Posts Tagged 'kathimerini'

Fateful encounters

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By Harry van Versendaal

John Appel knew he wanted to make a film about chance; All he had to do was wait for the right sequence of events. So when Norwegian far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik went on his murderous rampage on July 22, 2011, the Dutch director reached for his camera.

“I wanted to make a film about how people deal with fate. It had to be based on a tragic event,” Appel, 55, said during an interview at the Olympion Theater after a screening of “Wrong Time Wrong Place,” part of Thessaloniki’s Documentary Festival which wraps up this weekend.

“I didn’t want to concentrate on who committed the crimes – only on the victims. This is a story about why people found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said of the film that opened the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in November.

After setting off a car bomb outside government headquarters in Oslo, the 33-year-old Breivik went on a shooting spree on Utoya island, where more than 500 people had gathered for the Labor Party’s annual summer camp. Eight people died in the bombing and 69 were killed on the island. More than 240 were injured. Breivik claimed the killings were “cruel and necessary” to protect his country from being overrun by Muslims.

The documentary follows five people who either narrowly survived the massacre or had a close friend or relative killed in it. Harald, a Norwegian civil servant, had just arrived at the office that morning when the bomb went off, killing several of his colleagues and leaving him partially blind. Ritah, a pregnant woman from Uganda, only decided to go to the summer camp at the very last minute. She escaped by hiding inside a toilet with another two people. One of these was Hakon, who had noticed Breivik on the ferry to the island. Visiting from Georgia, Natia managed to escape, but her friend Tamta was the last person Breivik shot before being arrested by the police. The heartbreaking account of her parents is central to the film.

Convincing his characters to take part in the documentary, especially so soon after the tragic events, was not easy. “Some people did not trust me,” said Appel, adding that people were naturally put off by the sensation-hungry media. With others, he was able to convince them that his motives were different.

“I had to persuade them that I did not wish to exploit the drama. It was not my intention to investigate why the killer acted the way he did. I was not interested in his story, but in the story of the victims that were able to survive,” he said.

Quite fittingly, chance also played a big part in making the film. Appel started filming before he had found any characters or a story. “I was looking for characters and then, during filming really, by chance I met the individuals that appear in the film,” he said.

“I totally could not find the lady from Uganda [Ritah]. I wanted to tell the story of the people who hid inside the toilet but I could only find two of them. I was looking for Ritah in Uganda but I could not find her, and then, thanks to a coincidental contact, I found out she was living in the Netherlands, where she had applied for political asylum,” he said.

“I visited her, the next day I filmed, and the day after that she gave birth to the baby. I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he said.

Watching the film, it’s hard not to be intrigued by the way cultural and religious differences affect the way people deal with tragedy. The mother of Tamta, who can be seen praying in an apartment filled with religious icons and family pictures, appears to believe that the fate of her daughter, her only daughter, was sealed in old religious texts. “It was a relief for her. It was a relief to discover the book that had predicted what happened – that is being born on Christmas Day – meant something special and this was in the hand of the gods and she had to die anyway,” said Appel, who is not religious himself.

He says the cold Nordic character is perhaps more suitable to deal with such circumstances. “Look at how they dealt with the court case and Breivik himself. They were extremely civilized. If it had taken place in Greece, maybe people would try to kill him. Norwegians are different,” he said. Judges declared Breivik sane and sentenced him to at least 21 years in prison.

Appel, who has directed more than 30 documentaries for cinema and television, says his next project will be completely coincidental – including the starting point of the film. “If you make a coincidental film, you meet one person that leads you to the next person, and that leads you to another person, and this whole thing will reveal everything life is about,” he said.

Does he think that the realization of this unbearable lightness of being, as it were, should make us treat life a bit less seriously? “Yes, I think so. One of the views I want to express in this film is that life is not controllable. You can try to live as safely as you can, but you never know what is going to happen. You may get sick or get involved in a serious accident,” he said.

“So you should be a little more open to the unexpected and not try to control everything in life. It’s really not worth it.”

American finds the meaning of life in orphanage for HIV+ children

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By Harry van Versendaal

Rocky Braat went to India “seeking authenticity.” When he got there he found a bit more than he had bargained for.

The hero of Steve Hoover’s documentary “Blood Brother,” which scooped up the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is also his best friend. Hoover decided to make a movie about his former flatmate after their lives started to follow totally different trajectories about five years ago. It was then that 30-year-old Rocky, born into a dysfunctional and borderline abusive family, decided to quit Pittsburgh PA and a potential career in graphic design and instead move into an orphanage for HIV-positive children in the Asian country’s southern Tamil Nadu state.

Rocky – whom the kids call “Rocky Anna,” Anna being the Tamil word for “brother” – spends his days at the refuge where, as the only adult male, he eagerly fills in as amateur nurse, entertainer and father. In the process, he grapples with extremely challenging circumstances, pain and loss – as he is forced to watch helplessly as some of the kids die of the disease. But he has found purpose.

“I was moved and fascinated by what Rocky was doing. Eventually it just kind of dawned on me to document Rocky and share his story,” Hoover told Kathimerini English Edition in an interview ahead of the film’s screening at the 15th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

“He had been inviting me to come and visit him in India anyway. After sharing the idea to do a documentary about him, he was very much open to the idea and so I began to move forward with it,” said Hoover, who had until that time been making commercials and music videos.

In early 2011, Hoover took a plane to India with a crew of six. He returned to the village later that year for another three weeks to shoot the second part of the movie. They all stayed in Rocky’s ramshackle, rat-infested hut. Inevitably, being there and making this movie has been a transformative experience for him too.

“It was the first time I had ever been out of the First World and the first time that I had ever made a personal connection with HIV/AIDS. Those two experiences alone had a profound impact on me. I began to care deeply about things I had never given a second thought to. I gained a tremendous amount of perspective on the life of my best friend and learned a great deal about true sacrifice,” he said.

Mostly shot with Canon 7D and 5D cameras (several scenes have been captured on super 8 mm film), “Blood Brother” is a beautifully crafted movie that manages to be heartfelt and inspirational without giving in to easy sensationalism or sentimentalism. Working on the movie has caused Hoover to re-examine the value of his time and energy, he says.

“In the words of Rocky, I want my life to count. I don’t want to spend my days only to accomplish nothing. I know I’ll have to continue to work on things that are empty and meaningless, but that can’t be all that I do,” he said.

The first trip to India was crowd-funded through Kickstarter. The team used up the funds, and had to dig into their own pockets for the second trip. So far virtually everyone has worked for free – donating their time, talent and expertise toward the project.

“I was impacted by the amount of support we received. It’s humbling to look back on and realize how much of this depended on the generosity of others. Receiving that much support from so many different people gave me a lot of hope for how much people actually do care,” Hoover said.

The creators say they have zero debt and are set up to donate all their profits. They are using all of their monetary gain from the film to support the hostel and Rocky, as well as other HIV/AIDS initiatives around the world.

In one of the movie’s most interesting interludes, visa complications temporarily send Rocky back to his Pittsburgh neighborhood. When he is not bored, an obviously out-of-place Rocky is awkwardly examining products on the overflowing shelves of the local supermarket.

When he finally returns, the film enters its most harrowing episode, as one of the little boys from the orphanage is so sick that even the doctors at the hospital have given up on him. It is almost painful to watch Rocky’s steadfast refusal to leave the boy’s side for days and nights on end, washing his sores, covering him in lotion and refusing to allow him to die.

Rocky is still living in India, happily married to a local woman. He certainly doesn’t seem to have lost any of his energy or purpose according to Hoover. He is now making plans to build a halfway house for the kids in the hostel that reach the age limit – the refuge cannot hold kids beyond the age of 15 – and have to enter society and live on their own. He is also planning to start small businesses that the kids can run and operate when they come of age.

“The businesses will be fair labor hours that the kids can handle with all of the challenges that come from having HIV/AIDS. We plan to accomplish all of this with money generated from the film,” Hoover said. It’s a fitting ambition.

The genealogy of violence

By Harry van Versendaal

When Dimitris Stratoulis, a leftist lawmaker, was assaulted by alleged far-right extremists at a soccer stadium last month, many in Greece found it hard to disguise feeling some degree of Schadenfreude.

It appeared that the tables had finally turned on Greece’s main SYRIZA opposition party, which has in the past failed to provide a convincing condemnation – some would say it in fact silently condoned – similar attacks on its political opponents.

Greeks have traditionally been more accustomed to social unrest and political disobedience than their European Union peers, but the meteoric rise of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party that was comfortably voted into Parliament for the first time last year, has spawned a local Historikerstreit, a contested debate among politicians and pundits about the causes and the nature of violence.

Ideological hegemony

Interestingly, some critics have gone as far as to blame Golden Dawn’s shocking surge on the country’s left, which, despite losing the civil war, went on to win the ideological hegemony. Public tolerance of left-wing radicalism in the years following the end of the military dictatorship in 1974 – what is commonly referred to in Greece as “metapolitefsi” – allegedly laid the ground for Golden Dawn’s violent extremism in providing some sort of social legitimacy.

“Only blindness or bias would prevent someone from noticing the connection between public attitudes regarding the violence of the extreme left and the rise of the violent extreme right in Greece,” said Stathis Kalyvas, a political science professor and an expert on the subject of political violence at the University of Yale.

“If public attitudes vis-a-vis leftist violence had been different, the extreme right would have been much more constrained in its use of violence today,” he said, stressing however that there is no casual relationship between the violence of the two political extremes.

Blogger Konstantinos Palaskas, a contributor to the liberal Ble Milo (Blue Apple) blog, says that the antics of left-wing and anarchist troublemakers during protest marches and university and school occupations over the last 30 years, and the public’s acceptance of them, have significantly influenced the players of the new far-right.

“The left’s violent interventions, its disregard for the law, and the acceptance of its lawbreaking activity by a section of society – combined with the state’s tolerance of all this – were a lesson for people at the other end [of the political spectrum],” said Palaskas.

The habit forms at an early stage. The governing of universities has for years been hijacked by political parties and youth party officials. The country only recently scrapped an asylum law that prevented police from entering university campuses, hence allowing left-leaning activists to rampage through laboratories and lecture theaters.

Despite incidents of rectors being taken hostage, university offices being trashed and labs used for non-academic purposes, many Greeks remain uncomfortable with the idea of police entering university grounds and more than a few support SYRIZA’s promise to repeal the law if it forms a government.

Beyond the universities, left-wing unionists – like the Communist Party (KKE)’s militant PAME group – traditionally organize street blockades and sit-ins at public buildings as a form of protest. Mass rallies, interpreted by many as a sign of a vibrant democracy, regularly turn violent and destructive. Groups of hooded youths carrying stones and petrol bombs ritually clash with riot police, who respond with tear gas and stun grenades. Public property is damaged, banks are set on fire and cars are smashed, but arrests and convictions are surprisingly rare.

Serious injuries and fatalities were also rare, until May 2010, when three people were killed as hooded protesters set fire to a branch of Marfin Bank in central Athens during a general strike over planned austerity measures. Demonstrators marching past the burning bank shouted slogans against the workers trapped inside the building. No arrests have been made in connection with the murders, which many leftists have blamed – like other similar incidents – on agents provocateurs.

A few months later, Costis Hatzidakis, a conservative heavyweight who is now development minister, was beaten up by unidentified protesters before being led away bleeding on the sidelines of a demonstration against the then Socialist government’s cost-cutting policies.

The reaction of SYRIZA, a collection of leftist, even militant groupings, to such incidents has been rather ambiguous as the party – which denies links to violent groupings – has repeatedly fallen short of providing a clear-cut condemnation of violence.

“We condemn violence but we understand the frustration of those who react violently to the violence of the memorandum,” SYRIZA chief Alexis Tsipras said of the painful bailout agreement signed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Critics responded by accusing the left of giving in to ethical relativism, by seeking to differentiate between “good” and “bad” violence as it sees fit.

A few months ago, SYRIZA refused to vote for a motion by the Parliament’s ethics committee that condemned violence, arguing that the text should refer to “racist violence” and not just “violence.” Party officials appeared concerned that the motion could be used to sabotage acts of popular struggle versus the injustices of the state. KKE, as is its wont, chose to abstain from the vote.

When the residents of Keratea, a small town 40 kilometers southeast of Athens, fought, often violently, with police forces for three months over the planned construction of a huge landfill in the area, Tsipras hailed the “town that has become a symbol for the whole of Greece.”

But nowhere has social tolerance of violence been more evident than in the case of domestic terrorism. November 17, a self-styled Marxist urban guerrilla group, assassinated 25 people in 103 attacks from 1975 until it was disbanded in 2002. One of the reasons the terrorists managed to remain elusive for so long, many analysts believe, was that its actions, mostly targeting American officials and members of Greece’s wealthy “big bourgeois class,” did not enrage the mainstream public, fed on years of anti-American rhetoric from long-serving socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou.

“Public opinion, as recorded in several surveys, viewed terrorists either with sympathy or indifference. There was hardly any mass mobilization against this group,” Kalyvas said.

In an opinion poll conducted a few months before the dismantling of November 17, 23.7 percent of respondents – nearly one in four – said they accepted the organization’s political and ideological views, although most said they disagreed with its practices. Only 31.3 percent said they wanted the guerrillas to put their guns down and turn themselves in to the authorities. Later, many on the left slammed the government’s anti-terror law as an attempt to crack down on civil liberties.

For Kalyvas, in a public arena saturated with rhetorical violence – for example the increasingly frequent calls for hanging or executing traitors, especially during the Indignant protest gatherings in central Syntagma Square in the summer of 2011 – it was perhaps predictable that the violence of the extreme right may strike a large number of people as a quasi-legitimate political weapon.

“How surprising can it be to see the public responding in this way, after four decades of being consistently told that political violence can be justified?” he asked.

The rise of populism

Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political scientist at Panteion University in Athens, agrees that the tolerance of violence may have played a role in the rise of Golden Dawn. But there was nothing particularly left-wing about the displays of lawlessness, she points out.

“Sure, the law was often not enforced, there was an anything-goes mentality, a sense that people stand above the institutions,” Georgiadou said.

“But this was not an exclusively leftist outlook. It was more the outgrowth of a populist outburst that swept across the left-right spectrum. And it was a PASOK creation. PASOK was the creator of populism in the post-dictatorship era,” she said.

But it was not just the populism. Like other analysts, Georgiadou attributes Golden Dawn’s soaring influence to popular disillusionment with the country’s crumbling institutions.

“It was the discrediting of political institutions, of the political class, and of the operation of democracy that allowed anti-systemic, far-right extremism to flourish,” she said.

When Golden Dawn spokesman and MP Ilias Kasidiaris repeatedly slapped Liana Kanelli, a long-serving Communist deputy, in the face on live television last summer in a fit of frenzy, many, instead of being shocked, saw the move as an attack on the country’s bankrupt status quo, despite the Communist Party not having ever risen to power in any election. In contrast to most analysts’ expectations, Golden Dawn’s ratings rose following the incident.

The trend did not occur overnight. For more than a decade, public surveys have found Greeks to have among the lowest rates of trust in political institutions when ranked with their European counterparts. Only 11 percent of Greeks are satisfied with the way democracy operates in the country, a December Eurobarometer survey found, against 89 percent who said the opposite. A scant 5 percent said they have trust in political parties, while a slightly higher number, at 7 percent, said they have trust in the Greek Parliament.

Journalist Xenia Kounalaki readily points a finger at the obvious culprits: the nation’s mainstream political parties, PASOK and New Democracy, who have between them ruled Greece since 1974.

The daughter of a veteran Socialist politician, Kounalaki speaks of “the corruption, the entanglement between media owners and state contractors, and the sense of impunity,” which, she says, pitted a better-connected, privileged chunk of society against the disenfranchised lot that were left out of “the system.”

If the Greek left has something to regret in the surge of the far right, Kounalaki says, it’s that it chose to hold the moral high ground on the issue of immigration instead of articulating a more pragmatic alternative.

“Its stubborn anti-racist rhetoric was hardly convincing among the lower-income groups living in depressed urban centers, lending it a gauche caviar profile,” she said of the nation’s left-wing intelligentsia who preached multiculturalism from the safety of their suburban armchairs.

Greece’s porous borders, combined with the rather unworkable Dublin II convention, which rules that asylum applications must be heard in the first country of entry, made sure that the country became a magnet for hordes of unregistered migrants who eventually get stuck here in a semi-legal limbo.

Family resemblances

Like many others, Kounalaki may be willing to discuss any wrongs by the left in the rise of Golden Dawn, but she rules out any attempts to equate the radicalism on the two sides. Not only are such efforts unwarranted, she says, they are also dangerous.

“Equating the locking up of university professors with Greek neo-Nazi pogroms against migrants leads to relativism and, effectively, legitimizes Golden Dawn violence,” she wrote in a recent publication on violence.

The Hamburg-born journalist, who became the target of anonymous threats on the Golden Dawn website after she wrote an article critical of the party, thinks that equating the two types of violence amounts to a relativism that effectively legitimates far-right violence.

Others are not so sure. When a protest supported by members of Golden Dawn against the staging of Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi” led to the cancellation of the “gay Jesus” play’s premiere at the capital’s Hytirio Theater in October, several critics were quick to point to a similar incident in late 2009, when self-styled anarchists burst into a theater and damaged the stage at the premier of Michel Fais’s “Kitrino Skyli” (Yellow Dog), a play inspired by the hideous acid attack on Bulgarian labor union activist Konstantina Kouneva. The anarchists said they were against the theater cashing in on the woman’s ill fortune.

The fact is that left-wing activists have in the past prevented the screening of movies and forcibly interrupted speeches and book presentations.

“Golden Dawn’s hit squads are no different from the groups of left-wing activists that like to blockade streets, assault lawmakers or interfere with academic proceedings,” Palaskas said, adding that violence lies at the heart of both ideological doctrines, which, under certain conditions, treat force as a necessary means to a superior end.

“Attacking a student who collects rubbish around his university dorm, or a professor because he holds different views than you do is no different, from a humanitarian perspective, to attacking a migrant trying to make a living in this country,” he said, referring to a recent feud between students at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University and leftists supporting striking municipal cleaners when the former tried to clean up growing heaps of rubbish on the campus.

But it is hard to see how such acts, illegal as they may be, can be compared to organized attacks against fellow humans.

“The violence of Golden Dawn carries a very specific ideological weight: discrimination on the basis of skin color or sexual orientation,” Georgiadou said.

“It’s a violence which is directed against individuals. It seeks to deny their universal rights in the most extreme manner and, on top of that, it involves an extreme form of physical abuse,” she said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other groups recorded 87 racist attacks between January and September last year in Athens, Piraeus and Patra. In 50 of those incidents, the victims suffered serious bodily harm. In 15 of them, victims accused police officers of using violence against them. Many immigrants are reluctant to report such abuses because they don’t have documents or mistrust the police.

Those who put the two types of violence in the same bag seem to suggest that scrapping leftist violence of its social legitimacy would make it easier to combat far-right violence. However, says Giorgos Antoniou, a historian at International Hellenic University, it’s hard to see why one thing would lead to the other.

“Despite the political and social consensus to deal with far-right extremism, this has not been enough to curb [the phenomenon], a fact which underscores the complexity of the situation,” he said.

Part of the system

Perhaps it would be more interesting to examine why Greek society is not willing to condemn violence in general. Part of the explanation can be found in its modern history. During the Second World War, the country suffered massacres and famine in its fight against the Nazis. The specter of the 1967-74 dictatorship also hangs heavy over the country’s modern politics. Far-right violence has bad historical connotations for it is associated with memories of the so-called right-wing “parastate,” the junta and torture.

“Although leftist violence has its origins in equally anti-systemic reasons, motives and objectives, it would be hypocritical not to acknowledge that, for better or worse, it benefits from having been absorbed into the country’s political culture,” Antoniou said.

“The purportedly anti-systemic violence of the far left is in a way at the same time also systemic because a big chunk of the political system and society has accepted it as an integral part of Greek political culture,” he said.

Each time activists used Facebook and other social media to organize peaceful demos against violence in the recent years, these only drew very sparse crowds.

As part of the national narrative, Antoniou says, this type of violence is seen as less of a threat to the nation, thus “undermining democracy in the long run.”

However, should attacks by ultranationalist thugs spread and diversify, people like Stratoulis may eventually come to develop a more inclusive understanding of violence, condemning it in every form: whether racial, sexual or political.

The man who wasn’t there

By Harry van Versendaal

It was a delicious irony. The two parties that have vowed to negotiate a better deal with the country’s foreign lenders failed to negotiate the simple matter of setting up a television debate.

True to form, New Democracy and SYRIZA exchanged accusations over who was to blame for the impasse. ND claimed it had agreed with SYRIZA on almost all the details for a Samaras vs Tsipras debate but that the leftists scuppered the deal by issuing two statements outlining their conditions for the discussions. SYRIZA, which appeared to want two separate debates, alleged that ND was simply looking for excuses to avoid a televised duel. However, it seems that, as with PASOK boss Evangelos Venizelos before the May 6 elections, Samaras once again got cold feet.

It may prove to be a wise strategy. The conservative leader’s spin doctors know that a debate between the 60-year-old Antonis Samaras and 37-year-old Alexis Tsipras has the makings of a disaster. Given the strict format of a discussion that leaves no room for substantive arguments that could expose sexy Alexi’s fuzzy utopia, the conservative leader’s schoolmarmish moaning and finger-wagging is bound to be outshone by Tsipras’s youthful conviction and upbeat assuredness.

Inferior style and a dismal message are not the only things Samaras — who has systematically shied away from the international media — has against him. The fact is that he has consistently failed to deliver as the leader of one of Greece’s dominant parties. Samaras took over after ND’s thrashing at the hand of the voters in 2009 and managed to drive the conservative party even lower in the May 6 snap polls that he called for. His awkward combination of stubborn posturing and endless flip-flopping has left the party directionless and politically damaged. Despite his opposition to the nation’s first bailout agreement with the EU and the IMF, and despite the fact that history has largely vindicated his gloomy economic forecasts about the growth-killing capacity of austerity, ND has come to be identified with the memorandum as much as the PASOK socialists who initiated the deal.

Many analysts believe that ND would be better off with a new leader — and would score a comfortable victory in this crucial election with someone more adept at its helm. But, like they say, you don’t change horses in midstream, especially when you have no horse to replace it with.

Samaras: too small for his boots?

By Harry van Versendaal

“A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds,” R.W. Emerson said, but — as Antonis Samaras has found out — too much inconsistency can be politically damaging.

In 2009, the 61-year-old conservative politician took over a broken New Democracy party promising to rebuild it around the idea of “social liberalism.” It was an exclusive concept that moved the party further to the right on Greece’s political spectrum by embracing such values as national pride, Orthodoxy and skepticism of the markets. Awkwardly echoing Bismarck, the Greek politician claimed he could hear the distant hoofbeats of history.

A few months later, ND came out against the bailout deal that George Papandreou’s Socialist government signed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Samaras went on to oust Dora Bakoyannis, the centrist former foreign minister who had earlier challenged him in the party leadership race, for backing the aid package in Parliament. Bakoyannis, in turn, formed her own pro-bailout splinter party, taking some of her ND colleagues with her. Strangely, Samaras had done the same in the early 1990s, as he left ND to form his own party, Political Spring, bringing down the government of Constantine Mitsotakis, Bakoyannis’s father, in the process.

As a result of his tactics, Samaras drove away the party’s middle-ground supporters who had been key in handing his predecessor, Costas Karamanlis, victory in two parliamentary elections.

His opposition to the memorandum was short-lived. Faced with bankruptcy, Greece earlier this year had to sign a second bailout deal worth 130 billion euros to keep the country afloat until 2014. In his most controversial U-turn, Samaras asked his MPs to support the aid package. The decision prompted a great deal of controversy in the right-wing anti-bailout camp inside and outside the party as epithets ranged from “flip-flopper” to “traitor.” Some 20 deputies refused to back the deal in the House and were as a result expelled from the party. One of the rebels, Panos Kammenos, went on to form the populist anti-bailout party Independent Greeks, sucking a great deal of support from ND on the right. After turning his back on the political center, Samaras had now disaffected a large portion of the right.

ND’s role in the power-sharing government that followed Papandreou’s clumsy exit from the driver’s seat only gave voice to Samaras’s critics. Although pledging to support the implementation of the bailout deal, he undermined it at every step of the way while constantly bleating for a snap election.

On May 6, Samaras finally got what he wished for. But, in yet another instance of political miscalculation, the outcome of the ballot was a far cry from what he had hoped for. His party came first in the vote, but the result was a Pyrrhic victory as Samaras had spent a good part of the campaign calling for a clear conservative majority. The numbers were painful. Samaras had inherited the worst support in the history of ND — Karamanlis’s 33.5 percent in 2009 — and managed to drive it even lower, scoring an embarrassing 18.8 percent. The party lost more than a million voters in less than three years, during which it was not even in government.

Like a pupil resitting exams again and again, the poor marks have prompted Samaras to rebrand his politics. Now he wants to build a “grand center-right front.” The results of his overture have been mixed. Most of the smaller liberal parties, including the pro-reform Drasi, turned down the offer. Ironically, it was his bitter political rival Bakoyannis that was this week duly welcomed back into the fold as the two announced they were joining forces in a “patriotic, pro-European front.” And as his acceptance of defectors from the disintegrating nationalist LAOS party into ND demonstrate, there is hardly any ideological or quality filter to Samaras’s attempts to broaden his party’s appeal.

As conservative ideologues would be the first to admit, the political horse-trading of the past few days smacks of unscrupulous opportunism. As it happens, cliches have their place. A true leader must be proactive, he must shape events and not just be blown about in different directions by them. But if the ability to inspire a unifying national vision is a safe measure of a politician’s greatness, then Samaras has proved to be a political pygmy.

ND may well recover by June 17. But Samaras will only have SYRIZA to thank as the leftist party’s fuzzy economics and pie-in-the-sky rhetoric is making many people afraid that Alexis Tsipras’s vision of a bailout-free utopia will lead the country out of the eurozone.

Unlike his new archrival, however, the ND boss lacks an ideal — and that may prove to be his undoing. Samaras may have changed his political tune one too many times for Greek voters to give him the mandate he so desires.

Egyptian revolution: Download at 50 percent

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s night and small group of friends are sitting inside a living room. The shades are closed but the lights are off. Outside, a group of men wielding knives and clubs are coming down the street shouting slogans. “It’s the f***ing thugs,” a voice says as a small HD camera rolls. It’s the first few days of Egypt’s revolution in January 2011, and nobody really has a clear idea of what is going on.

Filmmakers Karim El Hakim, an Egyptian American, and Omar Shargawi, a Dane, got a chance to film the dream of a lifetime as the Egyptian capital was swept by protests against the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Armed with consumer HD and phone cameras, the two activist friends shift the focus back and forth between the violence in and around Tahrir Square and the heated conversations inside the downtown apartment, covering 11 days of the revolution.

Shot at a high-speed pace, with shaky footage (that may put off some older viewers) and claustrophobic close-up shots and augmented with a dramatic score, the end result is a diary-like, action-packed verite personal documentary that will keep you on the end of your seat. With no choice due to the escalating violence, the filmmakers flee the country together with El Hakim’s wife and child, leaving both the revolution and the project unfinished. “Half Revolution,” which draws on some 120 hours of footage, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January.

El Hakim, a tall man with unruly curls and sporting a leather jacket, was in Thessaloniki for the promotion of the film, which was screened at the coastal city’s documentary festival this week. Born in Palo Alto, California, he moved between the United States and Egypt for years, until ultimately settling in Cairo a decade ago, largely prompted by the anti-Arab backlash after 9/11. He spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about those “11 life-changing days” and shared his thoughts about the prospects of this “half revolution.”

What were you doing when the whole thing started?

We were working on a feature film directed by Omar, set in Cairo and loosely based on the Book of Job. It’s about an Egyptian-Danish man who comes back to Cairo and the second he sets foot in the country his whole life is turned upside down. The man blames God for his troubles, he turns his back on him and sees what living without God means. You’ll definitely hear about it soon.

Are you religious?

Not particularly. I actually come from a very Sufi background, but strict religion is not something I believe in. I think everybody has their own religion in a sense.

When did you consciously decide to go beyond coverage of events and make yourselves the subjects of the movie?

We started by trying to capture things happening on the street. We were shooting stuff in the street and then shooting stuff at home, mostly conversations, because there was nothing else to do. Then on January 25 we got arrested at around 1.30 in the morning in Tahrir Square as the police really brutally attacked the people; a lot of people were shot and a lot of people died that night. We got beaten up by a hundred guys, thrown in a box, we were separated, sort of reunited in the box, then taken to a prison. We were released at around 4 a.m. because we played dumb — we pretended we were foreign tourists and they let us go. That traumatic experience made us realize that even though there was stuff happening around us, there was also stuff happening to us and we wanted to capture that. And we realized the best way to tell the story was through the frame of reference of characters and that we were, in fact, the characters. So the film became a kind of autobiographical account of what we were going through. We didn’t use any historical clips, or YouTube clips. It’s not the history of the revolution. It’s not a history lesson.

You must have tons of material.

Yes, we have around 120 hours of material. We had three to four cameras going and everybody was filming as much as they could.

What did you shoot with?

Just small consumer HD cameras. I even shot with an iPhone.

Did you have any of your material confiscated?

Actually, the night we were arrested, Omar tried to film inside the police truck and a policeman took the chip out of his phone. So we did lose some important material that night, but we were were able to patch up the storytelling. In the end, we were lucky to get out with all the footage. [At the airport] I had to hide some of the stuff in my son’s diapers. We were very scared about getting caught, because we heard of other journalists getting caught. I even cut my hair, really short and boring, wore really boring clothes, pretending to be an English teacher. Having a baby of course helped.

Where did you fly to?

We went to Paris, where my uncle and cousins live. We stayed there for three months until the dust settled and then went back to Cairo.

Were you or anyone else hurt during the protests?

I got shot in the head with a rubber bullet; luckily it missed my eye by about half an inch. And on the night we were arrested, I was beaten up pretty badly. Otherwise I was pretty lucky. We missed some bullets that flew very close to us.

Where exactly do you live in Cairo?

I live right downtown, two blocks from Talaat Harb Square and four blocks from Tahrir.

What was the situation like in other neighborhoods? At some point your wife says she’s off to [the more affluent residential district of] Zamalek to get some milk for the baby.

Zamalek is like an island in the middle of the Nile. It is more upscale and was actually a safer zone to be in. There were not many protests happening in Zamalek. Life did go on in certain parts of the city. Downtown was really the battlefield.

Did you use Twitter or any other social media?

I actually started using Twitter once they turned the Internet back on, but I did not have a smartphone. Some of my friends used [BlackBerry’s encrypted messenger service] PBM to communicate and to mobilize and to warn each other where not to go to avoid the police. But when they cut the Internet everybody went out on the street to find out what was happening. And then, when they turned it back on, the crowd thinned as a lot of people left to upload their clips. It’s ironic. [The authorities] used it as a weapon to manipulate the crowds, so relying on that kind of stuff was useful but it cannot ever replace actually being there.

We don’t see any journalists from the mainstream media in your film.

They were not really part of our reality. I didn’t see many journalists in the street, most of the journalists were sitting at five-star hotels shooting from their balconies. We did try to get in touch with people to upload these clips but we couldn’t find them, they were too busy or got arrested.

Is it more dangerous for you now that you’ve made the movie?

I guess I’m waiting for that knock on the door. But it hasn’t happened yet. And I think part of the reason why it hasn’t happened is that in Egypt they are really not concerned with what is shown outside of the country. They are more concerned about what is shown inside the country. So as it’s shown in Cairo for the premiere there will probably be reactions to it.

Where do you see things going from here? Do you see a fresh showdown with the army?

There are daily showdowns with the army now. Some are violent, some are not, but I think ultimately it is sort of the beginning of the end of their completely privileged place. I think that they will have to compromise with the people and work with the Brotherhood. To what extent, we will have to see. Many people believe the Brotherhood have made a deal with the army allowing them to take power on the condition that the army is not reformed — which is an empty wish. Because things are not going to go back to the way they were. On the other hand, the Brotherhood has always been an illegal party, so in a sense what the revolution has done is take them out of the shadows, put them into the light and legalize them; and there is a lot of pressure on them to perform. They have a lot of cleaning up to do. All these institutions that are rotten to the core, they have to be rebuilt. Ultimately, if they don’t do anything, they will feel it in the polls. This pressure is not going to go away. Something has woken up in people and it’s like the veil has been lifted from the eyes of the regular Egyptian. He has realized he has been living under a military dictatorship for 60 years and this was something they did not even really understand. Something has to change, hopefully for the better.

Were you surprised at it all?

I think the army really was trying to fend off a real revolution. It’s clear to me now in retrospect that on day three of the uprising, when the army went into town and basically styled themselves as the saviors of the revolution, that they were in fact trying to position themselves in a positive light by basically getting rid of Mubarak. It’s really difficult to invest in the military. In a sense we can only hope for the best and hope that the Brotherhood and the army will start to have some friction. They are certainly not the best of friends. But they have a common enemy, which is revolution, which is democracy. Neither of these groups is democratic, neither of these groups is liberal. They are both very conservative so at the moment we are seeing this counter-revolution being waged against the liberals and the youth parties and the workers’ parties to try to discredit the revolution and take people out of the game. It’s a real tense and fragile moment, but what is clear is that the military is up to a lot of dirty tricks. They are playing mind games, trying to confuse people. You need to influence the minds of the so-called couch party, the silent majority who only get news from state TV and terrestrial television, who don’t watch Al Jazeera, don’t have Internet, and only read government papers. And I think our film does the same on the international stage. I’ve been trying to spread the word through this film that the revolution is not over. A lot of people, especially in America and Europe, think, “Hey, the dictator is gone, the revolution is over, you must be so happy, everything is cool.” But it’s not. We’re only halfway done, maybe even less than halfway done.

From a kiss to disillusion

By Harry van Versendaal

“We won in an open and honest battle,” a teary-eyed Vladimir Putin told a crowd of Muscovites in front of the Kremlin after garnering 64 percent of the vote in Russia’s presidential election on March 5. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of members of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi were bused into the capital from around the country to attend the victory rally.

But not Masha Drokova.

The reasons are explained in “Putin’s Kiss,” a gripping documentary by Danish director Lise Birk Pedersen screened at this year’s documentary festival in Thessaloniki (TDF) which is hosting a tribute to filmmakers from the Nordic nation.

Born in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall crumbled into souvenirs, Masha was catapulted to national fame after planting a kiss on Putin’s cheek during a televised publicity stunt. The photo-op propelled this pretty and articulate teenager to the top echelons of Putin’s Nashi youth brigade, which was formed in 2005 following pro-democracy revolutions in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia to take on enemies of Putinism.

Pedersen’s 84-minute feature charts Masha’s precipitous rise inside the Nashi structure — complete with an apartment, a brand-new car, a place at a respected Moscow university and a TV talk show — and eventual disenchantment with the movement.

Interestingly, this is not what the Danish director had originally set out to do. Pedersen’s intention, rather, was to deliver a modern take on contemporary Russia by looking at the first generation to come of age following the collapse of the USSR. While shooting in the former communist country, she ran into Masha, a 18-year-old girl who loved Putin and everything about his “new Russia” image of stability and prosperity. She was already a Nashi member.

“When I encountered Masha and Nashi I was very intrigued by both: Masha [intrigued me] as an almost iconic picture of the youth, a generation that wants to move ahead and make success for itself as well as the country. And Nashi by being on the one hand modern, in the way it reaches out to the new generation, and at the same time reminiscent of Soviet times with its close ties to the ruling power,” Pedersen told Kathimerini English Edition in an interview.

Gaining access to the organization proved a rather easy task. As Nashi spokesperson, Masha did not hesitate to invite Pedersen to the group’s meetings, summer camps and protest rallies. “My approach to Nashi was not critical, but I was interested in finding out what Nashi was all about,” Pedersen said.

“I think this opened some doors to a certain extent. But I was never allowed to get into the inner circle, where the real decisions were made,” she said.

Some of these “decisions” concerned alleged attacks on members of the opposition.

When Oleg Kashin, an independent journalist whom Masha befriends despite their ideological differences, is brutally attacked in a politically motivated beating, she becomes disillusioned with the movement.

Despite the group’s dubious record, Pedersen says she never felt threatened. “I didn’t feel I was in any danger and I know that Masha didn’t feel that she was in danger either. But of course I often thought about this issue while making the film — particularly after what happened to Oleg,” she said.

Private e-mails allegedly hacked by a group calling itself the Russian arm of Anonymous recently showed Nashi running a network of online trolls and bloggers paid to praise the Putin system and slander opposition activists and media.

Thousands of Nashi activists were reportedly bused into Moscow from the provinces to take on opposition protesters — mostly from Russia’s wealthier, more vocal middle class — who took to the streets en masse after widespread allegations of fraud during parliamentary elections in December.

As far as she knows, Pedersen says, Masha did not take part in any of the opposition demos, which she reckons are a symptom of Putin overstretching his power. “When he went out and said, ‘Now the comedy is over, I will come back again,’ I think that the young generation felt that he was making a fool out of them. The young generation have been raised in freedom and they want more. When Putin announced his return, the young generation saw it as a step backwards for them and for Russia.”

Analysts have said that having won a comfortable election victory, Putin will now be tempted to strengthen his hand against the opposition. Demonstrators have vowed to keep going despite Putin’s victory, but Pedersen has mixed feelings about the prospects of the movement.

“I think if we don’t see any democratic reforms in Russian society, the protests will continue,” she said. “But on the other hand, the protesters will probably also find it hard to keep with the large turnouts after the elections.”

Skin trade exposed

Harry van Versendaal

Shortly after communism came crashing to the ground in Eastern Europe, Mimi Chakarova, then 13 years old, left her small Bulgarian village to start a new life in the United States with her mother.

As she found out during a visit back to the place a few years later, other girls from her village had been less fortunate. Lured by promises of well-paying jobs abroad, many disappeared into the dark world of sex slavery as they were actually sold to gangs who confiscated their passports and held them captive in brothels and nightclubs, forcing them to work as prostitutes.

A teacher of visual storytelling at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, Chakarova’s curiosity surrounding the circumstances of the girls’ emigration prompted her to embark on a photo-reportage project in 2003. The venture culminated in a well-crafted and deeply disturbing 73-minute documentary feature which combines still images with video footage.

In her award-winning film, “The Price of Sex,” showing at this month’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, Chakarova follows in the footsteps of Eastern European women forced into sex trafficking and abused by their captors. Along the way, she conducts interviews in Bulgaria, Moldova, Greece, Turkey and Dubai.

Chakarova interviews recruiters, pimps, police officials and a couple of sex-starved clients. She does not hesitate to pose as a prostitute, using hidden cameras to film inside a Turkish sex club — a feat that is unfortunately not as cinematically revealing as it is bold. And she has no qualms about occasionally drifting away from unemotional objectivity, cherished among doc traditionalists, to step into more activist territory.

One of the women describes how she jumped out of a three-story-high window to escape her captors. The attempt left her partially paralyzed but she was still brought back to continue working until a replacement was found. As Charakova puts it in the film, “one kilo of cocaine, one AK-47 or one Moldovan girl — it’s all the same.”

An estimated 2 million women and children are sold into the sex trade every year, according to the United Nations. A large number come from the countries of the former communist bloc.

“If you want to fight sex trafficking, you first have to combat the discrepancy between rich and poor countries, rampant corruption and poor access to justice,” a NGO worker tells Chakarova. Too tall an order for a documentary maker, perhaps, but if knowledge is power, then this doc can provide some of the necessary spark to get things moving in the right direction.

The 35-year-old Chakarova spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about her experience and hopes for the future.

What made you decide to make this particular documentary?

What motivated me to make “The Price of Sex” changed over time. Initially, I wanted to see if what I was reading and seeing in the press was fairly reported. The sensationalism surrounding this issue really troubled me. So I challenged myself to see if I could do a better job of understanding why women were sold into sexual slavery after the collapse of communism. Over the years, no matter how difficult this journey got, I felt a sense of obligation to carry on. I grew up in a village in Bulgaria. I migrated abroad as well, and my family struggled with some of the same challenges of poverty that others faced. I knew I had to return and expose something that many chose to ignore or were too afraid to acknowledge as a post-communist plague in our society.

What were the main obstacles you had to overcome in making the film? Do you still run into trouble because of it?

I often think about some of the situations I put myself in and I realize it was absolutely insane. I didn’t have security. I was shooting with hidden cameras in environments where you are constantly watched and you can’t show fear. This type of work gets to you over time. Even when you come home and it’s “safe,” you can’t turn it off. But at the same time, it’s impossible not to find yourself in dangerous situations, no matter how prepared you think you are. You’re dealing with criminal networks that don’t want their operations exposed. There are too many variables beyond your control when you enter high-risk situations. I always tell my students that staying alive in this line of work is a combination of common sense based on experience, instinct, your powers of observation and the rest is really luck. Once it runs out, you’re done.

It must have been difficult to win the trust of these women. How did you go about it?

I gained their trust over time. I photographed one of the women in “The Price of Sex” over a four-year period before she agreed to a video interview. Every story has its own life and requires patience and care. And in every place you document, you leave a piece of yourself. It’s an exchange. You are not only reporting, taking a photo or shooting video; you are giving your attention and concern. Sometimes you don’t even do the work. You sit and observe and help, if you can. When someone opens their home to you, shares the little bit of food they have and offers you their bed because sleeping on the floor is out of the question, you are a guest, not a journalist. And you treat people with the respect your mother taught you. I am fortunate to say I have a wonderful mother who instilled that in me. And I can return to the places I’ve visited over the years without ever feeling unwelcome. The people we make films about should never be referred to as “subjects.” And the dynamic is way too complicated to ever pretend that we can be objective with the work we do.

Do you feel you kept the necessary distance from the women while shooting the film? Or did you perhaps find yourself getting more engaged than you should have?

I don’t think it’s possible to keep a distance when working on a subject matter like sex slavery for almost a decade. This work affects you profoundly.

Did you help any of the victims in any way, and is that necessarily a bad thing?

Yes, I’ve been able to help some of the women through the work I’ve produced, but my bigger challenge is how to ensure long-term change and, most importantly, how to prevent this from happening to other young girls. One positive outcome is that the US State Department will use the film to train its employees at embassies throughout the world. But there is still a lot more to be done.

Did opening up to you have a cathartic effect on the women?

There were many times when I would ask, “Why are you telling me all this?” — especially when a woman would disclose really graphic or gruesome details of what she went through. And the answer was consistently: “Because you won’t judge me. I have no one else to tell.” So, yes, I think many of these conversations were painful but also cathartic.

You only mention a few numbers in your documentary. Is it because you feel the personal stories you present are more powerful than figures?

The numbers vary so greatly depending on the source that I was wary of focusing on estimates. For example, the US State Department estimates the number of trafficking victims at 800,000 per year. But the UN’s estimate goes up to nearly 2 million. These numbers also include labor trafficking, so rather than focus on data which is very difficult to substantiate, I decided to make a film that tells the women’s stories and also reveals the widespread, systematic corruption across borders.

What do you hope to achieve with this documentary?

I hope that people who see it can leave informed but also with the urgent desire to do something. If you’re not informed, you are living in darkness. The more you know, the more responsible you become about changing. And once you know what happens to others, it is your duty as a human being to take a position. Pretending that what’s right in front of you doesn’t exist just because it disrupts your comfort zone is unacceptable. I would like to encourage people to visit http://priceofsex.org and learn more about the film and the multimedia series. I would also urge them to react and post their comments. It’s through this global discourse and sharing of ideas and experiences that we truly bring such issues to the surface. And that’s always an important first step before taking action.

Are you working on a new project?

I am currently traveling with the film and speaking about “The Price of Sex” to as many people as I can. Once I feel that the film has a life of its own and no longer requires my presence, I will start working on my second film, which takes place in the US.

Economic, political crisis catapults far right LAOS into the mainstream

By Harry van Versendaal

Embarrassing foot-dragging by the mainstream parties and growing political turmoil, even for Greece’s anarchic standards, has enabled a small far-right party to claw its way up the greasy pole of domestic politics by successfully asserting itself as champion of a crisis coalition government and accelerator of political developments.

In a bid to ease a crisis that brought Greece closer to a default and a eurozone exit, leaders of the PASOK socialists, New Democracy conservatives, and ultranationalist LAOS party last week agreed on an interim administration under technocrat economist Lucas Papademos. Since its establishment in 2000, LAOS has campaigned on an anti-immigrant, nationalist platform.

“A leadership vacuum presented an opportunity for LAOS, which used it to its own advantage by seeking, and imposing, its own participation in the government,” Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens, told Kathimerini English Edition.

Greece’s debt crisis proved too big for PASOK to tame, causing the dramatic fall of its leader George Papandreou from the country’s top seat. The endgame came after Papandreou’s explosive decision to put a 130-million-euro rescue package agreed with euro area leaders in October to a referendum. The announcement rattled financial markets and sent shock waves through Greece’s European peers. It also proved a catalyst for political developments at home, as Papandreou eventually agreed to step down and make way for a cross-party government.

The power-sharing deal was struck after 10 days of Byzantine negotiations and cringe-worthy political theater. After a boycott from Greece’s left wing parties who rejected the talks as “anti-constitutional,” the provisional government brought together deputies from PASOK, New Democracy and LAOS. (LAOS, which means “the people” in Greek, is short for Popular Orthodox Rally).

“With the two biggest parties unable to govern, and the rest unwilling to govern, LAOS appeared to be the only party that wanted to accelerate developments,” Georgiadou said.

LAOS chief Giorgos Karatzaferis repeatedly called on Papandreou and conservative leader Antonis Samaras to join hands for “the good of the country.” A previous bid between the two politicians to strike a unity government in June fell through.

Greece’s communists, better known after their acronym KKE, have branded the transitional government the “black alliance,” attacking LAOS officials as the “ideological heirs of dictator [Ioannis] Metaxas” — a reference to the country’s leader between 1936 and 1941. SYRIZA, or the Coalition of the Radical Left, has levelled similar accusations.

But a lot of the vitriol, critics agree, is hypocritical. By choosing to stay in the political safe zone, parties on the left effectively gave LAOS more space for maneuver in the bargaining, and more influence in the new government.

“Those who see threats in LAOS’s participation in the government should not overreact now. Not because their fears are unfounded, but because they did nothing to prevent this from happening in the first place,” Georgiadou said.

Cynical conservatives

LAOS, which garnered less than 6 percent of the vote in the 2009 general elections, is over-represented in the 48-member Cabinet with one minister, one alternate and two deputy ministers.

The reason for this interestingly lies with New Democracy — which itself is underrepresented in the new Cabinet. Samaras — who has given critics many reasons to question his commitment to the interim administration — is said to have wanted a heavy LAOS participation in the transition government in order to prevent the party from trawling for New Democracy supporters while in opposition.

Reservations about LAOS’s role have also been voiced inside PASOK, while a Muslim PASOK deputy this week voted down the new government in a vote of confidence.

Critics outside Greece were not too impressed either. France’s Socialist Party expressed “shock” at the news while the Central Committee of German Jews was also adamant, saying that “a professed anti-Semite [such as Karatzaferis] cannot serve in a government with which the German government will need to negotiate billions in aid.”

Greece depends on loans from a 110-billion-euro rescue package agreed in 2010, when mammoth borrowing costs blocked Greece from international markets. That bailout later proved inadequate, forcing the a new loan agreement in late October that will also see a writedown on Greece’s privately held debt by 50 percent.

Past imperfect

To be sure, misgivings about LAOS are justified. Its officials have often made extremist and intolerant comments in the past.

“We are the only real Greeks. We are not from these Jews, homosexuals or communists,” Karatzaferis said in 2000. Two years later in a debate with Israel’s ambassador to Greece, he seemed to dismiss the Holocaust as a myth. “Let’s talk about all these tales of Auschwitz and Dachau,” he had said.

The past of LAOS’s Makis Voridis, the new minister for infrastructure, transport and networks, is also a political minefield. In the early 1980s he led the EPEN (National Political Union) youth group that was founded by ex-dictator Georgios Papadopoulos from inside Korydallos Prison. Five years later, Voridis was kicked out of the law school student union for engaging in extremist acts. In an infamous picture taken at the time, he is seen wielding a hand-made ax (he later said it was for self-defense).

In the mid-1990s, Voridis established the Hellenic Front (Elliniko Metopo), a nationalist party with close ties to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France. In 2005, Hellenic Front merged with LAOS and Voridis was elected to Parliament two years later.

Voridis, who showed up at the swearing-in ceremony carrying his child in his arms, has toned down his language over the years. Seeking to resonate with a largely middle-class electorate worried about rising crime and economic insecurity, he has sought to wed his trademark law-and-order rhetoric with talk about public sector reform.

His party leader, the media-savvy Karatzaferis, has done his fair share of airbrushing himself. In an interview with Reuters this week he denied he was an admirer of Adolf Hitler, describing him as the “greatest criminal” of the 20th century. He also said he regretted previous remarks that Jews were warned to leave the World Trade Center before the 2001 terrorist attacks.

And then there is Adonis Georgiadis. A sort of televangelist who is mocked for hawking his wares (nationalist history books in pseudoscientific disguise), the new development deputy minister began his tenure with changing office signs for ones using the accent system dropped in the early 1980s. But despite his colorful antics, his career has very often verged deep into bigoted territory, such as defending Holocaust denier Costas Plevris in court.

Political filter

The rise of the right is not exclusive to Greece, of course. A mix of xenophobia, Europskepticism and unemployment has sent far-right politicians making it into parliament in many European countries including Holland, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.

Some analysts argue that letting populist parties join a government — provided they have enough votes — is the best way to moderate their message and influence.

“If a party is regarded as populist, it’s also safer to have them inside the government sharing responsibility for the difficult decisions rather than having them outside stirring up reactions on the street,” Kevin Featherstone, head of the European Institute at the London School of Economics, told Kathimerini English Edition.

Georgiadou is not so sure.

“Extreme parties that take over government posts are obliged to adopt less extreme positions, to abandon the politics of protest and to become more institutional and systemic actors,” she said.

“But that does not mean that their voters will be willing to follow,” she added, explaining that voters who disagree with how their party evolves will turn to new groups and organizations to vent their extremist sentiment.

One does not need to look too far. When LAOS decided to back Nikitas Kaklamanis, the New Democracy candidate, in the race for Athens mayor a year ago, the neo-fascist Chrysi Avgi group succeeded in swaying far-right voters to elect its own representative in City Hall.

Although LAOS’s participation in the provisional government does not necessarily mean it will inflict permanent damage to the political system, Georgiadou argues that its participation in the government nevertheless sets “a bad precedent.”

Others remain more sanguine.

“Given the depth of the crisis, a wider political base for the government is essential,” Featherstone said, adding that this needs to be as broadly based as possible to be effective.

“Including LAOS achieves this aim, but the exclusion of Dora Bakoyannis, a centrist, was a missed opportunity,” Featherstone said of the Democratic Alliance party that claimed to have been left out after a Samaras veto.

By any measure, the cross-party government marks the end of politics as it was known in this corner of Europe. Like every government, this one too will be judged by its results. But the LAOS contingent — whose part in the coalition risks alienating the core of their grassroots supporters — would seem to have more reasons to make this work than their coalition partners.

Seeing is believing

Photo by Joseph Galanakis

By Harry van Versendaal

When Thimios Gourgouris first caught the news of furious rioting in downtown Athens in December 2008, he reached for his Nikon camera. As the Greek capital surrendered to an orgy of violence and looting sparked by the fatal shooting of a teenager by police, the curious young man from the suburbs took to the debris-strewn streets to document the mayhem.

Three years later, the number of people like Gourgouris have skyrocketed. As public rallies against the Socialist government’s austerity measures — sanctioned by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the debt-choked country’s foreign creditors — keep coming, more people seem to have set aside the traditional flag and banner for a more versatile medium: the digital camera. Just type “Greek protests 2011” into Google Images and you’ll get more than 5 million results.

This burst of interest in user-generated content is propelled by more than one reason. But, like elsewhere around the world, it is principally born out of public skepticism toward conventional media.

“I want to see with my own eyes what is happening out there. I stopped relying just on the stuff I was being fed by television,” Gourgouris, a tall man with a dark beard and expressive eyes, said in a recent interview.

Greece’s mainstream media have not escaped unscathed from popular criticism of the country’s institutions. Television channels and newspapers — traditionally associated with the nation’s political parties — are seen as pandering to political and business interests.

“I only trust what I see,” Gourgouris said.

Born in 1980, Gourgouris has never belonged to a political party. A former graphic designer who now works as a commercial representative in Elefsina, a small town west of Athens, he dreams of one day becoming a war photographer. The streets around Syntagma Square make good training ground, he jokes. When venturing into the urban scuffles, he wears gloves, body armor and a green Brainsaver helmet equipped with a built-in camera. “Last time a piece of marble hit me on the right shoulder,” he said.

Gourgouris makes a point of sharing all of his pictures on Flickr, the image- and video-hosting website. All his photographs are free to download in high resolution. One of his shots from the latest riots shows a riot policeman trying to snatch an SLR camera from a man standing in Syntagma Square. A woman reacts to the scene while trying to protect a fellow demonstrator who appears to be in a state of shock.

“If I had to keep a single image from the protest, it would have to be that one,” he said.

Protest 3.0

Around the globe, protests are reshaped by technology. Ever-cheaper digital gadgets and the Internet are transforming the means and the motives of the people involved in ways we are only starting to witness.

Last spring, the twitterati hailed the “social media revolutions” in Tunisia and Egypt as protesters made extensive use of social networks to bring down their despotic presidents. Facebook and Twitter played a key role in fomenting public unrest following Iran’s disputed election in 2009. Like Iran, Libya showed the same media are available to the autarchic regimes.

Greece is not immune to social and technological forces. In May, thousands of people responded to a Facebook call by the so-called Indignant movement to join an anti-austerity rally at Syntagma and other public squares across the country. Demonstrators, who have since camped in front of the Greek Parliament, use laptops to organize and promote their campaign through the Net.

When individuals’ behavior changes, mass protests also change. Gourgouris says that whenever he sees the police arresting a demonstrator, he feels that by running to the scene an officer will think twice before exerting unnecessary physical force.

“When everybody is filming with their cell phones, you’re not going to beat the hell out of that person,” he said.

Switching places

Technology is also transforming the news business, as ordinary folk get involved in the gathering, filtering and dissemination of information.

“It’s evolution,” said Pavlos Fysakis, a professional photographer in his early 40s. He says that this type of guerrilla journalism may not guarantee quality, but it is certainly a force for pluralism.

“The news now belongs to everyone. It comes from many different sources, and it is open to many different interpretations,” said Fysakis, who is one of the 14 photojournalists to have worked on The Prism GR2010 multimedia project, a collective documentation of Greece during last winter that is available on the Internet.

If there is one problem will all this input, Fysakis says, it has to do with the diminishing shock factor. With all the imagery out there, he warns, audiences as well as photographers risk getting a bit too accustomed to graphic images.

“Violence is demystified. We almost think it’s normal to see a cop beating up a person on the street. The image is everywhere, as if [the event] is occurring all the time,” Fysakis said.

User-generated footage of the June 29 demonstrations depicted riot police firing huge amounts of tear gas and physically abusing protesters, including elderly men and women.

The apparently excessive use of force by police is the subject of a parliamentary investigation. Meanwhile, a prosecutor has brought charges against the police for excessive use of chemicals and for causing bodily harm to citizens. Amnesty International has also condemned the police tactics.

Exposed

For Liza Tsaliki, a communications and media expert at the University of Athens, crowdsourced content “is laden with democratic potential.”

“Civilian footage of the riots has widened our perspective and understanding of what actually happened,” she said of the June demonstrations.

A few hours after the protests, the Internet was churning with footage apparently showing riot squad officers escorting three men who had covered their faces and appeared to be wielding iron bars, prompting suggestions that the police had either placed provocateurs within the protesting crowds or that the force was offering protection to extreme right-wing protesters who were battling leftists.

However, an official reaction (a statement by the minister for citizens’ protection that left a lot to be desired) only came after television channels had aired the controversial video.

Trust them not

To be sure, citizen journalism is far from perfect. A lot of the rigor and accuracy associated with traditional news organizations inevitably flies out the window. Ordinary people cannot perform, or are insensitive to, the (meticulous but costly and time-consuming) fact-based reporting, cross-checking, sourcing and editing of newsrooms proper.

A survey conducted in the UK a few years ago found that 99 percent of people do not trust content on blogs and forums uploaded by their friends and the rest of the public.

Lack of verification and eponymity is not the only problem, as input from non-journalists is not necessarily synonymous with objectivity.

Writing in Kathimerini about the controversial video, liberal commentator Paschos Mandravelis criticized social media users for unquestioningly embracing what seems to confirm the views they already hold.

“The T-shirt he was wearing to cover his face, which is usually offered by every protester as a sign of innocence (‘I was wearing it to protect myself from the tear gas’) was, in this case, used as a sign of guilt (‘It’s obvious. These are the hooded troublemakers’),” Mandravelis wrote.

Tsaliki agrees that not everything captured by amateur journalists is necessarily benign.

“Even in these latter cases, a certain alternative reality can be constructed under the guise of the non-mediated experience,” Tsaliki said.

“All you need is a certain choreography, some volunteers and a smartphone,” she said.

But the speed and diversity of social media is hard to beat. After all, it was a Pakistani Twitterer grumbling about the noise from a helicopter that gave the world live coverage of the American raid that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden in May.

Before that, it was some blurry footage of Alexandros Grigoropoulos’s murder in Exarchia, captured with a phone camera by a resident standing on a nearby balcony, that fanned Greece’s 2008 riots.

Traditional media have tried to take advantage of the trend, launching citizen journalism platforms of their own — CNN’s “iReport” or Al Jazeera’s “Sharek,” for example. And as suggested by Al Jazeera’s mining of the social media during the Middle East uprisings, the use of citizen-produced material can help commercial networks come across as the “voice of the people.”

“They overtly take the side of the protesters against these regimes. And their use of social media and citizen generated content gives them the ammunition and credibility in that campaign,” blogged Charlie Beckett, founding director of Polis, a journalism and society think-tank at the London School of Economics.

Preaching to the converted?

The Internet has changed the way people organize themselves and protest, but has it really helped expand the reservoirs of activists on the ground? Experts are divided on the issue.

For one thing, cyber-pessimists are right that support-a-cause-with-a-click attitudes produce great numbers but little commitment. Web-powered activism, Tsaliki adds, is still a lot about preaching to the converted.

“The Internet will chiefly serve those activists and groups that are already active, thus reinforcing existing patterns of political participation in society,” she said.

But Gourgouris is confident that simply by recording and sharing the message of a demonstration, you are increasing its impact.

“The world isn’t beautiful. I record the ugliness so I can put it out there and — to the extent that I can — fix it. I am trying to raise awareness. I am saying, ‘Here’s the violence of the people behind masks’,” he said.

As always, some people out there prefer more direct forms of engagement. As photographers zigzagged through the infuriated crowds at a recent demo, one hooded youth shouted at them to “put down the cameras and grab a stone.”


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