Uprooting anti-Semitism in Greece, starting in the classroom

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By Harry van Versendaal

Experts are urging authorities to take active measures to combat anti-Semitism in Greece after a recent study confirmed the high levels of hatred toward Jews in the country – believed to be the highest in Europe.

Αnti-Semitism, which is shown to thrive at both ends of the ideological spectrum, is believed to be particularly strong in Greece as a result of a deep-rooted sense of collective victimhood nurtured by an overly ethnocentric education system.

“Unfortunately, the findings confirm older surveys showing that Greece has rates of anti-Semitism matching those recorded in countries that neighbor Israel rather than ones in the European Union,” Elias Dinas, political scientist at the University of Oxford, told Kathimerini English Edition.

Conducted by a team of researchers based in Greece and the UK, the 50-page report brings together the findings of two opinion polls conducted in 2014 and 2015. It was published earlier this month by the Thessaloniki branch of the Heinrich Boll Foundation, a political think tank affiliated with the German Green Party.

Of the 1,000 Greeks polled, 65 percent said “Jews exploit the Holocaust to receive better treatment at global decision-making centers.” A similar percentage agreed with the statement that “Israel treats Palestinians exactly the same way that the Nazis treated the Jews” – a view seen as relativizing the Holocaust by placing it in the context of other acts of wholesale violence.

Just over 90 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “Jews have a major influence in the business world.” About 21 percent said Jews should be prohibited from buying land.

More than 37 percent said they have zero level of trust in Jews. Overall, those polled said they trust Jews less than they trust the Orthodox Church, homosexuals, migrants or the European Union. Jewish people were said to be more reliable only when compared to the Greek Parliament, Turks and Americans.

The results echo the findings of an infamous 2014 survey by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which indicated that 68 percent of Greeks “harbor anti-Semitic attitudes” – on a par with Saudi Arabia and more so than Iran.

Valid criticism

Experts found anti-Jewish sentiment to be as strong on the far left of the political scale as on the right. But whereas anti-Semitism among the hard-right is mostly associated with denial or minimization of the Holocaust, hostility from the left is less straightforward and often animated by solidarity with the Palestinians.

“It is true that harder facets of anti-Semitism are more evident on the right, but the left is no stranger to conspiracy theory-driven anti-Semitic attitudes,” said Dinas.

Critics, mostly on the left, complain that the term “anti-Semitism” is often misused to stigmatize legitimate criticism of Israeli settlement policies. However, the report suggests that condemnations of Israel often cross the boundary from valid criticism into territory of denigration that can be considered anti-Semitic. Instances of anti-Semitism can include denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination; using symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (for example claims that the Jews killed Christ or the classic anti-Semitic charge, known as the blood libel, that Jews use Christian blood for religious rituals) to characterize Israel or Israelis; drawing comparisons between contemporary Israeli policy and that of the Nazis; or holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

“It is sometimes helpful to keep in mind that Israel is the only democracy in the region and even if it’s fair to criticize it over for example its settlements policy, any comparisons to Nazi Germany or other autocratic regimes are clearly misplaced,” Dinas said.

Jewish monuments and graves are frequently desecrated across Greece. In the latest such incident, a memorial commemorating nearly 1,500 Jews from Kavala, northern Greece, who perished in Nazi death camps was vandalized late March. It was the second attack since it was erected last year.

Anti-Semitic comments are frequently aired by the country’s political class. MPs of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn – which is the third political force in Greece despite its leadership being on trial on charges of running a criminal organization – have openly denied the Holocaust, even in Parliament. Jew-bashing is also common in the mainstream. Panos Kammenos, defense minister and head of the junior coalition partner Independent Greeks, has claimed that “Jews don’t pay taxes.” Conservative MPs Adonis Georgiadis and Thanos Plevris – both of whom defected to New Democracy from the ultranationalist LAOS – have in the past made anti-Semitic remarks, even though they have recently tried to distance themselves from their past sins. Anti-Semitic remarks, mostly in connection to Greece’s economic crisis, have also come from figures on the left-wing populist fringe such as Panayiotis Lafazanis and Rachel Makri.

Politicians aside, the Orthodox Church and the media have also played a role in spreading the seeds of hatred toward Jews. Senior clergymen of the Orthodox Church, which has not officially absolved the Jews for the death of Christ, often make anti-Semitic remarks. Newspapers regularly feature anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, as well as cartoons with anti-Semitic themes or caricatures.

Underdog culture

Typically, most of the problems seem to begin in the classroom.

“It is school that hits people in their impressionable years, particularly as the secularization process is gradually eclipsing the role of the Church,” Dinas said.

More than other institutions, experts say, Greek schools foster a feeling of victimhood, and serve for the socialization and reproduction of an underdog culture which is identified as the fundamental source of Greek anti-Semitism.

“There is this shared conviction that Greeks have been treated more unfairly and suffered more pain than any other people,” Dinas said.

“This creates a feeling of inferiority, envy and competition,” he said.

According to the poll, about 70 percent believe that Greek people have suffered a genocide that is worse or similar to that suffered by the Jews.

It is estimated that 6 million Jews died in Nazi death camps in the Second World War. Greece’s Jewish population, which stood at 73,000 before the war, is currently estimated at 5,000.

“As long as Greek society develops a competitive stance to the Jewish experience and seeks the role of the absolute victim of history and of the great powers that be, the harder it will be to deal with the phenomenon of anti-Semitism,” the report said.

Back to school

The Holocaust and human rights education are all but absent from the Greek school curriculum. In self-fulfilling fashion, 34 percent said they do not want the Holocaust to be taught in schools, the survey showed. Experts found a positive correlation between hatred of Jews and education.

“The results show that while general knowledge does not in the least influence anti-Semitic trends, specific [knowledge] about the Jews appears to drastically reduce levels of anti-Semitism,” the report said. Simply put, the more one knows about the subject, the less likely one is to harbor anti-Semitic prejudices.

So while experts propose a number of measures to fight anti-Semitism, including stricter policing of Jewish monuments, a more stringent code of ethics for politicians and the media, and tougher law enforcement, the findings suggest that the safest bet is to kill anti-Semitism at birth: Update textbooks, retrain teachers, organize school trips to former Nazi concentration camps.

“It is important for the government to recognize the existence of the problem and face it head on,” Leon Saltiel, a historian at the University of Macedonia and one of the authors of the report, told the newspaper.

“Measures to promote education, tolerance, respect and mutual understanding are the only way to build the strong foundations of a democratic and prosperous nation,” he said.


The report “Anti-Semitism in Greece Today: Manifestations, Causes and Tackling of the Phenomenon” was written by researchers Giorgos Antoniou, Spyros Kosmidis, Elias Dinas and Leon Saltiel.

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Lawsuit over Islam comments tests boundaries between controversial language and free speech

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By Harry van Versendaal

A lawsuit filed against a Greek author and historian under Greece’s anti-racism legislation over claims she defamed Islam and incited violence via a comment in one of her articles is testing the boundaries between free speech and what could be considered offensive language.

Soti Triantafyllou is set to appear in court on July 21 on charges of using racist language in an article that included a quote, which she attributed to 13th-century Venetian traveler Marco Polo, that said, “The militant Muslim is the person who beheads the infidel, while the moderate Muslim holds the feet of the victim.”

The lawsuit, under Law 4285/2014, was brought by veteran human rights activist Panayote Dimitras, who heads the Greek Helsinki Monitor watchdog group and is in charge of the Racist Crimes Watch blog. In his suit, Dimitras claims that Triantafyllou could have confirmed, just by searching on the internet, that the quote is fake and was never uttered by Polo.

In addition to Triantafyllou’s article, Dimitras has allegedly reported more than 150 other texts or actions to the special prosecutor on racist crimes.

In comments made to Kathimerini English Edition, Triantafyllou described the lawsuit as “an indictment for blasphemy.” The plaintiff believes much more is at stake, but he will have a hard case to make.

Bataclan

Legal experts say that the author’s criticism of Islam needs to be read within the broader context of the article that led to her prosecution – and, more generally, her writings on the topic – and to be understood in light of the events that triggered her reaction.

The article, titled “Rock and Roll will Never Die,” was published in the free magazine Athens Voice in November 2015, the day after jihadi gunmen burst into the Bataclan music hall in Paris and killed 90 people during a series of terrorist attacks in the French capital.

In the same year, Triantafyllou published a book that criticized official multiculturalism for failing to successfully integrate Muslim minorities in Europe. In that book, the author attacks overzealous political correctness on the left of the ideological spectrum for smothering the debate on immigration and the threat of Islamic extremism. She has penned similar articles for several publications.

It is also important to note that the law on the basis of which Triantafyllou is being prosecuted establishes several preconditions that need to be met for its application. Specifically, it will have to be proven in court that the author acted with an intention to incite violence, hate or discrimination against Islam. Furthermore, it will have to be established that this was done in a way that endangered public order, or threatened human life and the physical integrity of individuals.

Dimitras, the man behind the lawsuit, feels Triantafyllou certainly crossed that line.

“According to international law, in the implementation of which Greece’s anti-racism law was introduced, she is not expressing an opinion but engaging in aggression threatening public order and committing incitement to hatred, which is also punishable under Greek law,” Dimitras told the newspaper.

“Freedom of expression exercised in an irresponsible manner through the use of racist speech is not protected by international law or by the Greek laws implementing the country’s international commitments,” he said.

Vassilis Tzevelekos, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Liverpool’s School of Law and Social Justice, is not convinced.

“I fail to see how Triantafyllou’s case could ever be seen as meeting these criteria. I honestly do not understand why the public prosecutor felt that she should be prosecuted,” said Tzevelekos, who specializes in international law and human rights protection.

“Hate speech laws are not designed to prosecute that type of speech,” he said.

The argument is that, regardless whether one agrees with the author on not, she targets a religion focusing on its political manifestations in the context of specific events. And these events – namely terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic militants – raise legitimate concerns as to the extent that they have cost human lives while impacting on public order, democracy and the enjoyment of fundamental human rights.

Free speech

Another red flag, critics say, is that the lawsuit curtails free speech. An eventual conviction of the author, the argument goes, would amount to interference with her freedom of speech.

“The court will be expected to strike a balance between the aims pursued by Greece’s hate speech legislation and freedom of expression,” Tzevelekos said.

Critics of the law point out that the abstract wording of the Greek legislation offers no legal certainty, jeopardizes free speech and allows abuses.

“I see the prosecution against Triantafyllou as being abusive, in misalignment with the aims pursued by hate speech legislation and in conflict with her right to freely disseminate her ideas about a major political issue that concerns our democracy,” Tzevelekos said, speaking in reference to free speech and terrorism.

The prolific and outspoken Triantafyllou says that her enemies interpret the law in a way that constrains free speech which merely causes offense.

“I have time and again been disrespectful toward Islam. These days, you are not allowed to criticize Islam,” she said.

In her political writings, Triantafyllou styles herself as a champion of secular Enlightenment values which she sees as being under threat in Europe from intolerant outsiders and the cultural relativism of the multi-culti left. Her enemies denounce her ideas as thinly disguised racism.

“Muslims are presented as a humiliated and hapless minority. White knights who excel in finding victims defend them against so-called ‘racists,’” she said. “They are waging a war against freedom of speech and common sense.”

The Richter case

Triantafyllou is not the first high-profile target of the anti-racism law. Last year, a Greek court acquitted German historian Heinz Richter of charges that his 2013 book recounting the 1941 Battle of Crete denied Nazi war crimes and defamed the Cretan people.

The court ruled that the case not only lacked merit, but also that the article of the law that was cited was unconstitutional. In a rare move, the judge commented on his decision, saying that Article 2 of the anti-racism law was “incompatible with the Constitution and European law, and as such is ineffective and inapplicable.”

If the Greek court fails to protect Triantafyllou’s right to free speech, it looks like she will have a strong case against the Greek state. If she is convicted, Greek legislators and the judiciary interpreting the hate speech legislation could be found internationally liable for breaches of fundamental human rights law.

“The European Court of Human Rights has a rich case file on free speech that does not just cover information or ideas that are regarded as inoffensive, but also those that offend, shock and disturb,” Tzevelekos said.

As the case heads to court, both sides ironically claim to be fighting in defense of human rights.

Dimitras lashes out at his critics – the small but vociferous club of Greece’s liberal thinkers that have rallied in defense of the author – saying that they are simply favoring the free propagation of racist speech.

“It is they and not we who are obscurantists,” he said.

For her part, Triantafyllou responds that, in the name of stopping bigoted speech, her enemies are seeking to stop all constructive criticism.

“Race and religion are rolled into one. Blindness, social hatred, character assassination, abusive litigation culture: That’s what ‘political correctness’ ends up as,” she said. “But the disturbing truths won’t go away if we ignore them, embellish them or rename them using nice harmless euphemisms. They are here to stay until we face them.”

For testy patrons of La Lanterna, life’s a beach

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By Harry van Versendaal

Seventy-seven-year-old Vinicio complains that his favorite blue plastic chair has been shifted from the spot where he’d left it the day before. Rene fumes when finding his sun lounger stacked and chained up with others at the far corner of the beach, before pinching it back with a bolt cutter in a superhuman effort that leaves him red-faced but gleaming with vindication.

The all-too-human daily rituals of the elderly patrons of La Lanterna, an unassuming vintage-feel pebble beach in Trieste, on Italy’s northeastern coast, are humbly yet beautifully captured in “The Last Resort” – the latest film by Thanos Anastopoulos, co-directed with filmmaker Davide Del Degan, who was born in the Italian seaport – which was awarded the Hellenic Film Academy award for best documentary on Tuesday.

“The movie is about turf wars. About where each person will put their chair, their table, or their towel. People always fight about things like seats and locks, they just give them different names,” Anastopoulos said in an interview after the movie screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival earlier this month. “The film is about the little flaws of human nature – in fact, about human nature per se,” he said.

Like the beach locals fondly refer to as “El Pedocin,” or Little Mussel, Trieste itself is no stranger to turf wars.

For most of its history, the city has been a microcosm of European tensions, often changing hands between different powers. For about three centuries it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s only seaport and commercial hub, drawing different ethnic groups and gradually evolving into a capital of literature and music. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Trieste’s annexation by Italy after World War I led to its decline. The city’s character barely survived Mussolini’s “Italianization” campaign, and in 1945 Trieste was occupied by Tito’s Communist Partisans, who had already seized the Istrian Peninsula, in the northern Adriatic. Under diplomatic pressure from the Western allies, the Yugoslav troops eventually withdrew from the city. After World War II, Trieste was recognized as a free state, though it remained under military occupation until 1954, when it was returned to Italy. The city these days hosts a mixture of Italians, Serbs, Slovenians, Greeks, Jews, Austrians and Germans. Some of the history is presented in archival material in the film.

“These are the childhood years of most people on that beach. Some of them feel a certain nostalgia for the glorious past of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, although it’s something they never actually experienced,” Anastopoulos said.

The characters – themselves products of the city’s history – speak in Triestino, an Italian idiom infused with neighboring dialects, which is barely understood outside the city’s limits. “When the movie was played in Italy it featured subtitles. Subtitles are indeed necessary anywhere it may screen,” the director said.

A philosophy graduate-turned-filmmaker, 52-year-old Anastopoulos has directed three fictional films – most famously the 2008 drama “Diorthosi” (Correction), an existential tale set against the backdrop of a Greece struggling to come to terms with its migrant newcomers.

Anastopoulos’s previous film, child-kidnap thriller “I Kori” (The Daughter), was made amid the country’s financial meltdown and very much conveyed the anger and frustration. “I needed to make another movie, to restore my faith in man, the belief that not everything is lost,” said Anastopoulos, who has lived in Trieste with his Italian wife since the birth of their son in 2007.

His wife used to take their son to El Pedocin when he was still a baby. Interacting with the regulars there brought back memories of his own childhood, when his father, a winter swimmer, would drive him to the beaches of Alimos or Kalamaki on Athens’s southern coast. “When I saw this community of bathers I already felt some connection to them,” he said.

Created in 1890, the beach, just a stone’s throw from the city center, is famous for a 3-meter-high cement wall that segregates the men from the women – allegedly the only such divide in Europe (which, interestingly, appears to have a liberating effect on its patrons). “I became fascinated by that wall. It made me think about borders, divisions and identities – all mixed up with the city’s particular history,” Anastopoulos said.

No feature film had ever been made about El Pedocin; every so often, instead, it would appear in brief news reports about its peculiar wall. So Anastopoulos was really surprised to find out that while he was preparing for the film, another Italian director was making similar plans. Born in Trieste, Del Degan was brought here by his grandparents.

The Greek and the Italian met and agreed to join forces. After all, they were both animated by the same vision. “We wanted to tell a story about the human adventure. What it is like to live, to grow up, to experience loss, and to die,” Anastopoulos said.

They adopted a purely observational style, stripped of any narration or commentary. Shooting lasted one year. During those 12 months, the crew visited the beach 128 times, collecting 200 hours of film. Production lasted five months. The movie’s running time, 119 minutes, could alienate more impatient viewers.

Days pass and seasons change on El Pedocin as mammoth Turkish container ships come and go in the background. Some of the frailer patrons will not return. But when September rolls around, we see Federica sitting on the pebbles, gently stroking her pregnant belly.

Bulgarian postman with a noble message

The Good Postman

By Harry van Versendaal

Ivan, the postman of a mostly deserted Bulgarian village on the border with Turkey, is running for mayor on a rather unconventional message: If he wins the election, he will welcome Syrian refugees, who now creep silently through the rural terrain, so they can settle in the village’s many vacant, dilapidated properties and breathe new life into the settlement.

Golyam Dervent (pop. 38) – known as as the “great gate” due to its location – is the setting of Tonislav Hristov latest documentary “The Good Postman,” which is screening at the ongoing Thessaloniki Documentary Festival and resembles a microcosm of the drama that has been unfolding in Europe since the outbreak of the Syrian refugee crisis. Bulgaria has joined other nations in the Balkan region in taking a hardline response to the influx of migrants and asylum seekers into the continent. Less than two decades since removing a massive border fence designed to keep people in, authorities in the former Soviet satellite have built a new one along the border with Turkey – this time to keep people out.

Shot over the course of a regional election campaign, the camera follows Ivan, a gentle-mannered, silver-haired man who lives alone, pitting his inclusive, progressive vision against the xenophobic, we-had-it-better-under-communism alternative put forward by his rival, who resembles a washed-up Hollywood has-been. (In what is probably the film’s most funnily surreal moment, the latter delivers a confused speech from the village cafe patio overlooking a vacant field to the futuristic sounds of a vintage Casio keyboard synthesizer). The elderly villagers’ reactions are mixed.

“The Good Postman” premiered in 2016 at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA), where it was nominated for Best Feature-Length Documentary, before screening at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Beautifully crafted, with stunning wide-screen cinematography and a wonderful score by Petar Dundakov, Hristov’s documentary, his fifth, exposes the strange world of small-town politics, the estrangement of the political elites, the stinging poverty in the EU’s backyard, the harrowing misinformation surrounding the migration debate, and the nuances of the human character.

“I heard on the news that they’re bad people who kill Bulgarians,” a young girl is heard saying on a TV news bulletin playing in the background. “But maybe not everyone is bad,” she adds.

One thing bound to draw protests from purists is that the Bulgarian filmmaker, and writer Lubomir Tsvetkov, appear to have staged at least some of the scenes. “Minimal interference doesn’t mean maximum reality. It can actually be the total opposite. Sometimes you have to interfere to get as close to the truth as possible,” Tsvetkov said in a recent interview.

The election result (spoiler alert) is not what any of them would have hoped for. Although it’s hard to see how things could change in Golyam Dervent. Ten years after joining the European Union, Bulgaria remains one of the bloc’s poorest and most corrupt members. Meanwhile, public opposition to immigration is strong. In a recent survey, 73 percent of Bulgarians said they would back a total ban on citizens of Muslim-majority nations entering their country. The same poll found that 77 percent view immigration as a threat to the country, up from 47 percent in 2015.

The Swiss guards of EU border agency Frontex seen patrolling for migrants traipsing through the rural terrain are unlikely to move out anytime soon.

Thessaloniki doc fest pays tribute to iconoclast art critic John Berger

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By Harry van Versendaal

Organizers of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival will pay tribute to English art critic and author John Berger, who died earlier this year.

Berger, whose groundbreaking 1972 BBC television series and book “Ways of Seeing” is credited with transforming the way in which a generation looked at and understood art, is the subject of two documentary films which will be showcased at the annual event taking place in the northern port city from March 3 to 12.

“The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger” is a four-part cinematic portrait crafted over five years by his actress friend Tilda Swinton, together with Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth and Bartek Dziadosz.

Also screening is Cordelia Dvorak’s “John Berger: The Art of Looking,” an intimate take on the man’s personality and work on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

Now in its 19th year, the festival will screen more than 210 documentaries – both shorts and feature-length works – by directors from all over the world.

Meanwhile, the Contemporary Art Center of Thessaloniki (Warehouse B1, Thessaloniki Port) will host an exhibition of original artwork by Berger. The show, organized by TDF and the Contemporary Art Center of Thessaloniki – State Museum of Contemporary Art, is the first of its kind since Berger’s death. Some 30 drawings and paintings, video footage and copies of his books will go on display.

A round-table discussion on Berger’s legacy will take place at the same venue on March 8, starting at 7.30 p.m. Speakers will include Berger’s editor and biographer Tom Overton, and Antonis Kotidis, professor emeritus at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki’s Art History Department.

A committed Marxist and vehement critic of capitalism, Berger trained as a painter, but soon turned his hand to writing. He worked as an art critic for the New Statesman for 10 years.

Berger’s novel “G” bagged Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize in 1972. Reacting to reports of slave labor that had enriched the sponsor Booker McConnell, Berger famously pledged to donate half his prize money to the Black Panthers, who were, as he put it, “the black movement with the socialist and revolutionary perspective that I find myself most in agreement with in this country.”

“He showed us how to see, not as individuals, but together,” BBC arts editor Will Gompertz said on the news of Berger’s death. “He showed us how to see art not as a relay race of individual geniuses but as a kind of companionship.”

Having lived for many years in a farmhouse in the French Alps near Mont Blanc, Berger died in Paris in early January. He was 90 years old.

Documentary films take center stage in Thessaloniki

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By Harry van Versendaal

As fake news, alt-facts and post-truths infect the world like a disinformation disease, fact-finding films can serve as a welcome antidote.

In its 19th annual iteration, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) will host more more than 213 nonfiction films (64 Greek productions) on a wide range of critical subjects including politics, human rights, art and the environment and two brand-new sections on cinema and food. Hosted at the flagship Olympion and Pavlos Zannas cinemas on Aristotelous Square and the red-brick and steel complex on the docks, the 10-day event runs from March 3 to 12.

The full lineup has not yet been made public, but the organizers have already announced a few of the most powerful offerings among the latest in international documentary production.

In “Austerlitz,” acclaimed Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa observes crowds of visitors at the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps while subtly examining intricate questions such as historical memory, respect, morality and normality.

Directed by Benthe Forrer of the Netherlands, “The Chocolate Case (Tony)” follows the efforts of investigative journalist-turned-activist Teun van de Keuken and his colleagues to explore child slavery in the chocolate industry all the way to their eventful launch of the world’s first “slave-free” chocolate bar.

Another TDF highlight is “Tower,” a groundbreaking reconstruction of the August 1966 sniper attack at the University of Texas at Austin that left 18 people dead. Director Keith Maitland brings together rotoscope animation, archival footage and present-day interviews, lending dramatic immediacy to an account of what is widely considered the first modern mass shooting.

Festival organizers have prepared a tribute to award-winning Russian director Vitaly Mansky. Born in Lviv, Ukraine, in 1963, Mansky has over the years shot in excess of 30 films that have been showcased at more than 400 international film festivals around the globe. He has worked extensively with amateur private footage shot in the years of the former USSR, before returning to his roots to meet his family members in his latest work, “Close Relations.” In between, Mansky crafted several remarkable features, including his 2015 “Under the Sun,” an unforgiving exposure of North Korea’s powerful propaganda apparatus. The film, which follows an 8-year-old girl as she prepares to celebrate the Day of the Shining Star, the birthday of late strongman Kim Jong-il, sparked a diplomatic tiff between Moscow and Pyongyang after its release.

Joining forces with the quinquennial exhibition Documenta (14), organizers have also prepared a tribute to the work of Italian avant-garde filmmaking duo Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi. Since breaking into the film scene in 1986 with “From the Pole to the Equator,” an arty, experimental comment on the dark side of Western civilization, the directors have mostly depended on found archival footage to make films about war, colonialism and exploitation.

Years of storage lend nuance to collection of images

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Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, Paris, 1985.

By Harry van Versendaal

For Constantinos Pittas, a good photograph must elevate the prosaic to the preternatural, the banal to the magical.

Strolling one 1985 evening in Paris’s Parc des Buttes-Chaumont as the gates were about to close, Pittas saw the otherwise commonplace spectacle of a couple sitting on a bench. Basking in a ray of dying light peeking through the trees at dusk, the pair appeared to be floating in space. Without a second thought, Pittas pressed the shutter button.

“I felt as if it was the first time I was really seeing a couple sitting on a bench,” he says staring across the table at the photograph, now hanging on the wall of the French Institute in Athens (IFA). “It was like two units becoming one,” he says.

More than 30 years since that day, Pittas, now 59, comfortably recalls the story behind nearly every photograph in his current exhibition, “Athenians & Parisians.” The event comes in the wake of his breakout show at the Benaki Museum late last year, a warmly received collection of previously stowed-away black-and-whites shot in the still-divided Europe of the 1980s. The spin-off exhibition at IFA showcases a selection of images captured in the Greek and French capitals around the middle of the same decade.

Athens and Paris naturally lay on the same side of the Iron Curtain, the infamous divide between the free world and totalitarianism aptly captured in his “Images of Another Europe: 1985-1989.” But for Pittas, who now lives in a coastal suburb northeast of Greece’s sprawling, unruly capital, the connection between these two Western metropoles also has a personal dimension.

Pittas moved to Paris in the early 1980s to pursue postgraduate studies in civil engineering at the Ecole des Ponts ParisTech. It was his first time away from home and although he soon realized that civil engineering was not his thing, his time there did not go to waste.

“I made my first meaningful observations about life and about people during the two-and-a-half years I spent there,” he says.

Dwindling resources made him return to Athens to look for work, but distraction was around the corner again.

“I soon found myself wandering around the city streets taking photos,” he says.

Then a skinny, curly-haired youth in his early 20s, Pittas would pound the city’s sidewalks 12-13 hours a day, taking breaks on the Athens-Piraeus urban electric railway (ISAP). A self-taught photographer, Pittas’s understanding of the medium came from his voracious appetite for cinema: Bergman, Tarkovsky, Wenders, Kurosawa and generous helpings of film noir. He relied on a German-made pocket-size Minox 35GT, reputedly the smallest full-frame 35mm camera ever built, and always shot from waist level for that stealth effect.

By 1984, he was done with the Athens photos. A year later, he jumped into a blue Pony-Citroen and started zigzagging across Europe to cities on both sides of the divide with a romantic (if ironically prophetic) ambition to bring the people of the continent together in a single photo book.

“I was familiar with Paris, so I decided to make it my first stop. In a way Athens and Paris are my life’s two biggest milestones,” he says.

The project went on until 1989, when Berliners took their sledgehammers to the Schandmauer – the wall of shame. Events, Pittas thought at the time, had killed it. Thousands of negatives were boxed away in a basement. They sat there for a quarter of a century, until he recently decided to share a selection with the world.

“It makes me happy that some of the things I saw in the two cities back then are now being showcased side by side,” Pittas says.

The work is street photography at its finest: spontaneous, beautiful and telling a story. It is rarely upbeat; the faces are mostly pensive or grim.

“You always see what is close to your state of being. It’s all a projection. You cannot escape your nature,” he says. “That’s why I do not really believe in photojournalism.”

Coming in the wake of a traumatic seven-year military dictatorship, the 1980s were a transformative, if in some ways contradictory period for Greece. Politics was dominated by populism, polarization, clientelism and corruption – all widely seen as the source of many of the country’s woes today. In the economy, living standards and consumption grew while actual productivity nosedived.

Meanwhile, turning a deaf ear to the anti-Western, anti-capitalist rhetoric of socialist governments, an emerging middle class went on to embrace popular culture, consumerism and an individualistic lifestyle, pretty much in line with the rest of the increasingly globalized Western world.

Now, after seven years of austerity measures, which brought an abrupt end to a controversial period of economic well-being, the photos of Athens have gained an additional layer of interest.

“The identity of the faces has not changed. You can tell that family structure is still dominant here, that it pretty much shapes people. Middle-class families tend to keep their members in check,” Pittas says.

“You don’t see the hordes of lonely people like you do in other big European cities. Ties are stronger here,” he adds.

Change is more evident in the urban environment.

“Neighborhoods used to have a stronger identity back then. Working-class neighborhoods had more character. The uniformity we see today was not there,” he says.

Pittas is no longer keen to raise his camera in the city he first explored and experimented with.

“I find it impossible to shoot this complete lack of hope that I see in Athenians’ faces today, this air of resignation. It’s as if the sky has fallen on their heads,” he says.

“The faces I see in the streets of Athens remind me of those I came across in the countries of the communist bloc. It’s all a bit scary,” remarks the photographer.

It’s clear that his bygone journeys across the former Soviet satellites continue to inform his perspective on Greece’s current predicament.

“If we compare ourselves to what other people on the continent went through, our situation is not that terrible,” he says. “The difference here is that we were spoiled. A society that’s totally dependent on the state will inevitably suffer when the state runs into trouble.”

Although his photos are free from in-your-face political commentary, the man does not shy away from voicing his political opinions in public. He does so on a less sophisticated yet more direct medium: Facebook.

“I used to be allergic to politics and political debate. If I talk politics today, it is in reaction to the awful things we’ve had to put up with in the past couple of years,” he says in reference to Greece’s leftist-led government.

This lingering malaise has naturally generated a wave of nostalgia for the pre-crisis years – a reflex that often comes with a certain level of oblivion about the era’s part in creating the mess of today.

“Athenians & Parisians” is taking place on the sidelines of the much-publicized “GR80s” show at the Technopolis cultural complex in downtown Gazi, which is a political, social and cultural anatomy of Greece in the 1980s. The event has sparked a wave of nostalgia, as large crowds flock to see, among other items, a splendid reconstruction of an archetypal 1980s flat.

Pittas admits that part of the response to his long-buried body work is a result of this backward-looking mood.

It’s not all bad.

“Nostalgia is fed by a desire to return to an idealized time, which may coincide with our youth, or what we may regard as being innocent when it was probably anything but,” he says.

“But it could also spark a soul-searching process that helps us understand how we ended up where we are today,” he says.

None of that takes away from the value of the work, or from the existential fulfillment that this born-again photographer experiences today when seeing his work receive long-overdue recognition.

“I find it amazing that something I once did in the spirit of youthful frivolity seems to make sense to people today, to tell them something about their lives,” he says.

“Athenians & Parisians” (French Institute in Athens, 31 Sina, tel 210.339.8600, http://www.ifa.gr) runs through March 31. “GR80s: Greece in the 80s at Technopolis” (100 Pireos, Gazi) runs to March 12.


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