‘ATHENA’ Director Romain Gavras on What Inspired His Explosive New Film

Sami Slimane in ATHENA by Romain Gavras

Direct from the Venice Film Festival comes ATHENA, the new visually stunning thriller from acclaimed French director Romain Gavras.

After the death of his youngest brother following an alleged police altercation, French soldier Abdel returns home to Paris to find his family torn apart. Caught between his younger brother Karim’s desire for revenge and the criminal dealings of his older brother Mokhtar, he struggles to calm the rising tensions as their community, Athena, comes under increasing fire – both in the literal and metaphorical sense.

From its breathless opening sequence onwards, ATHENA is packed with any number of astonishing moments as it takes a riveting, all-too-timely look at police corruption, militant protest and the tangled interplay between nationalism and personal duty.

Thanks to a special deal with the Rio Cinema in Dalston, VICE readers and Deeper Into Movies fans can check out the film for a mere £5 – ticket link here. Read on for Gavras’s rundown of the inspirations behind ATHENA.

– Deeper into Movies

Throughout my life and my upbringing, I have been inspired by Greek tragedy. I am fascinated by its symbolic significance, unity of time and way of transcending reality. I wanted to get closer to this method of storytelling: to translate it into images and create an immersive cinematic experience. ATHENA could have taken place at any time in the past or the future. Behind every war hides a manipulation; an original lie. History repeats itself, from the Trojan War to contemporary wars. There are always forces in the shadows that feed the conflict. These forces know that when intimate pain is too great, violence blinds thought; and when the nation is fragile, it is easy to push it into the precipice.

For ATHENA, my main inspiration came from Greek tragedy, its narrative structure and form, and the symbolism it conveys. I also took inspiration from cinema and art, as well as my own music videos. Below are just some of them… 

‘Ran’ by Akira Kurosawa (1985) 

Ran portrays well-ordered battles; in ATHENA, the riot police look like modern-day samurais, while the young people are all in football tracksuits. Staying credible and using contemporary codes [like this] while telling a timeless story was the stimulus for the project. Also, I love castles burning.

‘Gladiator’ by Ridley Scott (2000)

I’m drawn to movies where there are horses, swords… it’s impossible not to think of Gladiator. I was inspired by the tragic side of the movie, the blood, war, family… Within it you have the themes of revenge and radiant, troubled characters. There are also these flashback moments filmed in sepia. They are almost too much – a caricature – but it works. On ATHENA, we tried to find a balance between the elegance and the extreme. As soon as you go down the route of the classics and choirs, you have to let go of the horses.

‘I Am Cuba’ by Mikhaïl Kalatozov (1964)

This Russian movie filmed in Cuba is the Bible for long takes. The camera was strapped onto and moved with cranes; it’s the important reference point for everyone who does long takes. In ATHENA, everything is done mechanically, and it works well as we also had a desire to not use 3D, and to use mechanical machinery for the camera work.

‘War and Peace’ by Sergei Bondarchuk (1966-67)

When I was a kid my father made me watch a lot of Russian films, and War and Peace always stayed in my mind. It was my favourite movie at age eight. I loved the scale of its impossible shots and the number of extras. I remember thinking in my lil boy mind: ‘If I can’t become president when I grow up, I want to do films like that!’

It’s the film that features the most extras, joke being that if Napoleon had as many as they had in the film he would have won the war.

‘Son of Saul’ by László Nemes (2015)

This movie is amazing at suggesting [what’s happening in] the background: the relationship between the hero and the world in which he is evolving. You understand everything that’s happening behind him without being demonstrative. 

‘Apocalypse Now’ by Francis Ford Coppola (1979)

This film demonstrates excess, a tragedy, something terrible, by breathing poetry and lyricism into it. I feel like it transcends the Vietnam war movie, and ATHENA is also an attempt to transcend the codes of the “hood” movie.

‘Bloody Sunday’ by Paul Greengrass (2002)

Even if the form and camera work of Bloody Sunday is very different to ATHENA, there’s the impression of holding your breath throughout the whole movie. This feeling continues as the story progresses and we head towards a tragic end.

‘Amarcord’ by Federico Fellini (1973)

At one point in ATHENA, you see the character of Zinzin in a tree shouting “I want a woman!” Later, we see him on a horse, where he shouts again “I want a woman!” It’s a direct reference to Amarcord, where you have Uncle Teo shouting his head off: “Voglio una donna, voglio una donna” (“I want a woman, I want a woman” in Italian).

‘The Battle of Taillebourg’, painted by Eugène Delacroix in 1837


Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In ATHENA, we tried to compose certain scenes and frames like paintings, with our inspirations coming from a lot of renaissance artwork, but mostly from Delacroix and his incredible ability to portray those epic battles.

‘Gosh’ by Jamie xx, ‘Stress’ by Justice, ‘No Church In The Wild’ by Jay-Z and Kanye West, ‘Born Free’ by M.I.A

I gradually realised there is also a bit of self-reference in ATHENA. This brings to a close 15 years of personal obsession with crowds, around the issue of violence, the symbolism of images and things that I’ve been able to explore in certain music videos, in some old projects that I’ve done. One of the challenges of this movie on a personal level was determining how to try to tell the story in a mature way in order to draw a line under these obsessions that keep coming back. If my music videos were singles, ATHENA is the album.

Athena will be released theatrically in the UK from 16 September, ahead of its launch on Netflix on 23 September. Buy £5 tickets to the Rio screenings here.

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