A German-speaking juvenile offender community in northern Greece is the unlikely setting of “Daniel ‘16,” the second feature film from Dimitris Koutsiabasakos. Based on real events, it tells the story of a teenage delinquent struggling with rehabilitation in a small town near the Turkish border, who forges an unexpected bond with a young Syrian refugee.
“Daniel ‘16” is set against the backdrop of a refugee crisis in Europe that peaked in 2015, but continues to this day. Koutsiabasakos said there is something universal in the themes he explores in his latest feature. “I believe that the history of mankind is, above all, a refugee history,” the director told Variety. “There is no nation or state that has not experienced it at some stage.”
Produced by Yorgos Kyriakos and Costas Lambropoulos of Athens-based View Master Films, “Daniel ‘16” has its domestic premiere this week at the Thessaloniki Film Festival, which runs online Nov. 5-15. Variety caught up with Koutsiabasakos to talk about working with first-time actors, making the transition from documentary to fiction filmmaking, and tapping into the loneliness that inspired his film.
First of all, can you tell me what inspired “Daniel ‘16”?
Although the film is based on real events, what really inspired the story of the film is the feeling of being alone, socially excluded, to have lost a loved one and to be distrustful of people, even though, deep down, you are looking for them. This is a hard and unbearable feeling that today, unfortunately, dominates our world. It is this feeling that characterizes, above all, the refugee crisis in all its forms. So this feeling inspired the story of a teenager from Germany with a deviant behavior sent to Greece to serve his sentence, and during the film he will be severely confronted, but eventually he will find his way.
The film is set in a German-speaking juvenile offender community near the Turkish border. How did you first hear about these communities?
An article in a widely circulated Greek newspaper a few years ago, which talked about the operation in Greece, since the 1980s, of institutions for German teenagers with mildly delinquent behavior, made a great impression on us. Starting the search, we located one of them in an abandoned village of Evros, near the border with Turkey. We contacted the people in charge and with their permission, we visited them. We explained to everyone who we are and what we wanted to do and they trusted us and helped us in our research. And we thank them very much for that. It is an open community, located in a rural area, in a small village that has been abandoned by its inhabitants. The teenagers go to school in the community, take care of their daily life, engage in agricultural work and visit the nearby town every week.
You get two strong performances out of the actors who play Daniel, the young German in the juvenile offender home, and Nidal, the young refugee. Can you tell me more about their acting backgrounds and what it was like working with them?
A great difficulty in this film was that the leading roles are minors and are played by young people who had no previous experience with acting. That’s why we started rehearsals very early. I had already planned a program that aimed to introduce Nikolas [Kisker], Alexander [Liakopoulos Buchholz], and Filopateer [Adel Hafiz Anas Mogras] to the realistic acting I was looking for. We started with drama games, and when I found out that they started to feel comfortable with their bodies and emotions, we proceeded to improvisations with various techniques. Only in the last stage did we rehearse with the script of the film. Then we started using a camera to watch and comment on the rehearsals. It was a very enjoyable and rewarding process. At this stage we started rehearsing with the other roles, played by professional actors.
I was very happy because the kids were ready faster than I expected [for] real shooting conditions. The ones we didn’t rehearse are the emotionally intense scenes. And I think we finally did it right because the kids found a way to perform them in their own, exceptional way.
The home where Daniel lives is meant to rehabilitate him and help him evolve as a young man, but in the end, it’s his relationship with Nidal that forces him to confront his troubled past and try to move on. Do you think this speaks to a larger truth about how we relate to the people and the world around us, and what ultimately inspires us to change?
This is a very interesting observation. Script-wise, we treated the community as a “family” whose cohesion is being tested for a variety of reasons, is “dysfunctional” and unfortunately, at this stage, is unable to play its role. Daniel finally finds his redemption outside the family, in the person of a refugee, a child from Syria. I think this is promising because it shows that one can find one’s way without the help of the family. This is something that also stems from my own personal experience.
“Daniel ‘16” is set against the very specific background of the refugee crisis in Greece. How do you feel this film speaks to global audiences?
I believe that the history of mankind is, above all, a refugee history. There is no nation or state that has not experienced it at some stage. That’s why it’s a very familiar subject to all people. On another level, we often become refugees in our own country, in our own “normal” life. Either when we lose our job and are desperately looking for something to save us, or when we lose a loved one, or when we are forced to make a fresh start.
After making two fiction films early in your career, you’ve spent the past 14 years making documentaries. What made you return to fiction with “Daniel ‘16,” and how would you say documentary work informed your approach to this film?
Indeed my last fiction film, “The Guardian’s Son,” was shot 14 years ago. I spent a lot of time shooting documentaries. This was rather an emotional need. It was a very fruitful period that helped me to understand many things about both people and cinema itself. I have to admit that I originally wanted to make a documentary about the community in Evros. In the process, however, I realized that the subject itself has important aspects that could not be presented with this film type. And so, of course, I returned to fiction.