Editor’s note: Anywhere but Hollywood highlights what’s new and worth watching in international television and film. This month, French thriller Athena, Senegalese action film Saloum and Iranian drama No Bears are in the spotlight this month.
French writer-director Romain Gavras wants your attention, and like Karim, the fiery young man at the center of his third film Athena, he’s willing to do anything to get it.
Within the first ten minutes of “Athena,” we see a tense press conference that escalates into violence, a raid by angry youths on a police station, and a thrilling race back to their city fortress with the looted goods. Only after a flurry of breathless action and stunning cinematography, when they triumphantly climbed the barricades, does the director decide to abandon the shoot.
Gavras and his cinematographer Mathias Bucar created a continuous tracking shot to kick off this new Netflix thriller, designed specifically to grab viewers by the throat. It’s the kind of long take that makes the opening “Touch of Evil” sound like it could pull your socks up; which makes a True Detective raid look like a walk in the park. It is a shot of adrenaline in the heart and sets a pace that is impossible to maintain. But through 97 relentless, exhilarating minutes, this film will try.
Karim (played by newcomer Sami Slimane) is grieving the loss of his younger brother, beaten to death by uniformed officers – the third incident of police brutality in two months in Athens, a poor community on the outskirts of Paris. He wants to name names, but the police deny responsibility. Their brother Abdel (Dali Bensala, No Time to Die) is a soldier who pleads for peace, while their older brother Koktor (Oasini Embarek) is a drug dealer who fears that the unrest will hurt his business. In the meantime, Kareem has become a figure ready to lead an entire generation into battle.
Shortly after the raid, the police descend on Athens to confront the youths. Between them are their parents and families. The film questions their passivity while simultaneously asking for compassion for them, as well as for Jerome (Anthony Bagion), a frightened officer sent into the fray. But mostly we’re channeling the righteous anger of Karim, unconvinced by his brothers’ interventions.
Gavras and co-writers Laj Lee and Elias Belkeddar tell the story of the siege, which takes place almost entirely in the concrete labyrinth of Athens, relying on a series of long shots, emphasizing the chaos of the continuous skirmishes and Karim’s improvised plans. Filmed with IMAX cameras, Molotov cocktails and Roman candles are launched into the night; masses of bodies fill the corridors, rush across the roofs and crash into each other to the sound of a baroque score.
What if the Trojan War took place in a Paris housing estate? It might look like this. With its warring brothers, mythologized people, and epic sense of scale, Athena is reminiscent of the Greek tragedies of antiquity. However, his pain is rooted in today – and it is felt acutely. This is bravura cinema from the general behind the camera; one that inevitably draws attention to the art of war that is filmmaking. All the logistics make my head spin.
Athena is now in select theaters and available on Netflix on September 23rd.
Gavras, who has scored music videos including Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild,” is no stranger to filming rebellion. But he’s never done it on this scale before – no wonder he cites epic works like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Akira Kurosawa’s Run as inspiration for Athena.
“There is no CGI in the film, we do everything for real,” says Gavras. “The planning, ironically, was almost military and very precise to create chaos in front of the camera.”
To hear more from the writer and director, read our full interview.
Congolese filmmaker Jean-Luc Erbuleau makes a live-action midnight film about three mercenaries on the run in a remote corner of Senegal. Ian Gael, Roger Sala and Mentor Ba star as tough gunslingers, but their cocky attitude is tested when a paranormal enemy threatens them and their gold stash. Erbulo’s meandering neo-western (he calls it “Southern”) contains many themes and the history of the undead in West Africa in its short rendition. The specter of colonialism and the exploitation of people and places looms large, offering a dark note. Still, it’s good mild fun with a wild imagination and engaging visual flair.
“Saloum” is available on To shudder in the USA.
Every new Jafar Panahi film seems like a small miracle. The Iranian director was banned from leaving the country and making films for more than a decade, but he continued to find a way. In No Bears, Panahi plays a version of himself who has traveled to a border village to remotely direct a film in neighboring Turkey. He gets caught up in a local dispute, he is accused of photographing an illicit meeting of a couple, the woman was promised to another. Meanwhile, the real-life couple in his film are planning an exit. The boundaries of all kinds loom large. Frustrated by the villagers who are suspicious of him and his camera, and the authorities who ask questions, the filmmaker weighs which place might be best for him.
Reflecting on the dangers of observation and the unintended consequences of making art, No Bears is a layered metafiction that is usually self-reflexive and inseparable from its context. Circumstances turned Panahi’s filmmaking into an act of dissent. Perhaps this is his best and most demonstrative work of this period. It’s also the spiciest. Panahi was arrested and jailed in July to serve an outstanding six-year sentence for “propaganda against the system,” Reuters reported.
In September, at the Venice Film Festival, where the film received a special jury prize, an empty seat was reserved for the director after the premiere. “Our fear gives opportunity to others,” says the director’s character in the movie “No Bears”. Panahi once again demonstrated his courage.
The premiere of the film “Without Bears” in the USA will take place in New York Film Festival in October.