I asked Costa Gavras, the French/Greek filmmaker famous, among others, for his political movie of the 1960s “Z” if authentically “engaged” political movies are still made today:
Costa Gavras: I hope I wouldn’t surprise you if I say that every movie is a political discourse. Starting from the moment when the message is sent to millions of people, what we tell them has a political signification. I don’t mean “political” in the sense of: “who are we going to vote for in the elections”? This is rather about social behaviour. Even our conversation now is a political act. People will watch and listen to your discourse, and maybe this will change something in their heads… or maybe nothing at all. But this is already politics.
Dan Alexe: But do filmmaker still take a political position? Do they still feel personally involved today, politically?
Costa Gavras: I think art, generally speaking, should be politically engaged. Let’s take Expressionism. It totally changed art. They were hated, they were rejected, etc… Finally, people understood that Expressionism was a different way of thinking and doing things. Art should always look for a new discourse, for a new way of speaking.
Dan Alexe: If art should be looking for new discourses and new topic, why are some topics ignored? Europe, for instance. Why isn’t Europe treated in movies and novels? Why don’t EU institutions furnish the setting for some thriller or drama?
Costa Gavras: It is a topic that is much too complicated for most people.
Dan Alexe: Precisely, this should be a stimulant.
Costa Gavras: Well, basically, I think Europe should help financing its movie industry, whatever the present trends are. European cinema should keep its identity. When I say “European”, I actually think of a sum of national identities. Cinema is first a reflection of a personality, then it is national, and only after that it can be called “European”. European cinema is very different from all other kinds of cinema in the world.
Dan Alexe: You mean movies are not considered a mere merchandise here, like they are in the US.
Costa Gavras: I will give you one example. An American filmmaker, a friend, told me: when we make a movie, we feel like a craftsman who would make, let’s say, a chair. First, we want to sell as many chairs as possible. Then, that chair can even acquire the status of a “Louis XVI piece of furniture, that is: a piece of art. Whereas you, in Europe, think from the beginning of chairs as representing art, and afterwards of eventually selling them.
Dan Alexe: That’s why Americans consider cinema to be a form of “entertainment”.
Costa Gavras: Whereas in Europe it is art. I would even go further. The ancient Greeks were calling this: psychagogia, which means “directing the soul“…
Dan Alexe: Or “manipulating the spirit“…
Costa Gavras: I would rather direct some souls.
Dan Alexe: So you are totally in favour of state aid, state intervention, in cinema.
Costa Gavras: Of course.
Dan Alexe: But then the Americans argue that this is unfair, as being against the rules of competition.
Costa Gavras: The American government is helping their own cinema too. I knew very well Jack Valenti, the former president of the Motion Picture Association of America. He was often coming to Europe, meeting heads of government, whom he was haranguing… Through him I understood that all governments help their cinema.
Dan Alexe: The year 1989 brought a huge change in mentalities. There was even talk about “the end of history”, as Fukuyama put it, announcing the definitive and planetary victory of capitalism. Did this upheaval generate a change in the perception of cinema as well? Did the movie industry have to adapt to the new realities?
Costa Gavras: Well, the big change in cinema was brought by the new techniques…
Dan Alexe: … that you are avoiding.
Costa Gavras: No, I am not. It would be absurd to avoid them, since they are there.They modify the perception of what a movie is, they change the economy of the whole thing, including the fact now you can watch the same movie on a big screen, or on your phone (which is rather absurd). It is much easier now to find the movies you want. Making movies is now much more easier, especially for young people. You buy a camera, an editing program… You can learn on the spot. This is an extraordinary evolution, which is continuing without letting us knowing where it would lead us.
Dan Alexe: How does all this alter the creative process?
Costa Gavras: It brings a huge relief and a huge danger at the same time. The danger is that it might lead to a cultural uniformisation. Look at the way big companies are controlling the market. There are five or six big companies in the world that impose their own movies. We will end up by watching only what they propose. That’s why we, in Europe, are more particularly in France, are fighting for: we want to keep the “cultural exception” of every country.
Dan Alexe: And stylistically, do you see any evolution during the last two-three decades?
Costa Gavras: Certainly. The ease with which movies can be made today has simplified the whole process. That why I was mentioning the “cultural exception”. State aids have to be maintained in order for this to function, in order to be able to fund avant-guard, or exceptional movies. There is a European fund for that… If you have a co-production, you bring them the screenplay and you can obtain funding. It is never enough, but it helps.
Dan Alexe: Still, you know the arguments against this practice: that it favours an elite inaccessible to the masses, a certain “niche cinema” that nobody really wants to watch…
Costa Gavras: This is partly true, but not entirely. More and more people have been used to watching only a certain kind of movies. They think all the rest is worthless. I will give you one example: I have grandchildren. Until recently, they totally refused to watch black-and-white movie. “No”, they were whining, “it’s ugly, it’s old”… I forced them to watch black-and-white movies… Now they love them. It is a question of habit. If you only watch American movies, you might think that this is how all movies should be made. But here in Europe we must make sure that people also watch Polish and Greek and Italian movies. This is what real culture is.
Dan Alexe: Are you acquainted with the Eastern European “new wave”? For instance, the new Romanian cinema?
Costa Gavras: That is an astonishing new kind of cinema… Romanians got prizes in Cannes and practically everywhere…
Dan Alexe: Awards don’t prove much.
Costa Gavras: True. But let’s not forget that the trend in Europe is that every country have its own style in cinema. It doesn’t cost much to do that. It’s a real diversity. We should even impose that European movies are watched by the Europeans. First we watch our own movies, and those of other Europeans, then we can go over to the American and Chinese productions.
Dan Alexe: But I had interrupted you… What is your appreciation of the new Romanian cinema?
Costa Gavras: It’s an extraordinary disccovery. I hope the Romanian state will find sufficient means to support this trend. Not only financial means, there are many kinds of aid. The state TV can step into co-productions, or be made to broadcast national movies. This is how Romanian cinema, which appeared suddenly out of nowhere, could be helped to thrive. I personally was surprised to see such high-quality movies, and to see them obtaining so many awards, especially in Cannes.
Dan Alexe: Now, if you want movie-making to be national, with every country having its own national brand, what would be “European” in the sum of all this?
Costa Gavras: If every country can have its own visual brand, and if the other countries around can watch and appreciate this, this would already be something. Many countries apply a system of quotas, whereby 40% to 50 % of what is shown on TV has to be produced inside the country. The rest can be anything: American, Chinese, anything. This is actually indispensable, first in order to promote local visual culture, but also in economic terms: one can thus create jobs.
Dan Alexe: You are in favour of imposing quotas, then?
Costa Gavras: For TV programs, yes, absolutely. We need quotas. Not for the cinema, though.
Dan Alexe: What if one interprets this as if you were preaching the intervention of the state in the cultural field?
Costa Gavras: But this is precisely the role of the state: to prop up its own culture. Look at what happened in France: for years, we were only listening to British and American music. Then the state stepped in and said: “From now on 40% of the music broadcast on radio has to be French”. At first everybody said: “Yuck, we don’t like French music”… Now everybody listens to French music.
Dan Alexe: What do you think you can bring, or teach, to the new generations? We already spoke about the generation that grew up after the fall of the Wall, a generation that lacks a real ideology, and that fell under the spell of the neoliberal mantra, of all kinds of unkept promises — given that we are still in full crisis—, so what do you think you can bring them in terms of creativity?
Costa Gavras: Cinema doesn’t exist in order to solve society’s problems. All we want is to tell stories. We point our finger to what we don’t like, but it is for the people to make their own decisions. We don’t impose anything. In France, some 200 movies are produced every year. Many of them are seen by young people. These young people also watch American movies. They learn the world through images. This is what movies are for. After this, everybody is free to vote as they please, and to go wherever they like.
Dan Alexe: Do you think the end is near for the habit of watching movies in cinemas?
Costa Gavras: You know, pessimistic prophecies were made from the beginning. I remember a discussion with René Clair, beginning of the 1960s, about the imminent death of cinema because of the growing influence of TV. The following day, René Clair brought me an article called “Cinema in crisis” that he had written in… 1926!… But it is true that the movie industry has to be helped. Even De Gaulle, after the war, involved himself in this debate about “cultural exception”. European countries have finally understood this. A Brazilian film producer told me: For a country to have its own cinema is like seeing itself in its own mirror. When you look in someone else’s mirror, your image might be distorted.
Dan Alexe: But, going beyond the attitude of the governments, there is a major change in the attitude of the viewers. Earlier, cinema was a collective art, a shared experience. Today, more and more people watch movies alone at home, either on a TV screen, or in a digital format, or downloaded from the internet. Isn’t movie-making becoming something totally different from what it was meant to be?
Costa Gavras: It is still, partially, a “collective art”, which might even have its own shortcomings. Thanks to the TV and to the new media that you mentioned, more people have access to more movies, something that wasn’t possible earlier. Think of all the small towns with no cinema hall, or theatre. It is, of course, preferable to see films on a big cinema screen, because they are made for that. So much money is spent for the quality of the sound, or for the performance of the actors… But the most important thing is that a movie be seen, whatever the conditions.
Dan Alexe: But then we see a different movie, if we can’t hear the sound as it was conceived…
Costa Gavras: That’s a different approach. The viewer’s relation with what’s on screen is different in a cinema, and when he watches it at home. There, he watches it with a drink, in his slippers, while chatting with his/her companion… Conditions are different… but nevertheless, in the end he watches that movie.
Dan Alexe: So, you are are optimistic about the future of cinema.
Costa Gavras: I do. But it has to be helped. We cannot leave it in this state.