Archive for the 'interviews' Category

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.

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.

Rewinding to the era of analog politics

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October 1988. An ecstatic crowd waving PASOK flags cheers Andreas Papandreou, then prime minister of Greece, on his return to Athens, at the now-defunct international airport in Elliniko. Papandreou had been admitted to Harefield Hospital in the UK for treatment for the heart complaint that plagued his later years. The moment went down in history for his gesture to Dimitra (Mimi) Liani, an Olympic Airways stewardess who was to become his wife, urging her to come down the stairs. Playmobil installation from the ‘GR80s’ exhibition at the Technopolis complex

By Harry van Versendaal

Although defying any single interpretation, the 1980s was certainly a transitional and transformative period for Greece, which had only just emerged from a traumatic seven-year dictatorship.

The ongoing “GR80s” exhibition at the Technopolis cultural complex in the downtown Gazi district is an unprecedented as well as ambitious attempt to deliver a political, economic, social and cultural anatomy of that decade.

Political scientist Lamprini Rori, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford University and co-curator of the political segment of the exhibition, talked to Kathimerini English Edition about the main sociopolitical characteristics of that era, its contradictions and a legacy often lamented as the roots of Greece’s current conundrum.

What differentiates the 80s in Greece from the previous and following periods?

On a symbolic level, it was PASOK’s rise to power and the consolidation of its hegemony. The 1980s shaped the key characteristics of the Third Greek Republic. First of all, Greece gained membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), a fact which, notwithstanding the tactical anti-European rhetoric of the early PASOK, led to a significant flow of European funds into the country. However, it was also the decade that saw the consolidation of the country’s mainstream parties, the sweeping renewal of political personnel, the strengthening of political participation, the introduction of measures in the direction of social liberalization, the deregulation of the radio and television landscape. Economic prosperity encouraged the rise of individualism, the recognition of minority rights and identities, the consolidation of social cohesion. The populism and polarization brought by the ascendance of PASOK gradually ebbed over the next decade, the positions and the discourse of the two main parties gradually converged, while the economy underwent a gradual modernization, as several sectors passed over to the free market.

It is often claimed that the roots of Greece’s current woes lie with the 1980s. If that is true, how do you account for today’s nostalgia for the era?

Demonizing or idealizing the 1980s are both distorted interpretations of the impact of events during that period. The main millstones which surfaced in the 1980s and which we are still – to a bigger or smaller extent – dragging along today, are the hijacking of the state by vested interests, populism, the understanding of politics as a zero-sum game, and fiscal derailment. Statism and clientele ties were less so, not because they did not affect the present situation, but because they were around before the 1980s, only to basically balloon during that decade. To be sure, we should not forget that between that time and the present, the country had various opportunities to modernize itself and correct many of the distortions of the 1980s. These were not seen through.

At the same time, however, the decade was a milestone for social mobility, the redefinition of identities, and the foundation of the middle class in the economic, political, social and cultural fields. It was in a sense the decade of security, not so much in the geopolitical sense – despite the fact that its end also marked the end of the Cold War – but more in the psychosociological sense of the term. This is the root of today’s nostalgia, given the fact that this era came to a close with the onslaught of the financial crisis.

There is a certain contradiction about the 1980s, as the anti-Western, anti-capitalist rhetoric of PASOK appears to have been accompanied by the rise of pop culture and consumption. How do you account for that?

Although [late Socialist prime minister] Andreas Papandreou promoted the idea of Greece as a country of the semi-periphery dependent on the capitalist centers of the West, PASOK’s anti-Americanism in the political arena was mainly founded on the relationship between Greece and the USA following the civil war and, above all, on the role of the USA in the 1967-74 military coup. PASOK’s anti-Westernism did not so much have a Marxist twist, but a historical and nationalist one, allowing it to forge a coherent narrative with anti-Turkish and pro-Arab dimensions.

At the same time, the rise of the middle class, the mass contact with Western models through the mass media and the process of individualization which unfolded on the level of values and lifestyle allowed strong influence from the centers of the by then postmodern West, at least in terms of cultural models. Historical anti-Americanism and cultural pro-Westernism effectively coexisted among individuals and across society, legitimating pop culture and consumerism among the local population. Greeks did not just accept these elements, but adopted them en masse. Gradually, the Westernization of cultural production overpowered the widespread rhetoric of anti-Westernism.

“GR80s: Greece in the 80s at Technopolis,” 100 Pireos, Gazi. The exhibition runs to March 12.

Social media: Taming the dark side

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By Harry van Versendaal

About a quarter of the global population is now on Facebook, yet only a small fraction seem aware of the world-shattering implications of this reality. Facebook and other social media such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat have irreversibly transformed the landscape of human interaction to an extent that was unthinkable only a few years ago.

They have changed the way we do things.

It’s not all good. In a new book called “Look At Me!” (Iolkos, in Greek), Athens-based journalist and new media analyst Manolis Andriotakis discusses the pitfalls of our increasingly wired world: distraction, obsession, fabrication, ruthless self-promotion, addiction to the dopamine rush, dwindling attention spans (the average time spent on any web page is now down to eight seconds, so chances are that few people will read beyond this point).

Andriotakis, a tech-optimist author of a 2008 book on blogging and director of a short documentary on Twitter released in 2012, couples his warnings with pragmatic advice on how to tame the dark side of social networking and put these new tools into meaningful service.

He spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the challenges of virtual living, the lessons of the recent US election, his regular digital detoxes and about how posting too many cat pictures can be bad for your career.

In a recent article for The New York Times, computer science professor and writer Cal Newport said that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media, he argued, weaken this skill because they are engineered to be addictive. Have we perhaps overestimated the role of social media in building a career?

Social media are indeed engineered to distract your attention. You need the tools, the critical ability and the skills to regulate their use so that you do not end up hostage to them. This book is about taking control. Engaging in social media is not some form of meditation; it’s not some daily habit to which you can let yourself go completely. If you allow that to happen, you can be completely sucked in. It happens to me too. Whenever I let my defenses down, I lapse into obsessive use that is very hard to escape.

Career-wise it can be a useful tool to promote your work, to enrich and distinguish your professional identity. But, again, it’s easy to lose focus and indulge in shallow self-promotion.

Is it not elitist to place an arbitrary sense of purpose on people and social media? One person may like posting cat pictures while someone else may enjoy looking at them. Is it imperative that they have a strategy?

Sure. But Newport is talking about career-building. And if you are being screened for a job, having too many cat pictures on your wall could prove bad for your career. You need to build up your defenses, yet the average user doesn’t do that. My point is: Take a step back and think. It’s the case with every new technology. You can hurt other people. You can also hurt yourself.

Are social media nurturing a new type of man? A narcissistic, distracted and hypersexual man at that? Or is this a case of old symptoms manifesting themselves through a new, potent vehicle?

Social media are certainly a new vehicle, but they can also cultivate new symptoms. We are dealing with a new technology that accelerates, empowers and stimulates. It presents us with a challenge. And the manner in which we – as individuals and as a collective – choose to deal with this challenge will determine whether social media will drag us down or help us evolve.

Why do people feel an irresistible urge to share their lives online?

There is something both sick and healthy in the need to share. The healthy part is rooted in the act of sharing, in the need to feel that you are a member of a larger community, and you want to reach out to people. People can, for example, share a health problem because it could help others prevent it.

But there is also a dark side which usually comes in the form of narcissism, self-promotion, or the urge to manipulate other people. I couldn’t say on which side the scale is weighted or whether you can always tell between good and bad.

It seems that “likes” have become a new social currency. How problematic is that?

Likes are the result of a complex psychological mechanism. The shallow, first level is certainly dominant – particularly on Instagram. However, although the volume of likes is not always a safe indicator of actual value, this is by no means exclusive to the realm of social networks. In any case, social media give you the opportunity to make sophisticated content more accessible.

Are people’s online identities the same as their regular identities?

No, you are not the same person. You construct a persona. It may even be a better version of yourself, a sexier, a sharper, more interesting self. Ultimately, the way you communicate your message, the attitude, often says more about you than the message.

Does it concern you that online interaction often eclipses face-to-face interaction?

You might as well be a hypocrite out there in the real world and an honest person in the virtual one. If you wish to construct a lie, you can do so in either world.

Facebook is accused of winning Donald Trump the US presidency by propagating fake news and helping generate the bulk of his campaign’s 250 million dollars in online fundraising. The tech-optimism of liberal pundits seems dead in the water. Are social media value-free?

Well, social media did not help democratize China, where you still rely on VPNs [internet connections that bypass the country’s firewalls and online censorship] to get round its “Great Firewall.” In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly blocked access to Facebook and Twitter. Authoritarian governments can shut down the internet or build bot armies. In fact, it looks like the bad guys can make a more effective use of social media. Trump played dirty and he won. The lesson of his campaign was that playing dirty can be very effective. It’s as if the right to play dirty has been democratized. The question is, how can you outplay these guys? It’s a machine of war.

You like to take a break from the internet about once a year. What do you gain from staying unplugged?

My digital detox, as it were, helps me protect my mental health and my relationships. It helps me refocus. The internet feeds addiction, grandiosity, narcissism. You cannot wipe these out. They exist in all of us, and they exist in me too. The break allows me to reboot and clear my head.

In your book, you raise the issue of the need for digital education. You are basically recommending a way of doing things on the internet. That could raise eyebrows among those who cherish the disorderly nature of the online world.

I am not suggesting here that everyone should conform to a common purpose. I too celebrate the fluid nature of the internet. I would hate to be in a world full of predictable people or people who were serious all the time.

What I have in mind, rather, is a more holistic approach. You need to understand that most of what you do online is build connections with other people. You are not just talking to yourself. What you say can have an impact on other people, it can hurt other people, or it can backfire. Your words are not balloons floating up into the sky.

It would be better not to sleepwalk into the internet. But this is unfortunately how most people immerse themselves in social networks. Inevitably, they fail to see both the risks as well as the opportunities.

You can find out more about Manolis Andriotakis’s at www.andriotakis.com.

Long-buried photographs document divided Europe ahead of watershed moment

East Berlin, DDR, 1987

By Harry van Versendaal

There is a thinly disguised self-portrait of Constantinos Pittas embedded in one of his photographs currently on display at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos Street annex in Athens. The 29-year-old’s skinny silhouette and dark curly hair are reflected in the left-hand corner of a shop window as he presses the shutter release on his pocket-size camera. It’s Prague, 1986.

There is a road-not-taken existential quality to the selfie (before it was a word). Pittas would soon put down his camera and box up this and thousands of other negatives shot during that time.

For a good 25 years.

“It’s strange, I feel sad and happy at the same time about this. Sad because you realize that ‘this was my talent’ which I had to give up so I could do other things for a living. If I had kept going I would probably have amassed a serious body of work by now,” says Pittas, now 59, before guiding a group tour through the exhibition “Constantinos Pittas: Images of Another Europe 1985-1989.”

Between 1985 and 1989, he drove a now-iconic blue Pony (which he also slept in) across 17 countries, capturing street scenes on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. He would spend the autumns in Athens doing odd jobs to save money and set off again in spring. Over those five years, Pittas, a self-taught photographer, went through about 650 black-and-white film rolls, producing some 25,000 negatives.

“I always thought that this was a very personal project and that no one would take any interest in it. I was neither doing photojournalism, like recording the end of the Cold War, nor was I doing art photography,” he says.

“It was something personal, a momentary madness that I just needed to pursue and I saw no point in touting it afterward or trying to build a career on it,” he says.

As the Berlin Wall crumbled into souvenirs and history on the Continent accelerated, Pittas settled down, got married and had children. He had a go at several jobs, including teaching as a mathematician and founding a small advertising business, to make a living.

One day in 2014, he came across his old camera. It prompted him to look for the negatives from his Europe project before posting some scanned images on his Facebook wall.

And so it began.

“In the next couple of years I uploaded more than 600 photos. I realized there was a whole bunch of people out there who were keenly interested in this,” he says.

Besides outside interest, a more profound motive was at work.

“There was something that made me feel a bit bad about myself. It was as if I had locked up all those people I had photographed in the basement for so many years. I felt that I could no longer keep them to myself. It was a mistake,” he says.

The project was put back in motion.

Pittas carefully picked out nearly 100 of the images and released a photo book using a self-publishing platform. One of the 1,000 copies ended up in the hands of Costis Antoniadis, a professor of photography at the Department of Photography and Audiovisual Arts at the Technological Educational Institute of Athens. Antoniadis was a catalyst in introducing the work to a broader audience. He first helped Pittas organize an exhibition on the island of Kythera, and then curated the current show, a selection of 155 images.

The Benaki collection is street photography at its best – natural, opportunistic and artfully composed. Clean and pure, as if they were preserved in a time capsule, the images document a bygone era. Although Pittas did not intend to make a political statement with his work, the impact of the Eastern Bloc’s jailhouse habits is evident in the pictures, particularly the oppression and poverty of Ceausescu-era Romania.

It was not quite what he had anticipated. Like many Greek university graduates in the years following the country’s 1967-74 military dictatorship, Pittas, who has a degree in civil engineering, had the delusion that things in the Eastern Bloc were much better there than they actually were.

“It was an absolute shock. You could see the imprint of totalitarianism on people’s faces. You could see the differences between East and West Germans, one people divided by two political systems for over 40 years,” he says.

Pittas experienced strong-handed tactics firsthand. Twice he was detained by police and had his films confiscated. However, his small-sized camera – a German-made Minox 35 GT, one of the smallest full-frame 35mm cameras ever produced – made him invisible most of the time, allowing him to capture a few risky shots, including a black leather jacket-wearing senior Politburo member that can be viewed at the exhibition.

Despite the disturbing asymmetry between the Soviet bloc and Western Europe, in the eyes of the young photographer there were resemblances that pointed to a European family of sorts.

“I always thought there was something underneath. That the Portuguese university professor and the Polish farmer have something in common. It was something that I did not see when I traveled outside Europe. Maybe this feeling was fed by my idealism and my fascination with Mitteleuropa,” Pittas says.

In the late 1980s Europe was approaching its watershed moment, but, Pittas admits, this was certainly not something you could feel in the air.

“Anyone can be a prophet in hindsight. With the exception of Poland and the Solidarity movement, the rest of Europe at the time was in a state of total inertia. If someone were to say in 1986 that the world would turn upside-down in three years’ time, they would be regarded either as a madman or a great visionary. There was no way you could sense the change that was to come,” he says.

As the communist system started to implode, Pittas felt it was time to wrap up his project.

“I had this naive dream of bringing Europe together in one book. However, Europe was now reuniting on its own, it did not have to wait for me. My plan was dead,” he says.

“I was also very tired,” he says.

Listening to Pittas explaining his work to a small group of visitors at the exhibition, you see a man with a renewed sense of purpose.

“I was never interested in making a name for myself. I never felt I had something to prove. But it is still a joy – and this certainly does not classify as vanity – even at this age, to feel that there was a meaning to it all. It has given me a great deal of satisfaction,” he says.

Pittas has resumed his old hobby. He again relies on a humble (though now digital) pocket camera and always shoots from waist level. “You don’t change your style,” he says.

Going down into that basement, Pittas seems to have found much more than he was searching for, including a part of himself.


“Constantinos Pittas: Images of Another Europe 1985-1989” runs at the Benaki Museum (138 Pireos & Andronikou, http://www.benaki.gr) through November 20.

Life: A user’s manual

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By Harry van Versendaal

When he was in his mid-60s, Stamatis Moraitis was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. His doctor told him he had between six and nine months to live. Living at the time in the US with his Greek-American wife Elpiniki and their three children, Stamatis was not going to be dictated to.

“The cheapest funeral at the time was $15,000. I told her that in Icaria island, a priest friend of mine will do a nice funeral for me for $200. So, we can go to the island for the funeral and the $15,000 can go for the kids. Why should the undertakers have it?” says Stamatis in Haris Raftogiannis’s “True Blue,” which screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival this week.

So the couple moved across the Atlantic to the idiosyncratic eastern Aegean island about 30 miles off the Turkish coast.

Nine months came and went… then years. Stamatis somehow managed to save something far more precious than his $15,000. Rather than succumbing to the disease, his ailing health gradually improved.

When he decided to check with his doctors back in the States, he found out that “they were all dead,” he recalls, giggling at his kitchen table as he takes another sip of his “medicine,” Icaria’s sweet red wine.

Scientists from around the world have sought to crack the mystery behind the good health and longevity of the inhabitants of this small, lush island with a population of less than 10,000. A 2009 study published by the National Geographic Society listed Icaria among five so-called “blue zones” where residents were found to outlive the American and Western European average by around a decade. About one in three Icarians was found to live into their 90s, while the population featured much lower rates of cancer and heart disease and significantly smaller chances of suffering from dementia or depression.

Producer Vicky Micha thought at the time that making a movie on the subject was bound to attract global interest. However, coming up with funds for the movie proved to be a challenge, Raftogiannis, a media-shy filmmaker in his late 30s, said during an interview in the northern port city.

“The project was in a coma for a few years, and I was close to pulling the plug on it last spring,” Raftogiannis said. Like Stamatis, the leading character, the project had its own back-from-the-dead twist. After taking one final look at the material and trying out a different structure, Raftogiannis managed to put together a 28-minute gem that seemed to resonate with Thessaloniki audiences.

Stamatis, now in his mid-90s, and his “girlie,” as he likes to call his wife, are a delight. Married for over 60 years, they are the epitome of joie de vivre. They spend their days chatting, teasing and helping one another, tending to their garden or cruising the island’s winding roads in their red Lada.

The news about Greece’s economic woes on the TV does not seem to disrupt their routine. The only thing capable of briefly shaking their existential tranquillity is bad news of a different kind: the death of or a memorial service for a fellow villager.

“I am interested in loss and how people deal with it,” Raftogiannis said. “Love, life and death is the trinity that plays on my mind, my existence; that’s the kind of thing I become obsessed with,” said the filmmaker nine years after making a short about unrequited love in a butcher’s shop.

“So what is interesting about this couple is how chilled out they are about everything, like they don’t give a damn. Even when things are serious, they find a way to ride it out, and I found that fascinating. It’s this idea of overcoming: seeing a bad thing coming and finding a way of coming out unscathed,” he says.

But how much of this is thanks to Icaria?

“Icaria, yes, there is certainly something special about the place, but I have no idea what it is. Some people say it is the natural radiation emanating from the ground,” Raftogiannis said in reference to the island’s granite rocks and famous hot springs. “Everything there is just slower.”

Scientists tend to link the Icarians’ high life expectancy to a range of factors, including the local version of the Mediterranean diet, a healthy social life (exemplified in their Dionysiac “panigyria” or outdoor feasts), daily exercise on its rocky slopes and the habit of taking afternoon naps.

“It’s possible it has something to do with the place. But you must also have it in you as well. The place alone is not enough,” the director said.

Any stressed-out urbanites watching this heartwarming, uplifting film will likely feel a longing for the couple’s relaxed lifestyle. Raftogiannis, for one, is not coy about his sentiments.

“You can’t help liking their carefree nature while also feeling a bit envious. They are cool, charismatic people.”


Haris Raftogiannis is currently working on three new documentaries and one feature-length fiction film to be called “To Potami” (The River), “an existential fairy tale about love.”

 

A design for life

Athens Walkthrough-01

By Harry van Versendaal

She grew up in the foothills of Mt Parnitha and went on to study in the well-ordered, if somewhat predictable Netherlands. Now back in Greece, in her late 20s, graphic designer Natassa Pappa has found a way to import some of that order into the grit and chaos of downtown Athens.

Her project “Into Stoas” maps the largely neglected and overlooked commercial arcades in the center of the capital. For about two years, Pappa researched and photographed dozens of these covered walkways (usually referred to in Greek as “stoas” or “stoae”) – an undertaking that ultimately resulted in an interactive, and purposefully minimalist, guide with a fold-out map and a rather ambitious goal: “I wanted to come up with a fresh narrative for the city,” she says.

“Into Stoas” is an interdisciplinary project that borrows from graphic design, architecture, town planning and the urban experience. “Moving between those boundaries means that I may sometimes make, let’s say, arbitrary decisions: The map, for example, may not sit well with an architect,” she says. “As a designer, however, my goal is to create a product for the average person and offer a fresh experience.”

Pappa, whose postgraduate work at St. Joost school of fine art and design in Breda drew from the Situationist International concept of psychogeography in exploring more playful ways of drifting around urban environments, would love to see people use her guide as a tool to navigate Athens’s interior passages on their own.

“The city is a terrain to be explored. I only give away where stoas lie. This is about losing yourself in the city, moving about in a spontaneous fashion,” says Pappa, who is disdainful of the more mainstream understanding of tourism.

“Tourism is usually understood as a routine that you wish to follow. You travel to Paris and you visit the Eiffel Tower. Your photograph of the monument is your trophy from a faraway destination,” she says.

For those who prefer someone else to lead the way, Pappa also organizes walks, for English speakers as well as Greeks. If you decide to join one of her “Athens Walkthrough” sessions you will be taken around 11 stoas, from the refurbished Western-style atrium-covered Stoa Arsakeiou, which serves as a thoroughfare for foot traffic between Panepistimiou and Stadiou streets, to the surreal (make sure you climb the staircase to the rooftop to catch a rather dystopian spectacle) Stoa Anatolis (meaning Stoa of the East, which was allegedly inspired by a design seen by the architect in Alexandria, Egypt), off Aristeidou Street, once a hub for printing presses.

During the walk you will get a chance to chat with neighborhood businesspeople and taste some local delicacies. Don’t expect to get too much in terms of urban history or architectural analysis. The experience is rather driven by interesting anecdotes and the beauty of unexpected encounters.

Back to the future

The bulk of Athens’s arcades were built in the interwar and postwar periods – a utilitarian concept aimed at maximizing buildings’ commercial use as they grew in size to occupy entire blocks. Built along the lines of the Western European archetype, they were a prologue to the commercial centers that mushroomed in Athenian suburbia in the 1980s and 90s, and to their latest – and more commercially successful – reincarnation: shopping malls.

Unable to catch up with the economic change, these early arcades began to decline after 1970. More than 40 arcades of about 65,000 square meter surface can be found within the contours of Athens’s commercial center delineated by Panepistimiou Avenue, Ermou St and Athinas St.

According to recent data, the average occupancy rate of non-renovated arcades is about 54 percent but it rises to 83 percent for their renovated counterparts such as Stoa Spyromiliou – City Link or Stoa Korai. In some arcades the occupancy rate has dropped as low as 10 percent.

The aesthetic implications of Greece’s brutal financial crisis have somewhat paradoxically been coupled with a rise in urban activism and rekindled interest in the city. Pappa does not treat the arcades as an architectural legacy to be mourned or admired in doses of Instagram-filtered nostalgia. Rather, what she sees in that particular building type is a model to build on.

“We should make use of the arcades’ unique character: shopowners are here in close proximity; it is inevitable that they will exchange ideas and get feedback,” says Pappa, who has seen a similar pro-synergy micro-environment at play at her downtown Athens workspace at Romantso, a former printing house-turned-incubator designed to help get arty individuals and start-ups off the ground.

In an initiative last year, two local architects teamed up with the City of Athens in a bid to bring business back to the Stoa ton Emboron, or Merchants’ Arcade, which links Voulis and Lekka streets just off Syntagma Square. Creative people of every stripe were invited to put the unleased properties to use as production facilities and laboratories to explore new ideas and promote their work.

Pappa, who ran a workshop at the venue, says initiatives like this make her optimistic about the city’s future. Plagued for decades by the indifference and contempt of a population that arrived en masse from the rest of the country, Athens, she believes, stands a much better chance in the hands of the newer generation of creative individuals that were born and raised here.

“Athens is worn down and dysfunctional. But we can definitely solve many of its problems,” she says.

Pappa, for one, is doing her share.


For bookings and more information visit facebook.com/intostoas, call 6972.937.037 or send an e-mail to intostoas@gmail.com.


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