New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Many feature and short film documentaries in the 18th Annual New York City Greek Film Festival (October 18-23) proved that Greek filmmakers excel in documentary filmmaking. Whether their production reflects the economic and social crisis in Greece or comments on technology’s challenges to the country’s strong traditions, Greek documentary films are increasingly relevant to world knowledge and understanding of Greece’s history and culture.
Lucas Paleokrassas shot his feature-length documentary Citizen Xenos around “the greatest humanitarian crisis of our times”, himself. Recording the intense life changes and difficulties of refugees expecting to be integrated and of volunteers and locals, in the turbulent atmosphere of the refugee-ridden island of Lesbos, Paleocrassas’ interest is in the subject of people: the stranger, the person who receives and cares for a stranger, and how he himself feels or has felt as a stranger, hence the title Citizen Xenos.
Gregoris Vardarinos’ archive-based documentary, The Great Fire of Salonica (I Fotia Pou Gennise Mia Poli, (which could be translated, The Great Fire that Gave Birth to a City), is a classic, a flawless work narrating the experiences of Thessalonikians during the biggest and most destructive fire in the history of the city—a catastrophe of errors, which began in the most innocuous of circumstances—and then goes on to reveal the philosophy and the backdrop of the unprecedented urban change that followed, changing the city.
A serious lesson can be learned in a memorable phrase from the film that is seemingly applicable to so many, if not all, present world crises. Referring to the overall lack of concern of the population in one quarter as the fire was raging in other quarters, someone wrote (or said), “People are extremely unwilling to believe that their personal existence could be threatened by events that initially seem to concern other people.”
My Homeland’s Flag is Blue (Tis Patridas Mou I Simea) by award-winning director Stelios Charalambopoulos, a moving documentary that induced many tears through its very human touch, was filmed in the village of Vourvoura in the mountains of Arcadia. It shows Vourvoura as a lively, participatory community, living off their own produce while their children go to the village school and learn poems about the flag. But following the Nazi occupation many will leave for Australia and America, while others move to the Athens suburb of Maroussi, which then transforms into a financial hub which he describes as a facade of national pride based on consumerist fever and loans. One of the most affecting scenes in the film is the day of the closing of the village school.
Archival footage used in Tassos Boulmetis’ docu-fiction film1968, shown on Opening Night of the festival, October 18, conveys the excitement and suspense of the epic basketball victory of the AEK athletic union over Slavia Prague on April 4,1968, winning Greece its first European Cup (and becoming the “Queen of Europe”) AEK in front of a Guiness world record-breaking audience of 80,000 in the Panathinaikos Stadium. The narrator, a bus conductor (Manolis Mavromatakis), weaves the history of the AEK athletic union—formed by Constantinopolitan refugees—with social narratives, the most moving being the displacement of Greeks from Constantinople (as was Boulmetis and his family) and the formation of the AEK. One of the fictional (although not at all unlikely) stories that runs until the end is the search of an older brother for the little brother lost years before in the tumult of arrival to Greece from Turkey; a fictional Junta sympathizer; a fictional jailed Communist, and political realities like the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968 and other major changes that were taking place in the world.
Matthaios Frantzeskakis’ another documentary, Flowers fade Early: Kakopetros, August 28, 1944 (Louloudia mou Marathikan Noris), about the Second World War, is the documentary one wishes made who have made when traveling through Cretan villages in the 1960’s, listening to detailed firsthand accounts of other concurrent dire situations and experiences other villages. At dawn on August 28, 1944, during the German occupation, the enemy surrounds the small village of Kakopetros. In the late afternoon they depart, leaving 23 dead. Five survivors of that carnage tell what happened that rainy Monday and what has happened since.
Me and my shadow: A documentary about Nikos Papazoglou (Ego ki o iskios mou) by musicians Michalis Aristidou and Ioannis Grigoropoulos provides an intimate view of Papazoglou’s creativity and passion for music through interviews of friends and Papazoglou’s fellow musicians through the years, which generally promoted the image of an artist with confidence in the quality of his output, beloved by his friends, and one who loved to produce music under casual, undemanding circumstances.
Zacharias Mavroeidis’ documentary Across Her Body (Sto Soma Tis) is an homage to an archetype of Greek motherhood that was commonplace in post war society but now is
becoming obsolete in modern Greece. Every July 31st, Mrs. Irene and the other remaining “Fifteeners” return for fifteen days to the obsolete Monastery of the Accession, on the island of Therasia, the little know twin sister island across from cosmopolitan Santorini (Thera). Staying in the empty cells of the Monastery, they prepare it for the celebration of the Accession and pray for the eternal rest of their loved ones. In between they sit gazing at the touristic traffic across Santorini’s volcanic bay, recalling past glories of the tradition of “Fifteen”. Bright, clear, and taking place on the monastery’s small, stark, white veranda, the film questions issues of faith, identity and gender by correlating three distinct bodies: the “unspoiled” body of the Virgin Mary, the deserted body of the once upon a time fertile Therasia, and their own aging bodies.
Almost none of the films in the festival was preoccupied with superficial topics. Even the lighter-hearted films, such as Despoina Kourti’s entertaining, very well-acted (actress and composer Fotini Baxevani and Ilias Moulas), short fiction film, Ourania, in which a mourning widowed shopkeeper helps a young man that ends up carrying things further, recalls the loss of youth and beauty.
The long slow shot—many times of roads or forests—so successfully used in many Greek films to convey emotions like loss and longing, appeared in many features and shorts. The road involves struggle for actor Thanassis Chalkias in Yannis Zafiris’ short fiction film, The Visit (Episkepsi), a resonant fragment. A long road plays a role in another lonely departure scene from a small village in Crete, Erfi, in an eponymous short fiction about an orphan girl living with her uncle. Earning her keep doing heavy farm chores she fails in her attempt at seduction, which can be interpreted as spurred either by desire or the hopeless reality consists of backbreaking labor, but most of all, on the girl’s very limited options in village society. The enigmatic short fiction film, Nemercka, involves a long walk through a most gorgeous forest as well as otherworldly (Epirotic?) music. And in Renee Koutoula’s Hearts for Dinner (Kardies gia fagoma) an immigrant’s struggle for self-respect is illustrated by her departure from her emotionally abusive Greek cousin’s house down a road that she is forced to continue traversing in her meagre existence as her cousin’s unappreciated housekeeper.
The term backbreaking labor takes on new meaning in filmmaker Stathis Galazoulas’ grandmother Chrisoula’s descriptions of her lifelong work as a tobacco grower in Agrinio, in the short documentary, My Mother, the Tobacco Grower , which won the 2018 NYCGFF Audience Choice Short Film Award. Seeing a play about the history of tobacco in Agrinio in which actors mimic the process of tobacco gathering and bundle sewing, prompts Chrisoula to relate her own life’s almost unimaginable routine of backbreaking labor vividly.
For more information and photos, go to www.nycgff.com