Costa-Gavras’ Brand of Political Drama Finds Safe Harbor in Mill Valley

By most measures, 1969 was a vintage year for anti-establishment American cinema (“The Wild Bunch,” “Easy Rider,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Midnight Cowboy”). But the most daring and dangerous movie to hit U.S. theaters that year was a French-Algerian co-production made by a Greek, “Z” — the thinly veiled account of the killing of a leftist politician, the investigation, the cover-up and the not-so-happy ending — based on the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963 and a brazen affront to the military junta then ruling Greece.

“Z” marked a kind of urgent political defiance that set the bar for agitprop filmmaking. It made the “revolutionary” competition seem pale by comparison.

The director, of course, was Costa-Gavras, who would become synonymous with political cinema. The filmmaker’s work, the subject of an upcoming tribute at the Mill Valley Film Festival

While he often addresses the intrusion of first-world countries in second- and third-world affairs of state, Gavras is always attuned to the problems buried within the societies of those countries, and their people, and which they often would rather not address.

When, Gavras, a naturalized French citizen, is honored at Mill Valley on Oct. 4 at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, it will not just be for his politics, but for a body of work as artistic as it is progressive, and which continues to both provoke and inspire.

“When asked why he only makes political films, Costa-Gavras replied that every film is political, no matter what your intention is,” says Greek producer Konstantinos Kontovrakis, whose “Wasted Youth” and “Standing Aside, Watching” were both shown at the recent Toronto Film Festival. “This phrase resonates greatly with me, as it expresses an ethical stance towards filmmaking and reminds me of my responsibilities as a filmmaker towards the rest of the world.”

Another Greek filmmaker, Giorgos Karnavas, says Gavras “has always been a mythological figure for us.” Karnavas, whose “Boy Eating the Bird’s Food” has just been named the Greek entry for the foreign-language film Oscar race, says Gavras is “a person who has been making relevant and political films the last 40 years and is respected through out the world for the right reasons.”

Mark Fishkin, Mill Valley’s executive director, says Gavras’ latest production, “Capital” — about bankers, hedge funds and global financial shenanigans — is a natural for Mill Valley and will be shown as part of the tribute. “It’s got sex, money, power, and great cast, including Gabriel Byrne, and an auteur’s vision,” he says. “It’s in the great Costa-Gavras tradition.”

While Fishkin says “Capital” provided an impetus to honor Gavras, it also marks the end result of long campaign to woo a great director to the festival. “We’ve been trying to get him for years. All I can say is, it’s about time.”

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