Posts Tagged 'movie'

Escape into the world of fiction at Syros film fest

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By Harry van Versendaal

Cinema buffs have a chance to escape the barrage of tough reality in Greece and seek comfort in fiction at the upcoming Syros International Film Festival (SIFF).

The brainchild of three American 20-somethings with a dream, the festival, inaugurated three years ago, showcases 30 features and 40 shorts, as well as 14 documentary films. This includes 10 Greek works as well as films from 17 other countries around the world.

Among this year’s highlights is a tribute to Romanian film director and screenwriter Corneliu Porumboiu, recipient of the Golden Camera prize for his satirical comedy “12:08: East of Bucharest” at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006.

Organizers have also planned an extensive program on the theme of place in cinema, featuring rare, new, classic and diverse films. A drive-in venue is expected to take the cinema experience to a whole new level.

Meanwhile, organizers have planned a series of lectures on the impact of technological progress on cinema production and distribution by distinguished guests including British film director Peter Greenaway.

The festival will open with a multimedia show by the Grenoble-based performance collective Maki. The act brings together 16 mm film projection, shadow play, music and dance – all specially designed for a remote field on the island.

In an interview with Kathimerini English Edition, Jacob Moe, the festival’s managing director, spoke about this summer’s offerings, the island and the trio’s battle with the host country’s financial woes.

What are this year’s highlights?

If we have to narrow it down, I would pick out three things. First of all, we are hosting a full retrospective on Corneliu Porumboiu. The great Romanian filmmaker will be attending each screening, and we’ll be screening all of his features, including the Greek premiere of his latest film “The Treasure,” in addition to several of his fantastic shorts. Second of all, we have a massive program on the theme of place in cinema, titled “Where: Cinemas of Place.” These will feature rare, new, classic and diverse films, all grouped according to different sub-themes within the greater question of how place is articulated and expressed in cinema. This program includes the drive-in cinema we have built, which will show, of course, road films, describing the “no-where” place that is the open road. And finally, our lecture series on the technological transformation currently under way in the production and distribution of cinema. It is called “Film to Digital,” and we’re having several speakers (Peter Greenaway, Albert Serra, Louis Benassi and Elektra Venaki) all talk about the pleasures and pains of the two media, the gap between them, and the language they may or may not share.

This summer we also inaugurate Khora, an audiovisual residency founded in the hopes of creating a space for production within the framework of the festival, as well as creating an opportunity for artists to engage with certain places on Syros and to create site-specific pieces.

The residency will take place at the Syros Institute, housed in a refurbished 16th-century Jesuit Monastery in Ano Syros. Participants have the opportunity to work with two internationally acclaimed guest artists, Michael Pisaro (composer, California Institute of the Arts) and Deborah Stratman (artist and filmmaker, University of Illinois at Chicago), who will also contribute their own projects. The resulting works will be screened as completed or in-progress pieces during SIFF 2015 in a special showcase screening.

What film will open this year’s festival?

Actually, it’s not a film – it’s a performance. Maki, a multimedia performance group, will create a live experience of “expanded cinema” incorporating dance, music, shadow play, and live 16 mm projection. All of the basic elements of cinema will be at play: movement, light, dark and sound. The event will take place outdoors and under a full moon, on a sloped hill by the sea, directly across from Fanari, the lighthouse island. We’ve created a path down to the projection site, so any spectator will be able to wander down the hill and choose their own seating freely. It’s a unique event, really embedded in the locale and experience of the island, which fully kicks off the theme of this year’s program – the “place” of cinema.

Why did you pick Syros? Where do you stand now, three year’s since the first event? What are your future goals?

We chose Syros at first because we had close personal ties to the island. It became clear from the first year however that Syros was a natural choice for the location of a film festival, given the cultural seat it occupies in the Cyclades. People can expect many cultural offerings on Syros; the island has always been known for this. Now, in our third year, we could not think of moving the festival somewhere else, unless some huge turn of events took place. We have developed relationships with many venues, groups and, of course, viewers on the island that contribute greatly to the success of the festival. We also feel as though the festival has been shaped by Syros as a place: Syros is an island with a rich and varied history and you can see this in the landscape and buildings all around; it is impossible not to notice several layers of history existing at once here. We in turn have tried to make our festival’s program and screening spaces exist in this same way, revealing to the viewer the many different strands of cinema and approaches to watching it we can take. This is perhaps our greatest goal as a festival, to create really compelling screening experiences, understanding that both the material viewed and the context of its exhibition creates an overall film-watching experience.

What makes this festival different from similar events, besides its location?

SIFF is most distinct in its dedication to creating truly special film-viewing experiences that inform the specific films being shown, and, also, the more general experience of watching a film. While we are committed to showing recent films on the festival circuit, SIFF is not like many other film festivals that show contemporary film. We are not only a film festival; we are also a film event, a celebration of film, and, hopefully, a space for people to engage with film in very immediate and intimate ways. We try to program recent film with old film, films from nearby and far away, from all genres. We show in movies theaters and an opera house, a shipyard, an abandoned field, and more. We show in 16 mm, 35 mm, and various digital formats. We host talks about film, an artist residency, performances and exhibitions around film… Perhaps what makes SIFF most distinct is the space it tries to inhabit between film festival, film repertory and something else entirely.

Where does the festival budget come from?

Our main sponsor this year was the Onassis Cultural Center / Onassis Foundation. They provided crucial support for different programs within the festival, including the opening event, our lecture series, our first filmmaking workshop for local teenagers and a curation of films created for their C.P. Cavafy Digital Archive. In addition, we have received substantial grants from national consulates, including the American Embassy (which will support our artist residency and a large program of films by American directors who only completed one film) and the Romanian Embassy (who will sponsor the Porumboiu retrospective), In addition, we have received substantial municipal and regional grants and generous in-kind sponsorships, ranging from a post-production house – 2|35 – which will generously provide the award for our competition of debut feature films, to the local vineyard Fabrica and nearby artisanal brewery Nissos that will provide the refreshments for all of our events.

Has the financial crisis and overall uncertainty affected your plans?

Of course. Like any non-profit organization here in Greece, we have been confronted by reduced funding opportunities, both from the private and public sector. From private funders, especially when it comes to sponsorships from companies, we have experienced many instances in which they simply do not want to hear our proposal, because they have had to end their sponsorship programs. On the public level, there is a great deal of uncertainty at times, and so even support that had been approved sometimes can change in form, or even fall through. At the same time, the current climate can encourage funders to want to help: Especially from larger cultural institutes, we have received great support this year, in some part due to their understanding that it is becoming increasingly difficult to put on a cultural event like ours. From individuals as well, we have received this same sense of understanding, that they recognize we put on the festival in this period of uncertainty and that they appreciate the event all the more for it. While not financial, this support is a huge help. So, the short of it: We plan on continuing the festival – we just need to constantly come up with new ways of receiving financial support, and that is definitely a source of creativity.

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The archaeology of the present

By Harry van Versendaal

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

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

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

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

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

A Greek microcosm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghost ex machina exposes Europe’s wretched migrants

By Harry van Versendaal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commitment

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

The distance makes his commitment all the more admirable.

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

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

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

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

Introspection

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

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

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

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

Knibbe remains sober about the prospects.

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

Greek selections at the 17th Thessaloniki doc fest

By Harry van Versendaal

Fifteen years since his landmark film “Agelastos Petra” (The Mourning Rock), an emotional 10-year exploration of the impact of industrial activity on the people, environment and antiquities in the working-class coastal town of Elefsina, west of Athens, Greek auteur Filippos Koutsaftis returns with another lyrical film, this time turning his lens on the the myth-filled, bucolic province of Arcadia.

“Hail Arcadia” will be screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) as part of the Greek program, which this year features 63 feature and short films. Seventeen of these productions have been included in the different sections of the International Program while 46 are part of the Greek Panorama.

Other movies by Greek directors include “Escape from Amorgos” by festival regular – and now SYRIZA MEP – Stelios Kouloglou, which tells the story of a plot to rescue left-wing politician Giorgos Mylonas from his political exile on the Aegean island of Amorgos at the time of Greece’s military dictatorship in the late 1960s. The documentary is based on Elias Kulukundis’s book “The Amorgos conspiracy.”

Kimon Tsakiris, whose darkly humorous “Sugartown” was a smash hit in 2006, arrives in Thessaloniki this year with “The Archaeologist,” telling the story of a determined female scientist who tries to salvage as much as possible from an archaeological dig that is destined to go under the water due to the construction of a new dam project by the Public Power Corporation (PPC) in western Macedonia.

Not all the Greek-produced films take place within the country’s borders. “The New Plastic Road,” by director Angelos Tsaousis and photographer Myrto Papadopoulos, documents physical and social transformation in a remote area in Tajikistan brought about by the construction of a new road connecting this poorest republic of the former Soviet Union with China.

Outside of the films in competition, TDF organizers have so far announced a tribute to Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper and Romanian director Alexandru Solomon, as well as a special section on contemporary German productions. A press conference will be held on Tuesday.

Info: tdf.filmfestival.gr

Thessaloniki doc fest returns with tribute to Austrian, Romanian filmmakers

By Harry van Versendaal

Hubert Sauper and Alexandru Solomon are but a couple of the filmmakers heading to this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), according to organizers as they unveiled the lineup of tributes to be screened at the annual international festival in the northern port city, this year from March 13 to 22.

Ten years after his Oscar-nominated “Darwin’s Nightmare,” a riveting film on the fishing industry in Tanzania’s Lake Victoria, Sauper last year returned with another political work. In “We Come as Friends,” the 49-year-old Austrian filmmaker takes a look at the neocolonialist exploitation of South Sudan in the wake of independence – and does so flying in his homemade aircraft.

“I think that if you were to make a film about the state of our times, it would be about nothing more than economics,” the France-based director, writer and actor has said in an interview with Issue Magazine.

“Before it was more about the ideas, Marxism, etc. Now the bottom line is always the dollar. All human relations have been reduced to this sort of game, ‘I give to you, you give to me,’” said Sauper, who teaches film in Europe and the USA.

The Sauper tribute features three more works: Shot in 1993, “On the Road with Emil” tells the story of an old circus director as he travels with his troupe through the wintry Austrian landscape. “Kisangani Diary” documents the 1997 massacre of Rwanda refugees at the hands of the so-called liberating rebel army of the new “Democratic Republic” of Congo. The movie was released in 1998, four years before “Alone with Our Stories,” a collection of testimonies by female victims of domestic violence in France.

The Austrian will be joined in Thessaloniki by his colleague Solomon from Romania, also 49.

Drawing from interviews with a number of powerful magnates in post-communist Romania, Solomon’s most recent film, “Kapitalism: Our Improved Formula,” paints a portrait of a corruption-wracked country stuck in limbo between communism and capitalism. The film was released in 2010, three years after Solomon made “Cold Waves,” a documentary on Radio Free Europe, the US-funded broadcaster that spread anti-Soviet propaganda across Eastern Europe during the Cold War.

Communism under later-to-be-executed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu also served as a theme for Solomon’s 2004 film “The Great Communist Bank Robbery.” Solomon, who works as a filmmaker, cinematographer and producer, used interviews and archival material on a Romanian propaganda film inspired by a late-1950s bank robbery, later attributed to high-ranking members of the nomenklatura, to expose the absurdity of life behind the iron curtain.

“In the end, it is more important to understand there is no ultimate truth left after 45 years of propaganda,” Solomon has said about the movie. “I think despair leads people to the kind of gestures that aren’t logical at all.”

In the same lineup is 2008’s “Apocalypse on Wheels,” in which Solomon looks at how roads and traffic in his motherland also function as a metaphor for contemporary Romanian society – a theme bound to strike a chord with audiences here.

The Thessaloniki doc fest, now in its 17th year, will also host a tribute to German documentaries, offering a wide-ranging selection from the country’s recent crop, including “Katharine Hepburn – The Great Kate,” a portrait of the Hollywood icon by directors Andrew Davies and Rieke Brendel; Oswald von Richthofen’s “35 Cows and a Kalashnikov,” a lyrical tribute to the captivating beauty and sublime strength of the African continent; and Alexander Gentelev’s “Raiders,” an expose of the mafia network in Putin’s Russia.

More films and highlights are to be announced in the coming days.

Info: tdf.filmfestival.gr

Stranger in a strange land

By Harry van Versendaal

Not everyone’s home videos have the makings of a modern-day Greek tragedy.

Alexandra Anthony’s family documentary “Lost in the Bewilderness,” which earned warm reviews at the recent Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, tells the story of a long-lost hero who, after many travails, finally returns home to claim his rightful place in the old country.

The story begins in the early 1970s, at the house of the Psychopaidopoulos family in the southern Athens neighborhood of Nea Smyrni. When Anthony’s cousin Lucas is born, he is instantly immersed in the typically Greek overdose of attention and affection bestowed upon the first male child of a generation. But at the age of 5, Lucas’s parents separate.

That is when the drama begins to unfold, and the story is elevated from Super-8 home movie memories to something darker. One day the boy disappears with his mother, throwing the Psychopaidopoulos family into a state of shock and mourning. A worldwide search, also with the help of Interpol, is of no avail.

But 11 years after the abduction, a telephone call from Maryland in the US sets the drama back in motion. It’s Athena, asking Orestis, her former husband, to take impossible teenager Lucas back to the homeland and off her hands.

“When the kid was found, it was like, ‘Get the camera and go,’” Anthony says.

Live your myth

Filmed over the course of 30 years, the 97-minute documentary is a mixture of archival footage and cinema verite. It takes off thanks to masterful editing, a clean structure, and captivating narration by Anthony herself whose matter-of-fact delivery seamlessly meshes the ancient myths of Oedipus, Perseus and Odysseus with Lucas’s story.

The 61-year-old director was born to Greek parents in Charleston, South Carolina. She spent her childhood in Athens and her adolescence in London, before moving to the US to study art history at Wellesley College and filmmaking at MIT. She now lives in Boston, but visits Greece every summer, always with her camera equipment. Over the years, she has filmed several ethnographic films in numerous remote areas of her native country.

Hence, it comes as little surprise that Anthony knows her Greek mythology well, and cleverly chooses just which parallels to draw between Lucas and ancient Greek heroes.

“I’ve always had an interest in mythology, in ancient Greek theater, drama and tragedy. I find great beauty in all those stories. I grew up with them. They are part of who I am. But it was really an organic process, not a forced thing. It became more and more apparent to me that there were so many parallels with ancient mythology and the archetypes of Orestis who was exiled, or Euphrosyne, his grandmother, who was one of the three Graces. And then, as I dug deeper, I saw there is a theme with all these young kings and heroes who, at a very young age, as babies or toddlers, are taken away to be killed or exiled so that they don’t take over the throne or whatever. But in every case they return on the cusp of manhood to reclaim their rightful place on the throne or in the family. Especially Perseus, whose own mother took him across the sea.”

However, the central metaphor for Anthony was the Orpheus and Eurydice story of a man losing his beloved early and made a deal to get her back from the underworld. Orpheus could not keep his promise of not looking behind him and, as he made his way back to the world of the living, he lost his love for a second time.

“I really love the idea of Orestis going to this netherworld, which is shown as black and white and gray – which is the US as a kind of underworld – to bring Lucas back to life, and it’s then in full color when he comes to Greece.”

Being a student at the MIT film section under direct cinema pioneers Richard (Ricky) Leacock and Ed Pincus, Anthony was inevitably schooled in the orthodoxy of cinema verite, always recording things as they happened. For this project, however, she used old pictures and – in a somewhat liberating betrayal of the verite rulebook – she recreated the back story using vintage-style footage of her own daughter and the daughter of Nana, a family friend.

“I wanted to introduce the characters so by the time you got to the actual story you could kind of see it through their eyes and have empathy with what they were experiencing.”

Lost in translation

The director was there when Lucas first landed in Athens. As soon as the boy walked out of the airport at Elliniko, she sensed his unease.

“I think he was just a deer in headlights. Here he is, a stranger in a strange land here in Greece. He did not know he had a Greek family, he doesn’t speak the language and all of a sudden his mother has turned him over to these strangers.

“He was uncomfortable anyway and here is this camera in his face. And I felt really sensitive. Life comes first and then comes film. I didn’t want to make his life more difficult for him. So I slowly withdrew a little bit after the first two weeks and I thought I ‘d let them just find themselves, they have enough to deal with, without me there. But I didn’t think I had enough for a film at all.”

Despite this, “Lost in the Bewilderness” became Anthony’s hobby, as she kept on filming the family in their garden, in the living room, on the beach, every time she came to Greece over the years. Without realizing it, she also captured images of a changing society.

The film is a rich parade of modern Greek history, from Lucas’s namesake, his grandfather – the archetypical Greek gentleman of the 1950s – the glory days of PASOK founder Andreas Papandreou during a 1984 rally, and through to the tsunami of “antiparochi” deals between landowners and contractors that led to the brutal destruction of many old private houses. The Psychopaidopoulos family home, which we get to know and love as intimately as its owners, is too knocked down, without any warning, by a yellow bulldozer, to make way for a modern apartment building.

And all that’s left at the end is a story, a visually rich, suspense-filled ride.

New tool for female empowerment: Turkish soap operas

By Harry van Versendaal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad signal

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

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

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

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

They also have similar ambitions.

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

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

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

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

To be continued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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