The archaeology of the present

By Harry van Versendaal

When digging up the past, you may unearth some ugly truths about the present.

Georgia Karamitrou-Mendesidi, the central character in Kimon Tsakiris’s latest gem “The Archaeologist,” which comes out in theaters on March 19, is doomed to learn this the hard way, as her efforts to rescue ancient artifacts before they end up at the bottom of an artificial lake in Greece’s northwestern Macedonia region get caught up in an uncomfortably familiar web of dysfunction, corruption and red tape.

“I did not want to make your standard archaeological documentary. Here is an individual, a strong character, who has set out a goal, and she tries to achieve this goal as several parallel stories unfold,” Tsakiris said during an interview with Kathimerini English Edition ahead of the film’s debut at the ongoing Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

Sporting an Indiana Jones hat and white fingerless gloves Karamitrou carries no whip but is single-minded in her devotion to the riverside excavations of ancient Aiani. She confronts local villagers, meets with politicians and spends hours on the phone and at the 110-acre dig near the hamlet of Elati to salvage and record what she can before the waters rise and cover the ancient stones for good.

Legally, construction of any kind takes a backseat when archaeological finds are involved. But the Public Power Corporation’s massive hydroelectric dam construction, powered by political and bureaucratic obstacles, relentlessly chugs on as Karamitrou and her team are given a mere two months before the area is irreversibly flooded.

A Greek microcosm

Coming nearly a decade after the 40-year-old filmmaker’s darkly humorous “Sugartown: The Bridegrooms,” the documentary contains the subtle irony, careful dissection, and cathartic moments that have become a trademark of Tsakiris’s work. “The Archaeologist” inevitably ends up serving as a metaphor for contemporary Greece.

“You see how the institutions and our society works. From the small favor you’ll ask of your mayor all the way to the top of the pyramid, cronyism cuts across all levels. With a character that struggles to function in all of this while trying to make a difference, this is how her clash with reality manifests itself. It’s like a Greek microcosm,” said Tsakiris, who worked on the film for two years until wrapping up shooting in January 2014.

The anti-hero of “The Archaeologist” is Greece itself: a bankrupt country where structure and institutions have mostly broken down, and individuals often have to take things into their own hands to make things work.

Karamitrou, who has been digging in Aiani since the early 1980s and was instrumental in the building of the local museum, has given up a life in academia with her husband and kids to stay in the area and fight for what she believes in.

“When you hear this talk about collective responsibility, it means no one is responsible,” the archaeologist says in her steady voice behind the wheel of her blue Toyota, echoing a familiar mantra in Tsakiris’s work.

“Karamitrou, from her position, decided to take the responsibility. Imagine if we all did that, each from their own position. This is what counts,” the director said.

Change

But as admiring as Tsakiris may be of Karamitrou’s drive and commitment, he is not idealistic about it.

“Sure, the whole lone cowboy thing is important because often pioneers with a vision have showed the way and then others followed. But I don’t think this is the solution. The point is not to have 100, 150 or 500 individuals who go and put themselves out on a limb and either achieve something small or fail to do so. This is only a paradigm, I hope, until new institutions come into place and things work better, and things are not so quixotic anymore,” Tsakiris said.

“There is no reason why things should be that hard. Why should it be so hard to simply do your job? Karamitrou is an example of what anyone trying to achieve a goal will encounter in this country. It could be a nurse or a journalist trying to do a job and who is hampered by the ill mentality of society,” he said.

As a filmmaker working in Greece, Tsakiris knows one or two things about the obstacles that aspiring professionals face.

After public Greek broadcaster ERT was abruptly shut down by the previous conservative-led administration in the summer of 2013, he was among the many local directors who saw European funding for their productions go up in smoke. His previous film, “Mitsigan – Hardships and Beauties,” the profile of a quirky vegetable farmer in the Peloponnese, was eventually completed after he was able to find alternative sources of funding. “The Archaeologist” was produced by Faliro House.

There is no last-minute rescue for the excavations at Aiani. As the river’s banks crumble, swallowing up both trees and neolithic stones in beautiful underwater cinematography accompanied by Thanasis Papakonstantinou’s baritone lament, the feeling is one of utter desolation.

In a final insult, our lone cowgirl becomes one of the thousands of Greek civil servants to get pushed into early retirement or a labor reserve scheme on heavily docked wages, in line with foreign creditors’ demands.

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