Sunday, November 18, 2007

Spotlight on Greece

When one thinks of Greece, the images that come to mind are either those of the beautiful Greek Islands or the fascinating historical structures of Athens. But what about Northern Greece that shares a border with Eastern Europe? Even though Greece is grouped in Western Europe, it is south of Eastern European countries such as Albania, Bulgaria and Macedonia. Decades ago this East-West divide was made on political grounds but unfortunately, this tag of Eastern vs Western Europe still holds in today's age of the European Union.

Online Map/Still. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 18 Nov. 2007

Greek soccer as a history lesson:

My education of European geography has partly been fueled by European soccer but unfortunately Greek soccer has failed to give me an accurate picture of Greece. Just like Turkish soccer is dominated by three teams from Istanbul, Greek soccer is dominated by the big three from Athens -- Olympiacos, Panathinaikos and AEK Athens. Olympiacos is the biggest of the three and have won 35 league titles including 10 of the last 11 championships. Panathinaikos have won 19 titles with AEK Athens bagging 11. The last time a team other than the three won a title was Larissa back in 1988, almost 2 decades ago. In fact, during the entire history of the Greek Championship from 1928 to 2007 (no championships were held from 1940-45), only 6 titles have gone to teams outside the big three. Larissa have one title, with two teams from Thessaloniki claiming the other 5 titles -- Aris with 3, PAOK with 2.

While Greek soccer may not highlight the different Greek cities & cultures, this uneven balance does explains the nation's one-sided structure -- Athens is not only the capital but also the financial hub. Not to mention the historical significance that Athens occupies in Greek history. So if soccer can't broaden my view of Greece, then surely Cinema can help? Right? Thankfully, this is where Theodoros Angelopoulos comes in.

The Balkan Connection -- opening the borders:

Theo Angelopoulos' 1995 film Ulysses' Gaze takes a look at Greek ties with its neighbouring Balkan countries. Harvey Keitel plays a Greek director who returns from America in search of three missing reels of the first ever Balkan movie. But the search for the three missing reels proves to be an elusive quest. His search for the reels takes him to neighbouring Albania, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and eventually Bosnia. It turns out that each country has an equal claim to the film reels and as the director drifts from border to border, his past flashes before him. The memories of his childhood are mixed with the present political situations he finds himself in, such as the ongoing war. One interesting aspect of the movie is that the same actresses is used to play different roles in each country. This simple technique conveys the fact that no matter which country the director goes to, he sees the same image of the woman he desires. If people are the same everywhere then what is the need for fictional borders?

There are plenty of beautiful shots in the movie like the following poetic and haunting sequence which depicts a statue of Lenin being transported.

With the fall of communism, there is no longer any need to have Lenin displayed everywhere. In a subtle manner, the movie shows the changing political landscape of the Balkan nations and their re-birth after years of communism. Despite the noble intentions, Ulysses' Gaze is a bit disjoint and tends to oscillate between interesting moments and dullness in equal parts.

Exile and Love:

Even though Angelopoulos's 2004 film The Weeping Meadow starts off with scenes of a border crossing, the movie is about Greek political history over a span of three decades. At the film's start, exiled Greeks return from Odessa in 1919 to settle back in their homeland; the returning Greeks have been promised land in Thessaloniki to start their new life. One of the newly returned citizens is a young orphan girl, Eleni. Eleni is the film's central character and the story follows her life from childhood to teenage love, marriage and growth of her two children against the backdrop of communism, World War II, a Greek civil war (where a brother is pitted against brother) and exile of Greeks to America to start a new life.

In some aspects, this film covers the same grounds as Emir Kusturica's Underground in showing how war can tear a country apart. While Underground was a vibrant film which focused on surreal elements, The Weeping Meadow takes a realistic approach to the tragedies that surround the characters. But just like Undergound, The Weeping Meadow features some haunting gypsy music which provides joy to the characters in moments of their sorrow.

The film features some amazing visuals which make use of brown and greyish tones to depict the character's bleak situations.

This is supposed to Theo's first film of a proposed trilogy. It will be interesting to see what direction he will take with the other two films.

Greek-Turkish Rivalry:

Historically, there has been has a rivalry between Greece and Turkey. But when did this rivalry start? One clue can be found in the name of AEK Athens. AEK spells out Athlitiki Enosis Konstantinoupoleos or the Athletic Union of Constantinople. The history of the club reveals that the team was founded in 1924 by Greek refugees who returned from Constantinople following the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922. That war forms one aspect of the rivalry with a more recent one being that of Cyprus.

"Cyprus." Online Map/Still. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 18 Nov. 2007,

Shamefully, I knew nothing of the two nations historical involvement over Cyprus. I had hoped that Mihalis Kakogiannis' documentary Attila '74 would provide some answers. Kakogiannis does provide some historical context of Cyprus prior to its independence in 1960 but the film does not answer even the basic question of how the 1974 war started or who fired the first shot. Kakogiannis focuses more on the displacement of the innocent Cypriots who were caught in the political cross-fire and gives a voice to the locals plight. But when Kakogiannis tries to dig up reasons for the war, he unfortunately interviews the wrong people. As a result, the political message in the documentary appears to be more propaganda rather than an objective historical portrayal.

Romance and a Greek Tragedy:

It would have been unfair to not have included a film in the Greek spotlight which didn't feature those picturesque Greek islands. Kakogiannis' 1956 film A Girl in Black starts off with beautiful images of white washed buildings of Hydra.

The small population of Hydra means that all the local residents know each other and one person's affair is gossip material for everyone else. This over-intrusive behaviour can force a person to live in a constant state of hell. Such is the case of Marina, who is hounded and chased for an affair she had a few years back.

When Pavlos, a visiting tourist, arrives in Hydra, Marina temporarily finds happiness. This is one of the few shots where we actually see a smile on her face.

Some of the island's macho men can't stand the fact that a stranger can fall for one of the locals, especially Marina. Christos is the leader of the macho group and he has more reason to be jealous because he once had an affair with Marina. He plots a revenge to teach Pavlos a lesson. But as it turns out, that lesson leads to a wider scale tragedy that has an impact on most of the island's residents.

Plenty of interesting aspects stand out from the revenge that Christos and his group plan. Even though certain locals know that Christos is responsible for the tragedy, they are willing to be quiet and are instead content with heaping blame on Pavlos's arrival to the island. This nature of a group of men sticking together despite the obvious evil deeds of a group member is such a commonly found problem in modern society -- 'us' against 'them', locals vs outsiders. Even though it was clear that the local macho men were always looking for trouble, the island residents were more than willing to turn a blind eye to everything Christos & his group did and instead lay blame on the foreigner.

Overall ratings out of 10:
A Girl in Black (1956, Director Mihalis Kakogiannis): 9
The Weeping Meadow (2004, Director Theodoros Angelopoulos): 8.5
Ulysses' Gaze (1995, Director Theodoros Angelopoulos): 7.5
Attila '74 (1975, Director Mihalis Kakogiannis): 6

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