Talented Teens Take Over

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If you’re a filmmaker and no longer
a teenager, step aside.

By Vicky James Yiannias

Judging from the reception of three films by Greek American teens shown in a new special teenage filmmaker section of the Hellenic American Chamber of Commerce’s Fifth Annual New York Greek American Film Festival (October 22-30) talented teens are taking over.

The Annual No Limits Teen Video Showcase, spearheaded by Angelike Contis with the aim of encouraging more young Greek Americans to express themselves through film, was received with great audience enthusiasm at the Festival’s Gala Screening of The Island at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria on October 23. “Each one of these people is very, very talented,” said Festival Director, Jimmy DeMetro at the screening, “It’s so exciting to see these kids coming up with very, very smart movies.” The Festival and the National Herald sponsored the teen film project.

The teen films were Aroma, by Michael Kontaxis, 16, a clever comedy about the lengths some people will go to get their hands on good cookies (with animated paximadia); Don’t Be a Liar: Mafia Stories Part II, by Dennis Latos, 18, the opening, in Italian with English subtitles, to a Mafia/noir feature in which a Mafioso confronts and accuses his henchman; and De Nada, a comedy about a texting conspiracy, by Gracie Brett, 13, “a moment of comic relief in which I try to explain the process, in a comedic way, of learning a new language, and the struggles between the younger generation and technology, like cell phones, getting in the way.”

All three films, in the classic -- and usually necessary -- style of independent filmmaking, feature relatives or friends.

Interviews with the three filmmakers revealed the astonishing information that these films were by no means their first filmmaking efforts. All three have made numerous films and even won awards, and the earliest starting age was seven.

“Since Aroma I’ve made about 10 short films, varying in genre and length says Michael Kontaxis, a second generation Greek American from Palm Springs, CA, and a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, who shot his first movie at seven. Aroma, his “first attempt at telling a story,” was written, shot, and edited in half a day for a 24-hour film festival sponsored by Apple. His list of awards includes 9 awards such Best Up and Coming Director (Aroma), Best Screenplay, Best High School Film, Best Picture for several other films. Currently he is working on his “most difficult and most ambitious project to date, a 30-minute short film called Smartie Pants, which he wrote and filmed over the summer and is now editing so it will “hit the festival circuit this Thanksgiving.”

Second generation Greek American Dennis Latos, a Flushing native and a freshman at Emerson College in Boston, who made his first film (a war film on the island of Kephalonia) when he was eight, has completed two main films -- Mafia Stories and Our Next Door Neighbor a short film/documentary “that talks about poverty in New York City and our failure to address it or act upon it” -- 15-20 short videos, and two music videos. Latos is currently working on two films, Mafia Stories Part II and a still untitled first feature he is starting to shoot this month.

Fourth generation Greek American, Gracie Brett, of Bel Air, MD an eighth-grader who began making films in the fifth grade, tips the scales at 50 short and 3 longer films. She is currently working on a feature called Super, about teenage super heroes, and writing the scripts for a comedy spy movie and a musical about a girl whose only wish is to become famous.

The passion of all three for making films is palpable. “I truly do love filmmaking more than anything, and hope to never give my passion up,” says Gracie Brett, “De Nada is certainly not my last film. I have ambitions to become a director in the future.”

“I love making films. This is my dream job and something I was destined to do. Becoming a Hollywood film director is my ultimate and most important goal and means the world to me,” says Dennis Latos. “I’m tenacious and will never, ever, give up. I want to be one of the few Greek-American Hollywood film directors that makes a name for himself and can give back to the huge Greek community.” Latos is currently working on two films, Mafia Stories Part II and his still untitled first feature, starting to shoot this month.

And the filmmakers already have strict standards. Latos confesses that as a filmmaker he is never satisfied. “There is always room to make something better and better and better,” he says, and although Michael Kontaxis is eager to experiment with new genres and new styles he has one unbreakable rule: the movie must remain “pure”. “If I can’t show it to my spiritual father without feeling somewhat ashamed, I’ve failed. I particularly like when my short films end with a character’s decision to be morally upright, correcting the error of his ways moving into the future.“

What factors played a role in Angelike Contis’s teen film choices? “I think the different voices are very interesting. Aroma's director, Michael Kontaxis, is amazing in the structure and technical merit of his film, the sophistication of expression, even though he was just 12-13 when he made it. He has a very sharp sense of humor and artistic vision.” Gracie Brett, says Contis, who casts her cousins in De Nada, is “very much a filmmaker of tomorrow. From the time she got her camera 2 years ago, she's made 50 youtube films.” Contis observes that although it may be not be immediately obvious on the first viewing of De Nada, “an interesting questioning of why we need to learn Greek” came through for her on the second viewing. “It's extinct” one little girl says of the language. With some polishing, Gracie can express herself more and more, says Contis. “And finally, Dennis Latos bowled me over with his enthusiasm and drive. He was the first to apply and is a film student who shows here his grasp of a particular genre, Mafia/noire. It was kind of cool too, that this intro to a future film is in Italian with English subtitles.”

“We’re definitely planning already on having The Annual No Limits Teen Video Showcase again for next year's festival,” says Contis.


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