Testament and truths

Image of Peter Aspden

How do artists depict a moment of social and political magnitude even while it is happening all around them? They are not journalists. They are unused to engaging with the daily ebb and flow of events. They take, so it is presumed, the longer view, provide the deeper insight. But technological wizardry pushes them towards ever-swifter reaction. You can make a drawing on an iPad, and a film with a telephone. Instant judgment and shallow commentary are the currency of our times. Should they resist?

At Geneva’s Human Rights film festival and forum, which concluded last weekend, I saw Krisis, a self-financed documentary made by two young Greek filmmakers, Nina Maria Paschalidou and Nikos Katsaounis, that attempts to address the financial storm engulfing their native land. It was brave of them to try. The issue is contentious and difficult to understand. It has deep roots, but also lurches from catastrophe to relative calm in the space of a few hours. It is almost abstract in some of its rarefied language, but has drastic consequences on a working population whose needs are anything but abstract. It is the news story from hell, from which few commentators can find any positive outcome.

Such is the present consternation of the Greek population that the filmmakers might have been forgiven for presenting their subject on a screen saturated in various shades of black, like a late painting by Mark Rothko, an artist who after all found inspiration in the dull fatalism of Greek tragedy. But they didn’t. They chose to blanket Greece with a crew of subcontracted filmmakers, photographers who had little experience of the moving image, but who would use their practised eyes to capture moments and characters from deep inside the nation’s hinterland.

For a year, between the Septembers of 2010 and 2011, these pop-up directors filmed a variety of Greeks opining on what they felt about being Greek in this day and age. They found a 103-year-old farmer climbing a stepladder to pick olives from a tree. They asked a fighter pilot for his views. Young Athenian anarchists tried to explain why they no longer believed in the political system that was born more than two millennia ago in their own city.

It makes for an eclectic conversation. I took note of some of the adjectives that were used by the documentary’s subjects to describe their homeland. “Decadent”. “Theocratic”. “Egotistical”. They struck me as both true and contradictory. That is a clue to the chaos. Interspersed with the comments from ordinary people are some analytical observations from representatives of the political class, which offer at least a coherent backdrop to current events.

Any proper understanding of Greece needs to take into account the Ottoman occupation, the civil war of the 1940s, the military junta that seized power in April 1967, an ironic prelude to the summer of love. During that last dark period, my family used to receive letters from Greek relatives that were postmarked, in unironic English: “Visit Greece and learn the truth”. The regime was desperate for visitors to discover Greece’s sun and sea, but possibly not the torture of its political prisoners.

Truth is what concerns Paschalidou and Katsaounis too. But it is a postmodern truth, told in fragments, unembarrassed by its modesty. After the screening, which was generally well-received but caused some discomfort among left-leaning parts of its audience, the filmmakers explained their mission to me. Katsaounis said they were in search of a “new objectivity” that consisted of a plurality of subjective voices. Singularity of vision was to be found amid diversity of views. E pluribus unum. “We wanted to put forward the introspective face of Greece,” he said. “This film is about common sense. It is not about propaganda.”

The conversation that followed the film was equally riveting, and equally contentious. A panel included Roberto Lavagna, former minister of the economy for Argentina between 2002 and 2005. Lavagna was instrumental in his country’s refusal to bow to international pressure to implement austerity measures, leading to its notorious default of 2002, and subsequent slow recovery. He has become a kind of folk hero among audiences hostile to the workings of international finance, and is much in demand among Greek optimists.

I asked Léo Kaneman, the festival’s artistic director, why Krisis had been included in a festival on human rights. It was, he said, partly to dissuade larger countries from thinking that they could dictate the politics of more vulnerable nations, and partly to draw attention to the potential rise of the rightwing nationalist groups that perennially stalk economic crises. The artistic quality of the film brings in the audiences, especially the young, while the forum expands the issues at stake. “The debate is not about the film, but about the questions raised by the film,” he said.

Of course neither Krisis nor the subsequent conversation around the topic of Greece’s finances brought us closer to a dignified exit strategy for the country. But the film ends on a defiantly upbeat note. That may be down to the amount of time that its makers have spent in the US – Katsaounis still lives in New York – but it is also something they saw as a responsibility.

“There is not a single conversation I had with a person who didn’t see the bright side,” said Katsaounis. “Greece has been through a lot of shit. Compared to the second world war, the civil war, the dictatorship, this is a bump in the road.”

Images of young people forming anti-litter squads hinted at a new urge to reject the fatalism of old, and take control of the future. But they were no more than hints. Katsaounis said a degree of “gentleness and humility” was required, but he knows these are rare qualities in a political landscape attuned to shrill promises and grandiose claims.

We are used to artists amplifying and magnifying human experiences in their work. But sometimes they need to do the opposite: to damp down, to de-dramatise, to bring things to a more rational plane. There is art that elevates the spirit, and art that shepherds it to a more reflective place. Krisis is nothing more than a starting point; but Greece needs to start.


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