INTERVIEWS: "Head On" with Anna Kokkinos: On Greeks, Queers, and Aussies
by Aaron Krach
Anna Kokkinos is living proof that female filmmakers don’t necessarily make “women’s films.” Her debut feature “Head On” is a rock-n-roll driven, kinetically edited, day-in-the-life of a young Greek man named Ari struggling to balance his queerness and his Greekness with white Australian society. Making her feature film debut, Kokkinos creates a vivid portrait of Australian youth-culture, with a unique mix of nihilism and kitsch. What could easily have become an earnest, political film is instead an intense, emotional and entertaining ride.
“Head On” premiered at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, played at the New Directors/New Films series in New York, won the prize for Best First Feature at San Francisco’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and a distribution deal from Strand Releasing. On the eve of her opening in New York and Los Angeles this week, Kokkinos spoke to indieWIRE about sex, gender, gay bashing and the state of Australian funding.
indieWIRE: During this summer’s queer film festivals, there was a lot of skepticism about women directing movies about gay men, (i.e. Rose Troche’s “Bedrooms and Hallways” and your film, “Head On.”). Did you ever think about it?
Anna Kokkinos: I did think about it at the beginning. I thought, “This is so interesting. Can I really go into this young man’s head?” But my entrance into the book was his Greekness and the conflict with it. Having a Greek background myself, I understood what it was like to have the clash between those two cultures and the overpowering of the desire to rebel against one’s background. All of those things I could relate to. In the end, it became about exploring his character and telling the story. So in the end, his sexuality or his gender makes no difference at all.
iW: What was the reaction to the film in the Greek community in Australia?
Kokkinos: The reactions were very deep in the Greek community. What was interesting was that the film struck a chord across a lot of different sections of community. Melbourne has the largest Greek community outside of Athens. Because of distance, stuck on the end of the world so to speak, Greek-Australians clung to their traditions more strongly than Greeks who went to London or America. Then they were very deep for the gay community. And they were also significant for a lot of young people. We really found that the film crossed over to a lot of different groups and that was satisfying.
iW: The scene in the police station where the police beat Ari and his transgender friend is particularly brutal. Was that scene based on a real incident reported in the media?
Kokkinos: There have been many, many instances of bashings of that nature in Australia. It’s not unusual to hear about them. That particular scene is not in the book. We were looking for a way to dramatize the difference between Ari and Johnny’s issues about declaring oneself. Ari believes in keeping secrets and Johnny says, “No way.” When it came to looking at how to dramatize that, there were a number of instances where people have been bashed in that way. But more importantly, there was recently a raid by the Victorian Police on a gay club called Tasty’s. The raid was quite viscous. The police went in under the pretense of looking for drugs, but really just wanted to bust a gay club. There was a huge uproar about it. What they did was they busted in and strip-searched people. It was pretty horrendous, so that’s what I mean when I say there are instances like that all the time. When I showed that scene to a cop who had worked with us on rehearsals, I asked if I had gone over the top. And he looked at me sadly and said, “No. Quite the contrary.”
iW: Because “Head On” was so successful in Australia, can you see it as some sort of symbolic change, that racism is decreasing?
Kokkinos: I think so. I think things are changing. The film deals with a lot of issues and people went to see the film. They heard that it looked great. That it was a visceral, adrenaline ride that had great music in it. That it was a compelling film. I think the film does two things. Firstly it engages audiences and once they start watching it, they can’t take their eyes off the screen. But the second thing, I think the film is not didactic. You’re not sitting through an issue film. In a way, different people went to see the film on two levels. Either you went to see it purely as sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. Or if you wanted to go deeper, and look at what the film is examining, you could do that too. But the choice is yours.
iW: Being an Australian, low-budget film, did you get a lot of government support?
Kokkinos: We funded through four different sources–primarily government funding and the private sector through the raising of distribution guarantees. We got financing from Southern Star, who was our international sales agent, and a local distribution deal with Palace films. We’ve sold to about 15 different countries, which is great.
iW: What do you think about Americans who complain about not having any government support? It seems so much easier to be a filmmaker in a country like Australia — whose government actually supports the arts.
Kokkinos: Well I think they should complain, because I think it’s important that independent filmmakers get some kind of support. The system that we’ve had in Australia has been a really vital and crucial one in terms of allowing genuinely independent films to be made. The ability for filmmakers to really be genuinely independent comes from government finances. I can understand when American colleagues look to us with great envy.
iW: What’s the feeling in Australia now? Is the financing system something the population at large is happy with?
Kokkinos: There are always attacks on the government financing system. One has to be very vigilant about it. These things can’t be taken for granted. There’s the whole debate about why we should put money into film: Why can’t the private sector do that? What that means is that you only get one kind of product emerging out of each country, and that is a totally commercial driven product. And as we know, film has the capacity to do much more than that.
iW: Does the government ever act as an investor as opposed to just giving grants?
Kokkinos: Yes. The Film Finance Corporation, who is the major feature film financing organization, is like a bank. You go in and say, “We want to you invest this amount of money,” and they’ll either agree or not depending upon whether you fit their guidelines. They are investors, so when a film makes a return, they recoup the returns in accordance to whatever the agreement was.
iW: You collaborated with two other writers on the script. How crazy did it get to have so many hands on the typewriter?
Kokkinos: It was interesting because we had some strict deadlines. When I optioned the book, it was a book that was very much of its time. I felt it was very important to make the film very quickly. So, I optioned the book and got down to adapting it. We did a lot of talking, an enormous amount of talking, drank lots of coffee and took a lot of walks in the park searching for what we think is the approach. Once we came up with that, which was to externalize Ari’s experience, it was just a question of doing it. For that, each of us would take a section. Then we would all bring it back together. I would look at all that material and say, “Okay, you take that section and such.” So by the end, we had all written across the whole thing. As the director, I was the overseer. I made sure it felt of a piece and had an overall vision.