political.
As Gavras remarked, every film is political, even those that show men with guns in exciting chases. Admittedly, he is not one to hide behind the banner of political cinema. Nor is one to soften his movies so that the bitter, harsh political truths appear palatable to the people who watch his work. He feels that audiences are complex. You can never figure them out.
“I try to be the first audience, to keep my virginity as a spectator”, he retorted.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Mumbai Film Festival)