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.