Happy Birthday (2017)

Director/Screenwriter: Christos Georgiou

2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 2008, an average 15-year-old boy named Alexandros Grigoropoulos was gunned down on a quiet street in Athens after he got into a verbal clash with a couple of cops serving as Special Guards, who are assigned to protect public property. The person who killed him was one of those guards, and almost immediately, Greek youth exploded in rage. Widespread demonstrations devolved into riots, with protesters flinging Molotov cocktails at both property and the police sent in to quell the violence. Christos Georgiou, the director and screenwriter of Happy Birthday, made a documentary in 2010 called Children of the Riots that revisited some of the people involved in the riots to try to understand their actions and motivations.

Now Georgiou has turned to fiction to further explore the conflict and the people who were caught up in it. Happy Birthday opens on a nighttime riot. Police officer Yiorgos (Dimitris Imellos) has been celebrating his birthday in a mobile police station with some of his colleagues when a rioter throws a Molotov cocktail at the truck. The cops exit the truck and pursue the firebombers. As teargas fills the air, Yiorgos spots his daughter Margarita (Nefeli Kouri) crouching behind a wall, watching him and ensuring that he can see she that is part of the protest. She runs off to meet her revolutionary boyfriend, Konstantinos (Vasilis Magouliotis), for a rooftop celebration and a Molotov cocktail for the road.

The father and daughter next meet at home, where Sofia (Mirto Aikaki) presents her husband with some flowers we saw her bring home from her florist shop and a birthday cake, which Margarita drops contemptuously at Yiorgos’s feet. Sofia demands that Yiorgos and Margarita go to their house in the country, far from the demonstrations and distractions, to try to work through their differences.

Cypriot director Georgiou has taken an intelligent approach to a politically explosive topic by centering Happy Birthday around two people who love each other but are hurting each other in significant ways. Margarita and Yiorgos are not just having a generational conflict, even though the two behave in childish and familial ways; for example, Margarita chooses to sleep outside rather than share a roof with her father, only to have Yiorgos toss down his blankets next to hers. Their fundamental views of humanity are seemingly opposed; it is this gap with which many societies are wrestling that forms the underlying tension in the film.

That gap comes into sharp focus when Konstantinos arrives at the house after a pair of immigrants steal Margarita’s cellphone and inadvertently call him. He and Yiorgos get along famously, enjoying the rebellious act of climbing a fence to “borrow” a barbecue grill from some wealthy, absent neighbors and clown around on their estate, but the camaraderie ends when Konstantinos finds out that Yiorgos is the enemy and abandons Margarita. Konstantinos puts Margarita in the position of having to choose the cause (and him) over her father, affirming the feminist assertion that the personal is the political.

There are moments in the film that quite took my breath away: Yiorgos finding his policeman’s uniform, including nightstick and and shin guards, laid out on his bed, showing him what Margarita sees when she looks at him—an empty symbol of authority that has consumed and disappeared her father. Yiorgos tossing a mattress, clothes, and toys from Margarita’s childhood out the window of her old bedroom in an effort to “get rid of some junk.” Yiorgos bashing his riot helmet to pieces after seeing Margarita’s stricken expression after witnessing a disturbing episode of police abuse.

In the end, Yiorgos and Margarita reach an understanding through mutual pain. It remains to be seen whether their bridge remains intact.

Happy Birthday will screen Saturday, March 10 at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, March 14 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

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