Posts Tagged 'freedom'

Documentary festival rolling in Thessaloniki

By Harry van Versendaal

Dancer-turned-filmmaker Bess Kargman’s award-winning “First Position,” a documentary about the toughness of mind and body demanded of young classical ballet dancers, will open this year’s 10-day Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which gets under way on March 15.

The film follows a handful of boys and girls from various parts of the world as they train for the Youth America Grand Prix in New York City, a competition that could determine their future in the ballet world. The documentary has picked up numerous accolades, including a Jury Prize at the San Francisco DocFest and audience awards at DOC NYC and the Portland International Film Festival.

Now in its 15th year, the TDF has drawn a big following of movie buffs and filmmakers who make the annual trip to the northern port city for the rich crop of hard-hitting productions and interesting side events.

“Its success is not just measured by the high numbers of people who flock to its theaters every year,” said Konstantinos Aivaliotis, a visual anthropology expert who is currently doing research on the festival.

“The festival is really talked about abroad, ranking in the top five – if not top three – on the European doc fest circuit,” he said.

Despite the financial difficulties, organizers have managed to bring together about 200 films from 45 countries, as well as 58 local productions.

Alongside “First Position,” festival highlights include Kirby Dick’s Oscar-nominated film “The Invisible War,” a shocking account of rape and sexual assault in the US military. Based on more than 100 interviews, the Arizona-born director exposes the systemic cover-up of sexual crimes and the everyday struggle of victims – mostly women but also men – to rebuild their lives and find justice.

In his Sundance winner “Blood Brother,” Pittsburg director Steve Hoover travels to southern India to document his longtime friend’s mission to help children living with HIV and AIDS. The film won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience award for American documentaries at what is the largest independent film festival in the US.

Dutch John Appel’s “Wrong Time, Wrong Place,” billed as a film about “how small, seemingly trivial events can upset the fine balance between life and death,” features discussions with five people who were caught up in the 2011 bomb attack in Oslo and the ensuing shooting spree on the island of Utoya where Norwegian far-right activist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people and wounded 242.

In “Forbidden Voices,” Swiss director Barbara Miller documents the lives of dissident bloggers in Cuba, China and Iran who use their laptops to fight for free speech and press freedom.

The organizers have also prepared a tribute to Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman, maker of the classic 260-minute trilogy “The Battle of Chile,” which chronicles the atrocities of the Pinochet regime. The 71-year-old director, who won five-star reviews for his 2010 philosophical cine-essay on history and memory, “Nostalgia for the Light,” has been booked for a workshop in Thessaloniki.

Uncomfortably relevant

Stuck in recession for a sixth year, debt-wracked Greece is struggling with severe austerity measures and sky-high unemployment. It’s a lethal mix that has fueled social turmoil and political polarization as reflected in the meteoric ascent of the country’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. It all makes the doc fest uncomfortably topical.

“Documentaries can serve as an alternative news source and highlight issues that do not come up in mainstream media,” Aivaliotis said.

He says the crisis has not produced a major shift in subject matter, but at least a few of this year’s 58 movies seem to be influenced by the zeitgeist in one way or another.

“Neo-Nazi, the Holocaust of Memory,” shot by established TV journalist and documentarist Stelios Kouloglou, revisits the country’s path from the German occupation during World War II to the rise of Golden Dawn, which currently controls 18 seats in the Greek Parliament.

“To the Wolf,” a documentary-narrative hybrid shot in the mountains of western Greece by first-time directing duo Christina Koutsospyrou and Britain’s Aran Hughes, follows two shepherd families as they try to survive the Greek crisis. The production earned flattering reviews when it premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

Nikos Dayandas, who last year left Thessaloniki with the Film Critics’ Award for his film “Sayome,” returns with “The Little Land” to tell the story of a disaffected young urban couple who decide to try their luck on the remote Aegean island of Icaria.

The Greek economic crisis, which has touched all levels of society, also means that local documentarists – never a spoiled lot – will continue to struggle for funding. But on the other hand, they have technology on their side as digital video is making films cheaper to produce.

“The means [to make a documentary] are more accessible now and the need to cooperate has started to be more obvious, so I think we will continue to see fresh things from Greek creators,” Aivaliotis said.

Approximately 520 films will be available in this year’s Doc Market, including all those screened as part of the official program. Around 60 buyers will be attending from Europe, the USA and Canada.

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Venus in the dock


By Harry van Versendaal

Klaus Boetig set foot in Greece for the first time on Christmas Day of 1972. He came on a train from Germany and spent the night at a cheap hostel in Plaka. Since then, the 63-year-old Bremen-based author has visited Greece almost every year and written more than 70 travel guides on all parts of the country. Many of these have been translated into more than 10 different European languages and three have been published in Greek. His travel pieces have appeared in dozens of newspapers, magazines and information brochures, including a German publication prepared by the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO).

Ironically, Boetig tries to avoid Greece these days. Two years ago, his name was embroiled in a controversy that still lingers.

It all began when the German weekly news magazine Focus came out with the now-infamous cover depicting the iconic Venus de Milo statue draped in a Greek flag and showing her middle finger. “Cheats in the Euro family,” read the headline. The cheats, of course, were the Greeks.

The publication, which was published on February 22, 2010, prompted a group of Greek lawyers to sue a dozen staff journalists at Focus as well as Boetig, a freelancer, for defamation and libel. Boetig, the prosecutor said at the time, consciously misguided readers about the character of the Greek people.

Boetig’s article was headlined: “Culture shock: Can the Greeks be understood?” A court summons summed up the author’s alleged claims: “The Greeks live off borrowed money; they maintain clientelistic relations with the country’s politicians in order to protect their illegal homes; they make rules only to break them; they use their religion to solve all their problems; they don’t know how to read; they do not respect their working hours and, finally, they use the European Union’s tourism funds to build private residences.”

Katerina Fragaki, one of the Greek lawyers who filed the lawsuit, slams the article as “an insult to our honor and integrity.”

She says the authors made and distributed false claims about the Greeks while knowing that those claims were false. Moreover, Fragaki adds, the cover and the articles carried comments and opinions that, directly or indirectly, vilify the Greek people, their history and their culture. “These articles in effect put in doubt the social and moral value of Greek society and disparage its integrity,” she says.

Lost in translation

From his home in Germany, Boetig claims it’s all a big misunderstanding. He describes how he was contacted by the online edition of Focus to contribute a story for the website’s tourism section. “I was told it should be witty, funny and even ironic like the other articles for these series before. I agreed.”

Unfortunately for Boetig, around the same time, the print version of Focus released the controversial issue which did not include his article. To make matters worse, he says, the editors decided to put the opening lines of his article, together with his name in big red letters, on the site’s homepage next to a picture of the cover, “something I did not know beforehand and was never asked to approve.”

The misunderstanding appears to also have a more literal dimension. “Those Athenian lawyers that took me to court do not speak and read any German at all, or not enough to understand a funny and ironic article,” Boetig says.

Monika Freude, Boetig’s lawyer on the case, says the prosecution tried to ground its allegations on a translation of the piece prepared by one of the Greek lawyers involved in the case (lawyers in Greece have the right to make official translations). This lawyer, Freude says, basically copied an inaccurate and incomplete translation making the rounds on the Internet. Freude, an Athens-based lawyer from Germany, said the defense had to make sure a new official translation by the Foreign Ministry was made available to the court.

A German speaker who is not connected to the case and who was consulted by this newspaper believes Boetig’s article is written in a thinly veiled ironic tone. Satirizing people’s egoism, tolerance for corruption and aversion to rules, the article brims with cliches and generalizations that seem to mostly describe provincial and mostly outdated attitudes and habits, like suggesting that streets have no names or that Greeks are too attached to their Orthodox saints.

Boetig claims to have received different feedback. “Most German readers of the article loved it, because in all the words they felt my love for Greece,” he says, adding that several philhellenic groups outside the country had asked permission to reprint his story. “Also many German-speaking Greeks in Germany assured me that they felt neither embarrassed nor offended by my article,” Boetig says.

He is less willing to defend the cover. “It was unfriendly, but no matter for the courts,” says Boetig, who is not represented by the Focus legal team.

Distasteful? Yes. But punishable?

However, upsetting as the cover or the article may be to some people, legal experts say their publication was not a punishable offense.

The Greek law in this case must be read in the light of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Drafted in the framework of the Council of Europe, this multilateral international treaty enjoys primacy over national law.

“If the Greek courts condemn the author of the article at issue, the victim will eventually bring a case against Greece before the European Court of Human Rights,” explains Vassilis Tzevelekos, a lecturer in public international law at the University of Hull.

The Focus case is a special one as the alleged insult does not target a specific individual, or group of individuals, but rather the Greek people as a whole. However, the ECHR does not protect national pride as such. This makes this case different to, for example, the Mohammed cartoons controversy in Denmark, where religious freedom is pitted against freedom of expression.

The prosecution could claim that the right of free expression was abused — something that the ECHR prohibits.

“Freedom of the press goes as far as where one’s personality is offended; this is a fundamental rule of the journalistic code of ethics,” Fragaki insists.

However, experts unrelated to the case say neither the cover (Boetig does not face charges about this) nor Boetig’s story was abusive. Tzevelekos says Focus should be allowed to send the message it wants to send, using the means it considers appropriate for that purpose.

“Freedom of expression is a vital condition for pluralism and polyphony within a democracy. Everyone, and especially the press, shall be free to make value judgments regarding questions of public interest. Offensive or even shocking as they may be, they must be tolerated. This is the essence of democracy,” he says.

Holding Germany responsible for much of the austerity measures imposed on the country in the last couple of years, Greek media and political satirists on TV and radio have often verged on politically incorrect territory. The sight of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Nazi uniform is not an uncommon one. An Athens radio station was recently fined 25,000 euros by Greece’s radio and television watchdog after one of its journalists, Giorgos Trangas, verbally abused Merkel last year.

In principle, Greek courts can lawfully restrict the freedom of expression. But for an intervention to be legal it must be prescribed by law, pursue a legitimate aim, and be “necessary.” This last clause suggests that the limitation will be proportionate, meaning that a fair balance is struck between the aim of the limitation and the means used by the state for that purpose — in this case the sanctioning of Focus.

“I really find the picture [of the Venus de Milo] at issue to be in bad taste, not to say cheap,” Tzevelekos says. “However, the fact that I disagree with it or that I see it as ‘trash-press’ does not mean that the editors should be deprived of their freedom of expression,” he says, adding that he sees absolutely no reason why the Greek courts should interfere with the freedom of expression of the foreign press to protect national pride.

If Greek courts are really interested in protecting national pride, Tzevelekos says, they will have to prove how much they value freedom of expression.

“National pride is not protected in court,” he says.

Life goes on

The statute of limitations has expired for offenses which carry a prison sentence of up to one year, as long as the crime was committed before 31.12.2011. This concerns the charges of defamation, which foresee penalties of up to one year. The charges for libel however foresee penalties of at least three months’ imprisonment and up to five years. The next hearing at the Athens Misdemeanors Court is on Friday.

Meanwhile, back in Bremen, Boetig says the controversy has not really affected his life. “I got many friendly letters from all over Greece and Germany. Some friends in Greece wanted to ask the mayor of their village to name a ‘plateia’ (square) after me, some others wanted to collect money to pay for my lawyers,” he says. Because of burgeoning legal expenses and the slow pace of proceedings, Boetig is concerned the trial will leave a hole in his bank account.

“Nevertheless, some money hopefully will be left at the end to pay for my daughter’s wedding in July.”

Liberalism and the burqa

By Harry van Versendaal

One of the most common arguments put forward against recent steps by some European governments to ban the full-face veil, known as the niqab or burqa, is the small number of Muslim women who wear it. Lawfulness, however, is not based on numbers. It is illegal to kill another man, even if only a few people wish to do so.

Of course, there are more arguments against such ban. Outlawing the burqa, opponents of the move say, is racist, intolerant and undemocratic. But it’s hard to miss the fact that the call for multicultural tolerance is coming from one of the least tolerant, mono-cultural segments of society. Interestingly, defense of the burqa has also drawn support from misguided liberals and leftist multi-culties (who seem to forget that many women in Muslim countries are still beaten, stoned or disfigured by their menfolk for not covering their faces) as well as some in the Christian right who are wary of losing their own “sacred” rights and privileges.

Leaving security concerns and the demeaning of women aside, one question that needs to be answered is why a majority should be subjected to the cultural whims of a minority? Doesn’t it make more sense for an immigrant to abide by the mores and values of the land where he or she has chosen to live rather than the other way round? And even though the West should not go down the oft-used reciprocity argument – “We must not allow Muslims to build mosques in Europe until they allow Christians to build their own churches there” – because a place like Sudan or Saudi Arabia cannot serve as standard for any modern European nation, it seems fair – in fact it is very crucial – to state that liberal states have no reason to give in to the yens of their culturally assertive minorities either. Yielding to one demand will naturally spawn further similar demands, and the list is already too long: sexually segregated swimming pools, the abolition of certain textbooks at schools, special medical treatment for women, calls for polygamy and forced marriages and so on (and, alas, we must not leave the defense of Enlightenment values to the extreme right).

Each time it gives in to segregationist demands, liberalism is effectively giving up a chunk of itself. In going out of their way to accommodate these customs, liberal states are helping to create a state within a state, a segregated society where people live in accordance with their own rules and values. For what does a woman clad in a full-face garment convey other than her willingness to separate herself from the rest of society? It’s like saying: “I am not one of you; I do not belong here; you are impure.”

Living in an open society is all about freedom, transparency and interaction – and the individuals who wish to participate in such society ought to, at least, be identifiable.


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