Wasted Youth Dir. Argyris Papadimitropoulos & Jan Vogel

[Oxymoron Films; 2011]

Styles: realist drama, new lost generation
Others: Kids, Paranoid Park, Elephant

Loosely based on the events that led to the December 2008 riots in Greece after the tragic death of a 15-year-old student by the hands of two policemen, Wasted Youth is the first feature by director Jan Vogel, who shares credits alongside Argyris Papadimitropoulos. Taking place in a single day, Wasted Youth develops itself in a twofold narrative, and it does so with a few noticeable contradictions.

In the first narrative, we are presented with Harris, a 16-year-old boy who spends his time hanging out with friends, searching for hotspots to skate on, flirting with girls, and waiting for what promises to be the highlight of the day: a party later on the evening. With the exception of the final climatic minute, we are faced here with what Matthew Flanagan described as an aesthetic of slow that “compels us to retreat from a culture of speed, modify our expectations of filmic narration and physically attune to a more deliberate rhythm.” This “emphasis on quietude and the everyday,” as Flanagan argues, serves as a counterpoint to a tendency in mainstream cinema towards fast-paced and abrupt editing choices. Cinema slows down to capture the dull pace at which life slowly develops, while dramatic tones and conventional storyline are reduced in favor of an appreciation of temps mort and non-events. In this sense, Wasted Youth beautifully drags on like a hot summer day in Athens should.

Curiously enough, for a film entitled Wasted Youth, it is as much about Harris and his peers as it is about Vasilis, an unhappy, frustrated, and depressed middle-aged man facing the desperation of being stuck in an underpaid job in the midst of a social and economic crisis. It becomes clear from the very start that these two strangers will meet paths at some point. Even for those unfamiliar with the tragedy behind the 2008 Greek riots, the handheld camera is used in such a way as to build tension even in the most mundane of situations, foreseeing the tragic consequences that will result from this encounter.

This overused, Babel-esque narrative choice awkwardly conflicts with the languor that makes up for the large portion of the film and risks placing Wasted Youth too close to mainstream narrative cinema. That is not a problem in itself, but for a film that so successfully aims for a naturalistic approach, the increasingly tense narrative can be somewhat disruptive. This contradiction brings to mind Maya Deren’s debate regarding the two axes that comprise a film. On the one hand, there is what she calls the horizontal narrative: the dramatic construct where one action leads to another and serves to develop the storyline. On the other hand, cinema also relies on the vertical narrative, responsible for the creation of mood and ambiance, or, as she herself defines it, the “poetic construct.” While Deren claims that the particularity behind the cinematic art is the possibility of combining these two elements, she condemns the fact that cinema has too often relied on straightforward horizontal narratives rather than its poetic vertical possibilities. It is precisely in its vertical elements that Wasted Youth becomes a powerful film and manages to lure us into a voyeuristic and lyrical experience. I could have gladly stayed four more hours inside the cinema just watching those characters go on about their daily lives.

Being the mood piece that it is, the cinematography plays a central role in Wasted Youth, and it is nothing short of impressive. Even more impressive is the fact that this was achieved with a shoestring budget, a shooting timeline of a couple of days, improvised dialogue, and usage of amateur actors who mostly go by their real names (with a few exceptions, such as Ieronimos Kaletsanos, who delivers an impressive performance as Vasilis). Clearly inspired by Gus Van Sant — as the directors themselves have claimed — Wasted Youth invites us to a deliberately dreary, yet graceful journey across Athens while effectively using slow-motion shots that serve no other purpose than to slow time down and allow us to appreciate the beauty behind simple movements, be it a motorcycle ride across the city or a nighttime skating session inside abandoned pipes.

Wasted Youth could be summarized as a naturalistic film with a climax. As David MacDougall once said (while quoting Dai Vaughan), the main difference between film and reality is that film is about something, whereas reality is not. Even if it lacks Gus Van Sant’s finesse in combining tragic real life events with a deliberately slow paced rhythm, Wasted Youth is a remarkable debut that employs skillful camerawork while building parallels to Greece’s current social crisis to assert the bleak message that the ennui of today’s youth is destined to become the hopelessness of tomorrow’s years.

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