Amerika Square

in 57th Thessaloniki International Film Festival

by Ahmet Gürata

The mass overflow of migrants and refugees into Europe since 2015 has sparked a serious crisis. Many countries, including Greece, have been struggling to cope with this influx. Within this turmoil, immigrants are commodified in many different ways, whether through escape journeys, cheap labor, prostitution, and even organ removal. As the Syrian refuge Tarek explains in Amerika Square, “Borders are business. A big business that makes lots of money. Like war does.”

Yannis Sakaridis’ second feature Amerika Square focus on this business in Greece, a country struggling with economic crisis. Based on Yannis Tsirbas’ novel Victoria does not exist (2013), the film is set in a small neighborhood in the heart of Athens. It focuses on the lives of three characters from the apartment blocks surrounding the square which gave its name to the film: bar owner and tattoo artist Billie (Yannis Stankoglou), his childhood friend Nakos (Makis Papadimitriou), and the Syrian refuge Tarek (Vassilis Koukalani).

In the neighborhood, migrants and refugees are outnumbering Greeks. This is a serious concern for unemployed 40-something nationalist Nakos who still lives with his parents. He is making dangerous plans for eliminating the number of “outsiders” in his beloved square. He is also scheming a home/office delivery business through Billie’s coffee-bar. Meanwhile, Billie falls for Teresa, an African immigrant who works illegally as a bar singer. Tarek, a refugee from Syria, is trying to go to Germany with his seven-year-old daughter with the help of immigrant trafficker Hasan (Sultan Amir). Their stories merge when Nakos’ malicious plan jeopardizes not only the survival journey of Tarek and Teresa, but also the fate of Billie.

Yannis Sakaridis is an acclaimed film editor whose debut film Wild Duck (2013) reverberated with the economic and moral crisis from a different angle. In Amerika Square, with great technical expertise, he takes an empathetic but hard look at the reality of displaced people and predicament. Director of photography Jan Vogel (who also co-director of Wasted Youth [2011]) possesses an excellent visual style and his aerial shots are highly effective. The film’s acting ensemble includes veteran Themis Bazaka and Errikos Litsis in supporting role of Nakos’ parents, and both give subtle performances.

Opening in the tone of a multicultural comedy, Amerika Square finally engages viewers with an adrenaline-fueled escape scene. However, this is not your average feel-good genre film offering easy solutions to serious problems. The film never fails to be complex while meeting its critical expectations. Amerika Square’s success lies not only in its artistry but also in its convincing portrayal of the rise of fascism in times of crisis. The xenophobic Nakos is multidimensional and successfully resists clichés and stereotypes.

In Making an Enemy, Umberto Eco states, “having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth.” As recent political developments all around the world prove, people are inventing new enemies in the form of migrants. Amerika Square is a challenging social document on the entangled crises of the 21st century.

Edited by José Teodoro