A funny take on xenophobia
by Joseph Proimakis
24/08/2010 - At its heart, the premise of Filippos Tsitos’s Plato's Academy [trailer, film focus] is a rather bold one: What happens when a man discovers he has always been what he hates the most? In this case, other men. Not all men, of course, just those who don’t share the same nationality as he does. And like most Greeks, he has a very special place in his hatred for a certain kind of foreigners: Albanians. So what happens to this man when he discovers he is one?
Stavros (Antonis Kafetzopolous) is a very precise specimen of a very real and vociferous part of Greek society: the xenophobes. Who fear and love to hate nothing more than those who arrived en masse in the southeast corner of the Balkans in the early ‘90s, to create massive upheaval in Greek society and economy. By offering their backs as cheap labor, they literally helped build what Greece made of itself in the later part of that decade and the beginning of the one that followed. From the massive infrastructures across the land that demanded plentiful workforces, to dismal homes in obscure countryside villages that needed rebuilding; from acres of crops that required harvesting, to Olympic Games buildings that needed employees – foreigners were first choice for all the dirty work.
Eager to do it and reasonable to price it, they swiftly replaced local workers, who had long since become too expensive and unreliable, causing a shift in available jobs, which alone was enough to spark Greeks’ malcontent, which was only sharpened by the fact that not all foreigners were here to work. Thieves and criminals also came through the era’s open borders and Albanians, the first to arrive, easily became the red flag for Greeks who share such sentiments.
This point was conveyed in the film’s working title, which loosely translated into "You Will Never Be Greek, Albanian". An actual slogan, it was first heard during the July 4 public celebrations of Greece’s victory at the 2004 UEFA European Football Championship, when fascist groups infiltrated celebrating civilians and proceeded to viciously attack non-Greeks in order to prevent them from joining the joyous event.
The filmmakers decided to drop the inflammatory title, but the film’s spirit does not falter. Through the comedic story of a lonely, bitter man and his rambling mother – who leads him to believe he is not the macho Greek he always thought, but rather a misplaced Albanian whose family has finally been brought together again by the impromptu arrival of his brother from the homeland – Tsitos’ bittersweet dramedy serves as a bright example of one of the Greeks’ finest inventions: satire.
A satire that mercilessly bites into one of the darkest traits of any modern multicultural society and turns it on its head, all the while holding onto its humanistic sensibilities and maintaining a delicate balance between the universal social commentary and the specificity of the hero’s story. The story was further brought to full ripeness thanks to Kafetzopoulos’ masterful performance, which earned him the Acting Award at the 2009 Locarno Film Festival and helped propel the film to the list of three finalists for the 2010 Lux Prize for European Cinema.
Plato's Academy is one of the three finalist of 2010 LUX Prize