As Golden Dawn nurses wounds, far-right newcomer surfaces

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By Harry van Versendaal

European Parliament elections gave observers of the far right in Greece something to smile about as Golden Dawn lost nearly half of its votes compared to the previous EU ballot in 2014. But it was not all good news. As the neo-Nazi party nursed its wounds, the ultranationalist pro-Russia Greek Solution (Elliniki Lysi), a newcomer, staged a surprisingly strong showing, taking 4.18 percent of the vote and one seat in the increasingly Euroskeptic EU assembly.

Support for Golden Dawn dropped from 9.4 percent in the 2014 European Parliament elections to 4.88 percent on May 26. The party’s candidate for Athens mayor Ilias Kasidiaris won 10.53 percent compared to 16.12 percent in the 2014 local elections, while Ilias Panayiotaros, running for Attica regional governor, took 5.59 percent compared to 11.13 percent five years ago.

Inner-party friction appears to be a key reason for the decline of the country’s dominant far-right party. It was most recently illustrated in the decision of leader Nikos Michaloliakos to ditch the party’s three incumbent MEPs and put Yiannis Lagos, a Piraeus MP from Golden Dawn’s old guard, at the top of the party’s EU ticket.

“This sort of party depends on a tight inner circle to survive. Such cohesion can only be ensured by a strong leader,” says Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist at Panteion University who recently penned a genealogy of Greece’s far-right parties.

One of the three EU deputies, Eleftherios Synadinos, left Golden Dawn last year, accusing the leadership of nepotism and corruption. Synadinos, a former army lieutenant general who went on to set up his own nationalist grouping, said he was requested to regularly submit a chunk of his MEP salary to the party coffers.

In September 2013, Greek police arrested Michaloliakos and more than a dozen senior party members following the fatal stabbing of anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas by a party supporter. A month later, Parliament voted to cut off state funding to Golden Dawn on the grounds that its chief and several lawmakers were charged with involvement in a criminal organization. The move deprived Golden Dawn of a major financial resource – an estimated 873,000 euros that year. The number of Golden Dawn’s local organizations gradually dropped from 75 to around 50. Analysts say the impact of that move underscored the significance of institutional checks against political extremism.

“We saw Golden Dawn lose momentum as soon as the institutions took action,” says Georgiadou.

At the same time, judicial proceedings have evidently limited the violent activism of Golden Dawn, frequently accused of attacking migrants and leftists.

“The party could not possibly appear to confirm the allegations while these were being examined by the judiciary,” Georgiadou says.

The trial is still ongoing. The defendants’ testimonies are to begin later this month. Apart from triggering claims of political persecution by party officials looking to attain martyr status, analysts say one cannot safely predict what the impact of a potential conviction would be on the party.

One case study is Belgium’s far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), the repackaged version of Vlaams Blok (Flemish Block) which dissolved after a court convicted the party of racism in 2004. The regrouping did not prevent the party from staging a successful comeback.

Georgiadou remains cautious about drawing parallels between the two cases. “Charges against Vlaams Blok concerned racist statements. In the case of Golden Dawn, we are dealing with criminal offenses,” she says.

Observers say that even if Golden Dawn were to rebrand itself (the party has reportedly already registered the name Greek Dawn), its outlook would be dim.

“They would need to develop a second body of officials who are not so well known or popular and pass on the power to them. I don’t think that a successor suffering from such organizational shortcomings would be able to sustain Golden Dawn’s current popularity,” Georgiadou says.

New solution, new problem

While Golden Dawn took a bruising in European elections, a new force has burst onto the scene.

After electing a representative to the European Parliament on May 26, Greek Solution has set its sights on winning even more seats in the Greek House after a snap election scheduled for next month. According to exit poll data, 12 percent of Golden Dawn supporters gave Greek Solution their vote (another 12.6 percent of Golden Dawn’s voters migrated to New Democracy).

Unlike Golden Dawn, which depended on grassroots action and an extended network of local chapters across the country, Greek Solution is a top-down party built on the back of TV exposure and, some say, Russian funds (the party denies the allegations). Born in Germany to Greek emigrant farmers, its 53-year-old leader Kyriakos Velopoulos was elected as an MP with Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) in the northern port city of Thessaloniki in 2007 and 2009 before joining the ranks of center-right New Democracy between 2012 and 2015. Velopoulos, a former journalist, is widely viewed as a snake oil peddler for selling items such as “letters written by Jesus” or hair-growth potions on fringe TV programs. His shows are rife with wacky conspiracy theories. In March, he claimed that last summer’s deadly wildfires in eastern Attica were part of a Zionist plot to facilitate the transfer of Chinese exports to Western Europe.

“He should not be underestimated as a mascot,” says Georgiadou, drawing parallels with Giorgos Karatzaferis, who recently stepped down as leader of his TV-based nationalist LAOS party that has failed to recover following its fatal decision to support the Greek bailout in 2012. “Velopoulos is a nucleus. If more pieces are added, you’ll get a mosaic,” Georgiadou says.

Amid the fake news and conspiracy theories, a steadier pattern appears to be emerging, including a Greek-centered analysis of the world, opposition to the European Union, a call for a return to a national currency and an emphasis on national, self-sufficient production. Speaking after European elections, Velopoulos laid out his Orbanesque vision of “a Christian Europe without Islamists.” He added that Greece should lay a minefield and build a wall along the northeastern border with Turkey to stem the flow of “illegal migrants.”

Done deal

Analysts are cautious about the extent to which Greek Solution was boosted by opposition to the name deal signed in June 2018 between Greece and what is now the Republic of North Macedonia, despite the fact that the so-called Prespes accord dominated much of domestic politics over the past year.

“I am not even sure that the Prespes deal remained an issue during the pre-election campaign,” says Georgiadou. “The issue served a strategy and then ran its course,” she says, adding that although played up by the media, reactions were in fact marginal, also in northern Greece.

Figures indicate that hardliners were not rewarded by voters. New Democracy candidate Katerina Markou, a fervent critic of the agreement, performed poorly in the Euro poll, collecting just 29,781 votes – ending up very far behind the party’s top vote-getter Stelios Kymbouropoulos, who garnered 419,759 votes.

If the agreement had had a meaningful impact on the outcome, analysts say, that would also be evident in SYRIZA’s performance. But that did not happen. Exit poll data suggest that the issue failed to galvanize SYRIZA’s left-wing voters. An estimated 5 percent defected to smaller parties left of SYRIZA, including former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’ DiEM25.

“Prespes is a spent issue. I do not think anyone will invest in it anymore,” says Georgiadou, adding that its trajectory was reminiscent of the clash between the state and the church in the early 2000s after a reformist PASOK government decided to remove religious affiliation from identity cards and to force a referendum on the issue.

Fresh competition

Despite its unexpected showing in European polls, Greek Solution has already been hit by three resignations in the runup to the national election, indicating that the political substance that glues it together is not of the enduring type. However, if the party makes it into Parliament next month, access to state funding would enable it to better consolidate itself also by developing a network of local organizations.

“It may well prove to be a flash party, or not. It’s too early to tell,” Georgiadou says. “One thing we do know though is it will be treated differently from now on. It will be seen as a competitor.”

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Peeling the orange

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Hans van der Meer/Hollandse Velden (Dutch Fields)

By Harry van Versendaal

If you’re lucky enough to fly to Amsterdam on a cloudless day, your gaze will inevitably be drawn to the unusually geometrical, handmade mosaic that is the Dutch countryside. Endless stretches of rectangular fields are demarcated by a dense network of drainage ditches and roads. Space has never been in abundance here. The Dutch have never had the luxury of wasting the tiniest bit of land. About a quarter of The Netherlands famously lies below sea level. Hard work, inventiveness and team spirit were required of the people if they wanted to keep their feet dry.

This spatial singularity is often considered as the origin of the consensus-based decisionmaking process of the Dutch, known as the “polder model.” In his book, “Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football,” which was recently made available in Greek (Diavlos), the English author and journalist David Winner argues that this very condition was at the root of what locals call “totaalvoetbal.”

Developed by manager Rinus Michels and spearheaded by Johan Cruyff in the late 1960s and early 70s, Total Football was a ground-breaking system based on speed, stamina, technical skill and intelligent use of space. “Total Football was, among other things, a conceptual revolution based on the idea that the size of any football field was flexible and could be altered by a team playing on it,” Winner writes. “In possession, Ajax – and later the Dutch national team – aimed to make the pitch as large as possible, spreading play to the wings and seeing every run and movement as a way to increase and exploit the available space. When they lost the ball, the same thinking and techniques were used to destroy the space of their opponents.”

The game had to be effectual but, most importantly, it had to be beautiful. Cruyff, who transformed Ajax and later Barcelona both as a player and manager, has often been likened to Rembrandt, Vermeer and other Dutch masters. Fascinated by his elegant, ballet-like stride, Rudolf Nureyev always said Cruyff should have been a dancer. Former Arsenal striker Dennis Bergkamp, one of the most technically gifted players to grace the Premier League (ex-Newcastle defender Nikos Dabizas probably still has nightmares of the Dutchman’s pirouette goal 17 years ago), was often criticized of lacking that killer instinct. “I suppose I’m not that interested in scoring ugly goals,” Bergkamp quipped – a statement that sums up “totaalvoetbal” philosophy yet is, at the same time, a very Dutch way of disguising weakness as moral superiority.

Winner’s writing is reminiscent of the system’s architecture. The author jumps back and forth from history to social change to the arts and to architecture, enriching the theory with interviews with ex-players and managers, as well as anecdotal passages. The only steady reference is Cruyff, the talisman of the Total Football revolution (sportswriter David Miller famously described him as “Pythagoras in boots”) whose unconventional personality and ideas shaped modern football as well as the personality of a nation.

In his effort to develop an attractive, holistic theory, Winner appears a bit too tempted at times to discover meaning and symbolism – like when he draws parallels between former Feyenoord midfielder Wim van Hanegem and the curved arched structures of Rotterdam architect Lars Spuybroek.

For the Dutch, of course, Total Football never really brought total success. In several crunch moments, the squad has appeared to come out onto the pitch with a self-destruct button. In the 1974 World Cup final in Munich, a combination of overconfidence and arrogance led to defeat against an inferior West Germany. After scoring the opening goal, the Dutch players began to mock their opponents with fancy footwork instead of finishing them off with a second goal – hubris of sorts. “There is still deep, unresolved trauma about 1974. It’s a very living pain, like an unpunished crime,” a Dutch psychoanalyst says in the book.

When the Oranje reached a third World Cup final in 2010 sacrificing the virtues of “totaalvoetbal” on the altar of a pragmatic, often cynical, style (the stamp of Nigel de Jong’s studs on Xabi Alonso’s chest was the painful souvenir from the Johannesburg final) the custodians of Total Football reacted to the ultimate fall of the Dutch side with a sense of self-righteous vindication. In their eyes, the Spanish tiki-taka of close-touch possession play was a more faithful reincarnation of Cruyff’s legacy.

As the young players with the iconic vertical red stripes upped the pressure on the Juventus defense inside the Johan Cruyff Arena in the first quarter final of the Champions League last month, the English sportscaster could not hide his admiration for their unique ability to create a pitch within a pitch: “It’s like Cruyff is still here,” he said. A few weeks later, what would have been an all-Cruyff Ajax vs Barcelona final would turn into a total nightmare for both clubs.

Sense and sensibility

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Joshua Coombes, a 31-year-old hairdresser-turned-activist from Devon, defends his decision to join forces with a private business.

By Harry van Versendaal

AMSTERDAM – Joshua Coombes is as straightforward as he is charismatic. He raises his voice above the dance music blaring from the adjacent hall of De Hallen, a refurbished tram depot east of the city center. Toms is unveiling its latest campaign, and this 31-year-old hairdresser from Devon on the southwest coast of England speaks with palpable enthusiasm about his role in it: “I am an amplifier for people who have no voice.”

For years, Coombes would roam the streets of London after work, giving free haircuts and shaves to the homeless, posting before and after photos on his Instagram account hashtagged with his animating principle #dosomethingfornothing. In late 2015, at the peak of Greece’s refugee crisis, Coombes brought his scissors and street cuts to Athens’s Elliniko camp and Victoria Square. He has also couch-surfed across the world from the US to Mexico and Ecuador, to France and Germany. Until he received that phone call from Toms. Coombes is now one of the firm’s so-called changemakers – social activists selected to spearhead the California-based company’s new #standfortomorrow campaign on homelessness, female empowerment and social entrepreneurship.

“It is not just a campaign,” Coombes says. “They are living it. Sure, they spend money on an event like this, but they also work with people.”

The story behind Toms is more or less known, elevated as it may have been to the status of inspirational fable. As its founder, Blake Mycoskie, writes in his autobiography, “Start Something That Matters,” the idea hit him during a trip to Argentina back in 2006. The Texan, then aged 30, was spending his time playing polo, learning the tango and drinking Malbec. That was until he started to notice lots of kids with no shoes who were suffering from injuries to their feet. The spectacle spurred him to action.

He decided to import the alpargata, a local version of the classic espadrille, to the US and for every pair sold to donate a pair of new shoes to a child in need – a policy that came to be known as “one-for-one.”

“And so Blake started a purpose-driven company long before purpose-driven companies were a thing. And now they are quite ingrained in the business model for lots of companies,” says Toms chief giving officer Amy Smith.

We are sitting at a boutique hotel in De Hallen. Smith, with past experience at Apple and a nonprofit, handles questions cautiously, glancing every so often at her laptop screen. “I think a desire to do good turned into a movement. I don’t think he or anyone at Toms would say that the outward intention was to create a movement – the intention was to give back to a community and to people he saw in need,” she says. The brand’s mantra, she adds, is “Toms’ mission is to improve lives through business.”

‘Ethical consumer’

Almost 13 years and 86 million shoes later, the social entrepreneurship landscape has changed radically. Smith admits that the company, 50 percent of which is now controlled by equity firm Bain Capital, is too “humble” to claim it actually invented a new type of consumer, the “ethical consumer,” as it were. To be sure, hundreds of companies followed in Toms’ footsteps. Others offered a poor imitation. Greenwashing, a practice whereby companies style themselves as more environmentally friendly than they genuinely are, is still widespread as many established businesses, often slow-moving bureaucracies, are struggling to make a substantial transition or see no economic sense in doing so. Data, however, show that treating socially minded commerce as a fad is not good for business. In the past few years it has become something consumers ask for – and reward.

A Clutch survey published in the US earlier this year found that 68 percent of consumers said the social profile of a company was more important than price when choosing a brand or product. That share climbed to 71 percent when it came to environmentally friendly practices. In the same poll, 75 percent said they were likely to start shopping from a brand that promotes an issue they agree with, whereas 59 percent were likely to stop shopping at a company that supports an issue they disagree with.

“Your millennial and Gen Z customer is going to vote with their wallets, they are very savvy consumers, they expect companies to address issues in the world and to take a point of view for the big issues facing communities,” Smith says.

The business landscape has changed for everyone – Toms included. Standing on the event stage, global CEO Jim Alling is trying to fire up the audience with sugar-coated corporate soundbites. His enthusiasm, however, fails to disguise the firm’s concern that it has perhaps grown too big for its own good. “We can’t get tired, we can’t get boring,” he warns. Clouds have gathered on the horizon due to the brand’s limited diversification and the rise of cheaper competition. “People need to recognize we’re committed to creating a platform where positive social impact can take place, but they also need to understand that, without purchases, we actually have no ability to do that,” he says.

Can Toms expand without turning its back on its culture and core values? Smith has no doubt. She describes how the company evolved its give-back model, expanding into eyewear, apparel, handbags and coffee. In return, it provides vision-related medical treatment, the conditions necessary for a safe and sanitary birth, and safe drinking water in developing countries.

Smith says the company reached the point where it was time to take a step further. “It was the sort of pause moment, of ‘What else can we or should we be doing?’” she says. “Humanity thrives when you have opportunity for all people, when you have equality and justice, taking your piece of environmental responsibility and you provide ways for citizens to be in action… From basic needs [we move on] to basic human values, or basic support for issues that go beyond these basic needs,” Smith says, as she paints the outline of the new campaign. “It is a natural progression for our brand and our culture.”

In a rather bold move, Toms launched a campaign late last year to curb gun violence, supporting the drive for universal background checks. Some see a risk of the brand being identified with a specific political agenda – a progressive liberal agenda, in this case.

“It could become very political,” Smith admits. “We have chosen to say this is not a left or right issue, but a life or death issue – people are losing their lives in such huge numbers as a result of gun violence, because individuals did not get background checks,” she says.

Company sales have soared by an estimated 20 percent since the campaign launched.

Along with success come mistakes and criticism. A pair of alpargata are as simple as their production and supply is complex: fashion, profit, sustainability, transparency, ethics all come into play. The give-back model, its critics say, is little more than an ego boost; it only helps us Western consumers feel better about ourselves. At the same time, the practice undermines local economies by fostering dependency on outside aid. Who really can compete with a free product?

“We are always listening to the critics. We want to hear what they have to say and we want to learn from what we are doing, how we are executing and ensuring that we’re having the greatest possible impact,” Smith says. Toms carried out an extensive impact study on local communities. It opened a factory in India and enforced stricter regulations governing working conditions and the sustainability of materials. It was recently certified as a B Corporation for its social and environmental performance.

The fact remains that Toms is and will remain a for-profit company. As Sebastian Fries, one of Smith’s predecessors, said in 2013, Toms is “not in the business of poverty alleviation.” This, however, does not mean that the company has a smaller impact compared to a nonprofit with more benign intentions.

Moral compass

Coombes, for one, seems to think so. Some inside his old punk band were not too happy with his decision to join hands with a private company. He prefers a more pragmatic approach. “It is not grassroots, but it is another way of doing it. Can a bank do this? I do not think so,” he says.

He insists his conscience is clear. “Success is measured by the people I meet on the street, my interaction with them,” he says as he leaves the table for a group photo. “I’m always learning. I do not have complete solutions. I try to keep my moral compass in check.”

Inside the homes of Golden Dawn’s women

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By Harry van Versendaal

As she waits for her son, a Golden Dawn party MP, to come out of jail, Dafni wipes a collection of rifles sitting on a weapons rack in their family home. Behind her, sunlight streams through a swastika-shaped grille on the window.

The disturbingly comic scene in Norwegian filmmaker Havard Bustnes’s “Golden Dawn Girls,” which made its Greek debut at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival earlier this month, encapsulates a familiar question: Are people like Dafni genuinely evil or just plain naive?

The film follows three women after the legal crackdown on the far-right Golden Dawn in 2013, which led to the arrest of many of its senior members, including party leader Nikos Michaloliakos. With many of the men behind bars pending trial on charges of running a criminal organization, women had to step in and energize the campaign for the next election.

Dafni, a former submarine engineer and hospital director who describes herself as a disaffected ex-member of socialist PASOK, has a strong penchant for conspiracy theories. Jenny is the politically active dynamic wife of MP Giorgos Germenis, a former black-metal bassist and baker. But it is Bustnes’s encounters with Ourania, the enigmatic daughter of the party’s leader, which are the most intriguing. When confronted with an old photo of Michaloliakos giving the Nazi salute in front of a swastika flag, the 26-year-old psychology student with a soft spot for dogs and Disney movies responds in a way that appears to strip her of the benefit of the doubt. “I support everything about my father.”

Domestic audiences will not find much new in the documentary, a collection of interviews and archive footage of the party’s bigoted rhetoric and attacks on migrants, but they are rewarded by some distressingly candid remarks as Bustnes leaves the cameras rolling after his subjects believe shooting is over.

The director discussed the experience of shooting in an email interview with Kathimerini English Edition.
Do you think that these women are animated by pure conviction, in that they truly believe in Nazi ideology, or by personal affiliation?

I think they are convinced of the ideology. They feel like they are in a war, and they believe in all these conspiracy theories. They think that a small group of Jews rule the world and are trying to destroy the so-called Greek DNA to take control of the resources in Greece. For me this is very scary and hard to understand. These are old ideas from the Second World War; how is it possible to believe in them today?

But I also think they would like to live a more normal life outside politics. Ourania wanted to move to England to study psychology, and I don’t think she likes her role as an infamous person. I think they feel obligated to support the men, and even more so when the men were arrested.

Do they have full knowledge of the party’s darkest side, including the orchestrated attacks on migrants and Communist Party-affiliated workers?

I don’t know exactly what they know or don’t know. When I asked them about the attacks on migrants, they denied that Golden Dawn is violent. As you see in the film, Jenny says they only smashed tables and didn’t beat immigrants. This is typical of how they talk about concrete evidence that shows that Golden Dawn is a violent group. In their minds, it is always somebody else’s fault. They say it is the media which lie, and that they are innocent. Dafni even says that the videos of Golden Dawn members with guns circulating on the internet are the product of manipulation.

Did you feel these women are genuinely evil?

That’s a big question. What does it mean to be evil? From their point of view, Greece is at war, and they believe Golden Dawn is fighting for the good. There are so many conspiracy theories that they believe in, which explains how they act. So I don’t think it is about evilness but about knowledge and their corrupt worldview. If you read the wrong books and are exposed to the conspiracy theories that Golden Dawn promotes, you can end up believing in the evil politics of the neo-Nazis. And if you believe you are in a war, this could justify evil acts and violence.

How easy was it for you to gain access?

Our access was based on another film producer Christian Falch made about black metal. One of the characters in that film was Germenis, and it was his wife that helped us to gain access to Golden Dawn. She introduced us first to Dafni and later to Ourania. This was a long process that was of course difficult, but I think the fact that we are from Norway made it easier.

Did you ever feel worried about your safety and that of your crew?

We were warned that Golden Dawn have attacked journalists. At the first Golden Dawn rally we filmed, I borrowed a black-metal T-shirt from the producer to blend in. We experienced one situation at Syntagma [Square, in central Athens] where a tear gas grenade exploded some meters away from the photographer, and we had to drag him away to safety.

At some points in the film you seem to try to come across as naive in a bid to get them to lower their defenses. Did the strategy work?

I think it worked, because they did open up. When I play naive they show more of who they really are. Of course, it was a balance between how much we could confront them and how naive I could pretend to be. I decided to be more and more confrontational, but I waited until the last day before I asked Ourania what she thought about my political standpoints. Then she said that she always knew I was a leftist.

Do you see the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece as part of a bigger European pattern, or as a development that is specific to Greece and its financial crisis?

I do see this as a part of a bigger European pattern. When you have an economic crisis and high unemployment in a country, the far-right rises. Unfortunately we are seeing this in many European countries at the moment. I think all the European countries have to assume a bigger responsibility and solve the economic crisis together. We cannot say that this is a local problem. We have to help each other.

It seems to me that the strongest moments of the film are your encounters with the Golden Dawn chief’s daughter, Ourania. Do you think you ever managed to get to the core of her personality?

It is always difficult to say what is the core of a personality. I think the film makes you understand her better, but I think she is a complex character that is difficult to understand. I think it was hard for her to grow up in this party as the child of Michaloliakos, and I think Greek media have treated her badly, writing about her being fat and ugly. At the same time, of course, she is responsible for supporting a violent party.

The journey and the sacrifice

A child is fighting in the breadline at the port of Mytilene island.

By Harry van Versendaal

Odyssey, tragedy, deadlock. The three words that sum up each of the chapters in Nikos Pilos’s 17-minute black-and-white documentary trilogy “Dying for Europe,” which makes its Greek debut at the ongoing Thessaloniki festival, have been routinely used by international media to describe Europe’s refugee crisis.

However, there is nothing cliche about the crisis itself. And this powerful and emotive film lays bare the harrowing reality of displacement in a way that inevitably makes the mind cling to the project title’s eerie, literal interpretation. When the boat carrying Youssef Hamo and his family sinks off the eastern Aegean island of Kos, the 56-year-old Syrian refugee has to grapple with the loss of his wife, son and daughter, while another son is missing.

Shot over a period of eight months, the short chronicles the perilous journey of the wretched masses, the tragedy of loss, and the eventual closure of the so-called Balkan route that left thousands of people stranded on Greek soil.

Yet although human suffering is the dominant element in the whirling vortex of Europe’s refugee crisis, it is not the only one. Kathimerini English Edition caught up with the award-winning photojournalist for a discussion on the personal and professional challenges that come into play in documenting a theme where ethical, humanitarian, political and aesthetic issues intersect.

Born in Athens in 1967, Pilos has over the past three decades documented conflicts, natural disasters, poverty and cultural shifts across the globe, including the overthrow of Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the breakdown of former Yugoslavia and the Iraq war.

His work has featured in major media publications including The New York Times, Time, The Financial Times, and The Guardian. It has also brought him numerous awards, most recently second place in the 2017 World Press Photo Digital Storytelling Contest’s Short Form category for his film “Trapped,” on the shutdown of the Balkan refugee route to Northern Europe.

Although coverage of the refugee crisis has brought Pilos closer to home, the stakes, he says, are nothing less than the very survival of European values.

What compelled you to explore this subject? How long did the project take and what was its goal? What does it add to an issue that has been so widely discussed already?

I was driven by the fact that members of my family and close circle have emigrated and I still have relatives in America. I have been interested in this subject since the 1980s, when thousands of refugees from Eastern Europe came to Greece looking for a better life. I dare say we did not treat them in the best possible manner.

The project was shot over a period of eight months and addresses the question: What does someone need to sacrifice to reach Europe? The answer is given by the survivor Youssef as he describes his family’s deadly journey from the Turkish coast to Kos frame by frame. The narrative closes with the fence placed on the border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, effectively closing the Balkan route and the path of thousands of refugees to Europe. Trapped behind the barbed wire, they unwittingly become the symbol of a modern version of isolationism, nationalist fervor and xenophobia.

Even though the timeline follows that of the Balkan route, it describes the overall collapse of united Europe’s values.

What kind of psychological impact can such a project have? How easy is it to compartmentalize it and not take it home with you?

Of course there is a lot of psychological pressure in situations like this, pressure that freelancers like myself have to deal with on their own or only with the help of their close environment, unlike people who work for major agencies that give them all the help and support they need in the field and later. When you’ve been doing this for years, there are no compartments. You just learn to cope.

Is it possible not to become personally involved in this kind of work?

Learning how not to become personally involved is a lengthy process that comes automatically as time goes on and you mature professionally. It is also the factor that helps you limit the psychological pressure and allows you to record the events around you objectively.

Which moment or scene has had the biggest impact on you?

There are so many but in this particular project what really shocked me was the stoicism of one of our documentary’s protagonists, Youssef, toward the loss of his family in the Kos wreck.

How do you respond to criticism regarding graphic images like those of the Kos wreck? Are there instances when the victim, their families or viewers need to be protected? Can constant exposure to such images lead to compassion fatigue in the public?

To begin with, let me say that I disagree entirely with the term graphic images. If you look at the global coverage, it was images such as these that influenced public opinion and changed the course of events on a number of issues. I can cite many examples, starting with the photograph of the toddler Aylan on the beach of Bodrum. Or a Greek one from in the inter-war years in Thessaloniki showing the mother of a tobacco worker mourning over her son’s body lying on a door, killed by a police officer during a tobacco workers’ protest, a photograph that inspired one of the greatest pieces of modern Greek poetry, Yiannis Ritsos’s “Epitaphios.” Or the world-famous photograph of the young girl running away from a napalm bomb in Vietnam that helped change the course of the war. Or that from Biafra of a vulture waiting for life to leave a bloated half-dead boy so it can devour him, which galvanized the United Nations into action. Or the photograph by Robert Capa of a democratic army soldier dropping dead from a bullet in the Spanish Civil War. And hundreds more.

I want to stress that this conversation started in the mid-1990s when businessmen replaced traditional media publishers. This resulted in content being more or less determined by advertisers who did not want to see such material next to their ads.

Naturally such images need to be published with caution, but I do not believe that they weaken the message. The message can be so strong that the US government prohibited the publication of images of dead American soldiers in the last Gulf war. It took three before The New York Times, I believe, flouted the ban and directly opposed the Bush administration.

There are, of course, many cases where the victims and their relatives need to be protected. I will agree that there is no reason to publicize the photograph of a car crash victim, but I would not say the same of the photograph showing [slain rapper] Pavlos Fyssas in his girlfriend’s arms shortly before he died. This was a historic event and not only should it have been published, but the photograph should serve as the main image in any march against fascism, refreshing the memories of older members of society and teaching the young ones.

In the case of the Kos shipwreck, the material was published with the surviving father’s approval.

Do you find yourself facing moral quandaries in this line of work? Is it odd to present such an ugly subject in such a “beautiful” way?

I started out in the 1980s, at a time when the media had full access to all social and political developments. There were no privacy laws, so, perforce, you had to set the limits on what was morally acceptable and what was not. It’s still a constant process.

What we are looking at here is not a spectacle but reality, and each individual has the choice whether to watch or ignore it. As for the artistic aspect, this is a matter of each photographer’s style.

Were you inspired by a particular project for this film and why did you opt for black-and-white?

Filming in black-and-white was intended as a response to the ephemeral. Images of the refugee crisis that were shown time and time again on news bulletins and others that were buried in the miscellaneous file serve as the threads of a narrative that has escaped the confines of a classical news feature and aims at sending a powerful political message to united Europe, a notion founded on the principles of open borders and democracy.

What do you do that is different to other photographers? What are the dividing lines between photojournalism and other related forms like documentary filmmaking?

I don’t think I do anything different to my colleagues. Technology is giving us new means of expression and it is only natural to use them – this is what evolution is about, after all.

I also don’t see that there are any differences between photojournalism and documentary filmmaking. It is the same narrative in a different medium. As a photojournalist you are looking for a moment and as a documentary filmmaker you want an entire scene to tell the story. Photography and documentary film are arts that were created to reach out to a broad audience and this is precisely what photojournalism and documentary filmmaking do.

Can they bring change or are they simply preaching to the converted? Is the onslaught of fake news a defeat for documentaries?

I don’t believe that viewers have had an overdose of tough images.

The difficulty of a photograph changing something in the present doesn’t have to do with who takes it but with the fact that mainstream media, mainly, are losing their credibility and therefore have shrinking influence. In the age of social media, of course, a message can reach a lot of people in a lot of different ways.

I also don’t believe that fake news influences or is a blow to documentaries. After all, it is as easy to expose a fake photograph as it is to manipulate an image with digital technology. Also, most fake news is exposed for what it is within a very short period of time.

Outsiders looking in

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By Harry van Versendaal

It’s late winter 2016, at a makeshift cemetery for Muslim migrants on Lesvos, less than 10 nautical miles off the Turkish coast. An imam in a white hazmat suit reads a prayer as a 3-year-old girl who died of meningitis shortly after landing on the eastern Aegean island is laid to rest. A red excavator is on standby to cover her grave after the end of the short ritual.

“Logic has disappeared from this world,” says Dimitris, a local man, as he prunes the olive trees in his property right next to the burial site.

Europe’s refugee crisis has produced a rich, if uneven, crop of documentaries that promise to go beyond the voluminous albeit often superficial media coverage. “Citizen Xenos,” an independent full feature shot by promising 28-year-old Athens-based director Lucas Paleocrassas, may be short on data or sweeping revelations, but is big in directness and unprocessed emotion.

“We wanted to veer off the cliche themes that have recurred in so many other films about the issue,” Paleocrassas told Kathimerini English Edition about his movie which will screen at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

Whether it’s the refugee family trying to put down roots on the island, the elderly woman and her granddaughter seeking family reunification in Germany, the Syrian-born activist catering for vulnerable newcomers, the teenage victim of jihadi persecution, or even the globe-trotting Dutch mercenary working as a security manager at a migrant facility, the existential condition remains the same: All feel unwanted outsiders, “xenoi.”

“The refugee crisis is the setting, but I want to focus on the characters. I am interested in the alienation of these people, in what they are going through, in how they grapple with the challenges of relocation and social integration,” Paleocrassas said.

Apart from exposing the refugee drama, the director hopes that such intimate, first-hand testimonies have the power to challenge people’s ingrained misconceptions about the situation.

“The testimonies are just too direct. It’s just not possible to stick to your sweet little narrative,” Paleocrassas said.

An estimated 1 million people fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries wrecked by war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa have poured into Greece in recent years in hope of moving to Northern Europe. More than 50,000 migrants and refugees remain stranded on the Aegean islands after the Europeans took action to halt the flow.

While shooting on Lesvos, the main entry point to Europe for migrants, the filmmaker spent considerable time at the notorious reception and processing center at Moria.

“Moria-by-night was a dystopian spectacle,” he says of the so-called hotspot which has reportedly degenerated into a breeding ground for criminal activity including human smuggling, drug trafficking and prostitution.

Paleocrassas witnessed the limitations of a dysfunctional state apparatus but also the commitment and generosity of small humanitarian groups and volunteers seeking to fill in the gaps. With the official structures of debt-wracked Greece bursting at the seams, refugees have often relied on the kindness of strangers.

With time, he also saw compassion fatigue set in. “In the beginning, people were handing out food, clothes and medical aid. They housed people in spare bedrooms. But as the problems remain unsolved, their patience is wearing thin. These days, you can see people guarding their chicken coops with rifles,” he said.

Produced by Valia Charalampidou, the film was made with help from Wemakeit, a Swiss-based crowdfunding platform. Shot mostly over 2015 and 2016, it ends with footage of trapped refugees at the now-defunct camp near the village of Idomeni on Greece’s northern border following the shutdown of the so-called Balkan route. The sprawling tent city became a symbol of human suffering and policy failure.

“How can you imagine they will smile when they see the white man in Europe?” asks the Dutch security officer struggling to impose some order on the chaos. “The wolf will come one time, and he will bite you.”

Organizers unveil Greek movies for TDF

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By Harry van Versendaal

A paraplegic punk rocker wants to climb to the top of Mount Olympus, a man grapples with his father’s ailing health after returning to live with his parents, a former rebel returns home after his abduction as a child by members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

These are snippets from three Greek films (53 feature-length and 25 shorts) which will be showcased at the 20th edition of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, which runs March 2-11.

Local filmmakers shine a light on politics, human rights, migration, the financial crisis and personal stories at this year’s 10-day event.

Following a work accident, director Christos Kapatos is forced to move back in with his parents. In “Antonis’ Voice,” he documents the process of readjustment which is made more complex by the condition of his father, who has suffered a series of strokes.

Shot by Stratis Chatzielenoudas, “Back to the Top” chronicles the never-give-up attitude of Leonidas, a wheelchair-bound punk band drummer in his early 30s who sets out to conquer the 2,917-meter peak of Mount Olympus with the help of a bunch of good friends.

An ex-commander in warlord Joseph Kony’s LRA returns home 16 years after rebels took him from his home in “No Place for a Rebel,” by Ariadne Asimakopoulos and Maartje Wegdam. The film follows Opono Opondo as he struggles to readapt to civil society amid skepticism from the locals.

Global perspective

Speaking to Kathimerini English Edition, festival director Orestis Andreadakis hailed the progress made by local documentarists over the past 20 years.

“They no longer focus merely on the obvious issues relating to Greece and its immediate woes. They travel more and explore themes in other parts of the world,” said Andreadakis, who took over the helm of the festival in 2016.

“There’s still a lot of work to do, but they’re on a good path,” he said.

The festival gets under way on March 2 with “Faces Places,” an Oscar-nominated French documentary co-directed by Belgium-born New French Wave pioneer Agnes Varda and enigmatic French muralist JR.

Organizers have also prepared a tribute to the seismic political and social events of 1968 and given carte blanche to American independent filmmaker Sara Driver.


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