Posts Tagged 'europe'

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.

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.

The dubious politics of Fortress Europe

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By Harry van Versendaal

An estimated 800 people died on Sunday when a boat packed with migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe capsized near Libya. The disaster came a week after two other shipwrecks left some 450 people dead. Little will change as long as European politicians insist on blocking all existing legal ways of setting foot on the continent, claims a new book on the subject of the European Union’s immigration policy.

In “Border Merchants: Europe’s New Architecture of Surveillance” (published by Potamos), Apostolis Fotiadis, an Athens-based freelance investigative journalist, seeks to document a paradigm shift in Europe’s immigration policy away from search and rescue operations to all-out deterrence. The switch, the 36-year-old author argues, plays into the hands of the continent’s defense industry and is being facilitated by the not-so-transparent Brussels officialdom.

“Their solution to the immigration problem is that of constant management because this increases their ability to exploit it as a market. The defense industry would much rather see the protracted management of the problem than a final solution,” Fotiadis said in a recent interview with Kathimerini English Edition.

“Without a crisis there would be no need for emergency measures, no need for states to upgrade their surveillance and security systems,” he said.

Fotiadis claims the trend is facilitated by the revolving door between defense industry executives and the Brussels institutions, which means that conflict of interests is built right into EU policy.

“There is a certain habitat in which many people represent the institutions and at the same time express a philosophy about the common good,” he said.

The book documents the growing interest of Frontex, the EU’s external border agency, in purchasing drones to enhance its surveillance capabilities in the context of its unfolding Eurosur project. Eurosur, a surveillance and data-sharing system that first went into effect in late 2013, relies on satellite imagery and drones to detect migrant vessels at sea.

The author goes back to October 2011 to tell the story of how the Warsaw-based organization hosted and financed a show for companies dealing in aerial surveillance systems in Aktio, northwest Greece. That was, Fotiadis claims, where Greek officials for the first time pondered the idea of acquiring drone technology. Greece is expected to sign a deal later this year.

The European Commission has defended the agency’s moves, saying that it is within the legal obligations of Frontex to participate in the development of research relevant for the control and surveillance of the bloc’s external borders.

“What they are doing is not necessarily illegal. However, an entire network of institutions has been held hostage as they have installed a non-transparent mantle behind which they promote their own interests,” he said.

No magic recipe

Fotiadis researched the subject for three years. Access to information was not always easy, he says, as much of what is at stake is decided behind closed doors. Despite the interesting insights, Fotiadis’s gripping book does not offer possible ways out of Europe’s problem. The author holds that efforts to come up with foolproof solutions are in vain. There simply aren’t any.

“There is no specific reason why migration occurs. Hence, there is no magic recipe. It is a constant problem which requires constant adjustment. The point is to have a genuine debate on it – which you don’t have – so that you can carry out the right adjustments,” he said.

More than 1,750 migrants have perished in the Mediterranean since the start of 2015 as people try to escape violence in Syria, Iraq and Libya. The Italian-run Mare Nostrum, a 9-million-euro-per-month mission launched in the aftermath of the 2013 Lampedusa drownings was ditched because it was deemed costly and politically unpopular. It has been succeeded by a much more limited EU-led mission called Triton.

Although there are no magic solutions, the Europeans could nevertheless shoulder some of the blame for the trouble, Fotiadis says. “The EU’s foreign policy is a push factor. The nature of many of the ongoing crises has in part been influenced by decisions of European states,” he said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy led calls to intervene in Libya in 2011, an idea that found backing among other European leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron.

“By no means wishing to defend authoritarian regimes, the current situation is not necessarily better than the previous one,” Fotiadis said, adding that Europeans made similar mistakes on Syria as they continued to arm and fund the rebels even after the situation there had spun out of control.

“Europe likes to present itself as part of the solution while it’s actually part of the problem,” he said.

Significant in the overall process, Fotiadis argues, is the willingness of the EU to gradually externalize its immigration controls, setting up screening centers in the countries of origin – a process which he saw at work in the wake of Sunday’s tragedy.

A 10-point action plan put forward by the European Commission and backed by EU foreign and interior ministers at a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday foresees the deployment of immigration liaison officers abroad to gather intelligence on migration flows and strengthen the role of EU delegations. The plan was set to be discussed at an emergency EU summit in Brussels late Thursday. However, according to a report in the Guardian, EU leaders were due to only allow 5,000 refugees to resettle in Europe, with the remainder set to be repatriated as irregular migrants.

‘Sinister bulwark’

The book focuses on Greece which, being part of the EU’s external frontier, has become a major gateway for undocumented migrants and asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East. More than 10,000 people arrived illegally in the first quarter of 2015, while the number is expected to reach 100,000 by the end of the year. Greece’s handling has been mostly awkward but Fotiadis is equally keen to point a finger at the hypocrisy amid the nation’s European partners.

“They want Greece to do the dirty work and, at the same time, criticize it for any human rights’ violations. They know very well what goes on here, but they keep sending funds to keep this sinister bulwark in place,” he said.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other groups have in the past accused Frontex of turning a blind eye to the torture, beating and systematic degradation of undocumented migrants.

Does debt-hit Greece have what it takes to deal with the problem? For one thing, Fotiadis argues, the country has never seen a proper debate on the issue of immigration while news coverage has been largely hijacked by populist and scaremongering media.

“The topic has been communicated in a hysterical, vulgar manner. When the discourse is that of ‘hordes of invading immigrants,’ there is inevitably very little room for a reasonable reaction,” he said. “Throw them in the sea or else they will eat us alive,” said the headline of an ultra-conservative tabloid published ahead of the interview.

Otherwise, Fotiadis believes, there is no reason Greece should not be able to set up some basic infrastructure to deal with the influx. He says that the number of immigrants and refugees received by the EU is in fact small compared to the more than 1.5 million refugees who have found shelter in Turkey due to civil war in Syria. Jordan is estimated to be home to over 1 million Syrian refugees, while one in every four people in Lebanon is a refugee. Meanwhile, the EU, one of the wealthiest regions of the world, with a combined population of over 500 million, last year took in less than 280,000 people.

“All that hysteria is a knee-jerk overreaction to an illusory version of reality,” he said.

As the death toll of people trying to reach Greece rises, Fotiadis was happy to see leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras call for greater European solidarity to deal with the problem and plead for “diplomatic initiatives” to help resolve the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

He also defends the leftist-led government’s controversial decision to shut down migrant detention facilities across the country, saying that its conservative predecessors had abused the legal detention limits. However, he argues the government should have been better prepared to deal with the consequences of that decision.

“As with many other issues, they were well-intended but ill-prepared,” he said.

Ghost ex machina exposes Europe’s wretched migrants

By Harry van Versendaal

Morgan Knibbe did not set out to make an objective documentary about one of the biggest problems facing Europe today: the plight of migrants and refugees on the continent.

“My ambition was to try to understand how these people feel. I wanted to submerge myself in their world and to share this experience with other people. I felt that I was able to achieve this by creating a highly subjective audiovisual form,” the 26-year-old filmmaker from the Netherlands says about his first feature film, “Those Who Feel the Fire Burning,” which will screen at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

“Filmmaking is the art of manipulation… Pulling people out of their comfort zone makes them look at existing values in a different way.”

The opening of the film, which made waves at Amsterdam’s prestigious IDFA film festival, where it debuted, is faithful to this credo. A boat carrying immigrant families is seen adrift on rough seas in the black of night. A father tries to calm his anxious daughter as the vessel is tossed about by the waves. A man falls into the water and starts to go down. And then, black.

This re-enactment of a Lampedusa-style boat tragedy, the only staged part of the film, is enough to raise eyebrows among purist documentary filmmakers. However, it is also instrumental in allowing Knibbe to introduce his ghost ex machina, as it were. Stuck in purgatory, a ghost steers viewers through the largely invisible lives of undocumented migrants.

“We wanted to create the perspective of a ghost flying through a dark place between heaven and hell. A metaphor,” he says of his cinematic device which is reminiscent of Wim Wenders’s fiction classic “Wings of Desire.”

It’s a highly immersive feel, achieved through the extensive use of a Steadicam system and drone cameras – combined with some creative editing. Adding to the whole experience is the gripping, if sometimes overly lyrical, voice-over.

Thousands of mainly African and Asian immigrants try to reach Europe’s borders every year. Knibbe has chosen to offer zero figures and statistics. When it comes to engaging people, he says, posting cold facts and numbers does little to help the cause.

“That is what most media do and I think it doesn’t touch people. We also left out specifics about location so that no one could point a finger to a specific country. This is a European problem, in fact a global problem,” he says.

As the ghost floats around the grim cityscape, we get to glimpse at snippets from the lives of migrant families crammed into run-down apartments, men praying in underground makeshift mosques, scrap metal collectors roaming the streets, a drug addict mother taking her heroin shot. The setting remains unidentified, but uncomfortably familiar: Greece, which despite a brutal five-year economic crisis remains the gateway of choice for the vast majority of migrants seeking to make their way into Western Europe.

Commitment

It was not Knibbe’s first time at Europe’s porous external border. As a student, the Dutchman spent time in the western port city of Patra, the site of a now-deserted makeshift migrant settlement, and during that time he actually co-directed the film, “We Go Europe Insha’Allah.” Stuff you won’t see in Holland.

The distance makes his commitment all the more admirable.

“I did this because I feel privileged to have been born in relative wealth. We often take our wealth for granted. I like to see the world and its living creatures, including the human race, as an organism. There is a big imbalance and people tend to think small instead of big. Individual instead of universal. I’d like to make people think about the bigger picture,” Knibbe says.

“People who are in trouble want to move to a place where there seems to be wealth, but the wealthy don’t know how to deal with this. The film is mostly meant to give depth to this subject that is in my eyes generally treated in a shallow, informative and seemingly objective way. I wanted to make people empathize again,” he says.

Access was sensitive and painstaking. Knibbe often had to go to great lengths to approach and win the trust of his vulnerable subjects at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise.

“I followed people on the street collecting garbage up to the places where they lived, either in some sort of an apartment, a basement or on the streets. I met a homeless guy in a park. I bought a football to play games with refugees. I cooked meals for and with people. It took time, care and love to build mutual trust. This was the most important thing for the whole film,” he says.

Introspection

Creating the film also had an impact on Knibbe himself – particularly shooting on the Italian island of Lampedusa in the wake of the 2013 shipwreck which killed 366 African migrants.

“Lampedusa was heavy stuff,” he says. Footage inserted into the documentary from his award-winning 2014 short “Shipwreck” captures the despair of the victims’ relatives as well as the confusion and grief of Italian officials as the victims’ bodies are taken away from the site. The director’s own presence, amid the crowd of cynical media people, made him ponder his own part in all that. It took some adjustment, shifting down a gear.

“It was an absurd mix: the deep trauma of the survivors and the media circus around them – who, quite frankly, were a parasitic, egoistic phenomenon. All these journalists trying to get their quotes and shots and then leave. I was confronted with myself as a part of this circus and tried to do things drastically different: I took more time and took it slow building mutual trust with the refugees,” he says.

It may be a bit more decent, dignified manner of handling the issue, but can a work like this improve the situation? In fact, what can?

Knibbe remains sober about the prospects.

“I’m not sure what we can do to change this problem. I don’t have answers. What I am trying to do with this film is to plant seeds in the minds of people that could hopefully flourish into more liberal and empathetic ways of dealing with this problem. I think building borders is useless and inhumane. We are wealthy, and we take it for granted. When the poor want a share, we tell them to p*** off and that their culture doesn’t fit ours. That’s f***ed up.”

Far right tests Europe’s democracies

By Harry van Versendaal

Four-and-a-half years since the onset of a brutal economic crisis that radically changed Greece’s political landscape, most experts agree that the financial meltdown does not tell the whole story of Golden Dawn’s meteoric rise, but few would deny it was a catalyst.

“The problem [of far-right extremism] in Greece was intensified by economic and social conditions. People think they can improve their condition by turning to extremist parties,” said Ralf Melzer from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) in Berlin during a discussion at Impact Hub Athens on Monday.

“At times when people face existential threats, statistics indicate an increase in racially motivated attacks,” said Melzer during the FES-organized event marking the launch of the Greek translation (Polis publishers) of “Right-Wing Extremism in Europe,” a collection of essays on the topic edited by Melzer and Sebastian Serafin. He admitted that there is no absolute connection between social environment and political choice.

Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist at Panteion University who wrote the volume’s chapter on far-right extremism in Greece, said that fast-paced developments triggered by the EU/IMF bailout agreements Athens signed in 2010 were fodder for Golden Dawn, which in the span of three years went from a fringe party, polling at just 0.3 percent, to electing 18 MPs.

“When things change at a very rapid pace, some people simply cannot catch up. They are scared. This situation created a window of political opportunity for Golden Dawn,” said Georgiadou, who has carried out extensive academic research into the party.

Greece’s recent history suggests that financial hardship is not a prerequisite for political extremism. In the 1990s, when Greece’s economy was in much better shape, it was the EU-inspired reformist mantra of the Simitis administrations that appeared to spawn the birth of LAOS, an ultranationalist, anti-globalization party with a strong emphasis on communitarian values and a Christian Orthodox identity.

Particularly in Golden Dawn’s case, Georgiadou said, several of the factors that caused its power to grow existed before the turning point in 2010. Waning trust in institutions, as recorded in a number of surveys in previous decades, the quality of the country’s political system, and deep polarization all benefited the rise of smaller, and sometimes extremist, parties.

“Intensifying political competition between smaller parties that were born out of the breakdown of Greece’s mainstream parties and ensuing polarization played into the hands of the far-right narrative of ‘the big, corrupt parties that only look after their own interests,’” she said.

The resurgence of far-right extremism is not unique to Greece, of course. Twenty-five years after the Berlin Wall crumbled into souvenirs, the political narrative in the “European Home” has not been one of unity. The turnaround was made brutally evident during European Union Parliament elections in May that were marked by stunning victories for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-euro Front National and Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, which advocates Britain’s immediate withdrawal from the EU. Far-right parties across the continent more than doubled their representation. Undaunted by the prosecution against its leader and most senior members, Golden Dawn went on to win 9.4 percent of the vote and emerge as Greece’s third-biggest party.

To ban or not to ban?

Experts at the FES debate inevitably set to work on the question of whether apparently anti-democratic parties should be tolerated within Europe’s liberal democracies. Haunted by its Nazi past, Germany has laws banning Holocaust denial and the public display of Nazi insignia. The country has encouraged European governments to introduce similar legislation.

Last year saw a renewed bid to outlaw the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) after Germany’s 16 regional governments filed a motion with the Federal Constitutional Court arguing that the NPD espouses Nazi values and wants to overthrow the democratic order through violence. A previous bid in 2003 failed after top judges ruled that the government’s case rested on testimonies by NPD officials who were found to be agents of the German intelligence service. Support for NPD went up after the botched bid.

“Sometimes a ban is necessary, but you also need to make a serious effort to deal with the problem on a social level,” said Melzer, who also referred to contacts between NPD and GD officials.

Studies by German experts quoted in the publication show that about 30 percent of people who support far-right parties and organizations abandon these groups when authorities investigate them in connection with a possible ban on their operations.

“Prohibitions are not a panacea,” Georgiadou said, warning that rather than curb the power of an ultranationalist party, a ban can actually result in the party gaining popularity. The victimization factor seems to have played a role during the early stages of the judicial clampdown on Golden Dawn, which failed to diminish its popularity.

“It was a mistake to believe that the launch of the judicial investigation into Golden Dawn would automatically drain support for the party. Big shocks take time to register with voters,” Georgiadou said, adding that more recent surveys, particularly following a barrage of investigative reporting into GD’s criminal activity and Nazi affiliations, have documented a slow albeit steady decline in support for the party, which is now polling around 6 percent.

Golden Dawn did not face an NPD-style ban threat. Its members were instead prosecuted for alleged violations of the country’s criminal code. Last month, the prosecutor handling the investigation into GD proposed that all the party’s 16 MPs, as well as two deputies who have quit and dozens more GD members stand trial on a string of charges ranging from running a criminal organization to murder and weapons offenses. In a 700-page report, the prosecutor said that none of GD’s MPs can claim convincingly that they were unaware of the criminal acts that were consistently carried out over a long period of time in the name of the party.

Georgiadou said that although a great effort was being made to tackle GD on a judicial level, very little was being done on a political level. “What have our education ministers been up to all this time?” she said.

Prompted by a wave of xenophobic attacks, the Greek Parliament in September passed a bill toughening anti-racism laws and criminalizing Holocaust denial. The new laws will not apply to GD members during their upcoming trial.

The rise and rise of Golden Dawn

By Harry van Versendaal

With its leadership awaiting trial for a series of alleged felonies, why would someone vote for Golden Dawn?

“Golden Dawn is changing. To me, as a voter, there are clear signs of political maturity. The party is moving away from what used to be its core ideology; it’s not about kicking and punching immigrants anymore,” says Thodoris, a mild-mannered 45-year-old civil servant a few days after the far-right party gained seats in the European Parliament for the first time in its history.

“A growing number of people are joining out of patriotism and concern about national issues like illegal immigration. If you attend a party rally, you won’t see skinheads but ordinary people like me.”

Thodoris, who lives in the seaside resort town of Porto Rafti, east of Athens, says he initially voted for the anti-immigrant, ultranationalist and Holocaust-denying group in 2012, mainly to protest the way Greece’s two mainstream parties were handling the debt crisis. But at last month’s European Parliament elections, the former PASOK supporter – who did not wish to give his last name – says he had extra reasons to do so.

“While other parties promoted celebrities and soccer players to run in the European elections, Golden Dawn picked serious men,” says Thodoris, a devout Christian. Former lieutenant generals Eleftherios Synadinos, who once commanded the Greek army’s special forces, and Georgios Epitideios, a former director at the European Union Military Staff, as well as Lambros Fountoulis, the father of murdered Golden Dawn member Giorgos Fountoulis, accepted the invitation to run on the party ticket.

On the rebound

The party, which rejects the neo-Nazi label, came third in the European elections, taking 9.4 percent of the vote and collecting 110,460 more ballots than in the June 2012 national elections. Ilias Kasidiaris, Golden Dawn’s swastika tattoo-bearing spokesman, hailed the result, saying his party was now “the third force in the country’s political life.”

Just eight months ago, such a result seemed almost unthinkable. In September 2013, Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos was taken away screaming and cursing in handcuffs to the high-security Kordyallos Prison, along with dozens of high-ranking party members and several MPs. But despite its leadership still being behind bars awaiting trial on charges of running the party as a criminal gang, Golden Dawn still managed to make a strong showing in Greece’s local and European elections last month, augmenting its nationwide political presence and surpassing expectations.

In the regional elections, the party won 31,903 more votes compared to the national vote of 2012, electing 26 regional councilors in 12 out of the 13 regions it campaigned for. Meanwhile, on a municipal level, Golden Dawn had 14 councilors elected in the nine municipalities where it ran. Four of them were elected in Athens where the party tripled its percentage compared to the 2010 local vote.

“The desire for retribution, which manifested itself in the 2012 elections, once again ushered voters toward GD, while in areas such as the Athens municipality and the Attica region, where the party commands a more solid backing, its performance most probably reflects some form of real support for the party rather than just anger or disillusionment with politics,” says Lamprini Rori, a political analyst who has conducted extensive research into Greece’s foremost far-right party.

“Voters whose anger initially turned them toward Golden Dawn appear to be gradually starting to identify with the party,” says Rori, adding that although the party’s geographical representation remains uneven, it managed to attract votes from more age groups and professional categories.

Black sheep

Greece’s crippling financial crisis – the economy is in the seventh year of a recession that has driven unemployment to around 27 percent – has been a windfall for Golden Dawn, which used to poll well below 1 percent. However, analysts agree that Greeks’ declining living standards are by no means the only factor in GD’s meteoric rise.

“None of the other countries that suffered an economic crisis in recent years, such as Spain, Portugal or Ireland, witnessed a rise in extremism in recent elections,” Rori says.

“In fact, far-right and Euroskeptic parties made gains in countries that were not that seriously affected by the crisis, such as the United Kingdom and France,” she adds.

Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-euro National Front topped the national vote in France for the first time, while Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, which advocates immediate withdrawal from the EU, won a stunning victory across the Channel.

But analysts believe the sociocultural factors which catapulted Golden Dawn into the political mainstream were apparent before the debt crisis hit Greece.

The steady degradation of the center of Athens after the 2004 Olympic Games, soaring crime rates and the rapid influx of immigrants in certain downtown areas created a window of political opportunity for Golden Dawn, enabling it to ensconce itself in the capital’s fourth and sixth municipal districts. It was in working-class neighborhoods such as Kolonos, Sepolia, Akadimia Platonos, Kypseli and Patissia that the party’s foot soldiers gained the trust of native Greek locals who felt abandoned by the state. Golden Dawn developed a grassroots following that organized protest rallies, food drives, offered protection services and launched vigilante-style patrols, including violent attacks on immigrants.

Golden Dawn claimed to be taking on the duties of a corrupt, dysfunctional and unloving state as trust in official institutions and traditional political parties was obliterated by the crisis.

Meanwhile, the participation in November 2011 of Giorgos Karatzaferis’s populist right-wing Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) in the interim administration led by former central banker Lucas Papademos gave Golden Dawn a monopoly on the far-right anti-systemic vote.

Moreover, Golden Dawn’s neo-Nazi rhetoric jelled with the 69 percent of an electorate that harbors anti-Semitic beliefs, according to a recent survey by the Anti-Defamation League.

Just three years after receiving a paltry 0.29 percent, Golden Dawn won 6.9 percent of the vote and 18 parliamentary seats in the June 2012 national elections.

Backfire

New Democracy attempted to counter Golden Dawn’s rise by bringing in two popular lawmakers from LAOS and adopting a hardline attitude on issues such as street crime and illegal immigration, hoping this would bring voters back.

During the 2012 election campaign, ND leader Antonis Samaras labeled migrants as “tyrants” and spoke of the need to “reclaim” city centers from their grip. After becoming premier, Samaras scrapped a law granting citizenship to second-generation immigrants before blocking an anti-racism bill a year later.

ND’s candidate for Athens mayor, Aris Spiliotopoulos, adopted an openly xenophobic agenda in his 2014 campaign, attacking plans to construct a mosque in Athens on the grounds that the capital did not need “another magnet for illegal immigration” or “third-world tents under the sacred rock of the Acropolis.” Despite his own coalition government’s much-vaunted plans for going ahead with the construction of a mosque in Athens, Spiliotopoulos proposed a referendum on it, an idea that had been put forward months earlier by Golden Dawn’s own mayoral candidate.

These attempts by ND to break into far-right terrain worked to Golden Dawn’s advantage, bringing its pet issues into the mainstream of what is politically acceptable.

“When a political player haphazardly tries to hijack the issues and the framing of a rival political force, voters do not just remember the issues but also who is more suitable, in their judgement, to deal with these issues. GD obviously benefited from this,” Rori says.

In the capital’s mayoral race, far-right candidate Kasidiaris, also under criminal investigation, drew almost level with New Democracy, gaining 16.1 percent to Spiliotopoulos’s 16.9 percent. Both candidates failed to make the runoff.

Martyr status

Initially, the massive crackdown on the party after the murder of rapper Pavlos Fyssas, aka Killah P, by a Golden Dawn member in the Athens neighborhood of Keratsini last September was anticipated to reverse the group’s momentum. But these expectations were quickly flattened. The launch of a judicial investigation saw a decline in grassroots actions and violent attacks but fell short of dampening the party’s appeal. Polls show that GD actually increased its share in Keratsini and neighboring Perama.

“The party did everything to portray the ongoing criminal inquiry as politically motivated, a strategy that allowed it to galvanize its party base,” Rori says.

Meanwhile, hard proof, such as a much speculated-upon weapons cache, has not been found, nor has a trial date yet been set, fueling belief among some voters that the investigation into the party is political motivated.

Thodoris, for one, believes the arrests are of dubious legality. “There is no evidence for these trumped-up charges. It’s all reactionary and dirty propaganda by the media. It may fool older people like my parents, but not conscious folk like myself,” he says.

“These people were sent to jail although nothing has been proved,” says Thodoris, who believes that the killing of Fyssas – as well as other widely recorded attacks against immigrants across the country – was an isolated incident that should not be attributed to commands from the top echelons of the party.

Golden Dawn’s martyr status was reinforced by the murder of two party members – 22-year-old Manolis Kapelonis and 26-year-old Giorgos Fountoulis – who were shot in cold blood in the Neo Iraklio suburb of Athens in November. The shooting was claimed by a previously unknown – and silent since – urban guerrilla organization.

“Golden Dawn showed it was able to hold back its members from reacting,” says Thodoris, a sign to him that the party had moved on from its violent past.

Another boon toward Golden Dawn’s increasing legitimacy has come in the form of costly blunders made by mainstream politicians. Cabinet secretary Panayiotis Baltakos, Samaras’s chief of staff, was forced to resign in April after he was secretly filmed in a private meeting with Kasidiaris during which he accused the Greek premier of instigating and influencing the judicial inquiry against GD for political gain.

“The Baltakos incident and the approval by the Supreme Court of Golden Dawn’s participation in the European elections both served as an alibi for the party’s voters who were looking for a way to justify their choice,” Rori says.

Speaking in an interview with To Vima newspaper on Sunday, Baltakos was adamant that there is a kinship between ND and Golden Dawn voters. He said his party should continue to court GD supporters.

“The leaderships of the [right-wing] parties cannot merge. That is evident. But the voters can. That too is evident,” said Baltakos.

Banality of evil

With Golden Dawn polling just under the 10 percent threshold, pundits are still debating how much of their support comes from protest votes and whether there are still misguided voters out there who have little stomach for neo-Nazi ideology.

“With 66 party members facing charges and 29 – including six deputies – sitting in jail pending trial, it would be rather naive to speak of misguided voters,” says Rori. But classifying all of these voters as neo-Nazis is a different matter altogether, she adds.

“Some of them do not think that the criminal charges against Golden Dawn hold any water; others do, but don’t really mind. Some condone violence or may even be attracted to it, because they are charmed by the display of power, the imposition of order or revenge.”

More disturbingly, there are those she classifies as free riders: “people who like violence without personal cost since they do not exercise violence, nor suffer from it.”

Vasilis Lyritsis, managing director at the refugee reception center run by the Hellenic Red Cross in Lavrio, on the eastern coast of Attica, also disputes the concept of the ignorant voter.

“I do not believe any Golden Dawn voters were ‘misled,’ as it were, or that they did not know what they were voting for,” he says.

Lyritsis, who ran as a regional candidate on a center-left ticket backed by the small Democratic Left (DIMAR) party, believes the mainstream parties must stand against Golden Dawn using clear political discourse on everything from human rights to the protection of minorities and other vulnerable groups.

“Politicians should not make any ideological concessions in the hope of stealing voters away from the neo-Nazis. The European elections demonstrated clearly that this does not work,” Lyritsis says.

A stumbling block in that direction is that political polarization regarding Greece’s bailout agreements with foreign lenders has prevented mainstream parties from forging a unified response. At the same time, experts say, the political class must work to rebuild the institutions of the state, because Golden Dawn has shown its adeptness at squeezing through the cracks and infiltrating basic functions of government.

“Golden Dawn exploited the absence of institutions like the police, welfare and justice against the more vulnerable groups of the population in order to weave its web,” says Lyritsis, who deems the party should have been outlawed because it is a threat to democracy.

However, analysts agree that the safest way to curb the influence of extremist ideas in the long run is to educate the voters of tomorrow. Lyritsis maintains the country needs to move beyond a nation-centric education.

“Portraying the ‘other’ as an enemy who is nearly by default blamed for all the nation’s woes has caused a great deal of navel gazing and an overblown national ego created around the idea of a chosen people,” says Lyritsis, who is also a trained historian.

“Greek schools must not operate like ivory towers. They must open up to multiculturalism and difference. They ought to promote the country’s contemporary history instead of finding comfort with the cozy identification of pupils with Greece’s ancient and Byzantine legacy, which may look safe but is dangerous in the long term,” Lyritsis says. “What we now get is a form of intellectual fascism.”

And while extremist ideas continue to gain traction and voters, Greece’s two traditional political parties, wedded in an uneasy coalition government, are shedding voters apace. The question is, who will replace them if they perish?

New tool for female empowerment: Turkish soap operas

By Harry van Versendaal

When the Turkish soap opera “Noor” revealed to Samar that marriage can be an equal partnership between two loving people rather than a state of misery and repression, she switched off her TV and got herself a divorce lawyer.

“I liked using the subject of soap operas to speak of the important issue of women’s rights. Doing so cast a different light on the story; it was also a happier way to tell the story,” says Nina Maria Paschalidou. Her latest film, “Kismet,” is screening at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) after making a well-reviewed debut at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in November where it was nominated for the IDFA Best Mid-Length Documentary Award.

Fifty-four-year-old Samar, a Lebanese woman living for years in the United Arab Emirates, is not alone in finding inspiration in Turkish TV dramas. Samira, a victim of sexual harassment in Cairo during the recent Egyptian revolution, tells the camera how she found the courage, despite being pressured by her family to keep quiet, to take the perpetrators – army officers – to court after watching Fatmagul, a gang-rape victim in another Turkish drama series, fight for justice. She not only won her case, but also helped to stop the until-then mandatory “virginity tests” given to all females in police custody.

Paschalidou, a 40-year-old filmmaker, journalist and producer from Veria, a small town in northern Greece with a strong Ottoman imprint, became fascinated by how a medium that provokes much derision in the West has become a successful tool for female empowerment in the East.

“I was staying in Washington when a friend, who is from Turkey, showed me a Washington Post article on Turkish soap operas. I was intrigued and began to look into the subject,” says Paschalidou, founder of independent documentary and multimedia group Forest Troop.

Millions of viewers across the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkans are hooked on TV dramas such as “Gumus,” which is broadcast across the Arab world as “Noor,” “What Is Fatmagul’s Fault?” “The Magnificent Century,” “Life Goes On,” and “Forbidden Love.” During a recent survey carried out in 16 Middle East countries, three out of four said they had seen at least one of about 70 Turkish shows that have been sold abroad since 2001.

“The impact went beyond all expectations. People started to name their children after the main characters, women started to divorce their husbands because of what they saw on TV, tourist operators offered site-specific tours,” Paschalidou says.

Bad signal

The success of these shows naturally did not go down well with conservatives in the Middle East. In Iran, where shows are watched via smuggled satellite dishes hidden on balconies, authorities said soaps were “destabilizing the institution of the family.” Saudi clerics went as far as to issue fatwas against people watching the shows.

Apart from being an unintended cultural export and a unique brand of soft power, Turkish dramas also raked in cash – tons of it. The value of soap opera exports skyrocketed from a million dollars in 2007 to 130 million in 2012 as the country sold 13,000 hours of programming, according to data from the country’s Tourism and Culture Ministry.

Part of their appeal, the director says, was thanks to the good-old American recipe. “It’s the drama, the passionate love affairs, the nasty vendettas – a recipe first sold by the Americans with ‘Dallas’ and ‘Dynasty’ in the 1980s,” says Paschalidou.

But, like most observers, Paschalidou also sees culture-specific factors at play. “It was no coincidence that these shows struck a chord with audiences in the areas of the former Ottoman Empire. There was something exotic, yet at the same time quite familiar, to them. People in this part of the world have many shared memories, a common past, similar food,” she says.

They also have similar ambitions.

“Viewers in the Middle East see the Turkish woman as a model of the modern Muslim female. This is a bit who they would like to be, who they struggle to become,” Paschalidou says. They want greater freedom and more rights. And more wealth. “What all these shows have in common is their penchant to show off designer clothes, nice homes and luxury villas,” she says.

Interestingly, while women in Arab countries appear in the documentary to be inspired by the modern, feminist narrative, their Greek counterparts are looking in the other direction as Turkish series have triggered in many a nostalgia for pre-modern values and ideals such as tradition and family ties. “I like these shows because they have morals and the girls don’t take off their underwear all the time like they do here,” says one elderly Greek fan.

Greece’s stubborn recession, now in its seventh year, has hit most people hard and at the same time influenced Greeks’ collective self-understanding. “The crisis has been widely associated with the West and many things modern. As a result, we have dug out old memories and turned to the Eastern part of our identity,” Paschalidou says.

“Perhaps there is also this longing for true love, for the type of man who stands by his wife and looks after her needs – even if he is a bit of on the macho side,” she says.

To be continued

Closer to home, these programs have inflicted some collateral damage by exposing Turkey’s internal contradictions: The narrative of a modern, prosperous Turkey is being challenged by a conservative, intolerant backlash. Once the darling of liberal reformists, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who has criticized a historical soap based on the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, which depicts the sultan as a man in thrall to his favorite wife, as “an attempt to insult our past, to treat our history with disrespect” – has fed concerns among secularists about his increasingly authoritarian style of government.

“Turkey’s efforts to promote a modern, Western face cannot disguise its huge shortcomings in the area of women’s rights,” Paschalidou says.

Despite a series of legal reforms over the past few years, Turkey did poorly in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Gender Gap Index. A recent survey found that a third of marriages in Turkey’s eastern and southeastern provinces involved very young brides, many of them under the age of 15. In “Life Goes On” a young girl from Anatolia is married off to an abusive 70-year-old. The girl escapes her yoke, but in reality such happy endings are less common.

“Reality is not always like in the series. A girl who has been forced into marrying at an early age in Turkey will not have the support of her family if she decides to break up,” the director says.

“These series present an idealized image that Turkish society is mature enough to solve its problems, which is not always the case,” she says.

But the effort is there, and it is a genuine effort Paschalidou believes. The shows are mainly written by female scriptwriters who nudge the narratives into more feminist paths, and even attempt to involve their audience. When the final court scene of “What Is Fatmagul’s Fault? was filmed, the extras cast to carry banners and shout slogans in support of Fatmagul were real-life victims of sexual abuse.

“What really impressed me was that Turkish actresses are fully conscious of what it is that they are doing,” she says. Many of them have taken the effort outside the TV studio by participating in a campaign to stop domestic violence against women.

“It’s not just a marketing strategy. Some of them genuinely believe they can help.”


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