Award-winning Greek-French writer Vassilis Alexakis passed away at the age of 77 on January 11, 2021. “Literature lost a great creator, and independent, loved and special voice”, and “a writer who has won the esteem of his colleagues and the love of readers in the two countries between which he has shared his life, Greece and France”, in the words of Greek Minister of Culture.
Vassilis Alexakis was born in Athens in 1943 and spent his childhood on the island of Santorini. In 1961 he received a scholarship to study abroad and went to France. He enrolled in the journalism school in Lille with the intent of somehow making his living as a writer. In 1964, he returned to Greece to do his military service. Three years later, the coup d'etat and the installation of the military regime forced him into exile. He returned to France, this time to Paris.
His first novel, Le sandwich, was written in French and published in 1974. In 1982 he wrote his first novel in Greek, Talgo, and translated it himself into French. His novel La langue maternelle was awarded the prestigious Medicis Prize; his collection of short stories, Papa, was awarded the Academie francaise Prize for Best Short Story Collection, and his novel Avant was awarded the Albert Camus Prize.Alexakis received the 2007 Grand Prix from the Academie francaise for his novel Ap. J.-C. Foreign Words was selected as a 2006 Book of the Year Award by ForeWord Magazine, was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize for 2007, and in 2014 was named one of the 25 books that inspired the world, but World Literature Today.
Being Alexakis’s first novel published in English, Foreign Words is an invitation to a journey, a book that takes us through time and space. Crossing countries and continents, the narrative follows a son lost for words over the death of his father. Unable to write the phrase "My father is dead" in either his native Greek or his adopted French, he heads for Africa to undertake the learning of Sango. Traveling across both borders and time, he examines his past, his family history, and the colonial and political ties of his homelands.
While at first he does not know why learning a new and uncommon language has become vital to him, he comes to discover that the new language enables him to easily write of his father's passing. But as he truly experiences Sango—meets its speakers, travels where it emerged and has struggled to survive—his intimacy with it grows, and he is once again unable to utter the telling phrase.
The book is a profound meditation on language and loss, on the language of loss, and on the power and magic of words -- their power to change the way we see ourselves, their magic to renew our lives after hardship. The story is simultaneously filled with delicate suspense and emotional honesty, while the narration is full of humor, tender self-deprecation, and subtle irony.
As Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Butler University Ania Spyra commented in her review of the book, Nicolaides does not shy away from the political dimensions of language learning and instruction. He comments on the reasons for languages to penetrate into each other and claims that soon “current events” will force us to understand African words, just as it has been the case with the Arabic ones, for example jihad and ayatollah.
But Foreign Words is not merely a narrativized treatise on language and migration; it abounds in lyrical insights, couched in beautiful language. As Alexakis’s narrator says, “Languages return the interest you show in them. They tell you stories only to encourage you to tell your own.... Foreign words are compassionate. They are moved by the least little sentence you write in their language, and it doesn't matter if it's filled with mistakes.”
Aris Maragkopoulos (b. Athens, 1948) is a Greek writer, literary critic and translator. He studied History and Archaeology at the University of Athens, History of Art and Archaeology at the University of Paris I Pantheon-Sorbonne. He has published more than 20 books (novels, short stories, essays, photo collections). His more widely read novels thus far are: Obsession with Spring (2006-2009), The Slap-tree (2012) and his «French» novel Paul et Laura, tableau d’après nature (2016). Apart from their literary merits the above books have ignited a certain discussion in Greece as to the possible ways of narrating history in literature.
Maragkopoulos is considered an authority on James Joyce in Greece. He has written three books and many articles on the matter. His most important study, Ulysses, A reader's guide is an attempt to re-read James Joyce's Ulysses through affinities to its Homeric counterpart, the Odyssey. His Joycean studies have influenced his critical reading of Greek modern and contemporary prose: his relevant writings over the years place emphatically Greek literature in the frame of the European literary canon. He has also translated into Greek, Irish writers such as Jonathan Swift (Gulliver's Travels), Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe), James Joyce (Giacomo Joyce, excerpts from Ulysses), as well as Henry James (Washington Square, The Wings of the Dove), Marguerite Duras (Moderato Cantabile), Honoré de Balzac (Sarrasine) and some French essayists.
Aris Maragkopoulos has served for two consecutive terms as executive secretary of the Hellenic Authors' Society. His novel Love, Gardens, Ingratitude has been translated into Serbian, Obsession with Spring into Turkish, his short novel Nostalgic Clone into English. Three of his books have been shortlisted for the National Literary Award: Love, Gardens, Ingratitude (2002), Paul et Laura, tableau d’après nature (2016) and his exegetical essay on Joyce, Ulysses, A reader's guide (2010). He has been a co-founder of the Greek publishing house, Topos books.
You have published more than twenty books of fiction, literary critique and art. What drove you to writing and what continues to be your driving force? Would you say there are recurrent points of reference in your books?
Art in general and the art of writing more specifically has been my principal working method to handle, since my early twenties, the fast evolving world around me while, in my years of maturity, it has worked as a reliable instrument for me to perceive the complex impulses of a post-modern society in which inequalities, discriminations and agnostic hate stubbornly seem to persist. The art of writing real literature –not simply bedtime stories– demands oneself to plunge deeply into the history, the mythologies, the memories, the mentality and the dreams of people who, in times of crisis, tend to forget humanity’s best legacy, humanism, and consent even to the most hideous barbarity, e.g. fascism. These old themes, time and again, are easily traced in almost every book of mine, be it fiction or literary critique. Writing, in short, always has encouraged me to read and re-read our world, our societies, our ways of thinking everyday life.
In 2020, there were published two books of yours: a novel titled Φλλσστ, φλλσστ, φλλλσσστ and Πορτρέτο του Συγγραφέα ως Κριτικού, a collection of your literary reviews. Would you like to tell us a few things about both your ventures?
This recent novel is an attempt to portray the reactions of people who experienced the humanitarian crisis in contemporary Greece not just as a financial disaster, but, and this is equally important, as an ethical and even as a cultural threat to their lives. The story is told from the standpoint of a few old people (winter swimmers all of them) who choose to bypass the harsh events of the crisis that are raging around during the years 2012-2016 (reference is made indirectly to the most important events of the period) by striving to lead a somewhat secluded, secure life. But the events prove to be more powerful than these people’s subterfuge and invade violently into their petty lives so that the most valuable things they have loved, adored, believed and lived thus far become tested to death.
In short Fllst, fllsst, flllssst explores the limits of tolerance of a raped society – a society unprepared to fight not only against the economic sanctions suddenly put on it, but most importantly against the false credos permeating for decades, since WWII, its whole existence. The strange title refers to the incessant plashing of water at the edge of the sea. In the book this onomatopoeia emphasizes, reveals or simply accompanies every small or big turn in the lives of the main heroes. It is a constant reminder of Time, of the eternity of things, of the continuity of life against all odds.
The Portrait of the Writer as a literary Critic, is an anthology of literary reviews, essays and theses on culture selected out of a larger corpus of forty years literary work published in national newspapers, magazines or delivered as public lectures on various occasions. My starting point is the belief that the dominant literary critique in Greece has not succeeded to read the most important of its authors through a bold critical eye. It has preferred instead to hoard them indiscriminately and indifferently at the “museum” of national literary pride. For example, the legacy of the pro-modernist writers (end of 19th, beginnings of 20th century), like Viziinos, Papadiamantis, Roides, Mitsakis, to mention only the greatest of them –who are less known outside the narrow limits of the Greek speaking world, yet they are comparable to the great European masters of the same period– undoubtly deserves to be read and critically reviewed in the same demanding framework as that of Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Stéphane Mallarmé, Anton Tchekov etc. These writers, to say the least, represent an original example of modernism in a period when the first relevant experiments were just taking place in other parts of Europe.
So, that is one thing this book achieves: it re-maps the critical reading of the Greek literary tradition in the perspective of the European literary canon. By doing so it also achieves something equally important: since the mainstream critique has thus far limited its readings to the plot, the story, the period, the history of literature, its reviews have always remained tragically subjective, chauvinist, peripheral, stubbornly underestimating the originality of the above narratives. Well, my essays of these forty years constitute an attempt to re-read these original texts with a fresh eye without the myopic lenses of historism and critical impressionism, thus constituting an exemple of “scientific” critique. In the same book are also included a number of theoretical essays examining various cultural phenomena that have shaped / influenced dramatically the mentality of the post war generations of Greek people.
Your studies on James Joyce have significantly contributed to the understanding of Joyce’s work in Greece. How challenging was for you to delve into the work of one of the most important writers of the 20th century?
I have grown up with James Joyce. I started reading Ulysses when a freshman at the Athens University and have never stopped since then. James Joyce has been throughout all these years my primary, my college and my academic tutor. I have studied the best of European literature through my readings of his books. I have started reading Dante and Laurence Sterne at a period when both these texts were not yet properly translated into Greek. His books have been my royal road to continuously exploring the limits of knowledge, of language, of ethics, of ideas, of dreams, of writing – the road to discover not only who I am, but what person I wanted to be. His work, at a very early stage in my writing life, was the spark to experiment with the Word in all possible ways, to risk fearlessly into the unknown, to create with a single purpose: understand and enjoy in words what most people are afraid to understand and enjoy. So, the joycean adventure for me has been, and still is, an enduring education of self fulfillment, of self knowledge according to the socratic advice “γνώθι σ' αυτόν” (= know thyself), and in so doing, a bliss without end.
You have characterized the body of literature as “an independent and almost libertarian democracy”. Could you elaborate on that?
I believe that the right to read and write, the right to incorporate oneself into the world legacy of texts and scriptures and writings constitutes a vital element of every civilized, democratic society. Excluding people from this right is as disturbing as exluding them from their essential rights to food, education, freedom, equality. In this context I believe that in a really free society everybody has the right to read and write whatever he desires; unrestrained, unchained of any ideological or other bonds. Moreover the fact that literature is by definition a universal symbolic place where everybody can meet and argue on any topic, where everybody can love and hate anyone, think and rethink his own life through the life of others etc., makes it a perfect model for the world where well known libertarians as Jean Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot aspired to live in – to say nothing of millions of people who are still having the same desire.
How does literature converses with the world it inhabits? Which role is literature called to play especially in times of multi-faceted crisis?
Literature has always been the child of the society which has given birth to it, a concave mirror reflecting both the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the beauties and the monsters of its time. It is important for the writer to listen and engage himself in the demands of his society; but it is left to the reader to decide, to choose, to reflect on the literary donations of his time.
Literature is not a managerial mechanism of changing life into something more convenient, less burdensome. Literature has no power to improve one’s standard of life, one’s salary, one’s environment. Yet, literature can make one dream of (and demand) a better living, a better environment. History teaches that such kind of literary dreams can be very influential, especially in times of crisis. Diderot’s literature for example urged many people of his time to dream of a more human society and thus indirectly played its small role to the 1789 french revolution. Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s literature inspired a lot of young people in his country who demanded a society free of tsarism and thus indirectly played its role to the 1917 russian revolution. A convincing letter by the french novelist Emile Zola in a newspaper (his famous “J’ accuse”) was enough to sparkle a whole re-examination of the facts that had led to the imprisonement and disgrace of an innocent man Alfred Dreyfus, making a whole society to rethink its petrified beliefs.
A writer, a publisher, a translator, an editor, a literary critic. What is that binds all these different attributes together? Would you say that writing and literary critique constitute communicating vessels?
I consider myself a lucky man. I have always been engaged one way or another in the book production. I believe firmly in the power of reading, the power of good literature. In my life I have had the opportunity to translate books that I loved, to review books I loved, to publish books I loved. A lucky man indeed! The renaissance idea of homo universalis, has been my ideal throughout my whole life. In that respect, being a passionate reader had always meant to me that I should endeavour to cover practically everything area in the written universe. I have done just that. (Whether I have been successful or not it is for others to decide).
Literary writing and literary critique constitute two streams pouring into the same river of creation. I can’t conceive the one separately from the other. Most writers, most important writers, have followed the same creative path. The history of world literature provides indeed a convincing number of such examples.
Criticising in depth the creative ways of others, makes you a better connoisseur of yourself, makes you less arrogant, more self-conscious of your creative possibilities. Criticising the cultural habits / ideas / actions of people, makes you a better judge of your society, a more conscious citizen, a tolerant reader of the character of others. But then, all this critical work is the valuable equipment a writer needs in order to compose a decent text; and this explains how writing and literary critique communicate mutually in the creative act.
“Art doesn’t just constitute a product, among other products. It takes time, it requires an active participation. It demands time to be absorbed during which you have to work with yourself, to reflect upon yourself”. Tell us more.
The work of art, literary or other, though it is sold / bought in the market as all other products, should not be considered an ordinary consumer good. One can consume as many yoghurts as he likes in one day, week, month. But he can not do the same with the works of art, unless of course these products contain no other meaning for him except that of consuming.
The work of art is consumed, so to say, in the long run. The real work of art is to its consumer a lifelong relationship and as it happens to all relationships in real life it deploys in front of him an intimate story of skin and blood, of laugh and joy, of wrinkles and sorrow, of discovered secrets, of ties in love and hate, of tragic and happy moments etc. In real life relationships of this kind are never consumed one after the other, “one-night stands” are no real art consumer's favorite cup of tea.
As we are selective with our friends in life so we should be selective with our literary / art friends. It takes time to become a real friend with someone or even to dismiss him, it takes time to understand and feel in depth new people, new books, new works of art. It takes time to understand one's choices, one's preferences in life and the same applies to art consuming.
Both the recent socio-economic crisis and the current health pandemic have adversely affected the Greek book market and publishing houses in this respect? What are the prospects ahead for books?
The book market in Greece is addressed to a limited number of approximately 15.000 active readers, people, that is, for whom the book is vital to their life. Both the economic and pandemic crisis have been a heavy blow for book buyers, mainly because the readers I have just mentioned are, in their majority, of low and middle class incomes.
As for the prospects for the book industry in Greece the real answer to the problem lies in public libraries. In this country lending public libraries do not respond as they should to these extraordinary circumstances. They must here and now get modernized. We need better organized municipal and public libraries as well as better organized school libraries. There is an urgent need for a central organization of all public libraries obeying to a firm, central state policy supporting readership; with an alternating animation programme that will urge people to read more; with a brave school programme that will convince young people (whose reading is limited to their mobile screen) understand the necessity of reading books for their future.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
As an unpredictable, sweeping pandemic causes people in Apples, the Greek nomination for the Oscars, to develop sudden amnesia, a man finds himself enrolled in a recovery program designed to help him build a new life. His treatment consists of performing daily tasks prescribed by his doctors on audiocassette and capturing these new memories with a Polaroid camera. Greek writer-director Christos Nikou’s debut feature is a surreal enigma about love, memory, and loss, a beguiling exploration of identity and reality.
Christos Nikou was born in Athens in 1984. His short film “KM” participated in over 40 international film festivals. For the past ten years, he has worked as an assistant director on the feature films “Dogtooth” (Yorgos Lanthimos) and “Before Midnight” (Richard Linklater), as well as “4 Black Suits”, “Nobody”, “Christmas Tango”, “A Greek Type of Problem”, “7 Kinds of Wrath” and “Approach”. In 2014 he was selected by the Rotterdam Film Festival to deliver a directing masterclass to 30 young film students at the annual masterclass "We are next", organized by the festival and the University of Amsterdam. “Apples” production team was recently joined by Cate Blanchett who characterised “Apples” as “a unique and beautiful fable about memory and loss which resonates deeply with the unrecognisable terrain in which we currently find ourselves”. The film was profiled by Hollywood Reporter as a likely Oscars contender, while The Playlist included “Apples” in the best films of 2021. In his interview with Greek News Agenda* Christos Nikou talks about the roads he took and the ones he didn’t in film making and the difficulties of funding.
Aris Servetalis in "Apples" dir. Christos Nikou (2019)
The film is timely in stressing, as the Hollywood Reporter review noted, “the obsession with documenting our lives on Instagram or Facebook” to a point that “virtually eclipses the importance of the actual experience”. Are we our memories, our feelings and the imprint of the most important events in our life or are we manic collectors and creators of memories in search of likes on social media?
I think that we are our memories. This is something we wanted to underline through this film. We are everything we haven’t forgotten. The things we forgot are things that never existed, in a way. The things we have forgotten may have also formed us in one sense, but it’s not clear in what sense. I feel that it is very important to keep our memories as a foundation so as to be able to move ahead in the future. Social media have immensely influenced our memory and that goes for technology too. By following the program he is prescribed, the film protagonist strives to imitate an experience in an artificial manner because he follows orders to create it and then photograph it as evidence. He’s neither following his instincts nor experiencing real sentiment. He creates an experience which he depicts with a selfie taken through an analogue photographic machine and then he places this photograph in a photo album. This is a comment on how people depict experiences in social media: whether it’s TikTok or Facebook or Instagram, we imitate things, we create artificial experiences in order to take a staged photo with a Polaroid filter that we place in a digital album so that all of our friends can see it and judge it. I think this has influenced us to a very large extent. We live in an ephemeral age where we ditch our privacy in the quest for likes. In the film, the doctors enter the patient’s house in his absence to check his progress and they browse through his photo album.
Aris Servetalis in "Apples" dir. Christos Nikou (2019)
The doctors’ clinical approach reminds me of Lanthimos. They dissect a psychological experience in such a cold way that renders it dehumanized and ridiculous.
The doctors are treating amnesiacs, patients who have a lot of difficulties understanding many things, so they do these things unintentionally. I prefer seeing the funny side of things I consider important. The way doctors enter and manage the protagonist’s life in the same way that it happens with social media. The doctors unconsciously create people with the same memories, replicas of the same person, in the same way, we have lost our personality.
The doctors’ list of tasks brings in memory the lifestyle magazines of the ’90s that were full of lists, such as “30 things to do before turning 30”, suggesting numbers of sexual partners, sexual experiences, etc.
We referred to many instances of pop/ mass culture in compiling the tasks the doctors prescribed. Some of them come from my own personal experience, others are memories shared by most of us. Moreover, in the case of the memory tests that the protagonist undergoes, there is a clear reference to a TV game of the nineties. I’m always inspired by things I’ve seen, like funny YouTube videos, trying to give them a different twist.
Aris Servetalis in "Apples" dir. Christos Nikou (2019)
You have been associated in interviews and reviews with Charlie Kaufman and Yorgos Lanthimos. There is faith in love and humanity that differentiates your film from the Greek weird wave. Would you like to elaborate?
There are many comic elements in the film, although it revolves around a tragic subject. I approach my characters with tenderness. I have faith in humanity and love, which is why I don’t think I could make an outright cynical, cruel, and sarcastic film.
As far as the weird wave is concerned, I haven’t got a clear idea as to what exactly that is, to be honest. I am trying to find out because I am often asked about it. For me, the weird wave revolves around Efthimis Filippou who, together with Yorgos Lanthimos, created some films that have a distinct, weird approach. I think that what we are talking about is the “Efthimis Filippou wave”, if we have in mind the scripts that Filippou wrote for Athina Rachel Tsagari and Babis Makridis, or the “Efthimis Filippou / Lanthimos wave” and not the Greek new weird wave. With the exception of a few, I can’t say that Greek films follow that wave. The fact is that Greek films don’t have the success that “Dogtooth” had. There are still fans of the weird wave of course, but over the last four years, Greek cinema is not as popular as it used to. Big International Film Festivals used to be very interested in Greek film.
I think that contemporary Greek Cinema is greatly indebted to Yorgos Lanthimos because his films boosted the visibility of Greek cinematic production. I’m indebted to Lanthimos. I had previously made a short film, “KM”, in 2012, which began screening at International Film Festivals, and there was the constant reference to the fact that I had worked as an assistant director to Lanthimos in “Dogtooth”, something that is still happening with “Apples”. We may have some common references, such as Roy Anderson, whose deadpan humour we both appreciate. I think that “Apples” is closer to a European approach of Charlie Kauffman or of one of my favourite films which had a deep impact on me and led me into film making, “The Truman Show”, and my favourite books, Orwell’s “1984” and “Blindness” by José Saramago.
I have depicted doctors in “Apples” in a satirical way, but there are so many things that differentiate “Apples” from the weird wave. It’s filmed differently. The frame is different. Yorgos has a very distinctive framing. We, however, keep the human face in the centre at all times. I understand that “Apples” and “Dogtooth” are both Greek and having an actor who played in Lanthimos films can easily lead to granting “Apples” as a weird wave film.
Aris Servetalis in "Apples" dir. Christos Nikou (2019)
Analogue devices and the achronic interior design bring to mind the iconography of the eighties. What is its function in the film?
In general, we tried to make a film with no particular reference to a specific time period. But the truth is that as I grew up at the end of the eighties and during the nineties, I have a thing for those decades, a nostalgic feeling. But I didn’t opt for this achronic background out of nostalgia alone. Indeed “Apples” is a nostalgic film, it talks about the past. It was a given fact there would be a nostalgic approach, in music, etc. Even the film ratio was 4:3, the Academy ratio, which was used in the Classic Cinema. As I said earlier, technology has influenced our memory. We don’t remember telephone numbers, we use Google Maps everywhere, and as a consequence people tend to forget more and more. We have stored all our data in an Apple device and there is an ironic allure to that in the title “Apples”. The reason we opted for this achronic design was that we wanted to place the film in a time period when the technology that has influenced us so much wasn’t yet that widespread.
Aris Servetalis in "Apples" dir. Christos Nikou (2019)
What were the challenges in filming and location scouting?
I wanted to make a film that doesn’t take place at a specific time or place. But this wasn’t easy, because Athens has a very specific identity and it’s very busy and noisy. I did the location scouting myself. My experience as an assistant director was very useful and it was easy to find venues where Athens looks different. The initial thought was to partly shoot abroad and partly shoot in Athens so as to create a fictional city, but the cost was prohibitive.
What does the Oscars candidacy mean for you?
It’s a very strange year for the Oscars. The Covid 19 crisis has made the campaign even more difficult. The members of the voting committee don’t gather for screenings but view the films on their laptops. On a personal level, it made me very happy and I hope that “Apples” will be viewed by as many people as possible. If the film comes to be shortlisted, it would be a tremendous boost to Greek cinema.
Aris Servetalis in "Apples" dir. Christos Nikou (2019)
Co-production seems to become the norm for many Greek films, but you took it to another level. Cate Blanchett, Andrew Upton, and Coco Francini have joined the team of the film's executive producers. What does that mean for the film?
It certainly changes the status of the film, making it more recognizable. The film sales and Festival selections were all concluded before Cate Blanchett joined the team and they already were satisfying. But we never thought that Blanchett would join. It was totally unexpected. She saw the film in Venice, her agents approached me and during our first meetings, we saw that we were on the same page and that we would very much like to work together. She told me that she deeply appreciated the film and that she wanted to promote it and share it with as many people as possible, and this is why she joined the film production team. It’s a huge honour to see an exceptional actress like her who is totally devoted to cinema, who has seen an infinite number of films, and who is on a constant search for new filmmakers to be an executive producer of the film. We feel extremely lucky to have her along with Andrew Upton, and Coco Francini.
Aris Servetalis in "Apples" dir. Christos Nikou (2019)
Would you like to say a few things about the funding of the film?
The film was supported by Boo Productions, Iraklis Mavroidis, Angelos Venetis, and Aris Dayios. I have worked with Boo Productions since the beginning of my career. It’s the company who made “Dogtooth”; I started with them as assistant director and they produced my short film ”KM”. They supported me immensely in those difficult conditions in which “Apples” was realized. It was difficult finding co-producers and the closing of the Greek Film Center for two years was also a problem. Funding took very long, but we managed to make ends meet.
Is it easy for a Greek film to find European coproduction?
I think that if your film is interesting for a European audience or has a universal theme, it can attract European funding. I think that European coproduction is the only way. Many Greek producers have turned to co-producing because the amounts allocated by the GFC and the Public Broadcaster (ERT) are not enough. So they join networks such as EAVE and ACE and attend seminars and workshops, and that’s a good thing because European co-productions can only bring better conditions for film making in Greece.
Aris Servetalis in "Apples" dir. Christos Nikou (2019)
What was the pandemic impact?
It’s scary of course, but people in the industry are so passionate. Maybe filmmakers have to wait till it’s over in order to work under less pressure because right now shooting scenes with big crowds, for example, poses many difficulties. I hope this will all come to an end, I hope that viewers will return to cinemas because films are made for screening at cinemas.
What are your future plans?
We are working on our new film “Fingernails” with my co-scriptwriter Stavros Raptis, with whom we also wrote “Apples” and a young English writer, Sam Steiner. We are writing in English and I’m also working on other projects.
"Apples" dir. Christos Nikou (2019)
You started working with notable directors at a very young age, which formed your background in making your first feature with great self-confidence. Other filmmakers experiment with short films before their debut feature.
I’m self-taught. I studied Economics, not cinema. When I was eighteen, I wanted to study filmmaking, because I used to watch at least three films a day, ever since I was a child, and I was writing scripts and wanted to make films. However, after finding out that all my favourite filmmakers were self-taught, I decided to follow their path. After four years, I started working for “Dogtooth”. I had seen the announcement that the film was approved by the Greek Film Center, I read the plot and I felt that I wanted to work for it and I asked for an appointment with the producer, Iraklis Mavroidis. I was very lucky to land this job with Lanthimos.
The short format is not my cup of tea. What I look for in a film is the sincerity of the filmmaker and I’m afraid that the short format cannot easily give me a moving story, because you don’t have enough time to develop a character or a story. I know that it was a huge risk to go straight into a feature, but I wasn’t intimidated. I don’t consider short films as a test before features. I think that you shoot a film when you have something to say, and not as an exercise. I wanted to tell my story in a feature format. The fact that I hadn’t taken part in many Festivals with my short films posed some limits in finding funds, but what can I say? It was a different road and I took it.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
Special thanks to the Public Diplomacy Office of the General Consulate of Greece to Los Angeles
Elena Pallantza (born 1969, Athens), is a Greek-born philologist and literary translator based in Germany. She studied Classical Philology at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and continued her studies in Germany through scholarships from both German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD)and German Research Foundation (DFG). Following her PhD at the University of Freiburg, she worked as a teacher of Ancient and Modern Greek Language and Literature at the German School of Athens. Since 2003, she lives in Bonn and works at the German Ministry of Culture and Education. In 2004/2005 she pursued post-graduate studies in Intercultural Education at the University of Cologne. In 2006/2010, she was a research associate at the Department of Classical Philology of the University of Bonn, where she still teaches Modern Greek Language and Literature.
Elena writes and translates literature in both languages and lectures on Greek culture and literature around the German-speaking world. In 2016, she published her first book of poetry titled Ορυζώνος και Κυκλάδων. 25 αστεϊσμοί για μια ευτοπία (Haiku poems about the Cyclades) (Athens, Perispomeni editions). She recently formed the Translation Circle LEXIS, a team of students of Modern Greek at the University of Bonn, with whom she translates modern Greek literature into German. Her German translation of Dimitris Eleftherakis’ novella The difficult art (Reinecke & Voß 2017) received the State Prize of Literary Translation of a Greek-language work in a foreign language in 2018. She is currently translating from German into Greek the novel of Bettina Wilpert, Nichts, was uns passiert (Verbrecher Verlag 2018) as part of the litrix.de program of the Goethe Institute. In October 2020 she was a Scholar of Literarisches ColloquiumB erlin.
Elena Pallantza spoke to Reading Greece* about The Anthology of Young German Poets, which she compiled and translated, “opting for poets who try to deal with current trends in poetry and co-define them”. She also commented on “the marginalization of Greek literature in the German book market”, adding that “utilizing, connecting or supporting the individual networks of writers, translators and publishers all around Germany could be a boosting step in the long term”. As for translation, she discussed the power and responsibility of translators, noting that “literary translation is also interpretation” and that “one of the major virtues of a translator is his courage to exercise his power”. She concluded that “the promotion of Greek literature abroad without a concrete translation funding program, such as FRASIS, is purposeless” and that “it’s urgent that we built upon the positive ground that already exists, overwriting stereotypes and broadening the horizon of German expectations”.
You compiled and translated The Anthology of Young German Poets (Anthologie Junger Deutscher Lyriker*Innen), which was published by Vakhikon in 2019 with the support of Goethe Institute in Athens and Kunststiftung NRW. Tell us a few things about this venture of yours.
Being part of the project young poets by Vakhikon, which aspires to bring to the fore new poetic voices around Europe, the anthology could not but have a sample as well as a personal character as in any non-thematic anthology. Following a two-year immersion into the material, I ventured, if you like, a journey into the experimental field of modern German poetry, having kept what I thought contributed to the renewal of poetic language, but chucked out a lot of what I thought was pretentious or lacking in aesthetic coherence.
I opted for poets who try to deal with current trends in poetry and co-define them. Through publications and an internet presence, journals and actions, Kathrin Bach, Sonja vom Brocke, Maren Kames, Anja Kampmann, Georg Leß, Christoph Georg Rohrbach, Tobias Roth, Lara Rüter, Jan Skudlarek, Charlotte Warsen and Levin Westermann were already actively participating in the public debate on poetry as new promising talents. Now, three years later, I am happy to see the recognition of their work in every new book, prize or translation in other languages.
It’s the generation that grew up in the re-unified Germany, under the sweeping influence of pop-culture, and came to age amid the digital revolution. They draw from their own poetic heritage but are at the same time acutely aware of what we call the post-modern condition: they explore boundaries, take advantage of any digital freedom and wittily combine the old with the new. And in this respect, they have very much in common with new poets around the rest of Europe and of course in Greece. And if anything, the anthology is meant as a gesture of poetic friendship, hopefully a trigger for further approach and interaction. As for the rest, time will show.
In turn, how easily understandable is Greek literature by a German-speaking audience? Have initiatives like Edition Romiosini and diablog.eu contributed to the familiarization of German readers with Greek literature and culture?
There are at least three things that determine whether a country’s literature can be understood by a foreign audience. The first one is its extroversion, meaning the extent to which it can speak to themes that are common across humans. The second one is the open-ness of the audience itself, its willingness to get to know the literature and culture of a foreign country. And, last but not least, it is determined by the quality of the mediator work of all those participating in the “transcription” of this literature to the foreign language.
Greek-German cultural relations are intricate as much as they are deep. At times, they have been turbulent and emotionally charged, which in a way shows that they are still an active field of exchange. In the second half of the 20th century, the presence of Greek literature in Germany had been continuous. The particularities of this era – Nobel Prizes, dictatorship, tourism, Modern Greek studies in German universities, the active presence of Greek immigrant communities – along with a plethora of translations have formed a generation of German readers with impressive knowledge and love for Greek literature and its historical and political background. But we need to realize the fact that with this generation gone we will face a vacuum already reflected in the dramatically decreased publishers’ interest in Greek works in the last few years, with just a handful of exceptions.
The marginalization of Greek literature in the German book market may have resulted either from globalization and oversupply or from the lack of a targeted policy on the Greek part. Whatever it may be, it calls us to urgently redefine our goal: What exactly do we want to “export”? What should become the cultural brand of Greece in a country like Germany in the coming decades? And perhaps more provocatively: We live in a rapidly changing and inter-connected world. Does it still make sense to define our target as promoting abroad our cultural products in national terms? Or better focus on works that are open to a constructive exchange between cultures beyond national borders?
Both Edition Romiosini, an academic publishing program that aims to create a digital archive of Greek literature as well as diablog.eu, a digital platform of varied Greek-German encounters are two different answers to the problem of marginalization. But there is also a very important space besides the two, maybe an untapped potential, quite close to the end reader, the love of reading, the analogue book: the individual networks of writers, translators and publishers all around Germany. Utilizing, connecting or just supporting them could also be a boosting step in the long term.
Most scholars reckon that the content of a book cannot be separated from the particularities of the language that gave it shape. In this context, where does the role and responsibility of the translator lie?
This argument encompasses the major question of the translatability of certain texts, especially poetic ones. As the American poet Robert Frost aphoristically comments “Poetry is what´s lost in translation“. Yet, this is after all a pessimistic view considering it focuses on what separates and not on what unites, on loss and not on gain. Let me remind you of the international glow and influence of works such as those by Cavafy or Kazantzakis – just to mention two extreme examples of poetic idiolect – where translation played an important part in their worldwide circulation.
Thus, it´s a matter of attitude whether to detect the meaning of the translation process in the communication between languages, to treat the translator of literature as a participant in a unifying hyper-language, as Walter Benjamin proposes in his famous essay The task of the translator. In this case, the translator’s responsibility lies in the following: to tirelessly cultivate his spirit and his linguistic intuition; to delve deeply into the knowledge of literature and the cultural contexts of the languages between which he moves; to be fully aware that he is part of a longstanding cultural tradition and exchange, but also to not shy away from paving new creative ways in which the two languages can meet, ways that may so far have seemed impossible.
It has been argued that when translating from a so-called “minor” to a so-called “major” language or literature, translators do sometimes hold remarkable power, including the power to produce what will in many cases become the only interpretation of a work of literature available in a given language. How do you respond to this power? Can translation ever be unethical?
From the Italian play on words “traduttore traditore” (translator traitor) to the comparison of the art of translation to a “sweat delusion” by Borges or to a “high treason” by the poet-translator Odile Kennel (when Icall the tree arbre, the tree feels betrayed […]) the debate on the moral responsibility of the translator is endless. There is traditionally a widespread distrust as to his status, his intentions and his abilities. I reckon that one of the major virtues of a translator is his courage to exercise his power. When exercised virtuously, this can enrich world literature. So, the problem actually lies in the phrase “the only interpretation” and is equally relevant for any language.
Literary translation is also interpretation. In this respect, we should accept not just the parameter of subjectivity but also that there isn’t or shouldn’t be a unique interpretation of a specific work, let alone a correct one. Just imagine a single execution of a musical work or a unique approach of a theatrical play. Translation is an open process and not a closed system with irrevocable results. That in no way means that ‘anything goes’ as to the methods, the criteria and ethics. After all, translated works are there to be judged, as works of literature themselves, and there are tools and a number of specialists to assess whether the respective choices were transparent, coherent and well-founded or superficial and arbitrary. Nowadays we increasingly notice that translators themselves are willing to open their laboratory door and reflect on the complexity of the criteria that lead to one choice over another. Yet, it’s still important to address the art of translation as what it really is: a finite act in an infinite scheme of things; an ephemeral answer given at a concrete moment, yet carrying the passionate feeling to last forever.
In an interview to Reading Greece, Michaela Prinzinger has argued that only through the development of tools that will strengthen literary translation can modern Greek literature be perceived as good literature without the need for teasers and folklore arguments. Can translators who live and activate abroad help to this end?
I fully agree with Michaela Prinzinger. The debate on the promotion of Greek literature abroad without a concrete translation funding program, such as FRASIS, is purposeless. An example of successful strategic planning is litrix.de by Goethe Institute, which is allocated to a different country every two years. Based on translation excerpts of German books selected by a joint committee of German book experts as well as those of the target country, translators and publishers may express their interest and ensure both translation funding and a contribution related to the acquisition of rights.
This strategy has something very important to show: that for a book strategy to be successful, one needs to scope people’s interest and network with the book world separately in each country. Germany does not have the same impression of Greek literature compared to Eastern European countries or the Mediterranean South. In a way, Greek literature has become here a victim of its own past success: Caught in the outmoded triangle Antiquity-Nobel-Tourism – perhaps with a recent addition of a fleeting interest due to the economic crisis – the German readers ignore considerable modern Greek works that move beyond easily digestible themes and whose reception would contribute to a more fertile knowledge of the Greek condition. Yet, there is still some kind of philhellenism among the Germans, a deep-rooted love for Greece. Therefore it’s urgent that we built upon the positive ground that already exists, overwriting stereotypes and broadening the horizon of German expectations.
Within this framework, the contribution of translators who live in the target country, who know from the inside the trends and mechanisms of the book market and have numerous ideas for a more successful promotion of Greek literature, is pivotal. In addition, they are the ones who may easier contact people and institutions related to the book market in the target country so that any literary works that have found their way into print, are not marginalized and become visible and competitive.
Could translators act as cultural ambassadors fostering understanding between different countries and cultures?
Of course, given that translation, as literature and art in general, constitutes after all a political act, an act of transcendence. By translating literature, you contribute to the spread of a country’s culture into a foreign speaking environment and thus to cross-border communication and mutual understanding. That’s why translators are often called cultural ambassadors, writers’ advocates or even literary bridge-builders between countries. Also considering the passion, voluntarism and the almost inexplicable obsession of numerous among my colleagues, I would also characterize them as romantic activists of literature.
Yet, let me conclude with afinal remark that at times, in the name of cultural mediation, the essence of translation is significantly underestimated. In the whole process of cultural exchange the literary translator mainly focuses on the creative part. His center of attention is the magic of words. Put another way, his principal mission is not a diplomatic one; he doesn’t serve any specific national interests nor is politically militant – except to the ideas of free approach. He seeks to literarily address the problem of silence of a text in a foreign language – an in itself extremely difficult and time-consuming task. In this sense it’s quite comforting to see an increasing recognition of the artistic dimension of a translator’s work, a heroic appearance out of the shadows.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Miltos Sachtouris (1919-2005), a native of Athens, Greece, was one of the leading Greek poets of the postwar era. When he was young, he aborted his law studies to follow his real passion, poetry, and adopted the pen name Miltos Chrysanthis, under which he wrote his first poem The Music of My Islands in 1941. In 1960, he began publishing When I Talk to you and The Spectres, or Joy on the Other Street. Two years later, he received the Second State Poet Prize for The Stigmata.
He later wrote The Seal, or The Eighth Moon (1964) and The Utensil (1971) from the publishings of Keimena. During the last years of his life he worked on Colorwounds (1980), Ectoplasms (1986), Sinking (1990), Since (1996) and The Clocks Turned Upside Down (1998). He received the Grand State Literature Prize in 2003 for the entirety of his work. His work has been translated and published in several languages including English, French, German, Russian, Polish, Italian, Spanish, Dutch.
Evocative and deeply moving, Sachtouris’s poetry builds up, block by linguistic block, an unforgettable vision that speaks even to those who inhabit worlds different and distant from his own. As translator Karen Emmerich suggests, "Miltos Sachtouris's rather nightmarish view of the world emerges from his response to a cruel contemporary history and his need to evoke its hidden reality". To use Vangelis Hatzivasileiou's words, "What Sachtouris sees in the Occupation, the Civil War and the social and political amoralism during the first couple of decades after the war is the inability of people as a collective body to prioritise certain moral values and solutions as an antidote to the crisis of the times. Nevertheless, although Sachtouris observes the same things that others of his generations also ponder on, he reaches rather different conclusions: the dead of the armed conflict and the civil strife are not unvindicated people fallen for a just cause, but tremulous heroes of an epic in which both victims and persecutors take equal part. History is not transformed into indelible memory but rather into a contemporary tragedy, which is being staged with the very same intensity to our own day".
As Dimitris Maronitis eloquently put it, "the poet’s poetic production is characterised by a complex frugality with regard to both quantity and content; his poetry forms a system of ultimate equilibrium, which is ensured thanks to the subtle weighing of minute differences. There are no feverish, external antitheses to be found; the fever burns the poem from within, whilst the surface usually remains untroubled, just like snow, or glistens like ice [...] I believe that he offered himself as a vessel of choice and expression for the post-war absurdity, and suddenly modern Greek surrealism rejected its ornamental opulence".
What a better way to feel the Greek Christmas magic than by reading Greek literature. The Christmas Short Stories written by Alexandros Papadiamantis will transport you to bygone times through the writer’s remarkable imagination and matchless colourful expression. The Christmas Loaf, The Gleaner, The American, Christ at the Castle, An Idler’s Christmas are among the most tender and famous of his tales, with which many generations of Greek children grew up.
Papadiamantis’ short stories do a masterful job of recounting the traditional Greek Orthodox ethos putting him on par Dickens when it comes to extolling the virtues of Christmas. As for the characters featured in his works, there are no good and bad ones, but rather people with virtues and weaknesses, which the author nonetheless approaches with the same love. In Papadiamantis’ world – a world that is lit with the light of Christ – there is room for everyone. Each one of the characters behaves and reacts in their own unique way, not trampling upon the personality of the other, irrespective of right and wrong, good and bad.
Revered as "the Dostoyevsky of Greece" and the "Saint of Greek literature", Alexandros Papadiamantis was born on 4 March 1851 on the small island of Skiathos. His first novel, The Migrant, was printed in instalments in the Constantinopolitan newspaper Neologos, in 1879, and a further three novels were similarly published in Athens in the following years. It was also during this period that he started working as a translator for various Athenian newspapers.
It wasn’t, however, until Christmas of 1887 that Papadiamandis’s first short story, The Christmas Loaf, was to appear, marking the feast and setting a pattern for his writing. The metier of the short story subsequently became his favoured form, written in his own version of the then official language of Greece “katharevousa”. Except for two years when he returned to Skiathos, 1902–4, during which time he wrote his perhaps most powerful tale, The Murderess, he continued to live in Athens, writing and translating, until 1908. His longest works were the serialized novels The Gypsy Girl, The Migrant, and The Merchants of Nations. These were adventures set around the Mediterranean, with rich plots involving captivity, war, pirates, the plague, etc.
Papadiamantis' stories provide lucid and lyrical portraits of country life in Skiathos, or urban life in the poorer neighborhoods of Athens, with frequent flashes of deep psychological insight. The nostalgia for a lost island childhood is palpable in most of them; the stories with an urban setting often deal with alienation. Characters are sketched with a deft hand, and they speak in the authentic "demotic" spoken language of the people; island characters lapse into dialect. Papadiamantis' deep Christian faith, complete with the mystical feeling associated with the Orthodox Christian liturgy, suffuses many stories. Most of his work is tinged with melancholy, and resonates with empathy with people's suffering, regardless of whether they are saints or sinners, innocent or conflicted.
His work is considered seminal in Modern Greek literature: he is for Greek prose what Dionysios Solomos is for poetry. As Odysseus Elytis wrote, "commemorate Dionysios Solomos, commemorate Alexandros Papadiamantis". It is a body of work, however, that is virtually impossible to translate, due to the magic mixture of his language: elaborately crafted, high "katharevousa” for the narrative, interspersed with authentic local dialect for the dialogue, and with all dialectical elements used in the narrative formulated in strict “katharevousa”, and therefore in forms that had never actually existed.
Born in Chania, Crete in 1954, Stavros Psillakis is a graduate of the National Technical University of Athens in Electrical Engineering. He studied film direction at the Hadjikou Film School (Athens) and anthropological documentary filmmaking at the VARAN School (Paris) [founded by Jean ROUCH].
His filmography includes the following documentaries awarded at many festivals: “FOR NO REASONS meetings with Giorgos Maniatis” (2019) about Giorgos Maniatis (1939-2018), a legionnaire in Algeria at 18, author and later a musician. In “Olympia” (2015), Psillakis spends 4 days next to Olympia, a 33-year-old terminal cancer patient and mother of a 4-month-old son, Panayiotis, and the rest of her family. He also directed “The light inside” (2015) and “Short gipsy stories” (2014). “METAXA listening to time” (2012) focuses on doctors and staff at the METAXAS Cancer Hospital who are cancer patients themselves. It observes this special group of patients as they continue to work at the hospital, where their illness becomes a life lesson. “There was no other way” (2009) follows a small rump of the Democratic Army (founded by the Communist Party of Greece during the Greek Civil War), who remained in hiding for 14 years in Chania, Crete, where they continued to take part in illegal political activity, long after the Civil War had ended in Greece, telling of their endurance and the self-sacrifice of the ordinary people who hid them. “The man who disturbed the universe” (2000) visits a group of psychiatric patients at the Chania Psychiatric Clinic and another group of former chronic patients, now out of the Psychiatric Clinic, that goes through the painful process of social rehabilitation and dares to embark upon a weeklong trip to Denmark. Besides being a prominent documentarist, Stavros Psillakis said yes to Yorgos Lanthimos offer to play the protagonist’s father in “Alps”.
Stavros Psillakis observes the human soul in some of its darkest moments, and as it gets wiser once back in the light. He talks with “public enemies” and listens to madness in its chaotic delirium. In his documentaries, the “mad” become poets and the ill become philosophers. In his interview with Greek News Agenda* about some of his best-known documentaries, he talks about the influence that psychoanalysis and his background in engineering had in igniting his doubts and constructing his narratives.
“FOR NO REASONS Meetings with Giorgos Maniatis”, dir. Stavros Psillakis (2019)
As a documentarian, you are attracted by people that go through extreme experiences. What do you expect to make out of their stories?
My films don’t have a didactic or activist approach. They are not about how people with psychological diseases or cancer patients should be treated. To explain the way I see documentary making, I have to go back to why I began making films. Cinema wasn’t my biggest love. I liked watching films, but I wasn’t a film buff. I belong to the Athens Polytechnic generation and much of the political controversy of the time was depicted in films. I was a keen reader of literature, poetry and philosophy. I was also interested in anthropology and psychoanalysis which influenced me to a large degree. I was interested in the way philosophy and psychoanalysis endeavoured to answer big questions, the grundsfrage, the purpose of our existence. I was always amazed by the way literature depicted human nature and researched its components. I was always turning to literature with a genuine interest and curiosity about who we are and not what the right kind of conduct is.
When people face extreme situations, whether they are confined in a psychiatric hospital or fighting cancer, they rethink of life and I am intensely fascinated by this rethinking. But people who go through extreme situations are not the only ones that I am interested in. The protagonist of my most recent documentary “For No Particular Reason” has indeed experienced extreme situations but what interested me the most was what he said about the second birth. He said that we are not responsible for our first birth. We can’t choose the country we are born in or our relatives. But we have the responsibility for a rebirth at some point in our life. As he put it in words, “Life changes by those who change their lives”. This is something that touches us all at some point in our life.
“FOR NO REASONS Meetings with Giorgos Maniatis”, dir. Stavros Psillakis (2019)
As far as the Psychiatric ward is concerned, I remember myself wondering why Yorgos Kokinidis (my favourite psychiatric patient) is in while I’m out. He was the most rational of all. Of course, there was a reason he was hospitalized, but I couldn’t help wondering what brought him to a breaking point and he ended up being hospitalized, while I, who may have the same agonising questions as him, may be out, at least for the time being. That is something I cannot answer. “The Man who disturbed the Universe” is screened often. What I tried to do in that film was to let the patients express themselves. I didn’t want to give the floor to the doctors and the specialists. I wanted the audience to get to know the patients and their stories. The highlight was when they took the camera and started to film. Some people think that it was staged by me but it was totally spontaneous. We were having a little talk in the «Citizen’s Assembly», the place they meet and interact daily when one of them asked to see what’s inside the camera. When he took the camera, he started moving around filming and using the camera as a diary and while he was moving around I heard him say “I am the man who disturbed the universe”. This is where the title of the film came from.
“There was no other way”, dir. Stavros Psillakis (2009)
How do you interact with the people you depict?
I am interested in mental and body health issues and most of all the psychological issues related to health. As I’ve already noted, psychoanalysis fascinates me. I’m intrigued by the ongoing process of the questions and doubts growing inside me. And the things I’ve read helped me in being compassionate and understanding. When people talk to the camera in my films, they are not interviews, they are discussions. I don’t have a specific method to make my subjects confide in me. I want the people that talk in my films, to first and foremost to trust me. I have a rough plan of the film in my mind, but the important thing is that I am an active, non-judgmental listener who tries to understand. I also try to make sure that my subjects feel safe after they have talked. That’s why I work extensively and thoroughly when editing, trying to be considerate to the utmost regarding details that might be delicate to the people that share their stories with me. If they have this gut feeling that they will be treated with respect, then they can trust me and start talking to me. Where a discussion might take you depends on who you are, because you don’t only film the other, you also film yourself.
“The man who disturbed the universe”, dir. Stavros Psillakis (2000)
As you said, you have a rough plan of the film and you let the rest of it evolve. Nevertheless, I feel that in each of your documentaries you choose the protagonist. In “The Man Who Disturbed the Universe” for example, the protagonist is George Kokinidis who is something like a master of ceremonies. In the case of “Metaxa Listening to Time” it’s the doctor you start and end the film with. How do you choose the protagonist? Do you spend a lot of time with your subjects in order for them to get used to the camera?
You’re right. I don’t know who is going to be the protagonist of the story and I don’t need to spend a lot of time with them. As in real life, when you are talking with someone, this communication might end up in a fiasco or in something glorious. When there is something glorious, it’s something that happens once and won’t be repeated. I cannot tell the interviewee to repeat what she or he said. So I don’t know what the product of my discussions will be.
In the case of “The Man that disturbed the Universe”, the film was initially meant to be about the reintegration programs that were running with European funds in various psychiatric hospitals in Greece. This is how shooting began. In the meantime, I found out that there was more to it. I asked the chief psychiatrist to send me some of the most interesting cases to have a talk with them; George Kokinidis was one of those sent. I had previously seen him in a quarrel and he didn’t seem that appealing. In fact, I was certain that the psychiatrist was playing a joke on me. We began talking about the Polytechnic schools where we had both studied. Within five minutes, a relationship was established between us as we started travelling together towards our common Heimat/homeland, i.e. the books, the poems, the music we loved, all the things that move us and constitute us as human beings. I was shocked to discover we had so many things in common. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. For years I was in close contact with George. He gave my son his second name and he loved him dearly. Maybe he was the son he never had. George was a charismatic and cultivated person and in the film, he is guiding us in his Kingdom. I was very fortunate in that I was given carte blanche in making the film by the doctors we collaborated with and Kokinidis was the catalyst for the final product.
In the case of “There was no other way” I was asked how long I had been working on the film, to which I responded “58 years”. That was my age at the time and it wasn’t a clever retort. I had brought to that film all the books that I’ve read, the experiences I’ve had in my entire life so that I would be present in the procedure.
In the case of “Metaxa”, I started with the doctor that later became the protagonist, because he was told he only had two months left. Thankfully, he lived for four more years and he also happened to be a very interesting person.
“METAXA listening to time”, dir. Stavros Psillakis (2012)
In the case of Metaxa, you cover a wide spectrum of issues concerning a public hospital. Are the doctors as nice as they appear or did you subconsciously make a hagiography?
It’s not a hagiography. That’s a thought that crossed my mind. There is so much ugliness surrounding us that each of us has two choices: to be either in constant war with this ugliness or to find small spaces of beauty which make life sweeter, more bearable. Seeing the film I felt that now I feel free to fall sick, I’ll be totally safe in their hands.
“METAXA listening to time”, dir. Stavros Psillakis (2012)
That’s where I’ll go too if something happens. These spaces of beauty are the reason that although “Metaxa Listening to time” is about a difficult issue, fighting cancer, it’s an empowering film.
A friend of mine characterized the film as a life lesson. In the film there was also Vassilis. He was a very simple man, the man next door. He was a cancer patient in Metaxas hospital. I was stricken by his gratitude towards the doctors that took care of him without knowing him. He didn’t focus on the pain he felt or other negative things and that sense of gratitude really won my heart as well as what he said about the masks we wear depending on where we are, which was deeply psychoanalytic.
“Olympia” was the most difficult film. I was introduced to her by her doctor and spent a few days with her family. I was thinking whether to do a film about her or not because I had recently finished “Metaxa” and I wanted to unload the psychological burden. But I couldn’t resist. The filming lasted four days and four days later Olympia passed away. “Olympia” was an ancient tragedy taking place in a room. There is the life that has come and the life that bids goodbye. There is a father that knows everything and tries to hide his pain and a religious mother, while outside the room Death awaits in his black cloak. All the family, the little children are offering the best that can be offered to someone in this condition: a big hug. I often go and visit Olympia’s family when I’m in Thessaloniki and I play with Panayiotis, her son.
“Olympia”, dir. Stavros Psillakis (2015)
As you have said, you construct your story during the editing procedure.
Exactly. My background as an engineer has given me a way of thinking and organizing things. I create the film on the editing platform. But to do so I need to meticulously organize it and construct it. There is a sequence of things I have to do and I owe this way of thinking to my studies in engineering.
So, as I said before, I have a general idea on how I wish the story to unfold and I construct my story accordingly. In Metaxa’s case e.g., I focused on what happens when these people were told they had cancer. In the case of “There was no other way,” I avoided distinguishing between who’s wrong and who’s right. What was interesting for me was what made them persevere when everything was lost. The only answer I could come up with was that these people lived their lives with dignity. And the interesting thing is that no one had asked them to do so.
“The man who disturbed the universe”, dir. Stavros Psillakis (2000)
How has documentary making developed in Greece and what was the role of Documentary Festivals?
The main problem is that documentaries have to a large degree been associated with journalism. Many of my films, such as “Metaxa”, could have been treated as journalistic documentaries. There is a kind of documentary that we call anthropocentric that has blossomed in recent years but has still not found a big audience. When someone asks me what the plot of the film is, I try to explain that what is important is not the plot but the way you will treat your subject.
The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival is very important. It is also important that the same people that were in the initial team of Dimitris Eipides who founded the Festival are still there, and for me it is always a great pleasure to attend it. There are other important documentary festivals such as Docfest in Chalkida, and Chania Film Festival which is new and dynamic. There were others too, but they were severely stricken by the crisis.
Watch Stavros Psillakis documentaries here.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
Dimitra Kolliakou (b. 1968) grew up in Athens. She studied classics at the University of Athens (NKUA) and obtained a PhD in linguistics from the University of Edinburgh. She taught linguistics at Newcastle University (1995-2010) and lived in various places in Europe, before settling in Paris, where she teaches English to "Lycée" and CPGE students. She won the 2019 Short Story State Literary Award and the 2019 Anagnostis literary prize for Αλφαβητάρι Εντόμων (‘Insect Alphabet’, Patakis Publishers, 2018), the National Academy of Greece award and the Athens Prize for Literature for her novel Θερμοκρασία Δωματίου (‘Room temperature’, Patakis Publishers, 2006 ; 4th reprint October 2020), and the Jim Wilson prize for first time author by the National Book Centre of Greece for her novel Το Μαγείο (The magic hole, Hestia Publishers, 2001). Some of her stories have been translated into English, French and Chinese.
Dimitra Kolliakou spoke to Reading Greece* about writing as “an in-depth exploration of what is not well understood”, and language “maybe less as an object of study and more as a game”. She comments that she writes “from the point of view of the outsider about diversity and the possibility of connection”, and adds that “experiencing these two dimensions (the French and the Greek) gets me closer to what the “global” and the “universal” might be”. She concludes that “art in general ‘imagines’ radically different realities, and this is also true of (true) literature: readers have the freedom to reconstruct what the author has put there for them – after all, many of the details are missing and it is in the power of each reader to create them while reading and dwelling within a text”.
You have been writing novels, novellas and short story collections for more than twenty years. What drove you to writing and what continues to be your driving force? Which are the main issues your books touch upon?
I was attracted to books and reading from early on – I had an aunt I adored who lived next door and had a great library. And I’m a bit of an introvert, the kind of person who can spend a lot of time on her own. I’ve always found language fascinating, maybe less as an object of study (despite a Ph.D in linguistics from the U. of Edinburgh) and more as a game. Telling stories is a way of processing what happened - we all do that. By highlighting certain aspects of an event, one is already telling a story. Why write them (and keep writing) when there are so few readers? For me, writing is an in-depth exploration of what is not well understood. It is genuinely interesting to explore unknown territory. The main issues are not always clear in advance. They are “discovered” in the process. I’ve written from the point of view of the outsider about diversity and the possibility of connection. Having moved a lot and lived in various places in Europe, I’ve written about the issues of contemporary Europe.
In your latest book Αλφαβητάρι Εντόμων [Insect Alphabet], narration seems to combine realism with poetic transgression, myths and tales with the language of natural and social sciences. What binds all these distinct elements together?
The binding substance is in both the form and the content. Insect Alphabet consists of 24 chapters, each corresponding to a letter of the Greek alphabet and the initial of the name of an insect. Famous or anonymous, no matter whether placed in a picturesque Greek island or in the Calais Jungle, in Paris, Vienna, Jerusalem or Edinburgh, each of the main characters has an important encounter with an insect. Cutting across the genres of “novel” and “short story”, the narrative provides a glimpse into Europe from the Second World War to the present time, exploring violence, isolation and the challenge of European identity. Homeric heroines, Sappho, Rimbaud, Alban Berg, Jung, Pasolini, as well as anthropological material (“telling the bees” when the beekeeper dies, or the presumed affiliation between snakes and dragonflies), children’s questions (“Why don’t insects live in the sea?”), medical discoveries, the story of the loss and the resurfacing of a pioneer lepidopterist’s work that curiously unites America and the Soviet Union provide the threads for a “cocoon” inspired by the many faces of Europe, those enchanting and those disenchanting, and those that are both at once.
Being a linguist as well as a writer, what purpose does experimentation with language serve in your writings?
I think writing is in some profound way experimentation with language, even for the non-linguist. But I do not like (and I consciously avoid) manipulation through language. Any attempt to impress the reader by means of “clever” linguistic tricks I find suspicious. Style is real style when the text has been sculpted to a form that renders the work that brought it there invisible. Purity effaces pretension.
It has been argued that Greek writers have a preference for short form and that short story collections have outweighed novels and longer narratives. How would you comment on this?
There are excellent novellas and novels within the literary canon – I’m thinking, for example, of Papadiamantis, Yannis Beratis, Stratis Tsirkas, Melpo Axioti, Thanasis Valtinos. There are also wonderful short story writers (E. C. Gonatas and Yorgos Ioannou are among my favourites). To my mind, an ancient Greek text that already bears some of the most intriguing features of the novel (characters, story, imagery, soulfulness) is actually a poem: The Odyssey.
Has the fact that you have been living abroad affected the way you write and the themes you choose to delve into? How does the national/local interweave with the global in your work?
I sometimes think I might not have become a writer had I stayed, that leaving made it easier for me to take the necessary distance. Had I come back, I would be a different writer. My two daughters speak Greek and can read in Greek - I spoke to them in Greek right from the start. Nonetheless, since my early twenties I’ve been surrounded by a foreign language, in the beginning English and then French. This makes me “careful” with my native language. I can take nothing for granted, and in a way I prefer it that way. There is also something else. I live in Paris, I cannot step into a bookshop and find one of my books. This for years made me unhappy, until I realised it spices things up. My “secret garden” is truly secret. I am free. I’m a civil servant here, teaching English (including English literature and writing) to “Lycée” and “CPGE” students, who mostly do not know that I’m also a writer. This has enabled me to truly get to know the “national” and the “local” here in France. I also know the “national” and the “local” in my own country, where I frequently return. So perhaps experiencing these two dimensions (the French and the Greek) gets me closer to what the “global” and the “universal” might be. I’m one of those who believe you have to “live it” (even through some possibly different but ultimately related experience) in order to be able to write about it.
How does literature relate to the world it inhabits? Could literature be used to imagine what could be perceived as radically different realities?
Literature is a world of its own and relates to the outside world through the writer, but also through the readers. Literature necessarily conveys radically different realities, not just due to the power of imagination but also because the individual perceptions and personal “realities” of writers (possibly writing in different centuries or, in any case, in very different circumstances) cannot overlap. It is through their own personal reality that readers approach a text, and, therefore, there can be only a partial overlap in communication between author and reader, as well as among readers of a given text. The overlap can be larger or smaller depending on various factors, that mostly cannot be controlled. Of course we seek cultured writers and readers, so as not to get any close to the dystopia Orwell described in “1984”: not just being constantly watched, but also communicating by means of an impoverished sort of language (“Newspeak”) that in Orwell’s words “makes thoughtcrime literally impossible”. Art in general “imagines” radically different realities, and this is also true of (true) literature: readers have the freedom to reconstruct what the author has put there for them – after all, many of the details are missing and it is in the power of each reader to create them while reading and dwelling within a text.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Spyridon Vlachopoulos, is Professor of Public Law at Law School in the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. His areas of interest are Constitutional Law, National and International Protection of Fundamental Rights, Political and Constitutional History et al. and he is the author of several scientific articles in the field of Public Law, especially Constitutional Law, Constitutional History Fundamental Rights, Civil and Social Rights. Since 1992 he is an attorney at Law, specialized in Public Law cases (e.g.: Protection of Fundamental Rights, Environmental Law, Public Procurement Law, Civil Servants Law), mainly before the Council of State (the highest Greek Administrative Court). He has been a member of several legislative Committees and he is member of the Greek Data Protection Authority and of the Academic Board of the “Academy of Transparency and Human Rights for Good Governance” of the European Public Law Organization. He is also the President of the Commission for the Assessment of the Quality of the Law-making Process.
Professor Vlachopoulos spoke to Greek News Agenda* about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on individual rights and freedoms, particularly of the vulnerable groups, explaining the term constitutional “mithridatism”, illustrating also the opportunities and risks of digital technology posed in work and education. Professor Vlachopoulos also spoke about the role of the EU and international organizations in the fight against the pandemic.
The need to safeguard public health against the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the restriction of fundamental rights and freedoms. In your opinion, what are the limits that should be set on these restrictions and what is the right balance between enforcement and a self-determined compliance of citizens with the measures that should be taken?
The protection of human life and public health is a constitutional obligation of the State and can therefore justify the restriction of our fundamental rights. However, there are limitations to these restrictions. That is to say, the legal order is not completely free in restricting our individual rights, but there are certain limitations based on the principle of proportionality. This means, firstly, that the restrictive measures should be appropriate to achieve a purpose, secondly, that these measures should be indispensable, meaning that there are no other less restrictive measures that can achieve the same purpose and thirdly, the restrictive measures should be proportionate in the strict sense of the term (stricto sensu proportionality). In other words, the benefits of restricting our individual rights should outweigh the negative consequences. We have always to keep in mind that our Constitution protects an individual not only as a biological human being, but also as a personality. The personality of an individual becomes meaningful through the possibility of exercising individual freedoms, since a person who is not free, is not in line with the constitutional model. Let's say this with an example: in the context of dealing with the pandemic, "smart" technological applications are not allowed to be used on our mobile phones, based on which all of our contacts will be tracked. Dealing with the pandemic cannot lead to the creation of a "Big Brother".
In your last book “Constitutional Mithridatism. Individual Freedoms in pandemic eras” you are using the term constitutional “mithridatism" to refer to the risk of addiction to the suspension of fundamental rights in times of crisis. Can you briefly analyze what exactly do you mean by this term? Are life and public health two "super-rights" that justify the development of constitutional "mithridatism"?
The term constitutional “mithridatism" was inspired by the story of Mithridates, the last king of the Hellenistic Pontus. Mithridates, in order to protect himself from being poisoned by his enemies, he was regularly taking small and increasing doses of poison with the aim of developing immunity. Eventually, of course, he fell victim to this tactic, as he failed to commit suicide in order to avoid falling into the hands of his enemies at the end of his life as he had developed immunity to poison. With the term constitutional "mithridatism", I tried to explain that although we should tolerate some temporary restrictions on our fundamental rights in order to fight against the pandemic, we should be aware of the seriousness of these restrictions. Also, we should not get used to these restrictions and take them for granted or consider them of little importance. Our individual rights were gained in their majority through long-lasting fights. We should, therefore, acknowledge that restrictions have to be only temporary, while we shouldn’t become addicted to the understanding that restrictions to our freedoms are justified at any time. Human life and health are not two "super-rights". As constitutionalists accept, all individual rights are of equal legal power and none is superior to the other a priori. What is particular about the right to life is that it is not subject to temporary restrictions, unlike all other rights. In other words, when someone loses his life, there is no return, there is no "come back". Therefore, the protection of human life may justify wider restrictions on other fundamental rights. But again, even when it comes to the protection of human life, there are limits to the restrictions. The protection of life and health is not a “blank check” for the State to impose any kind of restrictions. As I said before, the Constitution protects individuals as integrated personalities along with their freedoms and not just as biological human beings.
Do you consider that the human rights of vulnerable groups (minorities, refugees, children, unemployed, etc.) are more threatened by the pandemic and the taken measures, and how can this threat be prevented?
It is obvious that the human rights of vulnerable groups are more threatened by the pandemic and the taken measures. Minorities, refugees, the unemployed and children are more severely affected by the restriction measures. More generally, I would say that these measures have a greater impact on the lower social classes. Let me just explain this with a few examples: the ban on the operation of stores does not equally affect those businessmen who have bank deposits and those who do not. Someone who lives with his big family in a small apartment in the center of Athens is not experiencing the lockdown on the same terms with someone else who lives in the suburbs in a country house with a garden. Those who go to work in their private car and those who have to use the crowded public transport are not equally exposed to the coronavirus. A study has been published about Barcelona, showing that the coronavirus has a greater impact on people from the working-class districts of the city. The State should therefore be aware that restriction measures against the coronavirus affect more the lower social classes and thus it has to take all necessary measures to reduce the emerging social inequalities. This is not only a political but also a constitutional requirement, as the principle of equality is protected in all European Constitutions.
The opportunities offered by digital technology concerning teleworking, distance learning, e-economy and e-health have been particularly developed and used in the fight against the pandemic. As this trend seems to be strengthening, given the duration of the pandemic but also in general, do you think that social inequalities or labor rights issues etc could arise?
It has already become obvious from the above analysis that technological applications at work, in education and in the economy can lead to inequalities and raise labor rights issues. This is where the State has to intervene and address these risks. As distance learning, for example, necessitates access to computers, the legal system should ensure that all students have this possibility. Teleworking potential should not be a pretext or a reason for the violation of labor rights, nor for the surveillance of employees’ private life. Therefore, the legal system should be vigilant and establish the appropriate rules of law in order to deal with these risks, as well as strengthen controls where such risks exist.
The pandemic is undoubtedly a global phenomenon and many argue that global cooperation is needed in order to deal with it. Do you think that issues such as the development of vaccines, the regulation of the collection and surveillance of personal and biometric data or the financial support of the most affected countries, are issues that can be tackled more effectively at an international level and how do you think this could be done?
The problems caused by the pandemic can only be tackled effectively at an international level. Nowadays, that it is very easy for people to massively move from country to country, particularly due to the development of fast and cheap means of transport, anyone who thinks he can deal with the pandemic within the narrow borders of his country is deluding himself. It is also contrary to the achievements of modern human civilization if some countries want to keep the tools to fight the pandemic only for their citizens. This would not comply with the protection of all people, regardless of nationality, race, religion or any other characteristic. The non-discriminatory protection is enshrined in all modern human rights conventions. Therefore, international co - operation is essential at the level of international organizations as well as the conclusion of international conventions aiming at global protection against Covid 19, when necessary.
Is a common European health policy meaningful as well as a consequent binding policy adoptable by all member states or should the State remain the primary and sole administrator of public health issues?
The idea of the European Union is, in my view, based on two pillars. One pillar is that of freedom and the other pillar is that of solidarity. Therefore, the member states of the European Union should activate solidarity and draw up a common line in dealing with the pandemic. This common line will include the support of states that are more affected by the pandemic. It will also include the establishment of common rules for dealing with the pandemic, because we should not forget that one of the fundamental freedoms of the European Union is the free movement of citizens. Thus, the pandemic cannot be effectively tackled within a single State and only by the adoption of national rules. It is therefore necessary to lay down rules within the European Union that will tackle effectively the pandemic for all member states of the European Union. Similar cooperation should occur in a general European and international environment, e.g. within the Council of Europe and other international organizations, such as the United Nations. If there is one thing we have learned from the painful experience of Covid 19, it is that we all live under one roof, that the earth is the home of all of us, and that anyone who thinks he is unscathed from contagious diseases is simply wrong.
*Interview by Ioulia Elmatzoglou
Read more on GNA:
The ending of the Greek Chairmanship, the first e-Chairmanship, of the Council of Europe
Chair of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, Greek Alternate MFA Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, on the pandemic, human rights and the project for a new European Declaration to be signed in Athens by the end of 2020
Greece assumes the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe
Starting today and for the next four days (10-13 December), Patras World Poetry Festival, one of the biggest literary institutions, will turn the capital of Western Greece into a digital cultural hub. Amid adverse health conditions, 60 Greek and foreign poets from 16 countries around the world warmly responded to Patras’ call and are coming together in a four-day online event, aiming to bring poetry to the national and international fore.
The festival’s schedule comprises poetry readings as well as six poetry meetings among which ‘The therapeutic function of poetry in education’, ‘Convergences and divergences of generations in the uttermost poetics’, ‘National poets and the modern function of their works’ ‘Poetry in the era of covid-19’, providing participants with the opportunity to discuss and exchange thoughts about their art and poetry’s role in our everyday life. Poets from England, France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Poland, Romania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Canada, Australia, India, Bangladesh, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece are among the ones to participate in the online events of the festival.
During the Festival, there will also take place the nomination of the ‘Jean Moreas Poetry Awards 2020’, a major cultural institution referring to the Greek poetic art and poetic production in its entire range, which is highly appreciated by Greek literary and artistic cycles. Among the awards to be given are: the Award for Best Poetry Collection, the Award for Newcomer Poet, the Jean Moreas Award, the Kostis Palamas Honor Prize Award and the Award for the Promotion of Greek Literature.
Under the auspices of the President of the Hellenic Republic Ms Aikaterini Sakellaropoulou and with the support of major universities (University of Western Macedonia, University of Patras, Hellenic Open University, European University of Cyprus) and institutions, the Festival is organized by the Poetry Foundation “Grafeion Poiiseos”, the literary website Culture Book in cooperation with the Region of Western Greece.
All events will be broadcast to the audience live through the digital literary website www.culturebook.gr from the 10th until the 13th of December between 11:30 -14:00 & 19:00-21:30.