IFFR 2011: WASTED YOUTH review

("MALAKA" sounds like an awesome word until you know what it means in Greek...)

This year the International Film Festival Rotterdam started with the world première of the Tiger-nominated Greek film "Wasted Youth" by co-directors Jan Vogel and Argyris Papadimitropoulos. In it the mood of a hot summer's day in Athens is described by closely following two of its citizens during their daily activities, on to a surprising conclusion.
Inspired by a true incident which shocked Greece, "Wasted Youth" was made at breakneck speed using a mix of both professional actors and amateurs, mostly improvising their scenes. Does the film still succeed in getting a message across?

Read on...


The Story:

It is a summer's day in Athens and people are hot and irritable, more so than usual because of the economic crisis. Haris doesn't care though: he is sixteen and school is closed. All he wants is to cruise the sloping streets of Athens on his skateboard with his friends, doing some misschief and hunting for booze, girls and parties.
But aging policeman Vasilis DOES care about the crisis, enough so to blow off a business venture he tried to set up with friends. Stressed and disillusioned he spends a sleepless day preparing for a night shift, one of too many in a row.

Haris and Vasilis are about to meet, and it won't be happy.


The Movie:

It is almost easier to write about what "Wasted Youth" isn't than about what it is. For starters it is not a documentary about the incident which started the Greek riots of 2008, when a 15-year old student was shot by the police. That took place in December, hardly when Athens is at its hottest, and under different circumstances.

Wasted-Youth-ext1.jpgBut it also is not a regular drama or thriller. Argyris Papadimitropoulos and Jan Vogel used no script and only the flimsiest of storylines to make their film. A few key roles were filled by professional actors (like Ieronimos Kaletsanos who plays Vasilis), but most are amateur actors basically playing themselves, even using their own real names, including the skateboarding youth Haris. Everybody is either "just doing their thing" or improvising on the spot.

As such you could argue that this film is one of those docu-hybrids, of which there were several this year at the IFFR: documentaries where halfway through an artificial narrative is introduced. A new fad perhaps? Thing is, "Wasted Youth" does not really fit there either: it starts and ends with a narrative but meanders seemingly aimless in the middle part, following Vasilis and the youths through their respective day. And although not much happens, you do get the idea that you start knowing them quite well. Tragically almost, as both leads (and I don't think this is a big spoiler) most certainly do not deserve what's coming to them.

The acting is decent throughout. Ieronimos Kaletsanos is very good, while Haris Markou and the other youths are fine as long as they can be themselves. That is not meant as damning praise by the way: most people generally turn into stuttering wrecks the moment a camera is pointed their way.

Speaking of cameras: where the film truly shines is in its cinematography and its sound design. I have been lucky enough to visit Athens several times, and this is truly what that city is like during the summer. Many don't realise just how unfathomably LARGE Athens is but its off-white lowrises cover horizon to horizon, while the many hills in it give the streets a very three-dimensional feel. And when it's hot the middle of the city does start to feel like you're in a giant pressurecooker.
And that is the feeling we get here: as noon approaches, Haris and Vasilis are in a pressurecooker. Loud background noise is everywhere and a nervous camera seems as hot as the rippling air radiating off of everything.

But as the evening starts things quieten down a little. When the camera starts tailing the skateboarders as they leisurely slalom down the hills to the beachside where the parties are you feel relieved. It certainly doesn't feel like these guys are wasting their youth. The camerawork gets even stronger after nightfall, with the digital gear making full use of the natural lighting and managing to frame some lovely pictures. Seeing this film in a cold midwinter Rotterdam sure made me yearn for a meditterranean visit.

And this is the strongest point of "Wasted Youth". Without ever stooping to becoming a travel advertisement it shows an authentic Athens in both its charms and its ugliness. Forget about the few touristic highlights that everyone knows, this film takes place in the many streets you have to traverse for hours to get from one sight to the next, and which are alternatingly awesome and horrible in their own right.

Hardly a restful place for people who feel on-edge, which I guess is one of the points of the film.
Oh, and "MALAKA"? That means "wanker" and apparently they say it a lot in Athens...


Conclusion:

The story here won't win awards but managing to capture the feel of a hot day in Athens is a worthwhile thing in itself, and "Wasted Youth" certainly manages to do that.
Directors Argyris Papadimitropoulos and Jan Vogel slowly build on the strengths of their almost documentarian approach and deliver a film that gets stronger and stronger towards the end.

Don't expect any sort of action thriller here nor any deep drama, but as a mood piece on the current atmosphere in urban Greece "Wasted Youth" is very satisfying indeed. Recommended.

The audience at the IFFR thought so as well and awarded the film with a 3.6 out of 5, which I think to be somewhat low but only a bit.
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