Costa-Gavras: Seeks his Eden through film

Award-winning director Costa-Gavras talks to OLIVIER RAVANELLO on his take on a theme with deep personal resonance - EDEN IS WEST is the story of an immigrant’s destiny, told with a level of maturity and accuracy only a Greek who has resided in Paris since 1956 can provide.

Where is Eden is West going to take us?

An immigrant doesn’t start to feel French when he gets a roof over his head, a job, official status. That matters, but it’s not enough. He’s French when people look at him with respect and warmth, when they consider him one of their own.

To Paris. I wanted this film to be like an odyssey. A little like Ulysses, my character crosses the sea (my own Mediterranean Sea, actually), braving storms and other tribulations.

He faces down some rather modern monsters and challenges the myths of our era. Ulysses’was a journey home, whereas Elias wants to found a new home.
Today, many men and women are forced to uproot themselves and then put down roots elsewhere.

To leave is to die a little, but to immigrate is to die and be reborn in another place.

It’s a film about taking root, but in no way takes a static view of what that means – the love of one’s land, its mountains, the smell of the grass in the morning when you awake.

Elias is faced with a different, unknown world, our world, and, through his eyes, we see it in a fresh and critical way. In the end, we are forced to take a look at ourselves.

Elias’ dream is Paris.

We didn’t just pick Paris out of a hat. The City of Lights is the city of tolerance, of culture, of a certain gentleness.

Paris was the place I chose, just as it was the place Jean-Claude Grumberg’s parents had chosen a generation before me.

The beginning of the film is almost like a documentary or a very realistic news report about a freighter filled with immigrants.

It had to be obvious from the start that these were immigrants – fleeing famine or war, or both, it doesn’t matter.

Jean-Claude Grumberg and I wanted our main character to be emblematic of all those who have to leave in order to survive.

Either because they can no longer feed their families, because they face a dark future in their country, because the powers-that-be want to destroy them, or simply because they are driven by the pursuit of a dream.

We invented a language and did everything we could to keep our character from having an identifiable nationality.

In the opening scene, hundreds of illegal immigrants are being crammed into a broken down freighter.

They all have one thing in common: They paid to get on that boat because they were promised Europe, they were promised Eden.

Then, suddenly, they are betrayed and abandoned. It’s a story common to all immigrants.

At a certain point, it’s to each his own Ooyssey, to each according to his dream, his needs and his capabilities.

Along the way in this odyssey, we meet characters of varying levels of tolerance and generosity, and it’s obvious you paid careful attention to their portrayal.

They all resemble us. They are one side of us, of our society and its contradictions.

Immigration is revealing about who we are at a given moment.

The way a society treats immigrants, whether it accepts or rejects them, whether it sets up barriers and procedures or not, its prejudices about those from certain countries as opposed to others all this says a lot about the condition of that society itself.

The immigrant Elias affords us a look at our own society’s reaction to a foreign body.

Elias is always running away.

Elias has no trouble settling. His problem is that whenever he does, someone comes after him. He is constantly on the run, hunted.

The immigrant today is never considered beneficial to a country. He is no longer in demand, no longer even a problem; he’s a danger.

All kinds of media now portray him, directly or indirectly, as a danger, an invasive danger, for society.

But European society as a whole, and French society in particular, needs immigrants.

The film is fairly dark, but there is also a sweet, comic quality that emerges. That gives this new Costa-Gavras film an unexpected dimension. How did that come about?

Probably from the fact that I’m moved by this character, more than by others. The sweetness and kindness of an immigrant is owed to his need to gain acceptance, maybe even be loved.

But it also comes from an inferiority complex, which flows from the paternalistic eyes and behaviour that he encounters. I have enormous respect for a man who immigrates.

To leave your country, to move into the unknown is a terrible ordeal. It requires both mental courage and physical courage in unlimited quantities.

And it requires intelligence as well; intelligence that comes from life.

You need to know how to get by, but also how to interpret and adapt to a set of very different social codes, to say nothing of the language barrier.

In the end, it may well be the very best among us who come to join our Eden.

Jean-Claude Grumberg and I wanted this film to be a tribute to our fathers, our grandfathers and to those of our generation who came to France in spite of the pitfalls and the storms. Here they are, here we are!

In February 2009, Eden is West was release. In February 1969, Z was released – what has changed in forty years?

When I was doing films like Z, I was raising warning flags, exposing injustice and placing things in the context of a world where everything seemed to be moving toward progress, working out for the best.

So it was important to show how this best also contained the worst.

Today, the general feeling is that things are getting worse across the board. And in particular, the view of the immigrant is one of impending doom.

We didn’t want to contribute to this over-dramatising about immigrants.

By striking a lighter tone and mixing it with some fairly violent stuff, we were trying to let the issue of immigration breathe a little, to come at this problematic man from a different angle.

Among these millions of immigrants who make up France, there is one named Costa-Gavras. Born in Greece, there’s a foreigner who has who has done more than well in his adopted country. What about this film is drawn from your own story?

Everything. And yet it isn’t an autobiographical film.

Of course I, too, was a cultural and economic immigrant. I think I’m just like thousands of immigrants.

Not all of them became filmmakers, naturally, not all have had the success which I still find so incredible.

But I repeat, this is not an autobiography.

Still, Elias was drawn from my life, my experiences.

This is probably my most personal film.

Do you consider yourself French?

When it comes to this, I can only answer, do you, as a French person, consider me French? If you consider me French, then I’ll go along with you.

I am a product of this country, of this culture, I’m from here.

But the answer is in your eyes, not mine. And that is a need that never goes away.

It’s like a romance. You love a woman and you can see in her eyes that she loves you back.

An immigrant doesn’t start to feel French when he gets a roof over his head, a job, official status. That matters, but it’s not enough.

He’s French when people look at him with respect and warmth, when they consider him one of their own.

In the foreground, despite a certain amount of humor, there is relentless ferocity. Like the scene where Elias has to unclog the toilet with his hands, literally plunging his hands into shit.

That scene, like the one of The Magician and the toilet of death, is a metaphor for the use we make of immigrants.

There’s this thing stuck in people’s heads, in the immigrant’s head as well; it’s like he has to accept anything without a peep if he wants to be tolerated and accepted. Humiliation, degradation, even rape. Everything. Because he’s weak.

He’s worse than weak, he’s nothing. He can see that in people’s eyes and finally submits to it.

Keeping one’s dignity, resistance and refusal are not qualities or virtues for the immigrant. They are a source of trouble. And that kind of violence done to a human being is unspeakable.

When I was a young man in Greece, we had to be submissive and stay that way. But, little by little, you find your place, you learn to stand up for yourself. That’s in the film, too.

When Elias rebels, he earns the respect of others and his freedom.

Excerpts of interview reprinted with the permission of Olivier Ravanello.

Eden is West is released August 20. A special discounted preview screening is presented by Neos Kosmos this Tuesday August 18 at Palace Cinema Como.