The 4th edition of Hellas Filmbox Berlin is taking place from January 16 to 20, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the support of the Ministry of Digital Policy, Telecommunications and Media. The Festival returns at the historic Babylon cinema, with a programme of more than 40 fiction, documentary and VR films, special events and discussions that will bring German audiences, the Greek diaspora, film makers and artists together.
The Opening event of the Festival is focused on the German occupation period of WWII. The Festival’s opening film is “The Last Note” (2018) by Pandelis Voulgaris, attended by Voulgaris, scriptwriter Ioanna Karistiani and the protagonist André Hennicke. The screening will be subtitled in German and followed by Q&A on the German occupation.
Celebrated Greek singer Maria Farantouri and German artist Michaela Meise will perform the “Ballad of Mauthausen” at the opening ceremony, a four song cycle composed by Greece's best-known living composer, Micky Theodorakis that was released in 1966. The songs are about the Holocaust, the lyrics written by the Greek poet and playwright Iakovos Kampanelis. Farantouri’s performance was decisive for the success of the Mauthausen songs.
The Festival closing film will be Tassos Boulmetis’ docudrama “1968”, a chronicle of AEK Greek basketball team beating SLAVIA of Prague and winning the European Cup. Former winner of the Festival for his film “Mythopathy”, Boulmetis will be in Berlin for the screening of his film.
“Pause” (2018) dir. Tonia Mishiali
The Official Competition section Emerging Greeks Competition will feature first or second feature fiction films by emerging film makers. The competing films are: “Pause” by Tonia Mishiali, “The Surface of Things” by Nancy Biniadaki, “The Son of Sofia” by Elina Psykou, “Do it yourself” by Dimitris Tsillifotis and “Afterlov’ by Stergios Paschos.
The Documentary section includes 6 films, including “Obscuro Barocco” by Evangelia Kranioti, “Dolphin Man” by Lefteris Charitos and “Kick out Poverty” by Menelaos Kramaghiolis who will attend its screening.
The programme includes special screening of five films, among which “Polyxeni” by Dora Masklavanou, the “New vision” section and the short films section with “Hector Malot: The Last Day of the Year” by Jaqueline Lentzou among them.
The Festival programme includes a presentation by Lefteris Kretsos, Deputy Minister of Digital Policy, Telecommunications and Media, tittled “Audiovisual Industry: Α Growth Challenge for Greece”, on the growth of the audiovisual industry and the new financial incentives for audiovisual productions in Greece. The presentation will be followed by discussion with professionals, journalists and the audience. Deputy Minister will analyse the parameters of the new term “cash rebate” –the financial return of 35% of any production expenses made in Greece- and the new friendly financial environment that enhances the motives to make audiovisual productions and co-productions in the country.
A comment by Asteris Koutoulas, initiator and creative director of the Festival
Asteris Koutoulas, a Berlin-based Greek-German music and event producer, publicist, filmmaker and author, initiated Hellas Filmbox Berlin, as an affirmative artistic response to the wave of negative coverage of news from Greece in Germany, talked to Greek News Agenda* about the perception of Greece in German society.
You were the initiator of Hellas Filmbox Berlin, the first Greek film festival in the German capital in 2016, as an opening for a constructive dialogue between Greece and Germany and as an affirmative artistic response to the wave of negative coverage of news from Greece in Germany. How has the perception of Greece in German society evolved over the last years?
Compared to the period 2010-2015, when Greece was an ongoing topic for Germany, these days one could almost get the impression that Greece is no longer an issue in Germany at all. While on some days the news about Greece used to arrive "almost every second", now it is only very sporadic. For us, however, the Greek-German reality is much more than just what is currently being discussed in the media. Germany, Greece: two terms pushed back and forth; unrealistically, in our opinion. It was unbearable to experience that at that time; Greece was only reported about in a negative way. For us, an unbelievable, an unacceptable process. In the meantime, alarm bells were ringing in Germany on a daily basis, with discussions on the rise of hatred and anger in Germany becoming a serious threat to democracy. It is not clear whether Germany will manage to save what still exists of its democratic conditions. Paradoxically (and tragically, of course), not only both countries, but the whole of Europe has this problem now. However, both countries also have outstanding artistic potential and are generate creative impulses. Art is still a corrective. That's why we (..) founded Hellas Filmbox Berlin. The film festival was supposed to be an opportunity to simply see a lot of films from and about Greece. Even if you think you can't change anything, you can still choose between falling asleep and staying awake. You can dance, fall in love, do something completely "different". All of that is necessary.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
Read also: Interview with Asteris Koutoulas (full text), One more reason to film in Greece: A new legal framework of economic incentives, General Secretariat for Media and Communication boosting Greek Gaming & Animation, Lefteris Kretsos on bringing Greece on the global map of the Game and Film Making Industry, “Pause”: An accurate portrayal of the acute pain of oppression, Jacqueline Lentzou on the Utopia of Belonging, “Do It Yourself”: MacGyver in the fake news era, Director Nancy Biniadaki on the bittersweet taste of the Greek '80's, Director Dora Masklavanou on giving voice to the outcasts, Hellas Filmbox Berlin 2018: New face, new place and dialogues, Film Director Elina Psykou: Riding on the winds of fantasy through dark times.
Elias Kafaoglou is a writer and journalist. He has penned a number of essays and studies on themes ranging from Modern Greek literature and history to cars and foortball. Apart from his books, his literary and other articles have appeared in various magazines including 4WHEELS, Diabazo, Porfiras, I Lexi, and others.
Some of his most recent works include Greek Motoring 1900-1940 (2013) and Pedestrian – A little rebel (2016). In summer 2018 he published his latest book Democracy on the beach – A small essay on the bikini, where he the history of the famous two-piece swimsuit , especially focusing on how it was received in Greece – by everyday people, the religious conservatives, the militant Left, but also artists or the Press.
Greek news Agenda interviewed Kafaoglou* on his latest books: automobiles, the bikini and, now, digital technologies, all form part of the modernisation taking place in recent history and are thus directly linked to the very concept of democracy.
You have worked in several media, including specialised magazines such as 4WHEELS. To what extent has this experience affected the choice of subject of your books?
My work as a journalist for specialist publications did not influence my choice of subject. My engagement with the history of Greek motoring, the way Greek society perceived it, began prior to my involvement with the magazines in question. Nevertheless, the mood generated by these specialised magazines contributed to connecting the examination of motoring with the focus of my work, via discussions with older colleagues. In any case, the research on the evolution of motoring in Greece in the interwar years essentially began from scratch, since the first systematically documented work in this area, extending through the post-war years up to the 1980s, was published in 2009.
I’d say that the publisher of the Express newspaper, Spyros Galaios, was responsible for my involvement with this research. I had only just been hired, when he asked me to describe, in writing, a pencil like a car; to devise a car from a pencil! And that is how my motoring and mobile world was initiated on paper.
Your book Greek Motoring 1900-1940 is an in-depth study of a subject that had not been broached by anyone in Greece. Why did you choose those dates in particular? In your opinion, when did Greek motoring really begin to develop?
Right from the start, motor vehicles have been identified with progress, speed, free and liberated spirits. It is a token and hallmark of modernity, and it was received as such by Greek society. It is precisely this reception that I am interested in, mainly in the Greek interwar years which were a time of ‘shy modernity’. The first period of Greek motoring refers to the time from its beginning to the Balkan wars (1912-1913). It seems that the first car in Athens appeared in 1894 or 1898. In 1905 we have the first road surfacing in Athens and, thanks to George Theotokas, the city’s emblematic Syngrou Avenue was carved for construction. In 1905-1906, we have the first automobile makers, four years later the first car in Thessaloniki makes its appearance, then the first car dealers, whilst drivers are car engineers as well.
The needs of war preparations in 1912-1913 changed motoring radically: automobiles were ordered, some of them of the latest technology, and many cars together with their drivers are recruited. As early as 1913, a Car Office was established and the first driver's license was issued, while Greek engineers were performing miracles in opening roads so that the artillery could be reach firing position. Thus we cannot understand Greek motoring trends, its course in time, without studying the use of motoring in Greek military operations. After the Balkan Wars and the incorporation of new territories, the domestic market expanded, motoring gradually became part of the public consciousness, and new transportation needs are put on the table thanks to the modernisation program of then Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos.
One must also take into account the role of the Allies who settled in Thessaloniki during the First World War. Allied troops built a 900-km-long road network and left behind more than 600 trucks in Thessaloniki, whose buyers essentially provided the material for the first car dealerships. However, the decisive move towards the Greek Army’s automation and thus the wider spread of motoring took place during the Asia Minor expedition, as by June 1921 the Army engaged approximately 2,500 vehicles in various formations served by 500 officers and 3,000 soldiers.
Science and technology, as we move towards Venizelos’ four-year term in 1928-1932, becomes crucial and integral to the priorities of politicians, intellectuals, engineers and contractors of the Technical Chamber of Greece (TEE), founded in 1923, the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA), as well as the Automobile and Touring Club of Greece (ELPA), which was founded in 1924 and operated alongside the Ministry of Transportation that was established immediately after the Balkan Wars and made use of the experience of ELPA’s 117 entrepreneurs and academic founding members. On May 25, 1928, speaking at the Liberal Club of Athens, Venizelos expressed his intent to transform Greece through motoring and the construction of a national road network, with automobiles serving as lever for growth, a target also proclaimed in Parliament. Beyond that, from 1936 onwards, everything became subject to war preparations. It is precisely this line of developments that interested me, and doing research is always such a blissful exercise.
Many writers and thinkers, such as Honore de Balzac, Arthur Rimbaud, even Demosthenes referring to Nikovoulos, have made reference to the importance of walking. Would you like to tell us about the designation of the pedestrian as a "little rebel"?
The primarily public space of a city is its streets, avenues which render a city with perspective. I think streets educate the eye, signify a passage and, at the same time, a transition. They consist and recommend places and landscapes of collective memory and individual experience. I like claiming my right to the city, which I, a lover of automobiles, do not like to watch through the windows of a car, with fleeting glances of successive frames. I like to walk, to feel the ground with every step, to compose the sequence of steps and moves on the pavement, and thus rewrite again and again public space as my own space; Being a passionate walker, to write about it with my very own limbs. Pedestrians, I think, step by step, pay tribute to carefreeness, leisurely movement and the unhurried passing of time in a world that runs at high speed. When walking, we are exposed to the winds, like children and lovers. Thus, pedestrians by conviction become little revolutionaries.
How is it that you dealt with an issue such as the two-piece swimsuit, the bikini? How is the bikini related to "democracy on the beach"?
At first it was Nikos Engonopoulos and his poem “A hymn of praise to the women we love". I once wanted to be able write something about the women I loved and I love, my “harbors”, our “harbors”. Then, the sand… The traces of bodies are erased by the sand, cracks in the sands of words by the winds, in the sand, the land of oblivion, bodies lose their memory. Bodies in the sand signify - the memory of silence annihilates the silence of memory.
What are those girls lying down on the sand that I was observing trying to tell me dressed up in their passion? Wearing their two-piece swimsuits, frontier zones, what were they trying to tell me? Then the glances that I felt, like hands touching, shelters of dreams; how could an object of the material world pose questions in its time? How was it received in its time? How did Europe react to the bikini, during the ‘Golden Hundred Years’ of mobilisations and counter-culture, the children of Marx and Coca-Cola?
The Bikini was introduced on July 5, 1946, thanks to a French automobile engineer, and of course thanks to the materials and skills required. Let’s not forget that the appearance of the bikini made headline news, four days as it were after an atomic bomb was detonated over the Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands as part of nuclear testing by the USA. It became an emblem by which women could show their bodies - and in this respect, it is the absolute symbol of social distinction, since women have to spend money to maintain bodies suitable for a bikini, a measure for perfection, consistent with ‘sculpted bodies’.
Thus bikinis are sexy and revealing, they intrigue male fantasies, they are inseparable from beach culture and emblematic of carefreeness, youthfulness and comfort. A bikini highlights deadly beauty but also unites and divides, since it both compels respect towards the female body that it draws attention to, makes the body on the beach desirable but from a distance; It is a case of style, but also a prominent statement of freedom. Thus, the bikini signifies democracy on the beach, the democracy of glances out there.
What is the character of your study (cultural, sociological or anthropological) and the theoretical model that structured it?
Women choose to be dressed according to their time, in the context of particular social associations, and the bikini is associated with the post-war women's liberation movements as well as with youth as a distinct category with purchasing power striving for independence from their parents.
Following World War II, the "consumer revolution" moved to Europe, the right to free time was reinforced, the right to paid leave was attained, and beaches in the Mediterranean were filled with crowds, thanks also to the spread of motoring. Youth culture during this period becomes a kind of global trend. Young people have fun, rebel, fall in love, declare and defend their own identity in Europe and Greece. In this context, the rise and widespread dissemination of the bikini is viewed through the lens of historical studies, as well as of cultural and social and mobility studies, a new field of social sciences.
Your essay depicts the two-piece swimsuit as a revolutionary icon of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. What was the attitude of Greek society towards the bikini at the time?
The bikini’s reception in Greece was similar to that of rock and roll: both progressives on the left and religious conservatives reacted with caution, if not outright denunciation, at a time of steady economic development as well as of pounding for the formation of a nationalist conscience. It was an era of social movements and popular demands, activism for education, with youth at the forefront becoming an independent political factor that transformed public places into ‘protest space’.
“Moral decadence”, young people’s choice of dress, the management of their bodies as they wished, the long hair and the bikini all became troubling and disturbing, creating " moral panic " at a time when the country was on the way of developing its tourist sector and year after year a greater number of its people connect with the sea for recreational purposes, an area ignored until then in Greece. The bodies on the beaches in Greece by the late ‘50s had become signifiers, carriers of meanings that gradually shaped their own priorities as one could clearly see in cinema, literature and in magazines. Fashion of course was urging women to follow its trends on the beach as well. Let us however consider what a girl in the Greek countryside would do; would she wear bikini to show off her beauty or would she be cautious, with this hesitation preventing her from doing so?
Would this young woman follow the bikini trend so as to become desirable / accepted by other young people, or would she follow the traditional path and not expose herself? The young visitors to Greece urged her to undress in order to be trendy, but her role as a future spouse discouraged her from that direction. Besides, western consumer models and fashion trends, idleness and laziness were all identical to the conservative journalists and their leading ideological discourse of the time, while the new dress code signified differentiation, the demand for independence and the aim to become part of a different collective structure other than the family and its traditional standards. Thus the bikini can be an excellent vehicle for discussing the dividing lines within the collective behaviours of social formations in the years up to the dictatorship (1967-1974). Individual passions often set the tone on the beaches -and not only there- in the years before the May 1968 events (in France) and after that in the years of the so-called "missed spring".
What is your view of fashion – does it follow or shape social trends?
Fashion shapes its own demands in society and society poses its questions to fashion. Mary Quant, André Courrèges and Vidal Sassoon brought fashion out in the streets, but the main attire during student mobilisations was not the mini, but jeans, the chief dress code of politicised youth.
How do you see the evolution of morals and of generations over the last two decades in relation to the massive technological revolution that has been shaping "digital beings"? Are there any signs of doubt, of new subversive visions?
The democratisation of desires is what I’d like to hold on to from the "digital age". It is enough to yearn for our equals and companions in life, and to hope, because then we are ready and complete. Do we know how to live by allowing others to live? That is the challenge. Obviously, our own future lasts long, written in a digital environment, although I personally am in love with blank writing paper because there are always moments and places and people waiting for those who need and deserve and crave them; because parties of friends make history.
*Interview by Marianna Varvarrigou
Maria Boletsi is Endowed Professor of Modern Greek Studies at the University of Amsterdam, where she holds the Marilena Laskaridis Chair since January 2018. She is also assistant professor at the Film and Literary Studies Department of Leiden University. She has been a Stanley Seeger Research fellow at Princeton University (2016) and a visiting scholar at Geneva University (2016) and Columbia University (2008-2009).
Professor Boletsi’s work is situated in the fields of Modern Greek literature and culture, comparative literature, literary and cultural theory, conceptual history, and cultural analysis. She has published on several topics, including the cultural history of barbarism, the concept of crisis, post-9/11 literature and political rhetoric, Modern Greek, English, and Dutch literature, and alternative ‘grammars’ and subjectivities in the context of the Greek crisis. She is the author of Barbarism and Its Discontents (Stanford UP, 2013) and co-author of Barbarian: Explorations of a Western Concept in Theory, Literature, and the Arts, Vol. 1(Metzler, 2018), and Of the Lightness of Literature (published in Dutch: De lichtheid van literatuur, Acco, 2015) on the role of literature in the multicultural society. She has co-edited the volumes Barbarism Revisited: New Perspectives on an Old Concept (Brill 2015) and Subjects Barbarian, Monstrous, and Wild: Encounters in the Arts and Contemporary Politics (Brill, 2018). She is currently writing a book on spectrality in the poetics of the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy and his poetry’s contemporary afterlives.
Maria Boletsi spoke to Rethinking Greece* on the cultural and literary encounters between Greece and the Netherlands, on the work done by the Department of Modern Greek at the University of Amsterdam and the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, and on how the shift from language to culture and history in Modern Greek studies programmes can yield innovative results. She discusses her concept of Cavafy's "poetics of the spectral" and using his poem "Waiting for the Barbarians" as a starting point for exploring the trajectories of the term “barbarism” and the 'civilization versus barbarism' scheme in Western public rhetoric. On the subject of Greek art during the crisis, she posits that although we should resist exoticizing or colonially inflected frameworks, disavowing the politicization of Greek art is not really an option. Overall, Boletsi argues that "there is definitely a momentum for shaping a critical field of Modern Greek studies; using this momentum, we can turn the ‘islands’ of Modern Greek departments into dynamic networks—or archipelagos."
In your inaugural speech as Marilena Laskaridis Professor of Modern Greek Studies you referred to the special connections between Greece and Netherlands. Could you talk to us about that?
When thinking about cultural encounters between Greece and Holland historically, the first example that probably springs to mind is Adamantios Korais, who lived in Amsterdam as a young man between 1771 and 1777. Although he failed as a merchant there, Amsterdam broadened his intellectual horizons and brought him in contact with European mentalities and bourgeois values. The picture that his servant Stamatis Petrou sketched in his Letters from Amsterdam—of a Korais susceptible to the temptations of this liberal society—is a delightful source of information about Korais’ Amsterdam years. But there is a lot more about (and by) Korais to be found in the special collections of our library at the University of Amsterdam—one of the richest library collections in Byzantine and Modern Greek studies in Western Europe. We keep, for example, Korais’ correspondence with the Dutch philhellenist and philosopher Jeanne Wyttenbach-Gallien, who corresponded with Korais about giving financial aid to the Greek Revolution.
Beyond Korais, what is perhaps less known is that the first edition of Cavafy’s poems was published in the Netherlands, in 1934: it comprised twenty-five poems translated by neo-Hellenist and byzantinologist Gerard Hendrik Blanken, who got to know Cavafy’s poems through professor D.C. Hesseling. Hesseling had received some of Cavafy’s feuilles volantes—the pamphlets with his poems Cavafy circulated to friends and people he respected—and passed them to Blanken (his daughter still has them, as she told me). Blanken continued translating and studying Cavafy throughout his life. Besides Blanken’s translations, other valuable Dutch translations of Cavafy continue to be published—this year only, a revised edition of Cavafy’s collected poems by Hans Warren and Mario Molegraaf and a new translation of 73 poems by LudovieK Jansen-Stubij appeared. Cavafy is a beloved poet in the Netherlands. I still remember my surprise when I accidentally ran into his poem “Κρυμμένα” (“Hidden Things”) one evening, written in Greek on the wall of a building in Leiden. It was one of the “wall poems” spread throughout this city, and Cavafy was the only Modern Greek poet included in this project. That was when I first came to the country in 1999, but the poem was still there when I last checked.
If Blanken’s was the first ever foreign edition of Cavafy’s poems, the first history of Modern Greek Literature in a foreign language, written in 1921, was also by a Dutch scholar: professor of Byzantine and Modern Greek in Leiden D.C. Hesseling. It was not the last: the most recent one is Peter Borghart’s Inleiding in de Nieuwgriekse literatuur (Introduction to Greek Literature), an excellent introduction to the history of Greek literature for Dutch-speaking audiences, of which a substantially revised edition has just been published. And there is of course the work of Wim Bakker and Arnold van Gemert—both former professors at the University of Amsterdam—on the Cretan literature of the early modern period and the Renaissance, which was seminal in the field of Modern Greek literature. The department of Modern Greek at the University of Amsterdam—at the moment, the only such department in the Benelux—has contributed greatly to scholarship in Modern Greek literature and history. We hope to extend this contribution towards the future, also through the newly founded Marilena Laskaridis Chair of Modern Greek studies. To that end, the Laskaridis Foundation, chief sponsor of the chair, has decided to sponsor a number of visiting fellowships per year for scholars from Greece and elsewhere wishing to do research in Modern Greek Studies at our university; the first call for applications will be announced this January.
There is of course a lot more happening beyond academia. Dutch translations of Modern Greek literatureabound thanks to remarkable translators. The most prolific one is Hero Hokwerda, who has given us so many excellent translations of Greek and Cypriot poetry and prose. A wonderful anthology of Modern Greek short stories also appeared in 2013, translated by my colleague in Amsterdam, Arthur Bot, and by Anna Dekker. Not to mention the many Greek artists and musicians who live in the Netherlands and are making a mark in the country’s artistic life. The composers Aspasia Nasopoulou and Calliope Tsoupaki are two great examples from the music scene. Calliope Tsoupaki, who has been living in Holland since the early nineties, has just been appointed “Composer Laureate” of the Netherlands for the next two years—not a small achievement!
Wall poems in Leiden, Cavafy´s poem “Κρυμμένα” (“Hidden Things”) in the middle
The recent shift in our curriculum has indeed foregrounded culture and history and de-emphasized the place of language and linguistics. Literature remains part of the program, although its presence is unfortunately less prominent than before. This change was the result of a decision taken by the Faculty Board and had to do with budget cuts that have affected not only Modern Greek but all departments of modern languages and cultures at the University. As a result, our program now includes more joint courses with other departments, placing Greek culture and history in transnational and transcultural frameworks: in Europe, the Mediterranean, the world. Greek culture and history are studied in comparative frameworks, and collaborations with other departments become indispensable. This may be a recent change for our department, but such approaches have of course been a reality for quite some time in other Modern Greek departments in the U.S. and some European universities.
Although this shift comes with certain losses and frustrations, we have to focus on the promising prospects it opens up and exploit them to the fullest. We already see this year that in joint courses, student numbers have increased significantly, allowing us to bring students of other programs in contact with Modern Greek culture and history; this is very important. Collaborative teaching and input from students with different backgrounds can make our program more dynamic and competitive but also help us probe blind spots and parochial attitudes in our respective fields. So, one of the challenges that come with our new curriculum is to engage audiences beyond Modern Greek studies: in comparative literature, cultural studies, European studies, philosophy, history etc.
I need to stress something here, however, that I consider crucial. Debates in Modern Greek studies often present a “cultural studies” approach as diametrically opposed to a “philological approach.” There is surely a gap between these approaches, and the way they materialize in the work of their practitioners often makes the gap seem unbridgeable. But seeing the approaches as such as incompatible can be limiting. Certain philological skills can be valuable tools we could offer our students when practicing what many call “cultural studies” and what I prefer to call “cultural analysis.” This a term proposed by my teacher and mentor, Mieke Bal, for an interdisciplinary research practice she developed in relation, but also in opposition, to “cultural studies.” “Cultural analysis” resists the tendency we sometimes trace in cultural studies to use cultural objects as illustrations of a pre-existing argument or theory or treat them superficially through generalizations. It requires attentive engagement with an object of study—be it a poem, artwork, film, or something else—through a close reading that often requires philological competencies as much as it unfolds in dialogue with theoretical concepts and with the contexts surrounding this object—both past and present.
In fact, some of the most exhilarating moments in my research involved projects that reconfigured philological tools and categories and combined them with literary, political, and cultural theory. For example, an article I wrote in 2016, revolved around a popular Greek wall-writing, featuring the word βασανίζομαι (vasanizomai – I am in torment), which led me to develop a larger project on the workings of the “middle voice” (a grammatical voice in which the subject undergoes the action expressed by the verb) as a broader expressive modein contemporary Greek art, literature, and cinema. In this project, I ask whether (and under which conditions) the “middle voice” could help articulate alternative accounts of the present and of subjectivity, agency, and responsibility that deviate from dominant narratives of the Greek crisis.
So to return to the shift in our curriculum: this shift requires us to be even more attentive to the particularities of each object we engage with. Being part of an interdisciplinary field of Modern Greek studies with a broader appeal means that this field becomes much less delimited and more diffuse: and this means that with each research project, article or course we teach, we are called to form a new field on unstable ground. This is challenging, difficult, and exciting, and it may not always work optimally, but it can yield innovative results in teaching and research.
The crisis in Greece and the media attention it generated has increased global interest in all things Greek. The Greek arts scene has been said to have flourished during the crisis. Can this momentum be channeled to attract more students in Modern Greek Studies?
The cliché that art thrives in crisis-times is true in this case—at least in certain domains, such as cinema, public art, poetry, theater—despite limited financial means. The international attention this “cultural renaissance” (as some call it) has drawn is remarkable. A June 2018 article in the New York Times by Charly Wilder with the title “Athens Rising” casts the city as “emerging from the wreckage as one of Europe’s most vibrant and significant cultural capitals.” I have come across so many articles in the foreign press about the booming street art scene in Greece. Films by Yorgos Lanthimos, Athina Rachel-Tsangari, and other remarkable filmmakers—some associated with the so-called ‘Greek Weird Wave,’ despite their resistance to this label—have put Greek cinema in the international spotlight. Poetic anthologies of recent Greek poetry in translation—such as those by Karen van Dyck and Theodoros Chiotis—have reached broad English-speaking audiences. And there was of course Documenta 14 using Athens as its second city-venue: a major event, notwithstanding the controversy it sparked.
All this certainly creates an opportunity for attracting more students. Even outside of Modern Greek departments, foreign students are showing interest in what is happening in Greece. At the Film and Comparative Literature department in Leiden, where I have been teaching since 2010, two of our students just wrote their theses on recent Greek cinema and last semester another student wrote a brilliant paper on a short story by Christos Ikonomou. The way non-Greek students approach and theorize Greek cultural production is often extremely refreshing.
Sparking students’ interest in Greece requires structuring our courses around questions that make Greece and its culture part of transnational debates. Next semester, for example, I will teach a Master’s seminar in Amsterdam on “Crisis Rhetoric and Alternative Narratives in Literature, Art and Theory” in which we will scrutinize the Greek context of the crisis in relation to other Mediterranean crisis-scapes, through the languages of poetry, short stories, films, and street art, and guided by readings in literary and cultural theory, anthropology, and conceptual history. The response has been encouraging so far: the seminar is full and has a waiting list.
So, there is surely a momentum for shaping a critical field of Modern Greek studies that addresses students or scholars with no exclusive interest in things Greek. As other colleagues have also stressed, including Dimitris Papanikolaou in his interview for Rethinking Greece, this is already happening: scholars around the world working on topics related to modern Greece are creating platforms that have energized critical debates on Greece, essentially redefining the field of Modern Greek studies. So despite the shrinking of Modern Greek departments abroad, there is new energy, partly owing to promising young scholars. And we cannot forget of course that much innovative scholarship on Greece is being produced by scholars in other departments—anthropology, history, sociology, comparative literature, archeology etc. Using this momentum, we can turn the ‘islands’ of our Modern Greek and other departments into dynamic networks—or archipelagos.
C. P. Cavafy has been a constant reference point in yours and in the work of other Modern Greek Studies researchers and academics. In what terms is Cavafy’s oeuvre relevant in the current conjecture?
Cavafy’s poems keep returning like specters, claiming, and being claimed by, our present and its desires and anxieties. To me—and so many others—these poems have been constant partners in thinking, not just texts I study and love. They are epistemological and affective machines that have guided the ways I read and experience other texts and objects. And they have been that for so many people and communities: ‘tools’ for thinking our relation to the past and the future, understanding the self and its others, the self in relation to the social and for rethinking or imagining communities.
In a book I am writing on Cavafy, I broach the question of his relevance in the present through the concept of haunting, by exploring what I call his poetics of the spectral: poetic strategies for conjuring the past and making past moments, people, or objects—including the poems themselves—active forces in future presents. I trace the spectral as a central conceptual metaphor in Cavafy’s modernist poetics but also as a lens that helps us account for his poetry’s bearing on our present, from post-Cold War realities in the West to contemporary Greece.
One of his poems with a powerful bearing on our present is “In A Large Greek Colony, 200 B.C.” (“Εν μεγάλη Eλληνική αποικία, 200 π.Χ.”): the poem stages a present of stifling crisis, in which the future of a colony is outlined by the speaker as a binary choice: either violent external reform or preservation of the status quo. In my book, I read the poem as posing a challenge: how to create space in language for hope and justice even when a framework of crisis imposes the seeming necessity of dualistic choices. In other words, how does the poem foster a space for alternative, unpredictable futures, beyond the limited probabilities that govern its colony’s present? A very topical question in Greece today.
Cavafy haunts, also because his poetry is deeply concerned with haunting. Haunting in Cavafy translates into strategies of conjuring the past and resisting death and finality, without, however, appealing to eternal life or the permanence of poetic truth, language or history. Cavafy’s poetry could actually be seen as a response to the same question that returns in many guises: What are the conditions that make the dead return in our present, albeit temporarily? This includes his own poems: How can one make poems that come alive in future presents? Deeply aware of loss and death, Cavafy tests ways of animating the past in the present through poetry. He knows there is no magic potion for eternal life, and if it did, that would be boring. “[S]peech is condemned” when it remains invulnerable to time, Cavafy wrote in an early essay known as “Philosophical Scrutiny” (1903), as “things cannot and should not be lasting.” No truth or perspective is safe in his universe; presences are fleeting, spectral, threatening to dissipate, but this precariousness makes his writing all the more capable of haunting future presents unpredictably.
Using Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” as a starting point you have explored the concept of barbarism in European History. Would you like to expand on that?
Cavafy´s poem “Waiting for the barbarians” is a striking example of the contemporary afterlives of his poetry I was talking about before; a poem with a haunting presence in the Western cultural and political imaginary, regularly evoked by journalists, politicians, scholars, and other authors as an allegory for post-Cold War realities and current political and cultural crises.
When I was writing a paper about this poem for my Master’s degree, I started noticing the term “barbarian” everywhere in the press, in political speeches, in the media. These were the first years after the attacks on ‘9/11’ and during the ‘war on terror,’ which led to a dynamic comeback of the rhetoric of ‘civilization versus barbarism’ in the West. So I took this as a starting point for developing a doctoral project around barbarism, in which Cavafy’s poem and its international travels in literature and art had a prominent part.
Today, the rhetoric of ‘civilization versus barbarism’ shows no signs of waning: it is intensely mobilized by populist politics, by the alt right, but also by mainstream politicians, most notably in responses to terrorism and the ‘refugee crisis.’ Politicians and journalists regularly tap into the narrative of ‘barbarian invasions’—e.g., in reactions to the refugee situation—forging simplistic analogies between the present and the Roman Empire. Such analogies, which create the impression that history repeats itself, have pervasive consequences for how we perceive others. For example, I recently looked into uses of the term ‘barbarian’ in international responses by politicians, officials, and organizations to terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S. in the last few years. What stood out was that “barbarism” or “barbarian” were extremely popular for referring to terrorist acts by Muslim perpetrators, but when the perpetrator was white, the term “barbarian” was completely absent: the latter perpetrators are usually cast as “lone wolves,” “confused kids, “mentally disturbed” etc. Using the term “barbarian” for Muslim perpetrators enables their identification with a whole culture that is considered external to the West. By contrast, framing ‘white terrorists’ as deviant individuals de-culturalizes their acts: it casts them as exceptional deviations from the spirit of Western civilization rather than linked to systemic conditions.
This shows how powerful words can be in shaping our realities. So exploring the European history of ‘barbarism’ is crucial for a critical understanding of its contemporary workings. The ‘barbarian’ is central in the European imaginary since Greek antiquity, so its history is also a history of the shifting contours of European identity. This has been the focus of the collaborative project Barbarian: Explorations of a Western Concept in Μodern Theory, Literature and the Arts, the first volume of which was just published by Metzler in 2018; with scholars from Germany and Switzerland (and, recently, England too), we are researching the concept’s modern European history with an emphasis on the role of literature in its changing functions. In a chapter I wrote for this book, I returned to Cavafy’s poem, to trace how it converses with the ‘barbarian’ figure in European literature and how it relates to philosophies of history and the concept of crisis. I probably haven’t devoted more pages to any other literary work than this poem. So I am inclined to say that now I am done writing about it—but you never know!
Some theorists claim that Greek “crisis art” is a form of self-exoticizing. Do you believe Greek art/literature has become overly politicized? Is there a way to rethink Greece and challenge post-colonial narratives on the crisis and “crisis art”?
Much of the international attention recent Greek art has been receiving is in one way or another framed by reference to the ‘crisis.’ So scrutinizing the popular frame of ‘crisis art’ and being attentive to the (self-)exoticizing tendencies that often pervade it is necessary. The tendency to reduce artistic forms of expression in Greece to by-products of the ‘crisis’ risks turning crisis into a master-narrative that appropriates cultural products and often determines their reception in restrictive ways.
That said, disavowing the politicization of Greek art is not really an option. We cannot deny that Greek artistic and literary works operate within, and often intervene in, the Greek sociopolitical landscape as shaped through the crisis, and thus relate to it, regardless of their makers’ intentions. What we could do, then, to resist ‘crisis’ as a reductive master-narrative for art is, first, probe crisis itself. Crisis is never just a descriptive designation but a discursive and experiential framework with profound consequences: a framework that privileges and legitimizes particular narratives of the present while precluding others. Although the term crisis in ancient Greek denoted ‘choice,’ ‘judgment,’ and ‘decision,’ the framework of crisis today often works to limit the space of choice in politics (think, for example, of how austerity politics were cast as a ‘one way street’) and the imagination of alternative futures. Resisting this framework, artists, filmmakers, and literary authors in Greece have been concerned with forging new imaginaries and alternative ‘languages’: modes of speaking, looking or relating to others that challenge ‘crisis’ as a master narrative and prompt new, sometimes radical ways of engaging with the (Greek) past as part of the present and the future. Engaging with such alternative ‘languages’ and modes of expression takes center stage in my current work as well as in our research group on ‘Crisis, Critique, and Futurity,’ which I have initiated in the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA) together with Eva Fotiadi.
So without necessarily thematizing or addressing the ‘crisis’ explicitly, art and literature can be political in a more profound way: by intervening in what Jacques Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible” or by reconfiguring what Cornelius Castoriadis described as a society’s “instituted imaginary.” Many fascinating works of art, literature, and cinema in recent years try to do just that, and such works deserve our attention for their political thrust. To resist exoticizing, reductive, or colonially inflected frameworks for the reception of such works we need to approach them not just as objects symptomatic of certain sociopolitical conditions, but as agents of what Arjun Appadurai calls a “politics of possibility”: a politics that opens up the present and the future to modes of being and thinking we cannot fully calculate or predict based on existing frameworks. This seems essential for thinking Greece beyond the framework of crisis.
Read more on Modern Greek Studies via Greek News Agenda:
“Pause” by Tonia Mishiali is a film about Elpida, a Greek woman living in Cyprus. Elpida is transitioning to middle age. While her body experiences all the symptoms of this transition, her soul laments being trapped in a loveless marriage with an older and oppressive husband. Elpida tends to escape more and more into fantasy, the only place where her unquenched desires are met, until fantasy and reality blur. Following her protagonist with the camera, Mishiali creates a meticulous portrayal of female loneliness and patriarchal oppression and poses questions on female representation. Through her stylistic choices Mishiali offers an anatomy of on an original female character as well as what lies behind an unhappy marriage.
Tonia Mishiali is a Cypriot filmmaker and producer whose work is focused on social and women’s issues. She is a member of the European Film Academy and the European Women's Audiovisual Network and one of the artistic directors of Cyprus Film Days International Festival. Her short films “Dead End” (2013) and “Lullaby of the Butterfly” (2014) competed in more than 60 International Film Festivals winning several awards for Best Director and Best Film. Her debut feature “Pause” (2018), a Cyprus/Greece co-production, had its world premiere at the 53rd Karlovy Vary International Festival and was officially selected by many international film festivals including Cairo, Leeds, Stockholm, Thessaloniki, Cleveland, Off camera, winning 3 awards including the FIPRESCI award for Best film. Mishiali is now developing her second and third feature films “Nala” and “Moonstruck”.
Interviewed by Greek News Agenda* about “Pause”, Mishiali explains that although “Pause” consciously poses questions on female representation by portraying Cypriot patriarchal society, it constitutes a universal story that touches a wider audience.
Stela Fyrogeni, "Pause" (2018)
The lack of financial means of the protagonist adds to her feeling of suffocation and helplessness. Is this a reference to the impact of the economic crisis in Cyprus on people’s lives?
Of course it is. The economic crisis has affected many lives in Cyprus, as in Greece and many other countries, and suffocation and helplessness are the most common results of this impact. However, at the same time, the protagonist’s feeling of helplessness reflects that of women who are dependent on their husbands in patriarchal societies.
Through the confessions of Elpida and her friend, you describe patriarchy and oppression. Did you specifically intend to refer to Cypriot patriarchal society in your film or is it a story that could take place anywhere?
I was of course clearly referring to Cypriot patriarchal society, but at the same time it is a universal story that could take place in many other countries where patriarchy is a common phenomenon.
You manage to give an anatomy of women’s loneliness. Loneliness and escape from reality are not solely female characteristics. Is “Pause” a women’s film only or could it also be a film about alienation in general? Could a man identify with issues the film deals with?
Pause was intended for a female audience because it specifically speaks about an oppressed woman. However, after many screenings of the film I realized that the film speaks to everyone on many different levels and that was something I was particularly happy about.
Stela Fyrogeni, "Pause"
Your protagonist is an original cinematic persona. She is passive and submissive, but still carries within her hope and freedom. How and why did you create this female character?
This female character was created from my need to show the position of many women in our society and how they deal with patriarchy. Their passivity and compliance bother me so much that I wanted to show the reality of their everyday lives, and enter their true inner worlds. Elpida was inspired by women I have been watching as I was growing up in my family, in my neighborhood, around me. She is my grandmother, my aunt, my mother, my cousin, my neighbour, my friend...
Stela Fyrogeni, "Pause"
You have mentioned that “'Pause' is a cautionary tale about a woman at the end of her tether but without the courage to save herself. This is so true today. Thousands of women around the world still live in situations similar to Elpida’s, unable to find their own voice and fight for their rights”. What holds women down?
I believe, unfortunately, that women have not been raised to have much courage, inner strength and power to talk about how they feel and what they really want. They have been raised and taught to please their families, be caretakers of the household and their children, leaving the man to be the head of the family and make all the important decisions. And this model has been going on for generations. Some countries have evolved but some have not evolved at all.
Stela Fyrogeni, "Pause"
The film setting participates actively in the narrative as a mirror to the protagonist’s psychology. Would you elaborate on your stylistic choices in shooting “Pause”?
It was a very conscious decision to use a handheld camera so that the camera would move as an extension of the main character. The camera wouldn’t move unless the protagonist moved and “dragged” the camera behind her, or move with her. The audience would only see what she sees. There was no shot without Elpida around. This way I wanted to immerse the audience into her inner world and really put them in her shoes as much as possible. The colours were also specifically chosen to create a dull setting in the house and Elpida to blend in as if she got stuck in this dull environment.
Marios Ioannou, "Pause"
You are also artistic director of Cyprus Film Days International Festival. Would you like to tell a few things about it?
Cyprus Film Days International Festival is the official competition feature fiction film festival of Cyprus. It is co-organised by the Ministry of Education & Culture and the Rialto Theatre. It consists of two main programmes: the International Competition section -Glocal Images- and the non-competitive section -Viewfinder-, which comprises films that have been screened and awarded at major festivals over the past year. The Festival also includes a National Competition Section, exclusively showcasing Cypriot productions. Special tributes, parallel screenings, master classes, workshops and musical events, complete the program of the Festival. I am one of three Artistic Directors and we are responsible for the selection of films in the programme, all Cyprus premieres, while a Jury made up of five internationally acclaimed professionals, awards films accordingly. Our 17th edition of the Festival will take place at the Rialto Theatre, in Limassol and Zena Palace Cinema, in Nicosia, from the 12th to 20th April, 2019.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
Meropi Tzoufi, Deputy Minister of Education, Research and Religious Affairs, spoke to Greek News Agenda* on the subject of Greek-language studies and education in foreign countries, analysing the challenges faced in the effort to meet the needs of Greeks abroad as well as strengthening the Departments of Greek Studies at foreign Universities. Tzoufi is a founding member of the Syriza party, an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Ioannina, and an Elected Board Member of Greek Pediatric Society and Greek Pediatric Neurology Society.
What, in your opinion, are the objectives of Greek-language studies abroad? What are the particular issues that arise?
Greek language studies have in the course of their history depended on a number of factors, and at this moment in time, on account of the changing international environment, the economic crisis and the enormous migration flows at global level, they are going through a transitional phase. The characteristics of this phase are the diversity of students in terms of their cultural heritage, their age range, level of knowledge of the Greek language, not to mention their reasons and motives for learning Greek.
Consequently, Greek language studies aim in two directions: to promote the teaching of Greek outside the narrow national framework and, at the same time, to provide multidimensional educational support to students, in order to ensure their smooth social integration where they live, whilst at the same time maintaining their ties with our country.
In recent years, due to the economic crisis, migratory flows from Greece to other countries have increased. In terms of Greek-language education, what steps have been taken to meet the increased needs of the student population abroad?
In order to meet the growing needs of the Greek student population abroad, the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs proceeded with an updated legal framework (L.4415 / 2016), which provides for (a) the full implementation of the curriculum taught in Greece (proper schools that follow the Greek curriculum), (b) the teaching of various Greek subjects at bilingual schools and (c) the teaching of Greek and Greek culture at Greek language school departments.
Moreover, the Greek Government continues doing its best to cover the needs of Greek-language education by providing support to these schools in a variety of ways, including the secondment of teachers, the supply of educational material and financing.
This year, we ensured the early start of the teacher secondment process, so that the new school year could start smoothly and with staff in place. It is worth noting that this process is completely transparent and based on specific criteria.
In addition, it was critical to ensure that the teachers seconded to schools abroad would regain their teaching jobs upon their return to Greece (Article 95, Law 4547/2018), as anything less would be a major disincentive. The posting of teachers and administrators at the Education Offices Abroad on time, the excellent cooperation with the Coordinators of Education Abroad and with the competent department of the Ministry of Education (DIEPE) contributed to the establishment of constructive relations with the Greek communities and schools abroad and led to satisfactory staffing, which exceeded 75%.
To what extent have problems concerning the posting of teachers abroad been resolved?
This has been a difficult time, financially speaking, for our country and we had to deal with issues such as cuts in salaries and overseas allowances, a ten-year cessation of appointments in the public sector and the consequential reduction of teaching staff, from which candidate teachers for postings abroad come. At the same time, Greek language education depends on many factors related to the conditions prevailing in host countries, such as the cost and the conditions of living, which are often a disincentive for the expression of interest in secondments.
Despite however the inherent difficulties and the drastic reduction in expenditures in recent years, the budget for Greek-language education has been steadily increasing, demonstrating the interest of the state for the Diaspora and the support of Greek-language education in practice.
Lastly, over the next three years we’ll be proceeding with 15,000 appointments and hopefully, after doing away with disincentives, we hope to rekindle the interest of teachers for posting abroad.
How many departments of Modern Greek are there currently in universities abroad and how are they funded?
Greece supports approximately 80 university departments abroad with educational material and/or qualified teaching staff to support the multifaceted work of studying, teaching and promoting Greek language, history and culture. At the same time, we are working on ways to further strengthen the Departments of Greek Studies at Universities abroad and their connection with the Coordinating Offices and Greek communities abroad.
How difficult is it, in your opinion, to promote the Greek language in the globalised world we live in, where English holds a special dynamic?
The issue essentially raised by your question refers to a wider theoretical debate and concerns our linguistic identity, the question of whether and to what extent could the Greek language be ‘threatened’ so to speak by its contact (or a notional conflict) with other languages, stronger in terms of their dissemination or extent of use.
Of course, the main focus is on the prevalence and establishment of the English language as that of international communication, which today, chiefly due to digital globalisation, is gaining momentum and penetration at a global level.
It is, therefore, a very important and at the same time difficult task that which we are called upon to fulfill, in a difficult economic situation and in a changing global environment that is shaped by the influence of globalisation, global networking society and interculturalism.
I would therefore say to you that the term "Greek language education abroad" is broad and concerns education in Greek which is not limited to the Greeks of the Diaspora but is addressed to a global audience, to all those who want to learn the Greek language and about Greek culture. From this point of view, language is simultaneously understood as a learning tool but also as a means of interaction, communication and creation which coexists with its symbolic value as a culture carrier.
The Greek language obviously has its own particular momentum, has marked and continues to mark its own cultural course which is undeniably connected not only to its diachronicity, but also to its synchronic significance, as well as to the people who by speaking or writing it, shape it on a daily basis, create and spread culture globally.
*Interview by Marianna Varvarrigou
Art historian Dr. Alexandra Kouroutaki spoke to Greek News Agenda* about the development of art, especially painting, in the newly-founded Greek state, its influences, its evolution and the nascence of the notion of "Greekness", focusing on the ways Christmas scenes have been depicted by Greek painters of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Alexandra Kouroutaki works as a Lab and Teaching staff (EDIP member) at the School of Architecture, Technical University of Crete. She holds a doctorate in Art History from the University of Bordeaux Montaigne, and a Postgraduate Diploma in French Literature from the School of Humanities of the Hellenic Open University, and is an honours graduate of the Department of French Language and Literature of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.
During Ottoman rule, with the exception of some islands, Greece was not influenced by the cultural climate of the Renaissance. At what time did western art begin to be practiced in Greece?
Indeed, the areas of Greece under Ottoman rule were not influenced by the cultural impact of the Renaissance. Two tendencies prevailed at the time: religious painting, which continued with Byzantine tradition, and folk painting. The evolution of Greek painting towards a European art would essentially begin after the liberation, with the declaration of the independent Greek state in 1832-1833. It is considered that the history of Modern Greek painting began with the arrival of the Bavarian prince Otto as the King of Greece.
Left: Alexandra Kouroutaki, Right: Theodoros Poulakis (1622-1692), The Nativity of Christ, 1675 (Museo Correr, Venice)
However, we must point out that, long before their union with the mainland, the Ionian Islands and Crete had already developed a remarkable painting tradition, influenced by Western, and in particular Italian, art. It is well established that the Cretan School, since the 16th century, combined elements of Byzantine and Renaissance art, whilst the influence of Italian painting on the Ionian Islands in the 18th century is quite obvious.
A very good example of a work that depicts Christmas and combines Western influences in abundance with elements of Byzantine art is The Nativity of Christ, a work of the progressive iconographer of the 17th century, Theodoros Poulakis, who came from Chania, the Kydonia region, but lived and worked in Venice and Corfu.
What is initially surprising is the fact that the Nativity scene unfolds inside a building, an element of iconography that was introduced to Byzantine art from the West. At the center of the composition, the Virgin Mary surrounded by angels is portrayed holding Baby Jesus with affection, in a composition flooded with light, colour and movement. The liveliness depicted, the animated gestures, the facial expressions and postures, the tendency towards portraiture, the emphasis on expression, the realistic rendering of details such as the folds in the clothing, and of course the evident aim for perspective -aided by the architectural elements of the composition- are influences the artist received from the naturalism of the Flemish school and Mannerist Baroque.
How much did the founding of the Athens School of Fine Arts in 1837 contribute to the development of Greek painting?
Immediately after the establishment of the Greek state and the transfer of the capital from Nafplio to Athens, the School of Fine Arts was founded as a department of the Athens Polytechnic School in 1836. The "School of Arts", as it was then called, contributed to the development of Greek art, but also to the wider cultural development of the capital and of Greece in general. Unsurprisingly, art on behalf of the state was officially undertaken by foreign artists, mainly Germans, who were invited to Greece by King Otto. They created works of ethnographic character, depicting scenes of the young King’s arrival in Greece and portraits of fighters of the Greek War of Independence. Apart from the foreign artists, there were also notable Greek artists teaching at the School of Arts, such as Nikephoros Lytras, who taught painting at the School for 38 years, urging his students to be open to innovative European movements.
Spyros Vikatos (1878-1960), Christmas tree, c. 1932 (National Gallery–Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens)
A very popular subject in Modern Greek painting and Modern Greek art in general is Christmas. Who, in your opinion, are the founding fathers of Modern Greek painting and how do they depict Christmas in their works?
Two well-known Christmas works of ethnographic interest are Carols by Nikephoros Lytras, who is considered the patriarch of Modern Greek painting, and the Christmas tree by Spyros Vikatos. Both Lytras and Vikatos were professors at the Athens School of Fine Arts, had studied in Munich and are considered representatives of the Munich School in Greece. They embraced the principles of Academic Realism, i.e., their paintings depicted scenes, whether real or imaginary, of painstaking exactitude and treatment of colour, as well as with a narrative mood.
Lytras’ painting Carols is a realistic and extremely sensitive portrayal of the life of Greeks in the countryside. Greek art takes us with sincerity, simplicity and earnestness on a journey of Christmas customs. Using simple means, Lytras creates an especially lyrical atmosphere, as the moon slowly rises onto a grey yet still luminous sky. A group of boys, of different nationalities, sing carols in the yard of a farmhouse. The housewife, cradling a baby in her arms, listens to the boys holding pomegranates for tipping. Popping his head over the stone fence, a little boy peers curiously at the scene. The artist enters the inner world of the young carol singers so that their expression renders feelings. Moreover, many elements of the composition work on a metaphorical level, and with the use of symbols, Lytras rises above the simple narration of his tale.
In the Christmas tree, the influence of the Munich School is clearly identified. The flawlessness, diligence and meticulousness of the painting are typical of the work of Vikatos in general. Nonetheless, the artist distances himself from the static character of German academism, adopting a milder version. In particular, the painter espouses techniques relevant to the meaningful deepening in colour that remind of the Flemish school of the 17th century. The completeness of form, light, and colour is remarkable in this composition, distinguished for the richness and sensuality of its colours, the variations in light, the use of shadow-light contrasts, the harmony in the whole, and the animation in movements.
Which school influenced most the artists of the newly established Greek state?
As mentioned earlier, 19th century Greek art was chiefly influenced by the "Munich School". Besides, the rise of Otto to the Greek throne contributed in this direction. The main representatives of the "Munich School" in Greece, other than Nikephoros Lytras, were Konstantinos Volanakis, Nikolaos Gyzis, Georgios Iakovidis and Spyros Vikatos. It should be noted, however, that Greek artists got ahead of sterile academic conservatism, emphasising the expressiveness of figures and the open rendition of emotions.
Nikolaos Gyzis (1842-1901), Mother of God, 1898 (National Gallery–Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens) & Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus
Would you like to tell us something about Nicholas Gyzis, and how he represents the birth of Christ in his works?
Nikolaos Gyzis’ symbolic art really has a special significance in Modern Greek art. A major figure in Modern Greece, Gyzis was obviously influenced by the "Munich School" and academic painting. However, in his religious works he depicts the Virgin Mary in an allegorical and idealistic way, approaching the spirit of European Symbolism. In his Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus painting, the figures are represented as a vision. Gyzis focuses on the tonality of colours in order to reproduce the proper lighting of the scene. The contrast between shadow and light also works allegorically, while the divine infant is portrayed as a source of light and a promise of salvation and redemption for the faithful.
Mother of God is a particularly impressive work by Gyzis. The Virgin Mary is sitting on the throne holding Baby Jesus on her lap, with the cross of martyrdom behind her increasing the dramatic effect. The presence of two radiant angels in prayer accentuates the mystical atmosphere of the scene. The infant Jesus radiates a transcendental light. The angels, as celestial beings symbolise divine transcendence and the triumph of Good, whilst at the bottom of the canvas, Evil, in the form of a snake, appears vanquished. All of these symbols bear witness to the artist's metaphysical concerns about life after death.
In terms of iconography, what trends and attitudes have been adopted?
Western models have influenced religious painting in Greece since the middle of the 19th century. Church iconography followed the neo-Renaissance style of the Nazarenes, moving away from Byzantine tradition. It must be noted that the establishment of a new ecclesiastical art in Greece had been an imperative need of the State since its founding and demonstrates the wider disposition and effort to transform the country into a modern European state.
Fotis Kontoglou (1896-1965), The Nativity of Jesus, 1932 (Fresco, Pesmazoglou family chapel, Attica) & The Birth of Christ, 1946 (Fresco, Zoodochos Pigi in Liopesi, Attica)
After 1950, however, we notice a shift towards Byzantine art, thanks to the catalytic presence of icon painter Fotis Kontoglou. In his paintings, Kontoglou depicts the Birth of Jesus with the spiritual holiness recounted by the Gospels. It is a sacred art that is not simply "painting," but theology and transcendence. For this reason, the Nativity scene is related with modesty, devoutness and spiritual beauty. The image, of course, retains its historical elements but is not bound by it, while perspective and shadows are eliminated.
Kontoglou painted two frescoes depicting the Nativity of Jesus, one at the family chapel of G. Pesmazoglou, in Kifissia, and the other at the church of Zoodochos Pigi in Liopesi (Paiania). These frescoes appear to be influenced by the frescoes of the monasteries or chapels of Mystras dating from the 14th century. Kontoglou continues in austere style the post-Byzantine artistic tradition without deviations, and manages through the frescoes to depict Christ's incarnation as a historic as well as spiritual event that combines the celestial with the terrestrial.
Among Kontoglou’s students were two major artists of the "Generation of the ‘30s", Yannis Tsarouchis and Nikos Engonopoulos. Engonopoulos painted Virgin Mary in byzantine style, in the strict manner of his instructor. He used Byzantine elements even in his surrealist compositions. Yannis Tsarouchis retained the figurative post-Byzantine form in the depiction of the Nativity scene. In his work Nativity the painter adopts and assimilates creative elements of the Byzantine tradition, such as the clear and austere outline and the muted palette. Light earthy colours and unobtrusive light create a particularly luminous effect.
Yannis Tsarouchis (1910-1989), Nativity, 1946 & Konstantinos Parthenis (1878/1879-1967), The Adoration of the Magi, 1919-1920
Could you tell us more about the artistic generation of the 1930s and how its main representatives depicted Christmas?
At the beginning of the 20th century, Greek art is strongly influenced by modernism, while the subject of tradition and Greekness becomes an issue of debate. New artists and writers are coming to the forefront: It is the famous "Generation of the ‘30s" that looks for the characteristics of Greekness and combines them with the achievements of the European artistic avant-garde.
Konstantinos Parthenis is one of the most important representatives of Greek art. His work contributed to overcoming conservative academic trends and broke with Munich's artistic establishment. He defended the artist's right to seek and create his own personal mode of expression. In his work The Adoration of the Magi, for example, Parthenis depicts with form-shaping freedom aspects of the Byzantine style.
Without doubt, the scene of the adoration of the Magi is distanced from realism, and figures are rendered subtly. Light and shadows are of particular interest. The Virgin Mary, standing on the left of the composition, with Christ in her arms, is surrounded by the indistinct architectural element of the arch, while the Magi worship and offer the gifts. It is worth noting that Parthenis painted religious works that were not however intended to decorate places of worship. These works retain elements of Byzantine art, but are closer to the Western iconographic tradition.
In another allegorical and symbolic composition on the subject of The Birth of Christ, Parthenis retains elements from Byzantine tradition but combines them with modernism. Western influence is found in the colours and in the abstract forms of figures without elements of portraiture. It is an idealistic art that exudes spirituality.
Konstantinos Parthenis (1878/1879-1967), Virgin with Divine Infant - Crucifixion, 1940 – 1942 (National Gallery–Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens)
A representative work of the idealistic and symbolic art of Parthenis is Virgin with Divine Infant - Crucifixion. Figures are placed in a transcendental space, time is abolished and elements of the visible world are morphed into spiritual depictions. The elemental extinction and the transcendental light refer to the symbolic extensions of the composition. In a particular, idealistic and poetic way, Parthenis combines elements of Byzantine iconography with the achievements of European art and Symbolism in particular.
Parthenis' student, Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, is fittingly considered a member of the legendary "‘30s Generation". Hadjikyriakos-Ghika uses intense light and colour in his paintings, at a time when the "Generation of the ‘30s" is looking for the characteristics of Greekness.
In his work The Christmas tree, Hatzikyriakos-Ghika renders forms subtly but with impressive aesthetics and elegance of outline. An imaginative game is attempted with scales, with simultaneous layering at different levels. Interesting elements of the project include the intense colour variety, the gleaming shades and the rhythmic organisation of the composition, elements that generally reflect the artist's contribution to the development of Greek art. Hatzikyriakos-Ghika had said himself he was deeply influenced by the work of Henri Matisse, the subversive French painter who used colour as an architectural device. Equally important was the influence by the cubist artists Braque and Picasso in Paris, in the ‘20s. He thus succeeds, in a unique way, in integrating in his work the achievements of modern European art.
Finally, two works of Panayiotis Tetsis attempt to portray the popular beliefs regarding the Kallikantzaroi, the mischievous goblins of lore. According to a legend prevalent throughout Greece, from Christmas to the eve of the Epiphany, these unsightly little creatures living underground engage in sawing the tree that supports the upper world. At Christmas, however, they visit people on earth to tease them with all sorts of naughty tricks and mischief.
Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1906-1994), The Christmas tree, 1960 (Private collection) & Panayiotis Tetsis (1925-2016), Kallikantzaroi, c.1978 (Book illustrations)
With vivid humour and imagination, P. Tetsis portrayed the goblins of Greek folklore Kallikantzaroi in Thanos Murray-Velloudios’ book, Spirits, elves and Kallikantzaroi, which is a study of Greek lore relating to the Kallikantzari, complemented with works of well-known painters. This work depicts the appearance of the Kallikantzaroi in Aerides (a small neighborhood surrounding the Tower of the Winds in Plaka, Athens) on Christmas Eve. The nativity scene is combined with the presence of ordinary people engaged in everyday activities along with the folk legend of the Kallikantzaroi. The work is narrative and it exudes optimism.
In his second work, Tetsis portrays the Kallikantzaroi and their favourite habit, dancing in a pan. The Kallikantzaroi are shaking the pan and the Greek in the pan -who is portrayed in Greek traditional costume (fustanella)- is shrieking joyfully.
In conclusion, Modern Greek artists transplanted in an imaginative, vigorous and original way the atmosphere of Christmas in their artistic creation. Both the artists of the newly established Greek state and those of the legendary "Generation of the ‘30s" adopted elements from the European art of their era, but they also evolved and adapted them to their specific, personal artistic idiom.
*Interview by Marianna Varvarrigou (Intro picture: Nikephoros Lytras [1832-1904], Carols, 1872 [Private collection])
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Athens School of Fine Arts celebrates 180 years; Panos Charalambous on the 180 year history of Athens School of Fine Arts; The portrayal of women in Modern Greek painting; Konstantinos Volanakis: the Father of Greek Seascapes; Fotis Kontoglou: From “LOGOS” to “EKPHRASIS"; The home and workshop of Yannis Tsarouchis οpens again; Yannis Tsarouchis: Illustrating an autobiography; Nikos Engonopoulos: The Colours of the word and the word of Colours; In Tribute of Panayiotis Tetsis; Ghika - Craxton - Leigh Fermor: Charmed lives in Greece
Metapolitefsi.com, the new digital platform created by the Contemporary Social History Archives (ASKI) institution, offers a presentation of Metapolitefsi, as we call the transitional period from the fall of the Greek military junta (1967-74) to the 1974 legislative elections and the start of the new democratic era that followed. One of the key events of the time was the referendum which took place on 8 December, 1974, which resulted in the abolition of monarchy and established the Third Hellenic Republic.
Metapolitefsi.com features articles, photos, historical documents of all kinds that can easily be browsed, whether for research purposes or simply out of curiosity for a period of time that has marked society and politics in Greece. It is the latest digital project by ASKI, following the great success of the makronissos.org digital museum about the history of Attica’s notorious political prison island, as well as the digitisation of a large number of important journals (including Epitheorisi Tehnis [1954-1967], Politis [1976-2008] etc.)
Our sister publication, GreeceHebdo*, spoke with historian Stathis Pavlopoulos, scientific advisor at ASKI, in charge of coordinating the creation of metapolitefsi.com, regarding the website as well as the historical events of the largely forgotten date of December 8, 1974. Born in Athens in 1984, Stathis Pavlopoulos is a PhD student in History of Modern Greece at Panteion University. His research focuses on the history of ideas and social history in the nineteenth and twentieth century.
In June 2018, the Contemporary Social History Archives (ASKI) launched the new website metapolitefsi.com. What does the term "Metapolitefsi" signify and what is the reasoning behind its presentation as a distinct part of Greek history?
The website metapolitefsi.com is the result of a research effort conducted by the Contemporary Social History Archives for two years, since the summer of 2016. However, this project stems from an already existing scientific interest at ASKI concerning the 1960s and 1970s in general. These decades mark two different periods for the Greek state and society, the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Over the past ten years, these periods have attracted historiographic interest in Greece and the rest of Europe (Spain is a good example), with an emphasis on the transition from totalitarianism to democracy. In this context, since 2007, ASKI has developed projects open to the public such as conferences, workshops, postgraduate seminars, focusing on these periods.
Electoral Campaign, 1981. Photo by Nikos Panagiotopoulos © ASKI / Metapolitefsi.com
"Metapolitefsi", sensu stricto, signifies precisely this political shift, the restoration of democracy in 1974, a year that marks the beginning of an era of parliamentary normality – the longest one to date. In Greek history, the term "metapolitefsi" was already in use in the mid-nineteenth century, referring to the period from the ousting of King Otto, in 1862, until the arrival of King George I and, later, his official ascension to the throne in 1864. Today , however, these events are mostly forgotten, and when we speak of "metapolitefsi" everyone thinks of the fall of the military junta. What’s rather odd is that the term is gradually dissociated from the year 1974 and has come to indicate a long stretch of time. Thus, in public discourse, the "metapolitefsi" is frequently used to denote the period from 1974 onward, often extending to the present day. In fact, the more proper term for that would be "Third Hellenic Republic", which was never really popularised.
In ASKI's metapolitefsi.com project, "metapolitefsi" extends to the turn of the 1990s, hence the tagline “Metapolitefsi 1974-1989”. We think that, within this period of 15-16 years, the Republic passed the necessary endurance “tests”: junta sympathisers were removed from the State mechanism, a democratic Constitution was adopted, regular alternation of political parties in power was ensured through free elections, the referendum of 8 December 1974 abolished the monarchy (another decisive step towards democracy), Greece joined the European Economic Community, no political parties were banned -as had been the case with the two communist parties (KKE and KKE Interior [Eurocommunists])- and a series of rights and freedoms were consolidated, at both institutional and social levels.
On the social level, a number of movements flourished, such as the student movement, the feminist one and, later, the environmentalist, LGBT and conscientious objector movements. Finally, as part of the "National Reconciliation" effort, a series of political and symbolic initiatives were taken aiming to "heal the wounds" of the past, caused by the conflicts of the Civil War. Thus, in our opinion, the following decade (the 1990’s) marks a paradigm shift.
What are the main sections the visitor can navigate through, and what kind of historic material does he / she have access to?
The visitor to the site can consult rare archive documents on the history of the 1974-1989 period from the ASKI Archives and Library. Keep in mind that this period saw a boom in print media triggered by the lifting of censorship and the intensity of political discourse at the time. It was also a period of liberalisation of ideas and the sense, on a social level, that everything is possible. People -at least democratic citizens- needed, after seven years of oppression, to reclaim control over the present, and their own lives.
17 November 1974, the first celebration of the Polytechnic uprising © ASKI / Metapolitefsi.com
The material available on the platform covers the entire political spectrum of that period, with an emphasis on the printed production of the left. Thus, the visitor can find a series of election brochures, posters, photos and publications regarding the crucial issues of the time. The visitor can thus become familiar with the discourse, the arguments, the aesthetics and, in general, the "essence" of the time. The concept of the site is to offer specific working environments around the key aspects of the period, creating the following seven categories: Politics, Europe, Employment, Society and Movements, Economy, Culture, Memory.
Each section is designed as a source of stimuli and subsequent research according to the following structure: a central text of general character, complementary research tools (such as interactive maps, timetables with landmark events) and thematic anthologies with archival documents around a specific subject (for example: the 1974 referendum on the issue of the form of government, the women’s and feminist movement, the first celebration of the Polytechnic uprising, etc.). In some cases, we have included texts of a more specific nature, shedding light on certain aspects of a topic.
In addition, seventeen videotaped interviews are available on the site, by people who are conveying their own experience and also making a critical assessment of the 1974-1989 period. These people with diverse backgrounds, political affiliations and identities, describe the way they experienced the events of "metapolitefsi", thus linking personal and social history; a "game" between historical coincidence and personal journeys.
Tell us about the referendum of 8 December 1974 – how important is this date today?
The referendum of 8 December 1974 finally closed the chapter of monarchy in Greece, since the Greek people, by a vast majority of almost 70%, vote in favour of the Republic (the exact percentages are: 69.18% against the monarchy and 30.82% in favour). Thus the monarchy -which had (with the exception of the "interval" of the 1924-1935 period) marked the course of the Modern Greek state for almost two centuries- was definitively abolished.
Brochures and posters for the referendum of 8 December 1974 © ASKI / Metapolitefsi.com
It must be noted that, in the 1960s, the Crown’s interference with government affairs led to political instability with the events of July 1965 (a political crisis that pitted King Constantine II of Greece against Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou; these events are known as “Iouliana” or “Royal Coup”). Moreover, the Crown’s interventionism regarding state affairs actually contributed to the political tumult, which the colonels exploited to abolish democracy in 1967.
The December 1974 referendum essentially paved the way for the adoption of the democratic constitution of 1975, answering the fundamental question regarding the form of government in favor of the Republic. Finally, it can also be said that the 1974 referendum is the second instance of a normal electoral process after the fall of the Junta – the first being the free elections of 17 November 1974.
On a more general level, ASKI is undertaking a series of initiatives in the direction of the digitisation of historical archives and their free availability to the public. What is the purpose of such initiatives and what is their impact on society?
Since their founding in 1992, ASKI has adopted a policy aiming at the free access of citizens to archives and therefore to history. The founder of ASKI, Philippos Iliou (1931-2004), who had received a French historical education, considered historical awareness to be a civil right in a democracy. These statutory principles, regulating ASKI’s operation to this date, extend from physical archives to web content as well. In my opinion, free access to historical archives and knowledge contributes to our national self-awareness.
In this context, since 2004, ASKI has put great effort in making its archives available online via the website www.askiweb.eu but also through independent projects such as the website www.métapolitefsi.com we are presently discussing or another recent initiative, the Makronissos Digital Museum, www.makronissos.org. We believe that, through these projects, users can better understand the purpose of ASKI and its collections, and they have access to well-documented research tools, not exclusively academic in nature, but of a general interest. In other words, these platforms help historical archives become more user-friendly and appealing, as part of the recent development of Digital Humanities, a scientific field that offers multiple tools and methods of approaching the science of History.
Above all, I believe that, thanks to these websites, we create a platform of critical dialogue around subjects that are of interest to us as researchers, historians or citizens; a platform where information, filtered through historical research and scientific documentation, is presented in a rational manner. We must not forget that the Internet, much as it contributes to the democratisation of knowledge by countering geographical and social imbalances, is at the same time filled with websites that promote stereotypes, myths, inaccurate information and superficial interpretations of History.
Athens, May Day 1977, Labour Day demonstrations © ASKI/Metapolitefsi.com
With regard to ASKI’s online audience, I would say that they are very active, both on the aforementioned websites and on our social network pages: our Facebook page is followed by about 9000 users and the metapolitefsi.com website has had more than 30,000 visitors in its 5 months online. These are people who have cultivated a critical way of thinking, and they offer us a great deal of feedback through comments, suggestions and occasional confrontation – all the elements of an open dialogue.
We should also mention that, thanks to the immediacy of digital media, there are people following our work who often offer us their personal documents, family archives, knowing that this material will also be available online, becoming part of the wider research programme. In this way, the personal story of a prisoner of Makronissos, a handwritten note, or a photo of a demonstration from the “metapolitefsi” era, become the subject of studies, articles, theses, making the donor feel that he/she has contributed to a broader effort of disseminating knowledge.
*Interview by Magdalini Varoucha. Translated into English by Nefeli Mosaidi. (Intro photo: Rally at the Softex Paper Industry, 1982 -1983 © ASKI / Metapolitefsi.com)
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Feminism and Transition to Democracy (1974-1990): Ideas, collectives, claims; Axel Sotiris Walldén on Greece and Sweden during the Axis Occupation and the military dictatorship; Military Dictatorship (1967-1974) in retrospect: New historical approaches; Military Dictatorship (1967-1974) in retrospect: The Greek visual arts scene
Makis is a fish farm worker. On his way to work one morning, he is informed that he has died the day before. After failed attempts to prove that he is alive, he accepts his fate with indifference and he spends his last day before the funeral trying to secure shelter and caretakers for his beloved canaries. This is the plot of Vasilis Kekatos’ short film “The Silence of the Dying Fish”, the Greek participation in this years’ Sundance Film Festival.
Born in the island of Kefalonia, Greece, in 1991, Vasilis Kekatos studied film at Brunel University’s School of Arts, in London. In 2016, he won the Sundance Ignite “What’s Next?” Short Film Challenge and received a mentorship from Sundance Institute, with his short “Zero Star Hotel (2016). The “Silence of the Dying Fish” had its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival 2018, in the international Competition section Pardi di Domani, and will have its North American premiere at the Sundance Film Festival 2019. It has also been selected at many international film festivals, such as ZINEBI and Aix-En-Provence, and it has been awarded in several, including Festcourt Villeurbanne, where it won Best Film, and the Drama ISFF where it won Best Southeastern European Film, while it continues its tour in the festival circuit. Kekatos is currently working on his upcoming short and his first feature. Kekatos is also the artistic director of SeaNema Open Air Film Festival in Kefalonia. He lives and works in Athens.
Unlike his silent, dying fish, Kekatos shares his thoughts with Greek News Agenda* stating that he is compassionate towards his characters, even though he kills them sometimes. Commenting on the Greek Weird Wave, he notes that both he and the Wave are inspired by absurdism, but that he is more interested in feelings than in the mind. Asked about the reception of Greek Films in international Film Festivals, Kekatos says that European audiences approach Greek cinema as a political allegory. Kekatos concludes that taking into consideration the success and international impact of Greek cinema in the last ten years, it should receive more support from the Ministry of Culture.
Andreas Konstantinou, “The Silence of the Dying Fish” (2018)
I feel that there are influences in your film from weird cinema. How do you feel about the Greek weird wave?
I would dare say that I haven't been influenced, at least consciously, from Weird Wave. However, I couldn't deny the fact that I and the filmmakers of the Wave both draw inspiration from absurdism, as it has been expressed mainly through literature. The greatest source of inspiration, for me, has been the works of Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, Kafka and Camus, writers that have talked about the meaninglessness of life and existence, the lack of communication between people and societal indifference. Of course, this is expressed humorously in my films, as well as in the films that are cornerstones of the Greek Weird Wave. The main difference between me and them is that I care more about emotions. I am not so cynical and cruel with the characters I create; even though I kill them sometimes, I feel sorry for them. I think I am more of a romantic in some weird way. Greek Weird Wave is a wave of intellect. I prefer heart to brain.
“The Silence of the Dying Fish” has screened in important Festivals. How are Greek filmmakers viewed?
I had the pleasure to accompany the film at the Locarno Film Festival, where it had its world premiere. I did not have the opportunity to travel anywhere else with it, although I am planing to do so soon in France for the Aix En Provence Film Festival and in Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. Therefore I can only talk about Switzerland, even though I don't think there are significant differences between Locarno and other European film festivals. Europeans read everything we do as a political allegory; I’m not saying that it's not the case, but that is the only tool they use to interpret our art. International audiences and critics look for answers about the crisis in new Greek cinema. And truth is I don't know if we have them. I think we may have even more questions.
“The Silence of the Dying Fish” (2018)
Death is a recurring theme in your films. Why is it so?
Death is the most absurd and irrational thing in people's lives, while on the other hand it is the only thing that makes perfect sense. I think death is an interesting way to talk about life.
Why doesn’t your protagonist try harder to change his destiny?
Makis is a lonely man; a man who was as alive before, as he is after he has ostensibly died. He faced his whole life with indifference and even at the moment he is announced his death he continues to remain in deep apathy and inaction. He has never been close enough to people and people have never been close enough to him. This is why no one really wants to help him.
It’s not easy changing your destiny if you stand on your own.
Alexandra K., “The Silence of the Dying Fish” (2018)
Is “The Silence of the Dying Fish” a comment on the isolation of the individual?
The Silence of the Dying Fish is the documentation of one man’s journey from unawareness to ambivalence and from there to the acceptance of a situation beyond his control. The story could be viewed as a commentary on people’s fears, their loneliness or isolation; however, it is mostly a portrayal of societal indifference; Society’s indifference towards death, therefore towards life, and finally the almost fatalistic acceptance of any absurdity inflicted on society as a norm.
“The Silence of the Dying Fish” (2018) shooting still
What are the difficulties a young filmmaker faces in finding funds?
I truly believe that the difficulties in finding funds in this country are the same for both young and veteran filmmakers. Things should change. The state should care much more for cinema, since, at least for the last ten years, in the "After-Dogtooth" era, cinema is maybe the most valuable cultural product Greece can export. Films are screened in important international festivals, they often receive awards and sometimes they even get distribution abroad.
Until the ministry of culture realises this, we either have to look for co-productions with other countries, or carry on making low or even no-budget films with the noble help of our friends.
SeaNema Open Air Film Festival
You also are the artistic director of SeaNema Open Air Film Festival. Would you like to tell us a few things about it?
SeaNema Open Air Film Festival is the only film festival in Greece, and one of the few worldwide, where screenings are not held in cinemas but on beaches and especially formed areas by the sea. The Festival aims at becoming an important meeting point for acclaimed and new filmmakers alike from around the world, who will have the opportunity to promote their work and enjoy themselves, along with large audiences, in a dreamy place. I am doing this festival with friends; friends from Athens and of course my childhood friends, on the island most of us grew up in: Kefalonia.
"The Distance Between Us and the Sky" shooting still
What are your future plans?
I have just finished shooting a short film called "The Distance Between Us and the Sky". It's a very simple romantic story about two guys meeting for the first time at a gas station. I made the film with my regular crew. My Producer, Eleni Kossyfidou, my cinematographer, Giorgos Valsamis, and some new colleagues, starring Nikolakis Zeginoglou and Yoko Ioannis Kotidis, two amazing young actors. I am also now submitting the script of my upcoming short for funding and I’ve already begun working on my feature script. Fingers crossed!
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
Read also from our Filming Greece series: “Give a little loving to Greek Cinema … aka the need for a single cinematic policy”
The Greek Association of Film Directors and Producers (ESPEK) held a press conference titled "Give a little loving to Greek Cinema ... or the need for a single cinematic policy" on Monday, November 26, 2018, in Athens, where film makers and producers expressed their views and concerns regarding existing mechanisms of state funding and cinema policy.
Film director Markos Holevas, member of ESPEK and director of the Hellenic Film Commission of the Greek Film Center (GFC) in 2007, welcomed attendants, while film director and ESPEK President Elina Psychou focused on ESEPK's view that there is no comprehensive and uniform national cinema policy. Ministries dealing with cinema have not managed as yet to formulate this much needed unified policy. Psychou explained that the term policy refers to the whole spectrum, from the education of the audience to watch Greek cinema, to film academies, the production of films as well as their promotion and distribution, both in Greece, as a valuable cultural product and abroad, as an exportable product.
Noting that nine Ministries are involved in cinematography - the Ministries of Culture, Digital Policy, Telecommunications and Information, Finance, Economy and Development, Labour, Citizen Protection, Interior, Tourism and Education - Psychou underlined the need for coordination between them.
Psykou also referred to the problems that have rendered the existing legal framework obsolete, commenting that the creation of National Centre for Audiovisual Media & Communication (EKOME S.A.) and the introduction of cash rebate is a positive, long awaited development. However, there is a gap between the amounts allocated for cash rebate (25 million a year) and the regular Greek Film Centre (GFC)budget (2.5 million). Psykou emphasized the necessity to raise the GFC budget.
Filmmaker Vassilis Kekatos ("The silence of the fish when they die", awarded at the Drama Festival and selected at this year’s Sundance festival) referred to the Greek state broadcaster’s (Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation - ERT) “Microfilm” funding program that has helped over the years in the realization of numerous short films and lamented its current static state. Kekatos also referred to the creation of a fund for short films announced by Deputy Minister of Digital Policy Lefteris Kretsos, noting it is an excellent development that the cinematic community had been expecting for years, but that it should not replace “Microfilm”.
Film producer Fenia Kosovitsa (Blonde productions), as the first producer who had applied for cash rebate, in her comments that were read by film producer Amanda Livanou (Nedafilm), said that the introduction of the new set of economic incentives and the establishment of the National Centre for Audiovisual Media & Communication (EKOME S.A.) were positively received by the entire cinema community, as such incentives has been a long-standing demand for years. The implementation of the measure applies not only to foreign but also to Greek productions that finally see the cash rebate as an additional source of funding in the difficult financial Greek cinema landscape.
Nevertheless, there are issues that need to be clarified, so that the Greek cinematic community will be able to make the optimum use of the funding mechanisms. Greek filmmakers need to understand that EKOME is not a bank and European funding mechanisms need to recognize cash rebate as secured money. Noting that the staff of EKOME works with passion and speed, she underlined that although the establishment of EKOME is a very positive step, it doesn’t mean that all problems were solved. “Many difficulties remain and we ask the State to support Greek Cinema with the same passion it supports the EKOME initiative”, she concluded.
Film maker Alexis Alexiou (“Wednesday 04: 45", Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Best Film Award by the Greek Film Academy) stressed that for every euro spent in Greece in film co-productions, three euros are reimbursed. The aim thus is to increase the money allocated to co-productions in order to increase the amount to be reimbursed to Greece.
Film producer Mary Drandaki said that apart from the delays in approvals and the lack of funding, there are problems caused by the bureaucracy of GFC and ERT, which reflects the lack of coordination between Ministries. Film maker and ESPEK member Holevas pointed out the absence of private television networks in the financing of Greek films. He commented that neither the State nor the private sector has realized the benefits of such an investment, nor has it put pressure on private law enforcement.
Dora Masklavanou, photo by Aris Rammos
Film director Dora Masklavanou referred to the necessity of changing the procedure of insuring auxiliary actors with a more flexible and less bureaucratic procedure. Film director Panayiotis Fafoutis talked about the need to create an educated public for Greek cinema. Markos Holevas referred to the Greek audience's mistrust of Greek films, while he pointed out the speed at which EKOME operates in contrast to the other institutions.
Read also in our Filming Greece interview series: EKOME President Panos Kouanis explains why Greece is your next filming destination (and yes, it has to do with money), Director Dora Masklavanou on giving voice to the outcasts, Film Director Timon Koulmasis on the crossroads between individual and collective memory, Film Director Elina Psykou: Riding on the winds of fantasy through dark times.
111 Places in Athens That You Shouldn't Miss, recently published by Emons Editions (Cologne, Germany), is a rather unconventional travel guide for the Greek capital. It forms part of the “111 Places Insider Guides” series of “guidebooks for locals & experienced travellers”: instead of the most famous attractions and touristy spots, the guide suggests interesting and unusual places not found in traditional travel guides, capturing the city’s true essence and offering an insight into the everyday lives of Athens-dwellers, all through the eyes of its three writers: Alexia Amvrazi, Diana Farr Louis and Diane Shugart.
Alexia Amvrazi is a full time & freelance writer and blogger; a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal Europe and Greecetravel.com, she has been writing about Greece for global media for over 20 years. Diana Farr Louis, who has been living in Athens for over 40 years, is a writer of guidebooks, cookbooks and articles on Greek cuisine and travels for multiple Greek and international publications. Diane Shugart is an editor, translator and writer on Greek politics and culture; she is the former editor of Odyssey, a US-based magazine about Greece. The book is also fully illustrated with 111 full-page colour pictures by Greek photographer Yannis Varouhakis, who has collaborated with various magazines and newspapers.
The guide has already drawn a lot of interest, and is now also set to appear in German. We spoke* with the writers about the value of discovering the stories behind the places one visits, their writing approach and criteria for choosing the sites they would include in the book, the lesser-known aspects of Athens, as well as the challenges and merits of being a traveller.
Left to right: Alexia Amvrazi, Diana Farr Louis, Diane Shugart
Your guide reads like a condensed history of the modern city of Athens, providing details regarding lesser known historical landmarks but also shops and parlours in non-touristy spots. How did your team find out about those places, a few of which are little known even to the average Athenian?
Alexia Amvrazi: There were places that I passed every day and was intrigued by, or others that I’d heard had an interesting story to them, so writing this book was the perfect way of diving into a deeper discovery of those. Meanwhile, while one is on a path of seeking one thing, many other new discoveries appear along the way!
Diana Farr Louis: Living here for over 40 years, I have my favourite spots and walking around almost always reveals something new and intriguing. But I also asked friends who live in the centre for some tips and following their leads turned up places even they hadn’t thought of. Athens can be compared to a family’s basement. It’s full of memorabilia from every era; not all of it is precious but most of it is fascinating. You just might need to dig a little.
Diane Shugart: That was one of the things that made working with Diana and Alexia fun: we each ‘know’ the city in our own way, from our own interests, so I think these complemented each other well.
What were your main criteria, when choosing which of all the places you discovered would make it to the “111” list?
Diana Farr Louis: Our publishers told us they were more interested in the story behind a place than its aesthetics. That synched completely with our own approach, but we were also careful not to put too many places in any one category, whether parks or bars, shops, eateries or monuments.
Diane Shugart: For me, one thing was whether I would want to see this if I was a visitor.
Alexia Amvrazi: For me it was the challenge of discovering, exploring and sharing places that were not commonly -or ever- found in an ordinary guidebook. It’s very refreshing for a visitor to be pointed to a new direction – even if it’s just a locked doorway, yet its history leads to a deeper understanding of the city it’s in.
By listing your suggestions in an alphabetical order, do you choose to avoid any classification imposed by status or importance?
Alexia Amvrazi: Yes, that’s a policy used by Emons in all their 111 Places books, and we agree with it.
Left: Diomedes Botanical Garden, right: Kypseli ©Yannis Varouhakis
You write about many important but relatively obscure places, like the Piraeus Archaeological Museum, while some of the most famous ones -such as the Acropolis Museum, the National Archaeological Museum of Athens or the Museum of Cycladic Art- are not included in the 111 places. Would you say that your book functions as a supplementary guide, for people who already have access to the basic, easy-to-reach info about the city, but also wish to really get to know its day-to-day life and vibes? Or do you think one can also get by without visiting the so-called "greatest attractions"?
Diane Shugart: I think most people who visit Athens have a fair idea of the city’s ‘greatest attractions’—after all, the Acropolis is probably the main reason people come. So I wouldn’t think of 111 Places as a supplementary guide, but more as a complementary guide, a guide that adds a bit more texture and a broader context to the “top sights”.
Alexia Amvrazi: Certainly it could function as both. How one chooses to travel and see a city is a very subjective matter. Personally I feel that if one were to travel to Athens using only our book as a guide they would be seeing many of the “greatest attractions” along the way, without us having to set them on their to-do-list.
Diana Farr Louis: I agree with Alexia. But if someone is interested only in the Greece they learned about in school, they’d do well to have a Blue Guide with them too. I think our guide is envisaged for people who already know a bit about Athens and want to dig deeper. But it’s not just for foreigners. Locals, even Athenians born and brought up here, can have fun exploring just as we did.
Even when including Athens’ most iconic landmark, the Acropolis, the book focuses on a lesser-known, human detail: a real-life story of star-crossed lovers and suicide. Are you intrigued by the ways in which a timeless, emblematic site can play a role in a person’s fleeting existence?
Diane Shugart: A city is also about people’s stories, and I think that is what we each tried to bring out in the places we wrote about.
Alexia Amvrazi: Definitely. Indeed, who knows how many millions of fleeting souls have been deeply touched by the Acropolis itself in some way or other. As Diane says, our greatest mission was to reveal the human stories related to each place above all. And Greece, the land of evocative ancient mythology, still has so many incredible stories to tell in its modern day.
Diana Farr Louis: What is a city without people? Just a collection of buildings and old stones. Stories give meaning to life, they connect us with each other. I was so surprised that in this city, which in many ways is so new, there were so many shops whose owners were third and fourth generation, with stories going back one hundred years. Or even more. They provide continuity and a glimpse of Athens’s more recent history.
The captivating pictures play an important part in illustrating your impressions of Athens. Did the photographer receive specific directions regarding your vision or did he personally choose the angles and the details he wanted to highlight?
Yannis Varouhakis: The authors provided me with their texts and some pointers on some occasions, from there it was a matter of visiting and revisiting locations, exploring and figuring out how to best show what each place is about. It was an amazing experience, trying to see familiar parts of Athens through the author’s eyes and in the process discovering a myriad of new ones.
Left: The Parrot Colony, right: Benaki Toy Museum ©Yannis Varouhakis
Is there something that particularly surprised or touched you, among the “secrets” you discovered?
Diana Farr Louis: Apart from the family histories I uncovered, I was also moved by the love stories: Vasso Mahaira whose shop To Kompoloi tou Psyrri is a memorial to her late husband’s passion for worry beads as a cultural phenomenon; the owner of the last chair repair shop on Odos Tournavitou, who told me the story of how the tiny street’s residents banded together to paint the facades of their houses different colors; Sophia Peloponnisou, who fell in love with Angelos and Leto Katakouzenos and their own love for Athens and has kept their literary salon in their period apartment off Syntagma alive and thriving.
Alexia Amvrazi: I was deeply touched by a great deal of the stories I uncovered behind the places I wrote about. The story of Loukanikos the dog, and how he was so loved that a memorial was created in his memory; the barber shop where the owner was inspired by his own childhood years in Egypt where his father took him to the barbers… And so many more.
Diane Shugart: Yes—that there’s still a lot of places that I don’t know. When we started this project, we thought we’d have a problem coming up with 111 places people didn’t know about; after all, this is Athens, one of the most photographed and written-about cities. But now, I can think of a dozen more. At least!
The whole guide series seems to be addressed to those aspiring, as the saying goes, to be “travellers, not tourists”. Given the limited amount of time (and resources) most people can dedicate to really knowing a place, plus the increasing number of overtly tourist businesses, how easy is it to be a traveller nowadays?
Diane Shugart: As I mentioned earlier, I live here and am constantly surprised by what Athens reveals. But I think if you set out to ‘know’ a place, you can do that -to a degree- even if you just have a day. You need to be curious. And you need to put aside your expectations or preconceived ideas about a place and open yourself up to it. Walk. Eat the food. Talk to people.
Alexia Amvrazi: Being a traveller requires more time, less planning, more adventurousness and even courage to get lost, or visit areas that people don’t commonly recommend, all with an open-minded and curious spirit. Don’t follow the crowds; sit where you see more locals than tourists; observe features beyond the obvious, like sky-line, and while you're at it look up at buildings right to the top rather than what just stands around you. As important and useful as they are, resources (such as money) don’t need to be the deciding factor – like the spirit of our book itself, a little out-of-the-box thinking can get one a long way.
Diana Farr Louis: I would encourage visitors to follow their own interests and not be stuck with what their app or Trip Advisor gives 5 stars to. Use this book for inspiration, find a spot you like and then follow your noses, your intuition, your spirit of adventure and discover something that may not be in anyone’s book. And don’t be afraid to talk. Athenians are apt to be friendly and most have at least a smattering of English.
*Interview by Nefeli Mosaidi (Intro photo: Gryllis Water Lilies ©Yannis Varouhakis)
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Athens: European Capital of Innovation 2018; Reading Greece | Athens - World Book Capital City of 2018; Lexikopoleio: one of the best independent international bookstores in Athens
Watch the video of the book presentation which took place on 13 November at Lexikopoleio international bookstore: