One image of Greece is the beautiful country of pristine beaches, white-washed villages, seashore taverns and wild joy. That is the image projected by The Greek Tourist Organization and companies that want to attract visitors to Greece.
The other image, the one seen on television and described in other media, especially in the last ten years, resembles more a film noir, dark, somber, gloomy, and pessimistic. Violence in the streets, sections of cities that look as if they had been bombed and people that are fighting to survive or simply leaving the country. That is the “other” Greece.
Producer and director Panayioti Yannitsos has found an original and brilliant way of examining his ancestral fatherland in his extraordinary film Freedom Besieged. The documentary has a large number of people who appear on camera with their diagnoses, commentary, ideas and remedies for the Greece of today and far more importantly, the Greece of tomorrow. These are not people who are trying to attract tourists or condemn the past. They are facing reality and what can be done.
The film opens with as simple question: what does it mean to be a Greek? A substantial number of people are asked the question from all walks of life and not one of them gives an answer. Yannitsos then turns to the shooting by police of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a 15-year old student that resulted in widespread riots and extensive property damage. Yannitsos presents a picture of war-like confrontations and gratuitous violence by well-armed police (including gas masks) against unarmed civilians.
The film moves onto interviews with young people who express hardships, difficulties and at times hopelessness at the situation where some forty per cent of them are unemployed and as many as six hundred thousand leave Greece for good.
But Yannitsos has a far broader concern and way of looking at modern Greece. He concentrates on the young and not so young who are looking for a solution instead of bemoaning their outcast state. The answer lies in today’s youth and the people who have ideas and inspiration for them to achieve their potential as individuals.
One example of this is what a former Torontonian named John is doing in his village. John runs a youth basketball camp in his village where he trains, cajoles, yells at and simply inspires young boys and girls as they train and play. He yells, entertains, mildly disciplines but mostly inspires, at no small cost to himself, the young to do their individual best.
Yannitsos finds centers of optimism based on inventiveness and hard work. In the mountains of Euboea, young people have developed a village that emphasizes sustainability. A 15-year old boy from Thessaloniki, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, as they say, has developed an online site for teens to communicate with each other. There are examples where the key to success is originality. The Ancient Greeks were successful because they were original and that may be a good defining feature of a Greek.
There is a stunting array of people that Yannitsos interviews on camera. Foremost intellectual Noam Chomsky, Michael Dukakis, athletes Pyrros Dimas (Olympic medalist), Yorgos Karagounis (star soccer player), Dimitri Diamantidis (basketball star), doctors, psychologists, engineers, philosophers, and at some length Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Prime Minister.
The film shows some panoramic views of Greek cities and the countryside that are a pleasure to watch. But the most important aspect is the commitment, the optimism, the dynamism and the enthusiasm shown by the young director and the youth that he found to marry the country of pristine beaches sand white-washed villages with a nation of achievement and progress.
A major accomplishment.
Freedom Besieged was shown on October 6, 2019 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.
James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press