Greece and film tourism:
When a British TV corporation requests to
film a TV series at Greek antiquities
In the following paragraphs I will discuss the recent decision of the Hellenic Archaeological Committee (KAS) to prohibit the BBC and director Park Chan Wook from filming at the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion near Athens. Apropos this event, I will elaborate on the concept of film tourism in Greece.
Korean filmmaker Park Chan Wook is directing a TV adaptation of John Le Carré’s 1983 novel “The Little Drummer Girl” an espionage novel about the hunt for a Palestinian terrorist by the Israeli Mossad. The series is programmed to air in 2019. For those not familiar with the universe of Le Carré, you may want to have a look at the BBC/AMC miniseries The Night Manager based on the eponymous novel. Filming was done at various international locations including Alexandria, the French Alps, Turkey and Majorca. The story is about a night manager at a five-star hotel in Egypt which hosts Hugh Laurie’s weapon smuggler who sells weapons to militant countries for billions. The night manager falls in love with Laurie’s mistress and becomes witness to her brutal murder. Swearing revenge, he collaborates with the British MI5 and tracks down Laurie. In similar fashion, The Little Drummer Girl follows an undercover agent who works with Mossad to capture a Palestinian terrorist, crossing numerous borders and leading to a transnational manhunt. Among the many illustrious locations is the Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounio located 78 kilometers south of Athens.
The Hellenic Archaeological Committee convened in the presence of the director who claimed to know the location very well adding that it has “a powerful image and impact”. The premises for the decision were, first, the time allocated to filming in situ – two days from 7am to 7pm – the personnel – at least 120 people and third the amount of technical equipment. All in all, these are issues that could severely impact the flow of daily visitations which in the summer period could reach up to 1,000 people. What’s more, and which is not mentioned in the article by newspaper I Kathimerini, certain activities can have a serious impact on the archaeological context, that is the ground surrounding the actual monument and damage the geological context. Most importantly, in my view what is indeed problematic is the way archaeological sites become commodities either for or because of a film or TV series. What really counts for cultural industries though in this case is that an initiative like filming a TV series that will reach millions of people, at lush Sounio, could attract many more tourists and boost Greece’s number one source of income.
Of course, tourism, with its kitsch commodification of culture and its culture of commodification, is nothing new especially in Greece. Tourism is traditionally a Southern European industry and a major source of income for Southern European seasonal industries. I will not go into any details on the cultural aspects of tourism in Greece. Everyone here I believe are familiar with the exotic image of Greece as an endless sun-drenched beach. What however does really interest me are the deeper implications of Greece, and particularly its ancient monuments and ruins as popular international filming locations.
The Committee’s decision is expected to be met with a fair deal of indignation. On the one hand it is for many another indication that the council has very close ties to the government and that it is ridden with Stalinist bureaucracy that make foreign investments and initiatives nearly impossible, not to mention that urban development is always an issue since digging and building in Greece inevitably mean that one will stumble on buried antiquities and a KAS decree. On the other, giving way to initiatives like that of the BBC could be beneficial for the country’s economy which has been in crisis mode for essentially ten years. At the moment, there are many who demand a more flexible liberal economy, open to foreign private investments in various forms in order to instigate further growth. I will not delve deeper into this but still, one needs to maintain a critical position towards such terms which have gained permanence and currency without ever questioning their purpose - essentially to perpetuate and strengthen capitalism in all its aspects, culture being one.
Foreign films have been made en masse in Greece for decades. Readers of this website probably are familiar with the Alexis Zorbas dancing his sorrows away on a Cretan beach, immortalized by Antony Quinn in Michalis Cacoyannis’s Zorba the Greek (1964). Then we have a foreign director and expat, Jules Dassin, who was married to Greek star and icon Melina Merkouri who also starred in Dassin’s Never on Sunday (1960), often criticized for its exotic image of Greece. Fast-forward 48 years to the box-office hit musical Mamma Mia (Loyd, 2008) starring Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Meryl Streep, filmed at Skopelos, an isle of the Aegean Sea. Mamma Mia was the fifth highest grossing film of 2008 according to Boxofficemojo.com. I haven’t seen it but just a look at the plot and trailer confirm my expectations as everything that make the Greek isles a major tourist attraction feature prominently. A quick Google search for ‘Kalokairi-Meteora” will land you on tripsavvy.com where one can find all the necessary information to visit the “island of Mamma Mia”. Clearly, from the viewpoint of Greek interest, the film fulfilled a major goal and, arguably, thanks to Mamma Mia there may have been a boost in tourism. Greece’s anemic economy of course is still ailing.
Interestingly, John le Carré’s novel “The Little Drummer Girl” has already been adapted for the cinema in 1983 by George Roy Hill. In keeping with the original text, the film features a lengthy sequence in Athens and on the island of Mykonos with sun-drenched beaches, dancing at taverns and a scene in which the film’s alleged terrorist takes Diane Keaton’s character to the Parthenon on a romantic night stroll where she gazes in sheer amazement at the ancient site. At the time, there were hardly any restrictions on filming at archaeological sites which made it possible for British director Alexander Mackendrick to film a sequence at the Acropolis for the Guns of Navarone (1961).
Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005) features a short sequence in a more urban landscape where again a group of Mossad agents hunt a Palestinian terrorist from Paris to Rome, the Middle East and Greece. The film could appear endearing and funny even to Greeks for this short sequence in which, in typical Hollywood fashion, the agents detonate a bomb in a central hotel inciting the rage of the Greek proprietor played by Michalis Yannatos who casts the famous “moutza” gesture to the agents. Yannatos also appeared in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin as Panelope Cruz’s father indicating also a popular role for Greek actors in international film productions made in Greece. If one again searches online for “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin/Kefalonia” (the Ionian Sea island where the film was made) your first finding will be the website Kefaloniatravel.com. Film tourism is very pertinent when one thinks of filming real-life locations sites in Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings and Mamma Mia.
The concept of Greek cinema and of Greece as an international filming location could be arguably one and the same as Greek audiences might have to start imagining Greek cinema, in an age of global interconnectedness, less as films made by and for Greeks and as films generally made in Greece. After all, in keeping with the question of ownership of the past and antiquities, a major premise of inquiry in archaeology, one needs to ask the same for cultural industries and particularly cinema. Can we reconceptualize Mamma Mia and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin as transnational films that can be claimed by more than one nation, including, for obvious reasons, Greece? At the same time, if the ancient past of Greece does belong to Greece and Greeks, how is it that it is compartmentalized, marketed and commodified (think of plastic souvenirs) almost exclusively for foreign visitors?
The most interesting case in point would have to be Nia Vardalos’s 2009 My Life in Ruins, a film that epitomizes the touristic image of Greece as a sun-bathed beach and the so-called “cradle of civilization” where one can experience the pleasures of a Dionysian lifestyle. Most importantly though, the film’s producers obtained permission to film on the sacred rock of the Acropolis which was literally a unique accomplishment since in recent years the KAS has applied stricter rules for filming in situ especially because it could be degrading for a sacred archeological site.
In a brilliant article  written by Greek film scholar Erato Basea, the writer discusses “Hollywood and holidays in Greece in times of crisis” apropos My Life in Ruins and argues that the film “functioned as a promotional tool for tourism to Greece”. Indeed, as Basea reveals, My Life in Ruins was offered support by the then newly founded Hellenic Film Commission Office (HFCO) and the KAS, investing in hopes for global commercial success. The film’s overreliance on the grotesque clichés surrounding holidays in Greece highlights the major anxieties of the country in 2009. The film came on the heel of desperate campaigns promoted by the National Tourist Organization. The first known in 2005 was the “come live your myth in Greece” which was often at the target of anarchist organizations and protests as though to put the spotlight on the reality rather than the fantasy of Greece. According to basea, in 2009, when My Life in Ruins was released, the slogan had changed to “Greece, 5000 Years Old: A Masterpiece you can afford”. So, in Basea’s words, “[…], as the first signs of a global financial crisis became visible, a nation’s economic anxieties were expressed and precariously invested in projects such as My Life in Ruins” (2012: 199).
The HFCO was established in 2007 to aid the work of the Greek Film Centre in providing support to international producers in Greece. An important prerequisite for filming by international producers in Greece firmly links filmmaking in Greece to the tourism sector: films should make use of Greece’s “excellent location, unique monuments, history and myths that you will not find in other countries, all under the best light of the sun” (HFCO 2012, seen in Basea 2012: 203). If anything, My Life in Ruins is the ideal example of such a campaign and Nia Vardalos its poster girl. Indeed, for Vardalos, gaining permission to film on the sacred rock of the Acropolis was a personal achievement which was used in the film’s promotion as well in order to designate the film as a tactile almost source of contact with the so-called “cradle of civilization” in order to ultimately feel compelled to visit the country. This is displayed with little pretence at the ending credits where the film’s colorful characters appear in bright snapshots on postcards with the writing “enjoy our holiday in Greece”. As Basea explicates
“[T]his is why perhaps, for protagonist Nia vardalos, shooting there was a personal accomplishment and, as she herself stated, with a pinch of irony and dry humour ‘[i]t was not easy. I had to fly to Greece, I had to shake a lot of hands, I had to do dinners, really assure the Greek Government that we would not break Greece” (2012: 203).
So, to return to my initial point, there are many reasons why the KAS should not permit filming at the Cape of Sounio. There are reasons that pertain to ethics in archaeological science: the ownership of the past and antiquity, its commodification, loss of context (historical and geological) that can be easily influenced and even permanently altered. On the other hand, there is the question of Greek cinema and Greek television. It has been debated often by film scholars how, for example, Spanish filmmakers have been de privileged by the multiple international productions made in Spain like the Sergio Leone Dollar trilogy. It is well known that Hollywood producers go on location scouting around the world. Think of Star Wars and how large fractions of the film were made in Tunisia or how Game of Thrones has been filmed partially in Ireland, Croatia and Spain. Of course, globalization and the global circulation of capital have come to define the new world order, in which case this phenomenon is inescapable. We live in a world where people, money, culture and commodities circulate through increasingly porous borders. The Little Drummer Girl’s creative background is a testimony to this since the series is made by a Korean filmmaker, whose Old Boy (2003) was remade by a Hollywood studio, and who now works for a major British media corporation. At the same time though that there should maybe more room for international productions like The Little Drummer Girl that utilize Greece as an exotic piece of scenery, there should be room for the opposite.
The latter may be discernible in the third and final installment of the Before films, specifically Before Midnight (Linklater 2013). The film was made entirely in the region of Kalamata, among olive groves surrounding an estate for agricultural tourism. In the film, the estate belongs to the character of Greek filmmaker Athena Rachel Tsangari and Walter Lassally, the cinematographer of Zorba the Greek who lived for half his life in Crete. I was lucky to meet the man who actually spoke fluently Greek and kept, against the regulations of the Motion Picture Academy, his Oscar for Zorba in a local restaurant at the village of Stavros.
As an expat, Lassally embodied the experience of such renowned British Grecophiles like Patrick Leigh Fermor who was comfortable in the UK and Greece simultaneoulsy. Before Midnight is interesting in how, as a film made entirely in Greece, it pertains to the values of American Indie cinema, of which director Richard Linklater is a major representative. The film uses the Greek landscape as a backdrop for the trilogy’s notorious long walks and lengthy dialogues which echo a different approach to the clichés of holidays in Greece and encourage contemplation contrary to the speed and mindless consumption of tourim. The couple’s long meanderings and dialogues have featured before in Vienna and Paris – major European tourist destinations. Yet, the long takes of the couple walking aimlessly highlight holidaying as a peripatetic practice like that of a flaneur that is someone who partakes in acts of discovery which adhere to the pleasures of a mobile vision that discovers and contemplates the mundane as a spectacular discovery. Simultaneously, the film’s walks through olive groves, long drives on mountainous roads and strolls at the port by night involve also strong confrontations between the film’s couple leading possibly to a separation and the realization that marriage and love often cannot endure. Contrary to My Life in Ruins, in Before Midnight holidaying in Greece does not necessarily lead to sexual stimulation, self-transformation and a discovery of Dionysian joy. Moreover, the appearance of a local and popular art-house filmmaker like Tsangari who has worked in diverse formats and experimented with short film and video-clip aesthetics showcases a connection in Linklater’s film to a wider world of film and filmmaking in Greece which Walter Lassaly’s presence embellishes. I also believe that, contrary to My Life in Ruins, this is a film that Greeks can enjoy watching.
Another even more challenging image of Greece by a Greek international filmmaker can be discerned in the films of Theo Angelopoulos and especially his later period following The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991). The latter was the first of an unofficial trilogy of borders, followed by Ulysses’ Gaze (1995) and Eternity and a Day (1998). In these, Angelopoulos illustrated his concerns over borders in post “Iron Curtain” Europe and especially the Balkans. For this reason, he filmed mostly at border regions in Greece’s North: The Suspended Step of the Stork is filmed at a refugee camp at lake Evros on the borders with Albania while Ulysees’ Gaze and Eternity and a Day have sequences in Florina, Ioannina and Thessaloniki. These areas feature a landscape that is a far cry from that of Zorba the Greek or My Life in Ruins. Moreover though, Angelopoulos persistently chose to film during the winter in order to capture the melancholy of the grey mountainous landscape. These films not only work against such problematic terms like “cradle of civilization” but furthermore contest the country’s mythical allure and single narrative that prevails discourses of tourism and holidaying.
In closing, if international cinema can somehow attract visitors to Greece, we should maybe be asking if Greek cinema can be international and if Greek filmmakers per se can act as tourist agents. This is a relevant question when it comes to small nations and national cinemas which don’t have the resources to contest the global outreach of Hollywood and American TV. I mentioned Tsangari earlier. Her breakthrough film Attenberg (2010), which came on the spur of Dogtooth’s immense success in art-house circles, features to a good extent the decaying urban landscapes of Northern Greece alongside the central narrative of a young woman’s sexual coming-of-age. This is another example of a film that shows real locations making a commentary on a part of Greece that does not pertain to a scopophilic gaze and tourist fantasy. In this reviewer’s opinion, if Greek cinema will not necessarily attract tourists but will show the many facets of the Greek landscape and people, it is necessary to first encourage and increase internal production, international distribution and wider acknowledgement of Greece neither as a commodity or an escapist paradise and affordable place for foreign investments. Greek cinema is vibrant and should travel beyond major festivals and art-house cinemas. This however firstly requires efforts for subtitling and distribution.
In the case of The Little Drummer Girl, I would add that it is unethical and even immoral to support the making of a TV series that openly promotes the image of a “Palestinian terrorist”. That of course is a very lofty expectation I guess as much as it is that prospective tourists would take an interest in films like All Cats are Brilliant (Voulgari, 2012), which offers an honest portrayal of Athens and its people or Edge of Night (Panayotopoulos 2000) which traverses the long road from Piraeus to Serres at the borders with Macedonia.
Yet, Greece’s current predicament, nearly ten years after My Life in Ruins and the blast of the financial crisis, has become the framework for another international tourist campaign. In particular, The Guardian offered tourist packages for a “Greek crisis holiday” which was marketed primarily as an “educational and informative tour of Modern Greece”. Thankfully, after online outcry, the offer and the page itself were taken off as it was rightfully pointed out that this is more like “crisis porn” and an attempt to capitalize on people’s misery.
 Erato Basea, ‘My Life in Ruins: Hollywood and Holidays in Greece in Times of Crisis’, Interactions: Studies in Communication and Culture, vol. 3 no. 2, 2012, pp. 199-208.
Dir. Tony Gatlif
Before I start discussing the latest film by Tony Gatlif I should provide the obvious disclaimer which is that Djam is not strictly speaking a ‘Greek’ film. If ‘Greek’ means a film made exclusively at Greek locations, with Greek money, by a Greek filmmaker and cast, then Djam has no place in this domain. However, the boundaries of national identity have been recognized to be insular and generally exclusive, leaving little room for diasporic, migrant and transnational films that deserve a Greek nationality because of their respective affiliations.
Djam is an ideal example of the transnational outreach of Greek cinema, Greece’s ethnically diverse cultural background and its very place. Located at the receiving end of eastern routes of migration, from Persia through Turkey, at the bottom end of the Balkans, to the Mediterranean South and Europe, Greece is an ideal location for films like Djam which epitomize the road movie, a genre that visualizes cross-border travel, the transformative appeal of the journey and encounters with different people, cultures and landscapes. Here, Greece is imagined as a transitory location, a stop on the journey to both East and West and a route of migration which thousands of people have been traversing for more than a century. The journey in Gatlif’s film is fascinating even more so because it contradicts the western imagination which often sees diasporic and migrant trajectories as a metaphor for the centrality of the West and the peripheral location of economically and socially unstable sending countries. Indeed, the journey in Djam is one of reverse migration as the protagonist travels from West to East similarly to diasporic journeys in the films of Fatih Akin.
This piece will address the use of location and primarily the image of Lesvos which, in this film, exemplifies exile and loss. Tony Gatlif places his modern-day Gulliver at the crossroads of Turkey and Greece and documents her coming-of-age journey as one of self discovery, homecoming and, eventually, homelessness. In this endeavor, he imbues her with the spirit of the Greek exiles of Asia Minor, the so-called ‘rebetes’. As a crossroads of migrant journeys, Lesvos is a fascinating and important cinematic location.
Like all of Gatlif’s films, Djam is a road movie that features a boisterous and adventurous character. The film is named after its heroine, a spirited young woman (Daphne Patakia) who lives in the crisis-ridden island of Lesvos with her stepfather Kakourgos (Simon Abkarian) an Armenian émigré who fell in love with Djam’s mother in Paris. Kakourgos owns a traditional ‘kafeneion’, a small restaurant where locals gather to drink and dine on ‘mezze’ platters. At the same time, he owns a small boat on which he takes tourists for trips around the island. The film opens on Lesvos and from the start we are plunged into the reality of Greece as menacing-looking bankers confiscate the property of Kakourgos’s friends forcing them to close shop.
The film’s journey is set into motion when Kakourgos sends Djam to Istanbul on a mission to find the only living iron welder who can manufacture a precious piece of mechanical equipment for kakourgos’s old boat which is stuck at the port. In Istanbul she will rediscover the spirit of the rebetes and embrace their odes to exile and longing. Equipped solely with a ‘tzoura’, a tiny bouzouki that harks back to Ottoman musical traditions, Djam sets off to Istanbul.
From one moment to the next, we are plunged into the exotic allure of oriental Turkey as we see Djam dressed in a traditional belly dancing outfit, performing for the patrons of a kafeneion in Istanbul. The scene is indicative of the nostalgic and playful image of Istanbul that Gatlif conjures in the film’s second quarter. Replete with musical interludes in crammed smoky restaurants where patrons drink ouzo and suck on ‘narjile’ pipes, the film’s Istanbul is a far cry from that of Erdogan’s Turkey where political unrest and persecution reign supreme. On the contrary, Istanbul is displayed as an escapist destination, though not the kind that is conjured in the scopophilic tourist imagination associated with consumer culture and the exotic. Gatlif does not aim for a realistic approach to this particular location, saving that for Djam’s sombre return to Lesvos. In the film, Istanbul is a musical capital, a melting pot of eastern musical traditions, of dance, song and togetherness – of ‘parea’ as it is referred to in Greek. This is what rebetiko exemplifies in this film which, in the Istanbul section, is to a great extent a musical. Most of the Istanbul sequence features Patakia singing and dancing in closed kafeneia, on the road at night on abandoned rail tracks playing music with other travelers and vagabonds. One of them is French Avril (Marine Cayon), a whimsical yet deeply confused character who joins Djam on her journey. When asked by Avril if the music that she plays on her tzoura is Turkish, Djam responds that ‘it is rebetiko, a mixture of Turkish and Greek music’. To a great extent, the film adheres to this principle of mixture by combining genres, languages, identities and life paths. It is an essential principle of transnational cinema and filmmaking and a signature theme of Tony Gatlif which further adds to the portrait of this city as a ‘melange’ as Djam says in French.
Djam’s visit to the iron welder is indicative of the film’s nostalgic hints to a bygone era. After hours of meandering through the city, she discovers the small shop of the man, allegedly the only one with the near-obsolete means to manufacture the spare part that is essential to the propelling mechanism of Kakourgos’s boat. The scene echoes a romantic sense of loss and longing for a pre-industrial DIY era of iron welders and merchants. Under a mystical almost lighting, the man prepares the spare part from scratch, with Djam gazing in awe. The finished product, a mere piece of metal, is given to Djam in ritualistic fashion, as though passing a treasured family secret down in history to the younger generation. The fact alone that Djam has to travel to Istanbul to find a single individual to fix a spare part for the boat that eventually will serve for another symbolic departure is an indication of the film’s playful (yet schematic) symbolism and the many connections between Greece and Turkey.
Istanbul is transformed into a stage for the rediscovery of working class culture and rebetiko which, following the trajectory of Djam’s journey, moves back to Greece in the form of her little tzoura which she carries like a backpack – a constant reminder of her own mixed identity. Like a modern-day Zorba, Djam is actually a more tangible and hybridized version of the Dionysian Greek man dancing his sorrows away on a Cretan beach. She embodies contemporary ‘hipster’ culture and the maturity and melancholy of rebetiko that is steeped in the pain of exile. At the same time, Djam is a far more complex and complicating figure as she reveals a profound connection to France, Greece and her stepfather’s heritage which harks to Armenia and its own mixed musical traditions from the Arab world.
Without passports, money or any belongings, apart from the precious tzoura and spare part, Djam and Avril cross the borders from Turkey into Thrace on foot. After days of walking, tired and worn-out, they find shelter at a dilapidating hotel whose owner has lost everything to the bank. This is one of the first major indications of the film’s appeal to current dealings in Greece and especially to the role of the banks. Gatlif has indeed managed to give a face to the evil behind the crisis and to the forces of neoliberal capitalism. In this seemingly abandoned hotel, the two vagabonds enjoy a more anarchic version of Greek hospitality, famously known as ‘filoxenia’, which echoes the hotel sequences in Panos Koutras’s Xenia (2014). There is no rent to pay, of course no hot water or breakfast but a sense of elation and freedom that is reminiscent of the kind of hospitality provided by anarchist and grassroots associations such as the Refugee and Solidfarity Space 'City Plaza' in Athens which offers shelter and support to refugees from all origins and walks of life. The hotel sequence is telling how the Greek urban landscape can be transformed and reused in the aftermath of the crisis.
Without a clear plan how to return to Lesvos, Djam and Avril board a taxi to Athens. On their way, a man in great distress (Yannis Bostantzoglou) begs the taxi-driver to take him to another remote location where he claims his son Panos (Kimon Kouris) is in great danger. The taxi arrives in rural Thessaloniki where indeed a young man is digging the ground in order to bury himself. The bank has just taken his convenience store and plunged him into greater debt. The scene reverberates with the pathos of an ancient Greek tragedy as Panos stands in the ditch and demands in tears that his father buries him. The playful mood of the film and the spirit of elation have given way to the stark realities of Greece and its people who, like modern-day rebetes, are forced in exile. This is not coincidental since this dramatic sequence seems to be taken from the lyrics of ‘Kaigomai' (I’m burning) composed by Stavros Xarhakos and written by Nikos Gatsos for the film Rebetiko (1983) by Nikos Ferris (see video below). The songs’ musical and lyrical content urge people to dance away their pain in the style of Portuguese duende and Spanish flamenco:
I’m burning yes I’m burning
Throw more oil into the flames
I’m drowning yes I’m drowning
Throw me into a deep deep sea
‘Kaigomai’ tells of someone who has nothing left to lose and who welcomes pain and suffering as a sole alternative to life. It is a profound display of pathos and the endurance that is an essential element of the Greek ethos. The stark setting of rural Thessaloniki is an ideal location for this display and the travails of the Greeks the ideal occasion. Naturally, the sequence ends in another kafeneion where Panos, drunk and in better spirits, dances and sings, breaks plates and performs various rituals of duende or, in Greek, ‘kaemos’, that require displaying strength, endurance and emotional gravitas. Once again, the kafeneion, either in Greece or Istanbul, is the ideal location of togetherness where people celebrate, drink in joy or misfortune, dance, sing, cry and rise above the occasion. Here one gets to see a more convincing and realistic impression of the exotic ‘other’ which Gatlif seems to enjoy immensely.
The transition from Istanbul to Greece and from euphoria to utter misery is abrupt, forcing the audience to contemplate on the many losses of the Greeks. The trajectory of the journey has brought Djam from a present to which she bears little connection, to the past and back to the inescapable present, forced to mature quickly and to discover her own life path which ultimately leads back to the road. Greece is thus not merely the locus of crisis but one of loss, human suffering and, finally, a place of departure.
Lesvos is at first a place of calm where we get a glimpse of the kind of slow and peaceful lifestyle of the Aegean islands. Djam helps an employee of the kafeneion to clean vegetables by the sea. They discuss the past and the future in a moment that echoes an obsolete economy and pace of life. In another ritualistic sequence, Kakourgos replaces his boat’s spare part setting it into motion and inciting a sense of wanderlust. Nevertheless, another abrupt transition replaces elation with despair as black-clad bankers approach Kakourgos with bad news. Before this though, the film makes a foray into the ongoing refugee crisis that has entirely altered the island’s image and made it an internationally known hotspot. Gatlif raises a mirror to ongoing developments in Greece and portrays Lesvos as the contemporary epicenter of exile and homelessness.
Just 4.1 kilometres away from the Turkish coast, Lesvos has become a major gateway for refugees en route to continental Europe. They cross a path that takes them through Turkey to Greece hoping to make it further north but ultimately find themselves trapped in Greek detention centres where they are kept under inhumane conditions. Lesvos has been confronted with massive numbers of refugees and asylum seekers and, at the same time, locals and refugees are confronted with the incompetence of the Greek state and the reluctance of the European Union which offers very little leeway to a country without the necessary resources to appropriately manage the situation.
The island has become the centre of attention and a popular point of reference for the loaded term ‘crisis’. Local and international media have capitalized on the Greek crisis and on the presence of refugees who are portrayed as the penultimate image of ‘crisis’, conjured either as desperate individuals in need of (white) charity or as a threat to the body of the host nation. In addition, TV and cinema celebrities, including Susan Sarandon and stars of Game of Thrones, Homeland and The Walking Dead, have flown to the island to help human rights organizations and to possibly promote their own image as charitable individuals.
Apropos the media’s treatment of the event, it is no surprise that there was a lot of commotion in relation to the notorious image of a female refugee who arrived at a beach in Lesvos carrying a smart phone. The image was reproduced on TV news numerous times provoking protests of surprised Twitter users. The media in Greece particularly has exploited the confrontations that take place between angry locals, nationalists, solidarity organizations and refugees. The latter are continuously portrayed in a state of ‘crisis’ leaving thus little room for humanity and individuality not to mention the possibility of integration.
The media has also been heavily preoccupied with the protests of Greek parents who do not wish to see Muslim refugee kids in the same school as Greek kids. This, unfortunately, receives hardly any criticism by the media while, at the same time, acts of solidarity are criminalized. So, Lesvos is generally a kind of madhouse, torn apart by ‘crisis’ and infiltrated by ‘strangers’.
Little of this however is on display in Djam. On the contrary, Gatlif makes very smart and careful use of this contemporary facet of the island proving that cinema has the power to confront xenophobic media discourse. In a short yet powerful sequence, Avril, in her own decisive moment of maturity, discovers a heap of life vests on a secluded spot of the island. The image speaks for itself. What is however more important is that Gatlif manages to say so much without showing or articulating. The vests are an indication of the vast numbers of displaced people who have come and gone from Lesvos and left this significant bit of their journey behind as a reminder of the journey, its perils and of the transitory nature of Lesvos. It is a reminder of how many risked their lives and died on their way and at the same time drives home in the most realistic and convincing manner the films’ preoccupation with exile. As empty life vests, they are signifiers of loss, of that which is not there. As such, it is not available to sensationalize, an issue that has influenced many European filmmakers who very often resort to images of dead refugees in their attempt to stimulate ‘white guilt’ and to even encourage charity (rather than solidarity).
At the film’s finale, Kakourgos is forced to close shop while Djam struggles to stop the confiscation of their belongings by the bankers at whom she screams spits and curses. Coming to terms with their life paths, Kakourgos, Djam and Avril depart on the boat. The latter is now a symbolically loaded location as well since it carries not only the memory of Kakourgos, a man who came to Greece through Armenia and France, but that of the rebetes. In the boat’s interior, he has hung the only items he has managed to salvage from his restaurant – old photographs of rebetes with their families and fellow musicians. So, like modern-day rebetes, Kakourgos and Djam depart and embrace a life of exile. The final scene further hints to the exodus of many young Greeks today who are forced to flee because of unemployment, with little possibility of returning.
In closing, the film’s prevailing themes are very pertinent to transnational filmmaking and to scholarly debates on borders and cinema and how films can transcend them. Djam confuses the boundaries of nationhood and the fixity of culture offering an exciting and contemporary vision of rebetiko and Greece. A good quarter of the film is spoken in Greek and takes place in Greek territory but above all, it provides a cinematic experience of contemporary Greece that few indigenous filmmakers have managed to. With Djam, Gatlif traces the roots of Greece’s culture and sings a chorus in minor key on themes that have been essential to the Greek imagination – the sea, exile, the East, the diasporic roots of Greeks, their music and what keeps them together in difficult times.