Australian director Ana Kokkinos was interviewed June 21 by Kevin Thomas at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center’s Village at the Ed Gould Plaza. Kokkinos, an attractive, poised young woman, talked about her first feature film, “Head On,” in which a young man in Melbourne’s Greek-Australian community struggles with his homosexuality and family pressures to conform. It was adapted from Christos Tsiolkas’ novel “Loaded.” Born of Greek immigrant parents in Melbourne, Kokkinos was in town for Outfest ’99. The film opens Friday at the Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and the Town Center in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa.
Question: I would imagine it would be a special challenge to be a double minority such as the main character in “Head On.”
Answer: That’s the very central thing that Ari is struggling with. Not only does he have to come to terms with how to negotiate his life, the clash of cultures, that whole thing of how, coming from a Greek background, [he has to] deal with his Greek heritage and the expectations that are placed on him as a young man in terms of how he has to live his life. And then try to fit into the mainstream culture, the Anglo-Australian culture, which also has a set of rigid parameters in terms of how you conform to that society. So here is a young man who has a double whammy, who is having to negotiate all of these things.
Q: It must have been an act of courage by Alex Dimitriades to take the role of Ari.
A: When I approached Alex, I said, “Look this is going to be a very visceral film, a very in-your-face experience, very bold, and I’m not going to shy away from portraying this character in a very real and honest way. If you respond to the material, then I want a 100% commitment from you. There are no half measures with this role, you either do it, or you don’t.” He read the material, he thought it was wonderful, he connected to it on all kinds of levels.
Being a young man, [he] understood particularly the Greek-Australian question, the clash of two cultures, the conflict that creates in young people. . . . When you are young, you’re living life very intensely, you take risks. You’re hitting out against things, you’re testing yourself out, you’re trying to find out things about yourself.
Q: I love that line from the woman, his aunt: “Just get married and have the kid, and then it doesn’t matter what you do.”
A: It’s giving in to the hypocrisy. What you do is that you project a particular life, and as long as you are projecting the right kind of life, then what you do behind closed doors is really your own business. That’s a big question for Ari, a very big dilemma for him. Johnny, his friend, on the other hand, goes out to the world and says, “This is the way I am, take it or leave it.” So he challenges Ari and confronts him about the way he is living his life.
The response to the film in Athens was fantastic. I mean Greeks were finally saying, “Here is a young, new filmmaker, who is totally exploding the myth of Zorba; that’s how they read it. There is still a level of macho male in Australia. But particularly with a film like “Head On,” one of the things I was interested in exploring was also Ari’s attitude to his masculinity. He doesn’t fit that neatly or comfortably in either the Greek or the gay communities; he’s someone who is questioning a lot of things.
Q: How did the Greek-Australian community react to the film?
A: It was like a bombshell. Look, two things: The Greek-Australian community is not homogeneous. So there were very different responses. We divided the community. Generally speaking, although there are exceptions to this rule, the younger Greek-Australian audiences just loved the film, and they felt very strongly that this was a film speaking directly to them.
Coming from a Greek family, whether you are gay, straight or bi, you’ve got the same issues. Even if you are heterosexual, as a young woman for example, if you want to go and live with your boyfriend, then that is a no-no. You can expect to be ostracized for that act alone. So that the whole notion of conformity and the hypocrisy that that brings about in young people’s daily lives is very difficult. So all kinds of young people connected to that. They could see the larger issues. It wasn’t just about, “I have to be separate because I’m gay,” it’s like, “I have to be separate if I want to live my life in some true way, I have to hide things from my parents.”
The older Greek-Australian community found it very difficult. They felt affronted by the film. But a lot of really good things came out of it. There were young people that came up to me and said, “As a result of ‘Head On,’ I can now talk to my parents in a way that I have never been able to before about my sexuality.” It didn’t matter whether they were gay or straight.
What it did is that it opened up a dialogue between younger Greeks and their parents. What the film has done is that it has broken down barriers.
Q: How did the people closest to you, how did your own family respond to this?
A: Well, I am very lucky I have a very enlightened family. When my father saw the film, he came to the cast and crew screening. He came out and hugged me, and said, “Well, you are a very brave person.” And I said, “Well, what did you think?” and he said, “I don’t think I can talk about it quite yet, give me some time,” and so we talked about it over that next three- to four-week period, and he had to mull it over and think about it. I think in the end he got the film, and he said to me at some point, “You know, I think this is a really important film,” and I said “Why do you think that?” and he said, “Because it’s about freedom,” and I thought that was a very perceptive comment.
Q: So have you personally reached a point where everything sort of works for you?
A: Yes, pretty much. It’s that whole thing of, I mean I’m out, and I don’t hide . . . I’m sort of in my 30s now, but I went through a process where I realized I was gay by the time I was 15, and so I went through a very long process of having to come to terms with that, and that wasn’t easy, but I don’t think it’s easy for anyone. But once you come to accept it within yourself, then really you have the strength to tackle it and be honest about that. That’s the journey. And I’ve been in a relationship for a while now with a woman who, both of our families really are very accepting, and we’re part of each other’s families now. It’s a terrific situation.
And I think we have both worked very hard at breaking down those preconceived ideas about what it means to be in a gay relationship. I would like to think we project a positive view about being gay--that it’s not going to be all misery, difficult and torturous. But, at the same time, I don’t also identify myself as a “lesbian” filmmaker. I reject that tag. . . .
Listen, I am a filmmaker. I have the capacity to represent all kinds of characters on screen and tell a variety of stories with all kinds of characters in a compelling and interesting way for the broadest possible audience. And when you scratch the surface, I think we all have very similar needs. We all need love, we all need affection. What I am interested in doing is taking audiences on a journey, so when they come out of one of my films, they feel like they’ve had an experience, that they have seen something. A film that’s taken them somewhere.