Romain Gavras Says Netflix’s ‘Athena’ Formed a ‘Dogville’ in Suburb Where it Lensed

After the edgy crime comedy “The World Is Yours,” Romain Gavras is back with thriller “Athena.” Produced by Paris-based Iconoclast for Netflix, the ambitious, €15 million film ($15 million) unfolds in the aftermath of the tragic killing of a young boy. A leaked video showing the boy as a victim of police brutality goes viral and ignites an all-out war in an imaginary community called Athena. It’s the first French movie that Netflix is presenting in competition at the Venice Film Festival.

“Athena” tells the story of the boy’s three siblings, who are responding to the tragedy in different ways. French star Dali Benssalah (“Les Sauvages,” “No Time to Die”) plays the older brother, Abdel, a French soldier. Faced with an impossible moral dilemma, Abdel is called back from the frontline to help diffuse the all-out war that has been sparked by his younger brother Karim (Sami Slimane), who wants revenge. Athena becomes the backdrop of a tragedy for both the family and its entire community. The film’s stellar cast also includes Ouassini Embarek, Anthony Bajon and Alexis Manenti.

It’s a passion project for Gavras, who co-wrote the script with Ladj Ly (“Les Miserables”) and Elias Beldeddar, as well as executive producing it.

Gavras told Variety that he and Ly wanted to tell a story about “a divided brotherhood whose pain will tear apart their community and the rest of the nation.” Through this intimate tale, Gavras said he wanted the film to expose the insidious mechanism of a civil war, “the lies that will push people to engage in it,” said the helmer who was born in Greece, where he says the “ravages of the civil war can still be felt.”

The name of the community, Athena, refers to the Greek tragedy elements of the story and means “war and wisdom.” “I like to use images and symbols to tell stories and Greek tragedies are filled with symbols, and also have a time unit — Sophocles would say that the tragedy begins at sunrise and ends at sunset.”

“Athena” was shot chronologically with long sequences, and plunges viewers into a downward spiral of violence leading to chaos.

Benssalah, who delivers a breakthrough performance in the movie, said it’s the most emotionally demanding and physical role of his career.

“We had so many long sequences to rehearse and we did so many takes that there were no small scenes, but that’s what I love too, as an actor, to push myself beyond my comfort zone, my limits and see where it leads me,” said Benssalah, who previously starred in Rebecca Zlotowski’s “Les Sauvages.”

He said the film shot mostly at night, which left him very little time to live outside of filming. “To keep up with the military mindset of my character I exercised every day before going on set, it gave me the inner strength of Abdel,” added Benssalah.

Although the backdrop of the film is imaginary, it lensed in a real suburb, in Évry-Courcouronnes, where Gavras and his team were able to cast not only extras but also many smaller parts. “90% of our cast is made of people from the neighborhood, we almost got everyone involved, from the cast to the catering and the set design,” said the helmer, whose track record in music videos includes work for Kanye West, M.I.A. and Justice. He also co-founded the film school Kourtrajmé with fellow director Kim Chapiron.

He said the film was thoroughly rehearsed during two months prior to the start of filming, which meant that by the time they started shooting they already formed a family. “It was like the Cinecitta in Evry,” quipped Gavras.

The helmer explained that the entire community saw the story of the film unfold in real time and lived through it. “We created a group dynamic within our crew and the neighborhood. It was like ‘Dogville’ in Evry,” he added with a laugher.

With his background as a visual artist, Gavras treated the form of the film with as much care as the rest of it. “We created a choreography with references tied to opera and artists like Delacroix. In France, we have this big tradition of cinema verité with handheld camera but I’m more interested in exploring images and symbolism in my films,” said Garvas.

The movie also stands out from most films about suburban youth or police brutality because it implies the role of the far-right in fueling tensions.

“It’s a film that’s between reality and fiction, it’s a big, bright and colorful film about something that could happen, or may have already happen,” said Benssalah, adding that the film’s subtext refers to what makes the world turn today, from the far right to the media.

“Athena” was produced by Charles-Marie Anthonioz, Mourad Belkeddar, Jean Duhamel and Nicolas Lhermitte at Iconoclast. It will debut on Netflix on Sept. 23.

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