Posts Tagged 'tragedy'

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.

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Disappointed in the sun

Photo by Todd Kesselman

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s hard to be philosophical about the situation in Greece these days, but if Simon Critchley is right that “philosophy begins in disappointment,” then maybe we should give it a chance.

The 50-year-old philosopher was born in Britain and is an exponent of so-called “continental” philosophy – a bit of a rarity in the Anglo-Saxon world, which is famously allergic to the esoteric and nonanalytical explorations of their continental peers. Author of, among others, “Very Little… Almost Nothing,” “On Humour,” and “The Book of Dead Philosophers,” Critchley currently teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York and is the man behind “The Stone,” the New York Times’ extremely popular philosophy forum. “How to Stop Living and Start Worrying,” a collection of interviews with Critchley, was recently released by Polity Press.

Recently, Critchley visited Athens to give a brief lecture on violence at the industrial premises of EDW, a brand-new multidisciplinary venue in the up-and-coming Kerameikos district. He talked to Kathimerini English Edition about politics, violence and, one of his “top 5 philosophers,” Friedrich Nietzsche.

You visited Greece in the midst of a major economic, social and political crisis. Does philosophy have anything to offer to someone who has lost their job or house?

Absolutely. I take no pleasure in people losing their jobs and homes. But the fact is that people and in particular their governments in Greece and all across the European Union and elsewhere were living a lie, a kind of dream. It is sometimes extremely painful to wake up. The wisdom of ancient Greek philosophical traditions is essential here. Diogenes the Cynic threw away his cup when he saw someone drinking with their hands. Pleasure for Epicurus was a barley cake and a beaker of water. “Give me a pot of cheese,” he said, “and I will dine like a king.”

Do you see liberal democracy as a successful project? What are its main failures? Are there any alternatives?

I am not a very good liberal and the wrong person to ask about the success or otherwise of liberal democracy. It’s main current failure is the massive disconnection between the political class and those who that class are meant to represent. My alternative would be small-scale federalism based on direct democracy, or as close to that as possible.

What do you think of the EU project?

Not that much. It has prevented a war between France and Germany for the past 60 years, but I remain skeptical of its political ambitions. I agree with Paul Krugman that Greece’s entry into the euro effectively undermined national sovereignty.

You have lived in the United States for seven years now. How does it compare to Europe?

I don’t really live in the US. I live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan. I love this city because it is a city of foreigners where everyone is a visitor, a metic and no one is a native. I can’t speak about the US as a whole.

You have said that philosophy begins in disappointment. What is the meaning of that phrase? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Would you argue for a Nietzschean-style re-evaluation of values, as it were?

I remain very close to Nietzsche, in particular on the question of pessimism and optimism. For Nietzsche, rightly I think, there was something deeply nihilistic about the naive scientific belief in progress. Ancient Greek tragedy, by contrast, is an affirmation of life that succeeds by staring the worst in the face without flinching. Philosophy might begin with disappointment, but it doesn’t end there. It culminates in ethical commitment and political resistance, in my view.

On violence

In your Athens talk, you discussed violence. Most people in the audience seemed to suggest that the world we live in is a more violent world, compared to the past. Do you agree?

The world is a dark and violent place. Is it more violent that in the past? it is very hard to tell and it is also unclear what is often meant by violence. There is physical violence, of course, but also what we might call the “soft” violence of language itself and the violence of what often passes for peace.

You also said violence is never justified, but it is sometimes necessary. Can you explain further?

My view, but this is part of a much longer argument that comes out of a personal commitment to the ethics and politics of nonviolence, is that violence is sometimes necessary, but never justified. As a character in Jean-Luc Godard’s movie “Notre musique” puts it, “To kill a human being to defend an idea is not to defend an idea, it is to kill a human being.”

Left-wing discourse in Greece likes to justify physical violence as a rightful response to systemic violence, as it were. Do we risk losing the meaning of violence here?

Like I said, violence is sometimes necessary. But I am not one of those people who supports virile, heroic acts of political violence. But it is always important to remember that violence is a phenomenon with a history and that history is one of the cycles of violence and counter-violence that seems to catch subjects in a repetitive loop. My hope is that this loop can be broken.


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