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Newcomer Kostas Nikouli talks about his screen debut in Xenia

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In the light of current events and the general climate on the topic of immigration around the world, it’s an impressive feat for a Greek film to touch upon the subject without getting too political about it but rather focus on the humanity at the core of it all. If anything, Xenia has the merit of telling a dramatic story set within a bleak reality with humour, hopeful tones and an uplifting message.

After premiering at Cannes in 2014 in the Un certain Regard section and screening at last year’s BFI Flare, London’s LGBTQ Film Festival, this entertaining and moving dramedy finally gets released in the UK on DVD and VOD thanks to the distribution powerhouse of Peccadillo Pictures. Writer/director Panos H. Koutras (Real Life, Strella) captures the delicate balance between comedy and drama, following two brothers in search of identity, a future and a place they can call home.

After their mother’s death, 16-year-old Dani (Kostas Nikouli) leaves Crete to reach his older brother Ody (Nikos Gelia) who works at a café in Athens. Being sons of an Albanian mother and a Greek father they never met, the two brothers are effectively stateless children in a country where jus sanguinis, birth right, prevails over jus soli. The disoriented Dani seeks a paternal figure in his older brother but Ody, who albeit being mature, is not much older, also needs support.

When Dani reveals their father is supposed to be in Thessaloniki and suggests tracking him down and then force him to officially recognise them, Ody is reluctant. Yet Dani lures him in with the prospect of taking part to the selections of ‘Greek Star’, the national talent show that holds auditions in Thessaloniki. Ody is a gifted singer but lacks the self-confidence to dream big but Dani convinces him to try anyway, playing up on their mutual love for 60s-70s Italian pop singer Patty Pravo. Their mother had introduced them to her music and Dani thinks that if Ody performs one of her songs at the auditions he’ll get selected.

The siblings embark on a modern odyssey of sorts that will result into a picaresque journey of self-discovery and will test their brotherly bond. Dani, lollipop constantly in his mouth, is a flamboyant force of nature and often a childish one at that. Capricious and easy to get into trouble, he’s lonely and lost; his only friend is a white bunny he always carries around and he needs guidance. Ody may have his life a bit more together but he feels trapped in it and needs to find the courage to pursue an escape route.

Filmmaker Panos H. Koutras has openly admitted how he wanted to deal with this issue of stateless children in his country since it has now reached dramatic proportions with the emergence of the far right in Greece, and more broadly speaking in the whole of Europe. He calls immigration the great tragedy of our times and wholeheartedly stands for jus soli, underlining how we should side with immigrants, help them and listen to them. After all, our privileged countries are partly responsible for their dire situation. He is against the very idea of a nation, claiming human beings must be free to choose their own nationality, especially when they were born and raised in a state they consider their country of adoption, and being deprived of this right seems outrageous.

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We spoke with one of the two co-stars of the film Kostas Nikouli, who plays Dani and just like his screen brother Nikos Gelia, was a non-professional actor when he was cast in Xenia. Like Dani, Kostas was born in Greece to Albanian parents and we asked him how was his personal experience dealing with this issue and how he feels about this difficult situation which, in the words of his director, sees young people suffer the most as they are born in a hostile world and find themselves helpless and lost.

Nikouli has a positive outlook on things: “the thing that helped me through it was that I couldn’t realise what it meant to be Albanian and Greek at the same time. When I was younger it could be rough at times with other children at school but I always tried to not focus on it. Sure I was the foreigner and some people seemed to care but others didn’t at all and that pushed me to be open about the whole thing. In a scene, Ody, my on screen brother, says ‘we have no home but this means the whole world is our home’ and that’s the theme of the film”.

Nikouli clearly strikes as a young man wise beyond his years and so we ask him what was the hardest thing whilst creating this character since it was his first film and a lead role, or at least co-lead role, nonetheless: “there are traits of Dani’s personality that I feel belong to me as well and who knows, maybe if I’d been in his situation I would’ve reacted in a similar way. Luckily I haven’t lost my mother but the director of course advised me to focus on how alone Dani is feeling as he’s lost everything and doesn’t have anyone besides that rabbit. He’s young of course but he also reacts with a sort of child-like effervescence to the difficult moment he’s going through so the hardest thing I guess was to internalise those feelings since I’ve had a different life experience. However, I approached every situation spontaneously and that’s the greatest thing of not being a professional actor: you don’t get caught in overthinking your performance and have the freedom to play. The fact my scene partner, Nikos, was also a first timer made it all even better as we were on the same journey together and there were several unscripted moments since we brought our own personalities into the roles. As a result of sharing this experience we have bonded a lot and I consider him a brother and that was the best part about making this film”.

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Speaking about the Italian songs which play an important role in these characters’ lives and give the opportunity for a few fun musical numbers, Nikouli reveals that Italian vintage pop icons Patty Pravo and Raffaella Carrá actually aren’t that big in Greece but they are in Albania where Italian culture is really strong: “I don’t listen to them nowadays but when I was little and used to go on trips with my family, my parents would always listen to Italian music in the car, especially lots of Italian artists from Eurovision like Toto Cutugno. I wasn’t familiar with Patty Pravo in particular but surely I could relate to Italian music as it brings about those dear childhood memories. Just like my character I was born in Greece but I have Albanian origins so inevitably that culture still affects me. In regards to the dance numbers, we began with improvisation and then we choreographed the whole thing but at some point the director told us to just dance and have fun in a spontaneous way without really caring about the steps”.

Given how this impressive turn was his first professional experience we wonder if there’s anything in particular that stuck with Nikouli that he will carry along in his other projects and he mentions the idea of being open to everything, to not judge things from the first impression, to not be afraid and earn respect from others: “the main thing I learned is how to make myself better and better and at first I felt the pressure to make other people proud. But the hardest part is to continue to make them proud and that’s when I realised I only need to make myself proud and happy. This whole journey started within me and I need to focus on myself. After Xenia I’ve done two other features and five shorts and of course I managed to balance my energy much better and I can feel that each new experience defines me as a person. I’m very ambitious about my future and want to do everything right so, since I’m in the graduating year at my school, I want to focus on that and close that chapter”.

When asked about whether he got representation after Xenia he mentions how unfortunately in Greece they don’t have agents and he got to audition because of a casting call that came to his school looking for Albanian kids fluent in Greek. It was his last year of high school and he had figured out he wanted to become an actor so he said, why not? Once again, for this young star in the making it’s all about being open to possibilities: “I think there’s nothing to lose by putting yourself out there and meeting people. You can just meet a director and see if you establish a good connection and if you do so on a personal level, then you will certainly be able to have that connection whilst working but if you don’t get along, then why waste your time? Not having agents in Greece is hard on one side but on the other side you’re more in control of your choices. Just be yourself and everyone will see that”.

Although the reality depicted in Xenia is rather bleak, the tone overall is hopeful and there are many humorous moments. Nikouli agrees and explains how he thinks the film is very truthful to life because in life you have both drama and comedy: “I hope people come out of the film with a smile and realise you can’t just wait for anything in life that never came. And even if you reached a goal, then find another one. Don’t ever stop or settle. If you find what you are looking for, life is no longer worth it, so always keep looking for new exciting things”.

Xenia is now out in the UK on DVD and VOD.

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One Comment

  1. Kostas Nikouli, in both look, attitude and potential, reminds me of James Franco and River Phoenix, with just a dash of James Dean. He has a bright future as an actor, if he so chooses. To think this was his first significant foray into acting is extremely impressive.

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