Denise Harvey is a small independent publisher, working from Evia (or Euboea), a large island not very far from the Attica region. Born in the UK, she moved to Greece more than fifty years ago, enchanted by its history and natural beauty. As she says in her site, living there made her realise that “there was a Greece to pursue beyond the demarcations of history and dates and its physical beauty [...] something beyond that which immediately gives [people] delight and pleasure in the Greece they encounter today”.
Denise Harvey’s publications feature books that are primarily, but not exclusively, concerned with various manifestations of the culture of modern Greece: its literature, history and music, “its natural beauty and forms of life in both city and country, how Greek people see themselves and others, and how others see them, and the Orthodox Church that is the matrix within which much of what can be defined as modern Greek culture has been formed”. We interviewed* Harvey on her experience of living in Greece, her perception of contemporary Greek culture and the struggles of maintaining a small book publishing company today.
Denise Harvey with Philip Sherrard
What is it that attracted you to Greece in the first place?
I seem to remember that the seed was sown by a travel article in an English Sunday newspaper about Monemvasia which had been sent to me by a friend: it described wonderful stone houses, narrow streets, no electricity, a handful of people still clinging to their traditional way of life. I was at the time living and working in Germany for USAFE (United States Air Forces in Europe) at Weisbaden. The base had a magnificent library facility for its personnel, with a most sympathetic librarian in charge of it, so I went there to find some books about Greece, present-day as opposed to ancient Greece, and came home initially with a book entitled The Pursuit of Greece, an anthology of writings selected by Philip Sherrard, with many evocative full page black and white photographs by Dimitri Papadimos.
That book made an enormous impression on me. Its Introduction explores the spell that Greece has cast over so many people and how its modern post-Byzantine image assumed new dimensions, a new complexity. In it I read my first translations of Greek poetry — Sikelianos, Elytis, Seferis, Karouzos — and texts by such people as Patrick Leigh Fermor, Alexandros Papadiamandis, Robert (not Lord) Byron, Fotis Kondoglou, Kevin Andrews, and Silouan of the Holy Mountain. It was as if I had come under the spell without even having set foot there. Not many more months passed before I did.
In your site you quote Philip Sherrard (many works by whom have been published by you): “Greece is not and never has been a lost paradise or a haven for tourists or an object of study, and those who approach her as if she were any of these will always fail to make any real contact with her”. Does this phrase express your own thoughts? How do you think Greece can be really understood?
This quotation comes from the end of the Introduction that I refer to above and I do agree with it, although of course for many it has been a lost paradise, tourist haven and an object of study. The first important influence on Philip was George Seferis whose poetry he began to translate into English shortly after his first visit to Greece in 1946. Lines from a letter that Seferis sent him particularly impressed him:
‘There is a process of humanisation in the Greek light . . . Just think of those cords that bind man and the elements of nature together, this tragedy which is at once natural and human, this intimacy. Just think how the light of day and man’s blood are one and the same thing.’
Of Seferis, Philip later wrote:
‘It is as if Seferis thought, not by discursive reasoning but intuitively, in terms of natural objects, in terms of sensual images. It is as if the subject of his thought revealed itself to him not as an abstraction divorced from the rest of life, but in all its relationships not only to other ideas but to nature as well.’
I think these two quotations help to explain the ‘real contact’ Philip writes of in his Introduction, which, to quote him again, he saw as a search for ‘the living fate of Greece, which is not a doom but a destiny, a process rather in which past and present blend and fuse, in which nature and man and something more than man participate.’
As to the reason why I have published many works by Philip Sherrard, it is simply, but not only, that some ten years after I borrowed that book from the library in Germany I actually met him in Athens, and went on to marry him, and have since reprinted a number of his writings when the original editions went out of print, including — how could I not! — The Pursuit of Greece.
How did your interest in Modern Greek literature develop?
My first two years in Greece I spent in Mani, then moved to Athens in 1969. The dictatorship notwithstanding, and in some ways because of it, it was a very exciting place to be. The cost of living was minimal and rents were cheap and enabled a bohemian way of life that was very attractive to aspiring poets, writers and young scholars, mainly non-Greek, most of whom, like me, had come to Greece before April 1967 when the colonels staged their coup. The Greek element of serious committed literary people was always present at our gatherings; many were the evenings when the tavern owner closed his shop down and left us at his tables with a good supply of wine and we talked through the night. Not a small number of our company were active in the resistance to the dictatorship, and not silent about it either. During those years, in addition to other jobs I worked as a ‘stringer’ and journalist -I remember one of the pieces I wrote was on Greece being a nation of poets with statistics on how many volumes of poetry were published each year, an unbelievable number- and I also produced books for the academic publisher Adolf Hakkert and an occasional volume for Oxford University Press. Those activities brought me in touch with a lot of people in the literary world in Greece.
Do other foreign nationals share that interest? Have your publications managed to attract a viable readership?
I hope they do but fear that now a great many of them probably do not. Greece is no longer a haven for penniless foreign writers who are the most faithful supporters of small publishers like myself when it comes to buying books about the literature and culture of the country they are presently living in. One can no longer live in Greece on a shoestring. It would seem to me that foreign nationals with sufficient money to buy books are for the most part in the business world and on the whole they simply do not have the time to search out and read such books. Another factor is that, because of the economic crisis, the majority of bookshops still surviving in Greece are unable to stock books on their shelves as they used to in the past, and so they mostly upload titles with limited popularity on to their websites and only order them if they get an actual firm order for a particular title. That’s a very different way of finding a book which one maybe is attracted to read. Lost is the delight of discovering something which really interests one among a host of others on a shelf in a bookshop, and then flicking through it to get a taste of it; and not only that but having the opportunity to appreciate the quality (or not) of the publication, its design and general feeling. A book is a material thing and its content should participate in and contribute to its physical presentation, but that seems to happen less and less nowadays.
So, along general lines, I have to say that my readership is really very much on the edge of being ‘viable’. My two publications on rebetika music (one in English, the other in Greek) still sell steadily albeit slowly after many years, for which I am grateful, and somewhat surprisingly the translations of Papadiamandis haven’t done so badly, and neither have the poetry translations, but, for instance, the selected essays of Zissimos Lorenzatos (The Drama of Quality), who was one of modern Greece’s most significant men of letters, hardly sells at all. Also, my most recent publication, Loxandra by Maria Iordanidou, which is about a Greek family living in Constantinople before the first World War and which has been and still is one of the best selling titles of all time in Greece that one might describe as an iconic book for Greeks, has been almost totally ignored by the English book buying public in Greece and Greek booksellers generally. The biggest surprise is the book I first published in 2005: Wounded by Love, The Life and Wisdom of Elder (now Saint) Porphyrios, which was translated from the Greek original published by the Holy Convent of Chrysopigi in Crete. It is a very unusual book, and written in a way totally different from most hagiographic books published in Greece, and is constantly in demand, a revealing indicator of spiritual hunger — ‘man is . . . thirsty like the grass’ as Seferis puts it his long poem ‘Last Stop’.
Since the outbreak of the crisis, has foreign interest in Greek literary production been affected negatively or positively?
I’m afraid that I can’t answer that. Working from my home on a Greek island, Evia, albeit an island that is accessible to the mainland by road, and no longer being in Athens, or in London, or some capital city somewhere, I am very much on the fringe of things, and although I keep in touch with what is being published in English translation from the Greek I don’t know how successful those publications actually are. To move permanently from Athens to Evia was my choice of course, and I don’t regret it. Decentralisation was for me an important thing even before the ‘crisis’ hit. I think it is an important concept for Greece generally, for all those who can manage it, and especially now with the present economic situation.
Among your publications of works of fiction or poetry we find almost exclusively titles from modern classics. Is it because you find no particular interest in recent contemporary Greek writers or does it have to do with a specialisation, a specific profile you want to maintain for your editions?
Alas, the lack of contemporary Greek writers in the books I publish is mostly due to economic reasons. In the ‘old days’, let’s say from the First World War onwards, people interested in literary treasures from another culture, if they had the capacity to do so, translated those texts into their mother language out of love and admiration for the original texts. They were not commissioned to do so, and I think they were very rarely paid for it except perhaps after publication, if in fact the work was subsequently published; their satisfaction came from the delight of sharing it with others, and it was also a way of establishing their credentials as a literary person, especially through the medium of literary journals where such translations were mostly first published. Then, in Greece anyway, and I am sure elsewhere, there were also some writers who had the economic facility to pay a translator to translate their work or works in the hope they would subsequently interest a publishing house outside Greece. This rarely happens anymore.
If somebody would come to me with a fine English translation of the work of a contemporary Greek writer, of course I would consider it for publication and I would especially welcome that. But with regard to your question of ‘viability’ above, the chances of it selling in sufficient numbers to cover even its production costs is for me something of a gamble, which concomitantly means that usually I am not in a position economically to pay for its translation as well. I don’t have the promotional machine that is needed nowadays to launch and sell a book as they are presently marketed by major publishing companies; selling books has become, like so much else, something of a cut-throat business and I have to rely on the work’s intrinsic quality for it to sell — which I do, and which, with considerable patience, pays out in the end. That is not to say that if I suddenly found myself with a best seller on my hands then of course there would be provision for its translator to benefit as well.
Does Greece lack a comprehensive state policy related to the support of publishers and the promotion of Greek book production?
At present I would say it does, not in principle but in kind: but how could it be otherwise these days given the country’s ‘hard times’? Fortunately there are a number of Greek philanthropic organisations that try to fill that gap, and all must be grateful to them, as one must also be to a surprising number of people who do not necessarily have an obvious connection with Greece but who support cultural endeavours within it in many and often unsung ways.
*Interview by Nefeli Mosaidi
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Athens - World Book Capital City of 2018; Dimitris Sotakis on the Potential of Greek Writers and the Appeal of Greek Literature Abroad; Popi Gana on the Current Challenges and Future Prospects of the Greek Book Market; Evangelia Avloniti and Katerina Fragou on Greek Literature Abroad & the Greek Book Market; Richard Pine on Greek-Irish Encounters; "Teriade": an Art enthusiast seen by Simos Korexenidis; Rebetiko music: From the margins to the mainstream
Minas Borboudakis is a Greek pianist and composer of international acclaim, who lives and works in Munich, Germany. Born in Crete, Borboudakis started studying piano and music theory at an early age and, at eighteen, he continued his education on piano and composition in Munich and Hamburg. Throughout his studies and career he has earned various scholarships and prizes, such as the third place at the Günter Bialas International Chamber Music Competition (2002), the Bayerischer Kunstförderpreis for musical composition (2004), the Rodion Shchedrin Chamber Music Award (2005) and the Christoph and Stephan Kaske Foundation prize.
Borboudakis’ compositional style is influenced by microtonality, percussive timbres, and sliding sounds. He has been commissioned musical works by renowned musical institutions, and his compositions have been performed by famous orchestras; these include the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Radio Symphony Orchestras of Munich, Stuttgart and Saarbrücken, the RAI National Symphony Orchestra, the Athens State Orchestra, the American Wind Symphony Orchestra and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich.
He has collaborated with institutions and festivals such as the Bavarian State Opera, the Deutschlandfunk public broadcasting radio station, the MDR Musiksommer, the Kasseler Musiktage and the Young Euro Classic music festivals, while his first composition for music theatre, liebe. nur liebe (love. only love) premiered at the 2007 Munich Opera Festival. In March 2018, the Greek National Opera premiered Borboudakis’ opera Z, a rare example of a Greek-speaking opera, on a libretto by Vangelis Hatziyannidis, under the stage direction of Katerina Evangelatos. We spoke* with Minas Borboudakis about his recent works and his sources of inspiration.
The oldest of your compositions, listed on your official website, dates from 1991, when your where seventeen. How old were you when you first started composing music?
In fact, I started writing music from a very early age, when I was as young as five years old; I was taught music by use of the Orff Approach and, by the time I was able to write notation, I remember I had written down a small piece for flutes, xylophones and drums. But I started actually composing at around thirteen or fourteen, when I began my lessons with Yorgos Kaloutsis, my teacher, who was always very supportive of my early experimentations with composition and very helpful with any questions I had. At that age, the process of making music, which I really enjoyed, started to take up more and more of my time.
What were your initial influences in music? Did these change through your musical education?
I had countless influences; I can’t even remember what the first of them were, to be honest. But I do remember I had always loved the element of sound, whatever that was, from a song to the slam of a door; it always caught my attention. Also the rhythmic element, which could be found either in traditional Cretan music or in the pop, rock and jazz music I listened to as a child. My more conscious influences were introduced when I was a teenager and were ever changing. At first it was composers of the likes of Beethoven, Mozart, then I moved on to Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók, later to Olivier Messiaen and other more contemporary creators. It is part of a composer’s everyday job to study and analyse other composers’ sheet music; so there are always new influences and there is a great beauty to this, because it keeps you in motion. After all, you can’t create anything, you can’t produce anything if you are isolated and have no external influence. It is a very natural and ever evolving process.
When did your interest in microtonal music begin? Could you explain its basic features to those unfamiliar with it?
My actual interest in microtonal music began around 2000, during my studies in Hamburg, when I was listening to a lot of music by Iannis Xenakis and I delved into his works and his philosophy. Xenakis had deep knowledge of the theory of Aristoxenus, and that led me to research the music systems of the ancient Greeks, which also contain microtonal elements. So I found myself engaged in microtonality, having followed a completely different path than the one followed by my peers. As a rule, one is introduced to microtonal music via spectral music.
The term “microtones” signifies intervals smaller than a semitone, the use of which leads to interesting musical results. When microtones are combined to create harmony, the outcomes are more interesting and more sophisticated than those we get from a classical harmony, which features a combination of tones and semitones. Micro-intervals provide us with an array of infinite combinations. Of course the element of sound and instrumentation also plays an important role in formulating different soundscapes.
Are you influenced by Greek music? Do you consider yourself a Greek composer, or maybe a European one?
As I mentioned earlier, I am influenced by dozens of genres, and these change over time. As regards the question about national identity, there was a time when I would say that it concerned me, but now I am more preoccupied with the question of whether I am a man of the 21st century or not. What interests me the most is to be able to say that I am a composer of the 21st century. I would say that it’s for the audience to decide whether I am more of a Greek or a European composer; I would personally say I am both. In my music, one can detect very strong elements from central Europe and its way of thinking but, on the other hand, as far as emotions and intensity go, the Greek element is also very obvious. So I guess I am both.
You mentioned Iannis Xenakis, to whom you have also dedicated a composition (Evlogitária, 2001). How great an influence was he for you? Are there any other 20th century Greek composers about whom you could say the same?
As I said, I delved deeply into Xenakis’ work, and had in fact organised an exhibition in Munich in 2005, after his death, dedicated to his work. It was attended by his wife and it was a very moving experience. However, as I also explained, the works of other composers come and go very quickly in the life of a composer. That also happened with Xenakis, even though I did devote significantly more time to him; one has to move on and dig deeper within himself in order to reach a personal result, even through the influence of others. As part of this creational “curiosity”, I have of course also studied the work of other Greek composers as well.
How well does a composer have to know all the instruments used in a musical piece?
A composer doesn’t have to know how to play each instrument; what matters is that he be aware of all the possibilities for each instrument, so that he can express in music notation what he has in his mind, and so that the musician can then bring this to life. It is, however, of paramount importance for a composer to know how to play at least one instrument, any instrument, and find himself on stage. It is the practice that matters: composers spend hours on end sitting at their desk, but it is essential to have the experience of performing on stage -a knowledge I always try to pass on to my students- in order to understand the difficulties faced by musicians, to know if what they ask is actually achievable. If you only limit yourself to theory, I’m afraid this will be evident in your music after some point. I strongly believe composers must find themselves on stage on a regular basis, even if their performing skills are not of the highest possible level. I have personally practiced that, and throughout my career I have been on stage, either as a pianist or, lately, as a conductor.
In many of your works you use contemporary instruments, such as live electronics. Is it for you one more means to produce music, or does the combination of traditional instruments with electronics take music making one step beyond?
The issue of the use of electronics in classical music is a very rich subject. In my works I do, as you said, combine acoustic instruments with electronics, but in other cases I use electronic instruments -whether live or recorded, it doesn’t matter- as an “extension” of the acoustic ones. What gives us great freedom is that, unlike their habitual use in pop and rock, electronics provide composers of classical music with an infinite array of possibilities. This is reflected in the resulting music, which can reach far beyond the limits one could fathom. We use more or less the same tools for music making as the popular music industry, but they limit themselves within some very specific frameworks, which, in my opinion, the final result never transcends. We, instead, have the liberty to move within a much larger area, and this, by definition, takes music much further beyond. So, the evolution of electronics that began in the 50’s-60’s, in Paris, Cologne etc. was for contemporary classical composers a tool offering much greater freedom. That is how I use them too.
You used this type of instruments in the opera Z, commissioned by the Alternative Stage of the Greek National Opera. How do you assess this initiative which aims to create a contemporary Greek opera tradition? How was your collaboration with librettist Vangelis Hatziyannidis and stage director Katerina Evangelatos?
The Greek National Opera’s commissioning of operas to young composers is an excellent initiative by Artistic Director Giorgos Koumendakis and Alternative Stage Artistic Director, Alexandros Efklidis; it is really extraordinary because they don’t move within specific limits, as is the case with other institutions. They believe in innovation, they both have great knowledge of the subject and great ideas, and they are impartial in their decisions. This combination creates the best conditions for actual results, for successful results – I use the notion of success not in its strictly commercial sense. Even a commercial failure can help move things ahead; Koumendakis and Efklidis are both willing to take this risk.
Z at the Alternative Stage of the Greek National Opera (2018)
This was the context for the creation of Z, an opera that met with a warmly welcoming response from audience and critics alike. I had a wonderful collaboration with literally each and every person involved in the project. When we first discussed it with Vangelis Hatziyannidis, I exposed my vision for the play and he immediately embraced it, he immersed himself in this world, he felt it, and he owned it, which is not something everyone can do. We had an excellent collaboration with Hatziyannidis throughout the composing stage, and when the sheet music was ready, Katerina Evangelatos was brought in. Through meetings and discussions she, too, entered this world and offered her own part. What was very beautiful is that we all worked for the opera, with no sign of antagonism. I believe this was a unique case, and everyone, including the audience, perceived this in the end result.
Eleven years ago, you presented liebe .nur liebe, a non-conventional opera commissioned by the Bavarian State Orchestra. How different was your approach then, compared to Z? Would you be interested in taking up another project like the latest one?
With liebe .nur liebe (love. only love) I took my first step in the musical theatre scene. Z is essentially a follow-up to this experimentation. And I must note that Z is in fact a piece of musical theatre and not an opera; an opera is based solely on song while this is not the case with Z. It is true that is has been promoted as an opera, but in the title of my sheet music I describe it as musical theatre. Well, in any case, Z is, in a way, the completion of the ideas that I had initiated eleven years earlier in liebe .nur liebe.
In the meantime, however, there have been several smaller-scale works of stage music, such as Angels, a dance theatre for percussion quartet, εδιζησ[Á]μην εμε[Ω]υτόν, for voice and live electronics, Fern, an electronics composition for a dance installation. In these works I experimented, in a way, I widened my horizons; and all this process sort of gave off into the making of Z. As for taking on another project of this kind, I guess we’ll see in the future.
Is there a project you are currently working on?
Well, there are several plans for the next two years; what I’m working on right now is Z 4383: it’s basically the train scene from Vassilis Vassilikos' book Z, on which the Z play was based. I use certain themes from the opera to create a new work, based on the train scene: it’s a very moving scene, where the spirit of Z’s character follows the train carrying his remains from Thessaloniki to Athens for his own funeral. I use the themes from the opera in a completely different way and following a completely different structure, in order to create a new piece for a big ensemble or rather a small orchestra. It will be presented on July 20, 2018 by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra Academy, at the Bavarian Radio Studio 2.
In your biography, featured on your official website, it is stated that “some of the focal points in [your] work are time and space, classical philosophy, literature, mythology, and cosmological questions”. Would you elaborate on that?
This is of course a very important issue, but it would probably take many hours to really elaborate on it; in a nutshell, a music composer is like an antenna, receiving and transmitting. So, functioning like that, I receive inspiration from many different directions; these may come from philosophical works, as are those of the Pre-Socratics, whose influences are evident in my works, from mythological themes, from various cosmological theories, also from quantum physics and astrophysics, subjects I have researched – in a purely nonprofessional sense, obviously.
These have formed a major inspiration for me, like the theories of Stephen Hawking, who passed recently. Without ever considering myself either a physicist or an astrophysicist or a philosopher, these subjects arouse my interest and, reading about them, I enter a world which prompts a musical response within me. This is called composition, this is how I can create music, and reflect, in a way, on the themes I have examined while reading.
*Interview by Nefeli Mosaidi
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Vangelis Hatziyannidis: "Writing for an opera was like a puzzle I really enjoyed"; Conductor Markellos Chryssicos on Baroque music and its dialogue with the Greek tradition; Dimitris Kountouras on early music in Greece
The sinking feeling of fading love, a story universal and unique. What drove a young director to make a film about love's struggle with the ravages of time? The hurtful sentiments of loss, bitterness and solitude, when love fades away, are given in a poetic way by Gabriel Tzafka in his recent film “Thorn”, the first Greek and Danish coproduction.
Born in 1986, Gabriel Tzafka graduated from the Film School of the Aristotle University in 2010 with an MA in Film Directing, and continued his studies (2013-2016) at the Danish film school SUPER16/NORDISK FILM. His filmography includes six short fiction films: “Euroman “ (2015), “Sailor” (2014), “Leader” (2011), “Oblivion” (2009), “Attimo Fugente” (2008) and “Hari” (2007), as well as “Champions: A comic tale” (2011), a feature documentary. His films have been awarded over 30 times and have participated at more than 70 international film festivals. Since 2016, he is a member of the Danish Film Directors Association. “Thorn”, his first feature film, was awarded the first “New Cinema” award at the 58th Thessaloniki Film Festival.
Tzafka talked to Greek News Agenda* about what prompted him to write “Thorn”, a film about a young couple on its honeymoon, noting he was inspired by Karen Blixen’s short stories and her poetic universe where “joy and mourning go hand in hand”. Tzafka, who lives and works in Denmark, elaborates on his Greek roots and influence by Greek literature as well as the films of Theo Angelopoulos. Finally, he explains that he used narrative elements from different film genres, especially psychological thriller, introducing the audience to his fluid narration, a different way of understanding time and space in film.
Vibeke Hastrup, "Thorn" (2017)
There is a lingering sense of loss and mourning in “Thorn”. How did you decide to work on the subject of pain when love fades?
Everything started 6 years ago, when I was reading the short stories by Karen Blixen. Back then I was preparing myself for moving to Denmark. I got inspired by these stories. Karen Blixen creates a universe where joy and mourning go hand in hand. I found it unique and extremely poetic. That’s how I got the idea and the concept for “Thorn”. I kept working on it while I was doing my first Danish short films. After a few years I wanted to move on with my first feature film and “Thorn” was ready to start with. The subject of love and pain is universal and maybe our very first experiences from early in our childhood. We can relate with it easily. I wanted to place it in a non specific time frame so we can also experience it as a lifelong element, not only as a memory. In “Thorn” I had the appropriate narrative concept to bring these ideas in.
Neel Rønholt, "Thorn" (2017)
Why did you choose the forest as a setting for the story and what is its function in the film?
The forest is a primitive location and we used it as a narrative extension of our characters. We wanted to express the different perspectives of Time and its effect on our story away from measurable parameters of modern life. This way we had our protagonists isolated and forced to interact either in action, in dialogue or in silence. Furthermore, forest is a place where metamorphosis is happening continuously. Depending on the time of day, it’s magic, romantic, scary, dark, colourful, relaxing, hypnotic or raw.
Olaf Johannessen, "Thorn" (2017)
Your film has a lot of influences by Bergman and Tarkovsky. How does your Greek origin influence your work?
The Greek language is one of the greatest influences. Languages have huge power on the way we think and each language has a different way of forming our minds and the way we perceive reality. The Greek language has its roots in myths, philosophy, alchemy, poetry, in music, all of these combining in a holistic way. Moreover, Modern Greek literature, particularly poetry, has been great influence as well. In cinema, I am thankful to have been introduced to the work of Theo Angelopoulos and the way he dealt with time and space in his work. Last but not least is the light: nowadays it sounds commonplace, but the Mediterranean light is more than beautiful: it’s an experience that is not easy to describe. And so is its shadow.
Neel Rønholt, "Thorn" (2017)
"Thorn" has a dream like quality with thriller elements. Would you like to elaborate on that?
In the film we introduce the audience to a different way of narration, a different way of understanding time and space in films. For me, it was a challenge working out how to do it in a way where we leave the door open to everyone, drawing the audience in. So I decided to use narrative elements from different film genres, particularly psychological thrillers. The audience is very familiar with the genre, and thus already holds the keys to enter the universe of “Thorn” and understand the new narrative methods we are using to tell the story.
Jens Sætter Lassen and Neel Rønholt, "Thorn" (2017)
“Thorn” was the first Greek and Danish co-production. Was it an easy procedure?
I have been living and studying in Denmark the last 6 years. Before that I studied and made films in Greece. So I was very well prepared for this co production; nothing was new or unexpected. It worked well, and things can only be better from now on.
What are your next projects?
I am working on a new feature film. It’s a road movie called “Ode to Joy” and at this point in time I am developing the script at Sam Spiegel Jerusalem Film Lab. It will be different from “Thorn”. It’s a satire which follows the narratives of a short film I did few years ago, “Euroman”.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
** The film was available in the international film viewing professional platform Festival Scope, a TIFF initiative for the promotion of Greek cinema abroad.
Daphné Patakia is a Greek actress born in Belgium in 1992. A graduate of the Greek National Theatre Drama School, she has starred in films including Interruption (2015) by Yorgos Zois and Spring Awakening (2015) by acclaimed director Constantine Giannaris. She rose to fame in 2016, as one the ten young actors to receive the European Shooting Stars accolade, awarded by the European Film Promotion organisation.
In 2017, she played the title role in the film DJAM by renowned French film director Tony Gatlif, making her mark at that year’s Cannes Film festival. Her next moves include a role in Blessed Virgin (2019), a period piece by famous Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. The Press & Communications Office at the Embassy of Greece in London arranged an interview with Patakia, on the occasion of the official screening of DJAM in London, where she spoke about the film and her thoughts on contemporary film production in Greece.
You recently attended the screening of DJAM in London at an event co-organised by the South Social Film Festival and the Secretariat General for Media and Communication. What were your impressions from this event?
I was really excited that the movie was screened in London, especially in a festival that I was also able to present. The fact that the event included dishes from the Greek cuisine and Greek music (rebetika) made the experience pithier. The following conversation with the audience completed in the best way this wonderful evening.
The film was shot in Lesvos in the middle of the refugee crisis. How was the crisis intertwined with the film? What was your personal perception of what was happening around you during the shootings?
In the past I have shot another film in Lesvos in which crisis was the main subject (Meltem (201) by Basile Doganis) but in the case of DJAM it was not like that. Tony Gatlif has started writing the script for the movie 20 years ago. The story unfolded in Lesbos. However, the subsequent occurrence of the financial and refugee crisis could not be overlooked. It had to be added in the film since they were happening in the island where the story took place. Despite this, the film chooses not to show the refugees just to create emotions. This does not mean that their presence is not everywhere since the two protagonists encounter their traces in the way.
Personally, I was fully aware of the situation in Lesvos and I have seen and read many things but when I went there for the shooting of the film I realized that my knowledge was incomplete. Certainly, a movie cannot change the existing condition, but it is possible to raise awareness. Recently in Paris, I was working with an English association in order to do theatrical workshops with refugees. I was personally sensitized by this participation.
How did the locals receive the presence and the stay of the production team on the island? What kind of interaction did you have with the locals?
The locals helped us a lot. We worked mostly with musicians and the experience was very good.
How did it feel to collaborate with a film industry legend such as Tony Gatlif?
I have seen his films and I liked how he blends fiction with documentary. Inthisfilmheisdoingit less but in his previous ones it was more apparent. I was excited that I would work with him. His way of shooting is unique since he did not give me the whole script at once, but specific scenes, either the day before the shooting or at the same day. It is a different way to communicate with an actor.
The film DJAM, where you played the main part, will soon be playing in theatres in Greece. What are your expectations? Do you believe the screenings will enhance your recognition with a wider audience in Greece? Do you think that this might be the beginning for a new career in your country?
This does not concern me at all. What really matters to me is that all those people that will watch the movie will have a good time with the songs that they will listen to and at the end the movie will sensitize them.
You chose Paris to build an international acting career. What do you think should change in Greece in order for Greek young and up-and-coming actors to remain and pursue a career in Greece?
I chose Paris because French is my native language since I grew up in Belgium. I think that great things are happening in the Greek theatre and cinema. For example, my classmates from the National Theatre Drama School have created a group and perform at the National Theatre or many films are distinguished in international festivals such as in Cannes, Berlin and Venice. The artistic landscape is interesting right now due to all the creative things happening in Greece.
Spring Awakening (2015)
There is currently a new legislation in Greece to boost film productions in our country. Are you aware of this new legislation? From an actor’s perspective, do you think that this government initiative will boost the film industry to an extent that it will make a great difference for the careers of all those involved in film making?
I didn’t know about that! This new legislation will boost the purely Greek productions. Apart from attracting foreign productions, it will boost financially the country as it will give jobs to Greek actors, crews, technicians or people from the industry with whom the foreign productions will want to co-operate.
From your discussions with people of the film industry, is there an interest in choosing Greece as a filming location?
This has to do with the director’s story. I think that Greek productions and crews have nothing to be jealous ofin comparison tocrews in France or others I have worked with. So, there is no reason not to come to Greece and shoot. I do not know how it is in Italy or in Spain, but in Greece I can say that the production teams can do excellent work. Consequently, the new legislation will boost the current situation. At least in two films that I worked for, which were Greek-French, the French part of production was very pleased by the work of the Greek production crew. I hope that many productions will decide to shoot their films in Greece. This will open many job positions for Greeks too and maybe be the beginning for co-productions to emerge. It sounds positive to me.
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Filming Greece | “Meltem”: A Franco Greek quest for identity among the migrants in Lesvos; One more reason to film in Greece: A new legal framework of economic incentives;Greek Cinema 2017: New and Upcoming Films
Gregory Vardarinos (photo by Manuel Frauendorf)
“Is it possible for a disaster to be an opportunity for a new beginning?” Gregory Vardarinos, the director of “The Great Fire of Salonica: Birth of a city” documentary states that this is the case for Thessaloniki, a city that survived the greatest and most devastating fire in its history in 1917 and was reborn from its ashes. In 32 hours, the fire destroyed two-thirds of the city center, burnt down more than eight thousand buildings, left approximately 74,000 people homeless (mostly Jews), and accounted for 8 million GBP in damages. A hundred years later, through rare original material, contemporary testimonies and interviews with historians and researchers who have exposed unknown aspects of the modern city, Gregory Vardarinos maps a society, an era, and a city, in a cinematic narrative. He sheds light on the inhabitants' moments, but he also uncovers the circumstances, the background as well as the long-term effects of a huge residential, cultural and social change.
Director, producer, writer and cinematographer Gregory Vardarinos graduated with honors from the University of New York (Film and TV studies). He also holds a master's degree in Cinema Direction from the School of Fine Arts of the University of Edinburgh, which he attended as a scholar of the Onassis Foundation. The documentary “The Great Fire of Salonica: Birth of a city” was screened for the first time in September 2017, during the 82nd Thessaloniki International Fair and it was warmly received by the audience. It was granted the audience award in the 4th International Documentary Festival of Peloponnese as well as a special honor in the 11th Documentary Festival of Chalkida.
"The Great Fire of Salonica: Birth of a City" (2017)
Gregory Vardarinos talked to Greek News Agenda* about how this catastrophic event influenced the entire history of Thessaloniki, noting that this documentary has deeply touched the Greek audience because it is rich in emotions and provides a unique cinematic experience. He emphasized the difficult but constructive experience of managing and selecting a large amount of rare material. He stressed that filming in Greece during the financial crisis, as a young director, is as difficult as in the pre-crisis era, however he believes that positive growth prospects regarding Greek cinema production do exist, as is the case with EKOME (National Center for Audiovisual Media & Communication) launch.
What intrigued you about the most destructive fire in Thessaloniki's history upon its 100th anniversary? What does this incident mean for the city's evolution?
It was probably random. I was working on another project for the city of Thessaloniki and I came across an album with photographs picturing the city before and after the disaster. It was "The Chronicle of the Great Fire" by Aleka Gerolymbos. Gerolymbos, an excellent scientist, builds the disaster chronicle through images of that time and true testimonies. These testimonies of the fire were so brilliant that they instantly caught our attention and we appreciated their potential to tell a captivating story. We momentarily experienced what the inhabitants of Thessaloniki experienced and we were in awe. We realized the magnitude of the disaster. It is an anthropocentric, largely unknown story that we were keen to narrate.
After all, this fire means the passage from a medieval, Ottoman city with its dead-end streets, alleys and oriental markets to a modern, western city, with an administrative center, courts, and town hall. This particular fire was not the cause, but the reason for this passage. There had also been other fires in the past. However, this one coincided with the conjuncture of Eleftherios Venizelos government that seized the opportunity to commission the French architect Ernest Hébrard to design a new urban plan.
In the documentary, you focus on the key role of the architect Ernest Hébrard. As a film creator, you spent a long time on archival research, and you are a contemporary dweller of this city; how do you evaluate the architectural choices of that period?
We would say that through our research, we traveled to the past, we learned a lot about the history of our city that we previously did not know. We realized that today's Thessaloniki has taken the concrete form it took through a series of events (e.g. wars, influx of refugees, land expropriations, expansion), but the catalyst was the great fire of 1917 and the Venizelos government decision to rebuild the city on the basis of the Hébrard plan. The city was born again through the fire and through its ashes, just as our title denotes, The Great Fire of Salonica: Birth of a City.
"The Great Fire of Salonica: Birth of a City" (2017)
I believe that the choices of that time were, in fact, very positive with regard to the construction of new roads, letting the sea breeze circulate inside the city, highlighting monuments and providing open urban spaces (public squares), the conservation of the old Upper City (Ano Poli) and creation of the Sheikh Sou forest (Cedar Hill). It is the blueprint on which the city grew in the next 50-70 years and partly continues today. It is certainly not perfect, nor should we be nostalgic for the older, lost Thessaloniki. The plan bears the marks and biases of its era: it was a colonial project in terms of aesthetics like other projects that were implemented, for example in Morocco and French Indochina. The demand for the creation of a distinct national identity remains, whether it be in the national architecture or in the national cinema, or anywhere else.
Why do you think the audience was attracted to your film?
This journey into the past, which comes to life through original testimonies, generates strong feelings. Moreover, it is the awareness of what was lost in Thessaloniki from the destruction of invaluable monuments of the Jewish and Ottoman heritage. It is a rich cinematic experience, a pleasurable narrative of pictures and sounds that you do not expect to find in a historical documentary, which usually thought of as scientific, boring and didactic. The audience experiences the feeling of being present, bearing witness to the burning of Thessaloniki in August, 1917. When the film finishes, the viewer feels complete, both in terms of emotions and knowledge of the events.
In the documentary, you brought into light original, visual archival material hitherto unknown to a wider public and, as a matter of fact, you showcased it in high definition. How did you work and what difficulties did you come up against, in terms of collecting and presenting this material?
The archival material is well known to academics and researchers. It is available to everyone as long as they are willing to study and delve into a little further. The difficulty was in managing it and the choices we had to make. On the one hand, due to budget constraints, we could not buy the rights for as many minutes of archive films we wanted, and on the other hand there was the moral issue of representing a long gone era and its people. We worked hard to be faithful to the spirit and the essence of the multicultural, multi-religious Thessaloniki of 1917 without sacrificing the cinematic virtues of the documentary.
"The Great Fire of Salonica: Birth of a City" (2017)
What is it like for a director of your generation to film in Greece during the financial crisis?
It is just as difficult as it was in the pre-crisis era. The weaknesses of Greek cinema are fundamental and recurrent. There is no stable, long-term regulatory and development framework for Greek cinema. In other countries, incentives and tax breaks are provided to promote domestic productions. In France, there is a quota for the national program in cinema and television. Here, even tax refunds on cinema tickets playing Greek films, as well as the special ticket fee granted to the Greek Cinema Center, were abolished. The National Broadcaster (ERT) is under-performing in the production of fiction, while private channels are non-existent (except pay-TV). The Greek cinema institutions are at the mercy of the country's political life. Unfortunately, they are linked to the life-cycle of each government or minister of culture. The recent launch of EKOME (National Center for Audiovisual Media & Communication) has been a positive initiative. It has yet to prove its viability in the long run and through governmental changes. If it succeeds in doing what is written in the statute, it can make Greece a major host of international productions and become a vehicle for the growth of the domestic creative industries.
Do you see positive growth prospects regarding Greek cinema production?
Greek cinema has significant and successful participation in international film festivals and international co-productions. It has evolved significantly, mainly thanks to the individual efforts of the filmmakers. What matters, as I have said previously, is robust, institutional, long-term State support, but also commercial impact within Greece. What do I mean? There are 20-25 distribution companies, and 15 films are released every week at the cinema, and cinemas are very specific: most of them show blockbuster movies and only a few cinemas – which you can count on one hand - screen Greek films and independent productions. In a country where statistically, the average Greek goes to the cinema once a year (!), cinephiles at best reach 300,000, you realize that it is very difficult to find distribution channels and reach local audiences. Of course, there are few films that are not poor quality imitations of television material, or strictly art-house movies. The very few narrative Greek films are doing well at the box-office. So theaudience that wants to see a Greek film does exist. We just have to listen to this audience needs and not be self-centered artists.
* Interview by Sofia Christaki, editing: Florentia Kiortsi, Nicole Stellos
Trailer "The Great Fire of Salonica: Birth of a City"
** The next festival screening of the documentary is at LAGFF 6-10 June, while in May 31st it will participate in Consonances 2018 by Onassis Foundation Scholars Association in Onassis Cultural Center. A sample of the soundtrack will be performed live on stage accompanied by excerpts of the documentary.
Read also: One more reason to film in Greece: A new legal framework of economic incentives, General Secretariat for Media and Communication boosting Greek Gaming & Animation, Lefteris Kretsos on bringing Greece on the global map of the Game and Film Making Industry
Dina Vaiou is Professor of Urban Analysis and Gender Studies in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning of the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) and coordinator of the post-graduate program on Urban and Regional Planning.
Her research interests include the feminist critique of urban analysis, the changing features of local labour markets, with special emphasis on women’s work and informalisation processes, the impact of mass migration on Southern European cities and women’s migration in particular, the gendered imprint of the crisis on the city. Among her recent publications are: Practices of solidarity in Athens: reconfigurations of public space and urban citizenship (with Ares Kalandides, 2018), Tracing aspects of the Greek crisis in Athens: Putting women in the picture (2014) and From `Settlement' to `Integration': Informal Practices and Social Services for Women Migrants in Athens (with Maria Stratigaki, 2008).
Professor Vaiou spoke* to Rethinking Greece about the Greek feminist movements, austerity policies, the unpaid work of women in the cities, the role of migrant women and Greece’s care crisis as well as Athens exciting character, the importance of socail geography in the understanding of social/political/economic reality and Greece’s [and Southern Europe’s] "deviation" from socio-spatial development of the European North:
You are a member of the scientific committee for the The Hellenic Parliament Foundation's exhibition "Feminism in the years of the transition to democracy (Metapolitefsi), 1974-1990: Ideas, collectivities , demands" now shown in Thessaloniki. Could you talk to us briefly about the shaping of feminist claims in post-dictatoship Greece? What is the main message the exhibition wants to convey?
I would like first to underline that it is very important that the Greek Parliament, through its Foundation for Parliamentarism and Democracy, has organised this exhibition, thereby acknowledging that the feminist movement was part of democratic transition and consolidation. In the second half of the 1970s, that is after the downfall of the dictatorship, in times of high politicisation, the women's/feminist movement (re)assembled with renewed agendas and ways of organising. The exhibition aims to highlight the unprecedented mobilisation of women and the multiplicity of ideas, collectivities and demands which have shaped this movement in its vexed encounters with the political Left, and have marked its presence in Greek society, particularly -but not exclusively- in big cities.
The slogan of the time "The personal is political" highlights the significance of understanding the political character of male dominance and gender hierarchies in the private and public sphere; matters considered "private" or "personal" have therefore to become issues of public/political debate. In this line of thought, at the core of reflections of feminist groups lies the issue of self-determination and control of our own bodies. This has given rise to a number of key demands, campaigns and struggles, concerning women's right to decide whether and when to have children, freedom of sexual orientation, free expression of sexuality, defense of women's bodies against all efforts to violate such freedoms, rights to contraception (as a precondition for bodily control), free abortion, condemnation of rape, sexual harassment and all forms of gender-based violence, both in the family and in public.
An issue of convergence for women's organisations, feminist groups and individual women was the reform of Family Law, at a time when the State was also interested to harmonise Greek legislation with the "acquis communautaire" in the (then) EEC. Mobilisation, in the streets and through institutions brought changes in a variety of areas of everyday life to do with divorce and children's custody, property and inheritance management and control, freedom to choose domestic and paid work and much more.
Towards the end of this period, the extreme deficit of representation of women in decision-making centres, and especially in the Parliament, raised concern among many feminists who promoted the issue of quotas in a variety of institutions and in political party organisations. Quotas, however, have been a controversial issue among feminist groups who argued that the elimination of gender-based discrimination is not necessarily connected to the physical presence of women in institutional or party politics. The demand failed to be addressed in the 1980s and was only settled in the early 2000s. Along a similar logic, women's committees were formed in political parties and in trade unions which gave rise to serious tensions when women trade-unionists started focusing on women's rights and on sexual harassment at the workplace. At the same time many reforms towards equality in the labour market went through Greek legislation as a matter of harmonisation with European law.
As it is to be expected, the women's/feminist movement gave rise to harsh reactions but also to much publicity and attention. It has contributed to sensitise Greek society on gender-based inequalities and violence in many spheres of everyday life, rights to one's body and sexuality, towards the development of more open and tolerant attitudes - a difficult initiative at that time.
Which do you think have been the biggest institutional victories of the feminist movements in Greece the past 40 years? There is a widespread belief, even among women in the Left, that today there is no more need for feminist discourse or activism. Would you agree?
A major step forward towards institutional reform has been the Constitution of 1975, which directly conveyed the message of equality among women and men. The reform of a very parochial and reactionary Family Law (1983) is another important such step. Beyond these reforms, it is worth mentioning the criminalisation of rape (except within the marriage contract!), the institution of civil marriage (although here the influence of the Greek church made it only optional), women's right to keep their family name after marriage. Also an institutional mechanism for equality between women and men was introduced, first as an Advisory Board by the Prime Minister and then as a General Secretariat for Equality (1985). Integration in the (then) EEC brought about a series of "equality policies" implemented through Community Support Frameworks (eg. women's training in male-dominated professions or measures to reconcile family and employment duties). Later, in the early 2000's, women's/gender/feminist studies were instituted in several universities, again following a provision in the third Community Support Framework which financed "gender and equality studies" as a policy to promote equality in higher education.
However, the legacy of the feminist/women's movement of the 1970s and 1980s has to be sought in the consciousness raising of women/ourselves, the cultures of mobilisation and collective struggle, the creation of a "common space" of recognition and struggle, of intimacy, engagement and support, despite internal differences; a common space enhanced by the multiplicity of small and bigger-scale campaigns and events, archives and publications (of magazines, books, innumerable pamphlets), women's bookstores and cafés, feminist celebrations and parties. All of these and more not only have marked women's/our lives, but have also contributed to shape more open and egalitarian attitudes on questions of gender, self-determination, sexuality, etc.
Three decades later, new generations of women, with very few exceptions, have lost contact with that legacy - generations born and grown in the social environment which was shaped by these institutional reforms and State interventions. Particularly PASOK governments from the 1980s onwards portrayed themselves as representing (and implementing) the demands and aspirations of the women's/feminist and other movements, thereby neutralising or de-legitimising any form of protest or demand. The post-1989 collapse of the Left (even its fractions that were critical to former socialist regimes) further contributed to a distancing from all sorts of activism.
At present, in the context of a multifaceted crisis that touches upon every aspect of everyday life, feminist analyses and activism are more necessary than ever: rights and "victories", as you called them, of the past are fast dismantling amidst austerity policies and the rise of reactionary (if not openly fascist) attitudes, while everyday discourse and often action are imbued with sexism. It is no secret that women are harder hit by austerity policies which lead to generalised intolerance of the "other". And many feminist groups are active - albeit in new ways and with different agendas, in line with developments in feminist theory and activism by LGBTQ+ movements. They may not be as vociferous in the streets or following similar practices as in the past, but they are there - and testify to the fact that things do not develop along a smooth line but rather in fits and starts.
You have argued that the construction of Athens was largely based on the unpaid work of women. Could you talk to us more about this?
Your question could be a way of summarising a rather more complex argument to do with processes of urban development, not exclusively of Athens but most cities. What the argument aims to bring to the foreground of debate is the idea that "the city is peopled". This is not to underestimate that urban development is a huge arena of capital investment (eg. in terms of actual construction, real estate or property development), as well as a space of institutional intervention (eg. in the form of urban planning or other legislation). But none of these processes or interventions could materialise in any meaningful or profitable way if urban space were not inhabited.
We get a partial, or even false, understanding if we do not take into consideration how this "inhabiting" has been made possible: the ways in which the multiplicity of social groups and individuals, the variety of cultures, the dynamics of living together/apart, the conviviality but also the conflicts along the lines of gender, class, ethnicity/race, age, etc. and, more importantly, combinations of these, come to form part of what we understand as cities and of the functioning of a bearable urban reality. And a huge volume of women's unpaid work has gone into making cities "habitable". Examples here include entire areas of (semi)squatting in the urban periphery of Athens, where technical and social infrastructures took decades to be implemented, or, more recently, urban neighbourhoods where such infrastructures have been left to deteriorate or completely collapse. Women's unpaid care work has kept things going, thereby opening space for people to live, for new rounds of investment and institutional intervention, for recurrent rounds of grass roots claiming rights to the city.
After the crisis and the ensuing austerity measures, social services in Greece were significantly downgraded. How does that affect native and immigrant’s women care workload? Has the dismantling of the welfare state in Greece and all over Europe brought about a “care crisis”- in the words of Nancy Fraser?
As Nancy Fraser has forcefully argued, the dismantling of the welfare state has indeed brought about a "care crisis". However, the intensity and the particular features of this care crisis differ across space and among social groups, as do the care arrangements that were in place and their place-specific restructurings. Let me give an example of this perhaps obscure statement. For Greek women who entered the labour market in the 1970s and 1980s, in order to pursue a paid job, let alone a demanding career, their mothers or other women relatives had to be mobilised, to look after the home, children or the sick and the elderly, since public services in these areas were either not available or not adequate (eg. public schools finished by 13:00 o'clock, while working time-schedules were much longer); this was an arrangement among women, putting little or no pressure on men. In higher income households paid services could be bought in a rather limited market.
After-1989 and the arrival of many migrant women from the Balkans and the former USSR, low-paid care work by migrant women became widespread and widely diffused, even among lower income households. This new round of care arrangements, again among women, this time local and migrant, created care deficits in migrant households, both in the place of destination and in the place of origin. After the crisis, the collapse of salaries and pensions and the significant disinvestment in care services have contributed to return much of the care work to the hands of local women, leaving many migrant women without jobs but also without the possibility to renew their residence permits. Moreover, downgrading of social services and infrastructures has made the care workload heavier, particularly in poorer areas of the city, thereby intensifying socio-spatial inequalities.
As an architect and an urban planner, what do you make of the claim that construction in the 50s and 60s destroyed the face of Athens? Is Athens an ugly, “concrete-block” city?
First let me say that, although I have a degree in architecture, I have stopped practicing it some thirty years ago. Moreover, my studies in planning, brought me nearer to the fields of Human Geography and Urban Studies. So, I would say that I speak as un urbanist - and as a lover of this (and any) city.
That Athens is an ugly, "concrete-block" city is a recurrent narrative since the interwar period; you can find many passages in literary texts of the time lamenting the "destruction of Athens". As my previous comments to your questions perhaps imply, references to the amount of concrete that went into urban development and turned Athens into a metropolis of 3.5 million people, stick to an idea of the city is not much more than a technical artefact. They fail to acknowledge the labours of its women and men inhabitants and the ways in which micro-property ownership and its development contributed to social cohesion in a society deeply divided after a fierce civil war.
I would very much hesitate to call "ugly" a city whose history is still readable on its street pattern and land uses, many of which are in the same locations since the antiquity; a city invested with so rich and abundant human labour, and women's labour in particular, in every aspect of the urban experience; a metropolis whose inhabitants come from more than 200 different countries and manage, against all odds, to live together even when austerity policies hit so hard and for so long. I would rather call it exciting...
You are a member of the editorial board of Γεωγραφίες / Georgraphies. A scientific journal for spatial sciences. What can the perspective of human geography add to historical and political science accounts of Greece’s modernity? And in conclusion, does Greece follow its own, "exceptional path" in the modern world?
To cut short what could have been a very long response, I would argue, along with many others, that there can be no understanding of social/political/economic reality without geography. Things happen in space, not "on the head of a pin", and this space matters for how things take shape and develop. This is true at a variety of interconnected geographical scales, from the vastly global to the miniscule local and down to the body, the geography closest in.
The dominance of historical and economic accounts often obscures the importance of geography and the ways in which space and place are produced, represented and imagined. From such a perspective, Greece, much like the rest of Southern Europe, is portrayed as a "deviation" from an implied "norm" which is shaped by the socio-spatial development of the European North. Features of this "deviation" include a productive structure where small and medium enterprises predominate, bureaucracies and clientelism which are deeply-rooted, a limited welfare state that is a 'last resort' provider (mainly through monetary transfers) and has had to be complemented by a multi-functional family (an economic unit, a security cushion and a provider of services), as well as widespread informal arrangements in many areas of social and economic life. These features have led to activities which sometimes border the illicit and/or criminal, to tax evasion and significant losses for the public sector, and behaviours that defy any sense of social responsibility. Particularly in the years of crisis and austerity, the negative connotations have legitimised the scale and intensity of such behaviours, mainly in the area of employment, but also in construction/real estate transactions.
These same features, however, have also permitted the survival of many households and firms, which would have otherwise been excluded, and pertained to a wealth of different conditions ranging from marginal survival strategies to dynamic and creative economic activities. This different, and spatially unequal, development path is most probably one of the reasons why austerity policies and memoranda provisions since 2010 have proven so utterly destructive not only in economic terms but, perhaps more importantly, socially and culturally, to the extent that they have not only ignored but also denigrated our difference and the "otherness" of Greece among EU member-states.
* Interview by Ioulia Livaditi & Nikolas Nenedakis
For Greek “metalheads”, Rotting Christ needs no introduction; the same goes for many more music fans worldwide. The band’s core, brothers Sakis (vocals/guitars) and Themis Tolis (drums), founded the group in their teens and are still in full creative bloom, 30 years later. Their original official releases featured a more classic black metal sound, although already displaying their own unique, refreshingly melodic approach. From one album to the next, they haven’t stopped evolving; gothic experimentation gave way to a multitude of influences, from a lyrical, musical and aesthetic perspective, never betraying the essence of extreme metal. Greek antiquity, Mesopotamia, pre-Columbian cultures, the vibrant folklore tradition of Greece and the Balkans are only a few of the elements that have forged their diverse, distinctive style.
The band’s discography includes 12 full-length albums (preceded by several demo releases and their legendary first EP Passage to Arcturo ) along with some live albums and compilations. Having spent the better part of the past two years on tour -promoting their latest studio album, critically acclaimed Rituals, (2016) in Europe, North and South America- the band is back on the road for the promotion of the compilation Their Greatest Spells (2018): a 33-track, two-disc collection of some of their most representative songs, on the occasion of their 30th anniversary. Sakis Tolis is the heart of Rotting Christ: he is not just the singer/frontman of the group but, most importantly, the sole composer and lyricist for the greatest part of their career, also having produced and mixed the majority of their releases and performed most of the instruments for the recording of their latest albums. We met with him* and he answered all our questions about the long way they have come and the road ahead.
Live in Berlin (Photo: Ymkje Veenstra)
So, you have a 30 year history behind you – it’s hard to imagine, for someone as young as you.
Well, it’s my passion; I’ve been on stage non-stop since I was 15-16, always working in music, ever defiant. I have created a world of my own, along with the rest of the guys, I don’t know if that’s crazy or whatever; we haven’t really studied music, our education comes from the road, from everyday life, and this has helped us to stay on our path.
Can you point to a particular date as the band’s “birthday”?
No, it’s just that in 1988 we made our first demo tape.
You have repeatedly stated that when you started the band, you didn’t have success in mind, didn’t expect it and that, in fact, it’s wrong to start in music with that attitude.
Sure, that wasn’t our attitude, “we’ll be bigger than the rest” – I don’t believe in that way of thinking at all.
But did you at least hope to do this for a long time?
No, not really… You know, I thought we’d have some good times and then I would probably “straighten up”, do what most people do – but in the end I never did straighten up, I stayed on my path.
Now at least you’re among the very few in this field in Greece who can make a living out of your art.
Well, after 20-25 years on the scene we managed to make a living out of it – well kind of, you know; some of the guys have to take up some other jobs too. Me, I write the songs, arrange all the live shows, do the management, so I have come to a point where this takes up all my time and therefore I can earn enough to get by, like most people.
In any case, you are arguably the artists with the greatest international success, currently, coming from Greece.
At this time, we probably are. And it’s important for me that we are really a Greek band, we grew up here and stayed; in spite of all the difficulties we faced all these years, we never thought of packing up and going to a different country, even if that would make things easier for us, especially from a financial point of view. You see, living in Greece means we have to travel by air for each concert we give, and that’s barely viable. But we choose to stay in Greece because we just love it here, we love our country – in a totally non-jingoistic sense, of course.
In an interview about a year back you had said you had given about 1400 concerts. What’s the tally now, you still keep score?
Yeah, I write it down on my computer! I can’t really remember right now, but it’s well over 1400 by this time, of course, in every corner of the world, either as headliners, in joint tours, in festivals, everything.
You, personally, have also been recently included in a list of the “30 Most Underrated Hard Rock and Metal Guitarists” by the famous online magazine Loudwire, how was that for you?
I was very pleased, obviously! It’s what we work for, you know, this feeling of accomplishment, of fulfillment. Sometimes they ask why I do things, like go and give a concert in a far-away place, where the earnings don’t really cover the expenses. “Is it worth it?” they ask. Well I do it for this feeling of fulfillment, that is very important to me and it’s not something you can put a price on. Same goes for this kind of recognition; earning the respect of certain people in the business, it’s a big deal.
Compared to new bands today, having access to all these platforms, like YouTube, do you feel that when you started out, back in the day, you had it worse, or maybe better?
As far as promotion is concerned, definitely worse; our only means of contacting anyone was through hand-written letters and cassette tapes we sent out. But we did have something that’s harder to find nowadays: authenticity. We had little access to information, keeping up with the scene was really hard in late ‘80s – early ‘90s Greece. But we had formed a community, small in numbers but resilient, and we all loved what we were doing, it was a way of life. It’s still the same, but we tend to shy away from the media now. You release a song and the comments can be scary. Once these comments were private, now they’re public, and this feeling of a global village you get now has really changed the essence of music making, it has changed the scene; I don’t know if we can talk about an “underground scene” anymore.
I recently interviewed the progressive metal band Poem, and they referenced you as one of the two bands that made a name for Greek metal abroad, and opened doors for the rest.
Yes, I’ve been told that, that some see us as examples. I have no studies in music, but what I did do was get out on the road, travel, try to find out about the world outside when playing my music. It’s my passion and I think many share this passion now in Greece and it does get them somewhere.
But for you there was no foundation to build on, here in Greece.
No, not at all. I like to be a trailblazer in life. It’s hard, it takes time, but it’s fulfilling. Not just on the Greek scene; I like to go where others don’t. Or when we set out on a European tour in the early ‘90s, at a time when no bands did this in Greece. I like to take the risks – you only live once.
What’s your view on contemporary Greek metal production?
I think it’s quite strong now. Greek metal has made its own mark. I see a lot of bands that really work hard and are in fact very creative. Greek metal bands are probably our biggest music export, as much as that may surprise some. There was a time when other composers from Greece had an audience abroad, but this is no longer the case, unfortunately. But what we do have now is our metal scene, gaining ground little by little. Metal and indie bands, making their way on their own, without media attention, without making a big fuss, based on their passion. Hard work gets you there in the end.
Are you ever concerned about black metal purists calling you out on not being as “true” anymore, on having changed, etc.?
Well, maybe we’re not as “true”, but we’re even crazier than before! (laughs)
So these comments don’t really concern you…
No, they do, you see we do consider ourselves as part of the black metal scene – but I can’t be the same as 30 years ago. And I have to be honest: I see musicians my age playing the exact same stuff as 25 years ago, and I think they feign it, to some extent. I don’t believe someone can remain the same person they were at 16-20 years of age. Different ages have a different kind of “crazy”. My kind of crazy now stems from a mature version of myself, and I think that makes it genuine. I wouldn’t want to create something that doesn’t reflect my true self. People will go and say stuff anyway, you can’t keep everyone happy.
So you’d say that the changes in your sound don’t simply come from a quest for innovation, but they in fact reflect your evolution to reach a creative maturity?
Yes, I think they do. And that is also obvious in our concerts, then and now. I think we are better musicians now, we put on a better show, we have a plan.
When you issued your concept album AEALO (2010), a work heavily inspired by Ancient Greek themes -as has been the case with other songs as well- were you concerned about some people assuming your endorse nationalistic or far-right ideas?
There’s always this danger but, as I said before, we like to be trailblazers and push some limits. If you don’t defy some beliefs, nothing’s ever going to change. It’s wrong to think that being inspired by your country’s history or legacy makes you a chauvinist or a supporter of the far-right. We are against those beliefs. It’s just our cultural influences; we never claimed to form part of a superior race, better than the rest. Far from it, we grew up with anarchist ideals, which still inspire us. But it’s high time we break some taboos, and someone has to make a start, and I like to be that someone.
Anyone who got the wrong idea about you, probably got their answer through your following album releases, each of them being an amalgam of a multitude of influences from various ethnicities from around the world.
Sure. You know, I always try to be myself, each time I compose and write. In these particular times, these were my inspirations, and they shaped my music.
And is this diversity owed to your extensive travels as part of your music tours?
Yes, I think it is. That’s what I do, whenever I am traveling, I become one with the people there, I like that; I think each people has a lot to offer, each culture has positive aspects, something that can affect you.
Travelling opens up your mind, right?
Definitely! After having travelled, I am no longer daunted by taboos. As I said, my knowledge comes from day-to-day life, and what I learned by travelling is that people face the same troubles. When we talk about the middle class, which I belong to, everyday people, we have the same problems regardless of the country, and what we need is solidarity with each other and a mature way of thinking, and to not try to prove that we’re better than the rest, superior in some way. If we could all think like that, there wouldn’t be as many problems. You have to learn how to give; you don’t value that much when you’re young but with age you learn that the more you give to others, the stronger you become.
From a practical point of view, how did you manage to write - and pronounce - many lyrics in foreign languages you don’t speak (French, Hindi, Hebrew etc)?
I always seek help from friends, acquaintances – with French I had help from a friend from Samael, for example.
A dominant theme in many of your lyrics is death, loss, the evanescence of existence. Does this come from personal experience or rather from, let’s say, an ontological point of view?
It’s basically the latter – “only death is real”, as we used to say. This theme is present in our songs – it’s not the only issue that concerns us of course. It’s something that scares people and it scares me too. But I want to look my fears in the eyes, that’s the only way to try and conquer them. Travelling helped with that too: people would say “don’t go to this or that place, it’s dangerous” and it did frighten me but I did it anyway, and the reality I found there had nothing to do with how others had portrayed it. Defying my phobias makes me a stronger person.
What are some other things you like to listen to apart from metal, and do they inspire you in your work?
Well, first of all I try to keep up with the latest releases in metal, to know what’s going on, but I like other things like soundtracks, world music, music that can be strange, soulful; I have many different influences and that is sometimes evident in my music.
You are currently in the process of putting together your next album.
Yes, I’m on a “creative trip”. It’s a difficult process, because we live in dull times, that make us dull as well, and I try to escape and find myself. I hope I have a good “journey” going down this road. Growing up, it’s harder and harder to escape, responsibilities and bureaucracy in your everyday life get you down, so I hope I can overcome all this and create something good.
I guess it’s still early to ask for any comment on how the album is going to be.
Yes, it’s too early – it won’t come out before 2019.
Live at Rockwave (Photo: John Metalman)
How do you define yourselves as a band, in terms of genre?
I would call us metal, dark metal – you can call us anything as long as it’s within the metal spectrum.
Even when you where a purely black metal outfit in your early days, you never appeared in corpse paint.
No, we wanted to be ourselves, as I said. I want the audience to see me for what I am. I of course have nothing against this different approach. It’s just not who we are, theatrics are not part of our mentality.
I guess you’re weary of talks about the band’s name, but I have to ask; I know it has caused you troubles time and again, culminating in your recent ordeal in Georgia. I’m going to ask about something different: I’ve encountered fans who didn’t bother to find out more about you because of your name; and not because their religious beliefs were offended, but instead because they thought you would be one of those rather uninspired, juvenile bands, just screaming curses at God
That we’d be shallow, I see.
Yes, and not having a lot to offer, creatively or intellectually. When they did discover your work they realised they couldn’t have been more wrong, of course! So does this concern you, this risk of misrepresentation? Because you‘re the exact opposite of that.
Yes, that’s not us, we don’t resort to cheap tricks. But keep in mind we came up with the name in ’88, when we were just kids and wanted to raise some hell, smash things up. We still want to change things, but we choose a different way now, a more constructive one. But this is our name, it’s our history, we can’t just change it. Plus we still believe all religions are rotten. Even if that’s not our main concern – we don’t believe that religion causes the most troubles in the world right now. But it’s a synonym of conservatism, for sure, and we’re against conservatism.
After all, if you did change your name -a choice you had considered at some point- it would seem like you caved in, like they won…
…the conservatives, yes. It would actually be like our “other” selves won. There’s this perpetual struggle between our inner demons; sometimes you wake up in the morning and think to yourself “Am I doing the right thing? Is it worth all the trouble?” But I realise that doing what I do keeps me young, uncompromising. That’s what helps me endure this struggle within.
How did you choose the tracks for the Their Greatest Spells compilation?
Oh that was a real headache! The best I could do was put in one or two songs from each album.
Did you choose some of your favorites? Or the fans’ favorites?
A mix of both.
How come you haven’t made more music videos? I’m asking because I think those few you have made, especially the most recent ones, really stand out aesthetically, it’s not something one comes across very often in this genre.
Well, you see, YouTube and other online platforms are only part of our lives for the latest decade or so. Before that, there was no point in shooting a video that only one channel would air maybe once. Now it’s worthwhile, so we try to enhance our visual presence online.
Do you have a word of advice for young musicians starting out now?
Advice is not my strong point; if I had to tell them something, I’d urge them to be themselves, and never conform to the norms set by others – I’m talking about people in my field, of course; my advice wouldn’t be of much help to aspiring pop stars, I guess. If you stay true to yourself and keep your faith, this will pay offeventually. But it takes patience, something missing from many young people today. We live in fast times, and they expect it all to work out fast, they dream of instant success. You can’t think like that; we’ve been in this line of work for thirty years and are just now beginning to make a living out of it. We don’t do what we do to “be big”, to prove we’re somebodies; we do it because we love it, because we’re mad about it.
*Interview by Nefeli Mosaidi
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Progressive metal band POEM in an exclusive interview just before their first European headliner tour; Conductor Markellos Chryssicos on Baroque music and its dialogue with the Greek tradition
On April 23, Athens kicked off a year-long celebration of reading, culture and knowledge as UNESCO’s World Book Capital for 2018. Under the motto “Books everywhere”, Athens World Book Capital will unfold a vivid patchwork of over 250 events, exhibitions, projections, walking trails, bottom-up initiatives and workshops on writing and reading. With a million visitors expected, the City of Athens aims to cater for all tastes and ages, as well as to open a dialogue that will involve not only creators and stakeholders but most importantly, the citizens, as well as the visitors of Athens.
The City wants to include Athenians of all social and ethnic groups in the events and to diffuse reading culture throughout all of Athens’ neighbourhoods. To implement this vision, the City has joined hands with over 150 institutions, including museums, libraries, civil-society groups, startups, non-governmental organizations, embassies and international organizations.
Round tables, open discussions and dialogues with the presence of distinguished writers throughout the year will be a major part of the program; like the round table between Greeks and different generations of Israeli writers, A.B. Yehoshua and Eshkol Nevo. Distinguished writers, such as Ian McEwan, George Saunders, Hans Olav Lahlum or John Connolly will be present in the first months of this year long celebration - from April to July.
A mobile library will be travelling through the neighborhoods of Athens. The city wiil be rediscovered through literary walks. Public readings will take place in unexpected spots. A ‘book edition’ city picnic will be taking place at Kotzia square (5/5/2018). Little bookstores will be celebrating all over Greece as part of the ‘Little Bookstores Day’ (28/4/2018). Theatre, dance, cinema, video and visual art events inspired by the world of books will take place at different parts of the city. About 150 libraries across Greece will implement several special programmes within the summer reading campaign, led by the National Library of Greece.
The city’s most significant festivals, such as the Athens Technopolis Jazz Festival, Athens Open Air Film Festival, Athens Science Festival, Refugee food festival or Comicdom will have a special "book twist" this year. The Athens Epidaurus Festival is participating with its ‘Opening to the city’ section, hosting book-related events throughout June.
Art exhibitions that are a part of Athens Book Capital include “Beyond Kavafis written words” taking place in Gennadius Library (March to May), the “Islamic Calligraphy-the art of Iranian writing” (April to June at the Benaki Museum), The stories of Alexis Akrithakis (City of Athens Arts Centre from March to June 2018) or Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas’ Paintings for Books (April to July at the Benaki Museum). Municipal programmes and organizations will also participate in the year’s activities – including the City’s Athens Culture Net and Open Schools, both funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation; the Technopolis industrial museum and cultural complex; the Youth, Culture and Sports Organization OPANDA, the civil-society platform SynAthina and refugee programmes.
As the Mayor of Athens, Georgios Kaminis stated: "This international distinction by UNESCO is a great chance for the cultural development of the city. Athens is a European city that combines a unique cultural inheritance with a dynamic creative expression. A vivid, safe and friendly city, worth living in, experienced, visited!”
“With targets set for Greece to exit the memoranda era this summer and conversations on debt relief measures having commenced, Greece has arrived at the stage of having a sound fiscal situation”, Minister of Digital Policy, Telecommunications and Information Nikos Pappas said in an interview with South EU Summit.
In his interview, Minister Pappas explained that Greek economy has turned the corner, as is evidenced by its comeback in the international bond market and the positive 2.5% growth forecast for 2018. He also underlined that Greece is actively working to attract investments within the scope of the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector. Minister Pappas added that Greece, with its international corporations and its foreign policy has shown that it can create triangles of stability, with Israel, with Egypt and others. Finally, the Greek Minister expressed optimism in his interview that with a combination of reforms by the end of their first term in September 2019, the government will have created nearly 500,000 jobs.
These are highlights of Nikos Pappas interview:
After a bleak period of economic retraction during the last decade, words like “stability” and “surplus” are the new buzz phrases used to describe today’s Greek economy. The international bond market has seen Greece’s powerful comeback, and a positive 2.5% growth forecast for 2018 are signs that the country’s economy has indeed turned the corner. With targets set for Greece to exit the memoranda era this summer, and conversations on debt relief measures having commenced, Nikos Pappas, Minister of Digital Policy, Telecommunications and Media, says that Greece has arrived at the stage of having “a sound fiscal situation.” Not only has the country met its surplus targets, “we have been overachieving the surpluses,” he points out.
Mr. Pappas knows a thing or two about the Greek economy and the inner workings of the government, having served as the minister of state in 2015 under Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, before being appointed as the first minister of its kind. The creation of the Ministry of Digital Policy, Telecommunications and Media in 2016 is seen as a prime example of a new era in Greece, as the country leaves behind the vestiges of economic instability and zooms towards increased efficiency and transparency through its top-to-bottom digitisation process.
The opening of the ministry marks a tangible change that the government is generating, transitioning the country’s GDP to an added value-based economy in line with the government’s Development Plan, known as “Greece 2021”. This plan is rooted in the promotion of increased exports and in the development of high value-added sectors, such as real estate, information and communication technologies (ICT), energy, food, agriculture, logistics and life sciences.
Pappas, one of Greece’s most outspoken ministers, represents the face of this great change, and is confident that digitisation is going to be a crucial element for the country in achieving its ambitious goals. Greece is actively working to attract investments within the scope of the ICT sector, explained Pappas, which “I believe, [is] the sector of all sectors.” But it’s not just being done in an effort to keep up with some of Greece’s digitally savvy neighbours, Pappas ensures that it is a concrete step towards increased investments and economic growth.
“It is a sector that can make each sector of the economy more productive and make our life easier, our job more creative and more productive, and our interaction with the public sector more effective.” He emphasised the importance of educating both Greeks and international investors on the fact that things are changing “radically” in the country’s digital sector.
On an international level, Pappas says that Greece has received “interest from many parts of the world for investment in the telecom sector. On top of that, we have decided to direct each and every euro available in investment in future proof technologies,” in other words, products and services that will not need to be significantly updated as technology advances, serving as long-term investments.
At a domestic level, this change will be realised in the improvements of everyday life for Greeks, like “safe access to very high speed connectivity to the internet. This is going to change our lives radically.” Not only that, Pappas pointed out that the Greek Government is dedicating as much European funding as possible “to create [a] team of people that can educate people, so we are building educators….not only to develop infrastructure, but to make people familiar with the applications that come on top of this infrastructure.” He admitted that it would be a big investment, but emphasised that increasing Greeks’ digital skills “is our priority, we’re going to spend a lot of money on that and I think that this is money that is going to be paid back with the productivity of the economy.”
This change will also penetrate the public sector, which Pappas said the government is working to digitise rapidly. In fact, a successful pilot project was undertaken in the Ministry of Digital Policy, Telecommunications and Media. “This Ministry is fully digitalised and all papers are moved around not by paper, but digitally. I arrive in my office in the morning and I can have the work flow picture of what is going on, what is left to be done, and this is going to be expanded for the whole of the public sector within 2018.”
While the upgrade will certainly bring increased convenience and efficiency, it also speaks financial volumes. Once the entire process is diffused into the public sector, Pappas estimates that the digital upgrade “is going to save us 400 million euros in costs per year. This is a shy estimation I would say, because you cannot put a number on the working hours that you save when everything is there in front of you.”
In addition to offering a technology upgrade for Greek citizens and government bodies, the country is also veering towards one of history’s most innovative markets: outer space. The recent launch of the Hellenic Space Agency highlights the country’s pursuit of scientific excellence and its efforts to reverse the “brain-drain” that pulled bright Greeks out of their country to pursue the space industry in places with more developed programmes. These new advancements – coupled with the government’s commitment to boost the digitisation of the economy and improve ICT infrastructure – will undoubtedly boost foreign investment and pay dividends, literally.
Pappas confidently declared that Greece is now in a stable place economically, if not geographically. “Everybody can see that we’re in an area that has got a lot of places of instability, but Greece, with its international corporations and its foreign policy has shown that it can create triangles of stability, with Israel, with Egypt and others.” One of the biggest contributing factors to spreading regional stability can be seen in Greece’s large number of cross-border projects. “We prioritise projects that connect countries in the long run and projects in such infrastructure as energy and telecommunications are quite important.” Pappas said that the Greek Government is “very, very happy” about the fact that outside players have decided to engage in the country’s target to fund €25-billion in large-scale infrastructure projects through public-private partnerships and joint ventures, particularly in the logistics sector. “We’re very optimistic that it’s going to be (…) strategically important and of course profitable for the investors.
Things are certainly looking up for the Greek economy, and Pappas ensured that this will continue as the country moves to the next phase of economic independence and exits the bailout programmes this summer. When asked about the risks of any ‘backtracking’ on reforms, Pappas answered confidently, stating that “there is zero risk because this government has shown that it can keep up to abiding to the agreements and within the agreements finding space to do extra things for the people that are in need, do more things for improving the investment atmosphere.”
He noted that in addition to meeting its bailout commitments, the government has also worked for “the creation of a buffer” in order to secure “a smooth exit to the markets when the programme is concluded.” Before the programmes finish, the government plans to put its own set of reforms into place, which “will take the country to the next page.”
Pappas is optimistic that this combination of reforms “will dramatically improve the whole atmosphere in terms of investment, employment, job creation and the steady growth path that has started (…) is going to keep going.” He projects that by the end of their first term in September 2019, the government will have created nearly 500,000 jobs—a large feat for a country of just 11 million. “That would be a very good reason to present to the people to be re-elected.”
Christophe Leclercq is the founder of EURACTIV media network and Chairman of Fondation EURACTIV, and also an adviser & commentator. Since January 2018, he is one of the experts on the High-Level Expert Group (HLEG) on “fake news” and online disinformation set up by the European Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel. Leclercq also moderates conferences, speaks at policy and corporate events, and helps boards and media associations. He leads the new projects #Media4EU and Stars4Media (Erasmus4Media).
He also teaches at the Institute for European Studies (ULB, Brussels) while his publications include many books and articles on media policy, alliances, governance, EU communication, public affairs, Eastern Europe, Brexit. Greek News Agenda conducted an interview with Christophe Leclercq on the currently ardent subject of “fake news”, the digital revolution in the field of information, the ways these affect EU policies and the role of EURACTIV network.
The founder of EURACTIV media network & Chairman of Foundation EURACTIV, Christophe Leclercq gave an interview presentinghis views on EU strategy for the media sector. In it, he addressed many topics. He started by pointing out that fake news and disinformation are crucial issues directly linked with political developments such as Trump’s win and Brexit. Leclercq was also indirectly asked to comment on Russia’s actions, so he mentioned the Russian tendencies towards destabilizing specific countries, supporting oppositions and attempting to make the democratic system less effective. Ιn order to protect the freedom of the press, the European Commission recently decided to launch some initiatives regardingillegal/harmful content and fake news. Leclercq stated that fake news is not illegal, yet we need to “Avoid censorship, dilute fake news and promote quality content”. In order to achieve that, he suggested that we augment the visibility of genuine contents and use “trust indicators” and that these initiatives are actually essential for both Europe’s future in general and for the 2019 EU elections. For that reason, the High-Level Group of Experts is asking the EU to develop a new sustainable path for the media sector in order for it to be included in the economic sector and not to be thought of as a communication system.
When asked about EURACTIV, he explained that it has expanded –now being present in 12 countries- thanks to its adaptability and its collaborations with high-level partners and multilingual journalists. EURACTIV credits its expansion to the fact “that unfortunately some other players started to disappear” and especially to it’s being European rather than French. Discussing the development of new types of business models, he explained that these can be based on support from public money and non-profit foundations of public interest, on condition that editorial independence is not jeopardized. Concluding the interview, Leclercq was asked about his personal perspective for the media sector in Europe to which he responded that despite the presence of the digital single market, “the media sector is still very national” and that this critical issue affects the democratic procedures in Europe by shrinking the pluralism in the media. In order to avoid that, he proposed the development of cross-border media concentrations as he noted that it “is important for European citizens to be able to read about other countries in their own language without going via some Anglo-Saxon media”.
Mr. Leclercq, you are a member of the EU High-Level Expert Group on 'fake news' and online disinformation. “Post–truth” was named “word of the year” for 2016, and misinformation is considered today as a major threat to western democracy. What is your take on the issue?
My take is that it is indeed very important issue and it’s not going away easily. So, maybe it will not be anymore the trending topic for this year, but it remains a big issue. In my view, ‘fake news’ is part of the explanation for the Trump win and also for Brexit. Even closer to home, there are destabilization attempts in Central and Eastern Europe.
How do you evaluate the EU actions so far?
The EU has talked about doing something for many years already, notably during the Ukraine war, but it has not done enough. The platforms, notably Facebook and Google, are very much under pressure now, even more so in the case of Facebook after the revelation of some important leaks of data, but it has not done enough. And I think this is why the EU institutions and a number of governments are coming to action. The actions are not always fruitful, although they are always well-meaning, and they could lead to other problems. One of the concerns is that handling ‘fake news’ could lead to censorship.
Could you name specific examples?
I would mention two examples, in Germany and France. There are of course other initiatives in other countries. In Germany, if I simplify, there is a German law now that forces Facebook to take content away from its platform, when it is illegal or harmful, for example hate speech, racism etc. So, Facebook had to quickly recruit a few hundred people in order to check the content. And this leads to two problems. The first is that some of the things taken away are actually not problematic and the second is that Facebook is becoming de facto publisher, which it doesn’t want and which the public opinion also doesn’t want. So, clearly this is not exactly the right solution. Then there is the French law that is under consideration. President Macron has indicated that he would like fake news to be taken away from the public sphere in the run up to elections. We can understand why: Because there was a destabilization attempt just before his own elections, notably from extreme right circles in the US, unfortunately they were not relayed in the French press. But in the view of most European experts, censorship is not the solution to fake news. There are better solutions.
Given that information has been used as a weapon for centuries, do you think that the threat is being blown out of proportion or is it a real modern menace emanating from a specific country?
I think it is a really serious issue. Your question is really, if I understand well, whether Russia is behind it. I would say there is sufficient evidence to say that it is the case of a number of situations, whether it’s Russian groups or the Kremlin, you can debate for a long time, but what is clear is that this country has an interest in destabilizing certain other countries, in crystallizing oppositions, in making the normal democratic system work less well. I am not anti-Russian, by the way, and I am not saying that the majority of Russians would support that, but very clearly there is a certain track record which is not favourable and it will not be tackled by protesting in front of Russian embassies or at summit between leaders. One has to act on the ground. But again, censoring Russian media or content which is triggered by Russian groups, like the famous Internet Research Institute in Saint Petersburg, is probably not the solution. Firstly, because they will always find new ways and new format etc., sometimes hidden, and, secondly, because it could even be counterproductive. The moment a state or the EU institutions start suppressing some news, there will be some reactions in part of the public opinion, which will say “the establishment is trying to protect itself from criticism”, “it is EU propaganda” or “national propaganda”. The French idea of the law, which I alluded to – I hope it will change, there is still time – but as it is currently conceived, it could give arguments to governments in Eastern Europe to have their own system of censorship. They would say: “Look, the French are doing it, we are doing it as well”. That would be a big worry for democracy in certain countries, even in the European Union.
So, you are saying that this is not and should not be the road we want to take in Europe.
We definitely want to uphold the values of Western democracies and not to bate freedom of speech, which includes freedom of the press. If we end up suppressing our values in order to combat the adversaries, we are not doing the right things, we are doing what they would wish.
In this context, how do you evaluate the Commission’s recent attempts to tackle this phenomenon?
There are several EU initiatives and they should be clearly distinguished. There is one initiative regarding illegal and harmful content, content that is clearly illegal, for example racist content or things which could be harmful to children. This is already covert by legislative pieces at national and European level and there have been some agreements recently between the European Commission, notably the Justice Commissioner, and the main platforms. Fake news is a different thing. Fake news is not illegal, or not always illegal, news. Fake news is news, which is false and intentionally false in order to distort the debate, either for political reasons that would be the case for Russian influence, or simply for commercial reasons, because some content can be very attractive, completely wrong and be like clickbait, leading to a lot of visibility and therefore advertising revenues. Fake news should be handled in different ways than illegal news. And we have some proposals in this report from the High-Level Group of Experts.
Would you elaborate on these proposals and on the work that is being done within this Group?
We are a Committee of 39 independent experts, representing five different constituencies, the platforms, the press, the broadcasters, civil society and academics, and despite our very different cultures, we manage to agree, we reached unanimity minus one vote, which is already an achievement. And I think our proposals are quite practical and really tackle the issue. In fact, it is expected that the Commission will issue a Communication at the end of April, which will probably endorse most of our recommendations. Obviously, they are not obliged to do so. The title of the Report is a bit long and, in my view academic, so I would like to summarize it in my own way. I would say “Avoid censorship, dilute fake news and promote quality content”. The first one, we have discussed it already. I would just add that it takes educating the citizens to have a critical mind. The best filters for fake news are not technical devices, not judges, they are the citizens themselves. We already educate our children, I hope in most schools in Europe, to distinguish between news articles and advertising. Well, now we have to help them distinguish between genuine and fake news articles. This is called media literacy and I am certain there will be initiatives flourishing in this area notably at national level. Now, the second thing is to dilute fake news. How to do that? We need to enhance the visibility of genuine content, where the source is authentic and therefore the fake news will be less visible. In other words, to use an image, if you really want to read something about Hillary Clinton killing little babies, you will find it. But it will be difficult to find. On the other hand, if you want to read the articles from Kathimerini or Le Monde, you will find them much more easily, because everybody knows that these are good sources of information. How to do that?
There are two main ways. One is to use the revenue side. It’s to make sure the platforms stop putting advertising on content that is likely not to be genuine and correct. This will reduce the commercially driven part of fake news. There are initiatives in that direction in the US and we can take inspiration from them. For example, the media Breitbart has difficulties now to carry advertising, because it carries to much ‘fake news’. The other side is a bit more technical. It’s about the algorithms, which are pieces of software that allow the platforms to choose which content you and I are reading. We would like to read the news and messages from our friends and family, we would like to read articles from the good newspapers, we would like to read less of the clickbait and the very poor sources of information. To do that the platforms has to use the so-called signals. There are many signals, for example the proximity of certain key words, the relevance to your search on Google etc.
What are the proposals of the Expert Group in this context?
The Expert Group is suggesting using so-called “trust indicators”, which would bundle a number of signals in order to help the platforms determine which content is relevant and of quality. Other people call it trust transparency indicators. This is not completely new. There are interesting projects that exist already, let me mention First Draft and also the Trust Project in the US. They already have an affiliate in Europe and there are ideas about developing them in Europe as well and the platforms are seriously committed to this project. The report has provided the principles for the code of practice, which will be further developed by an alliance of stakeholders, including the platforms, the media and civil society. This alliance will enact the Code. A very important aspect is that we are suggesting putting in place what people call co-regulation. You can also call it carrot and sticks. Google and Facebook have an interest in doing the right thing for reputation reasons and to look good in the eyes of the advertisers. This is private sector based self-regulation. If they don’t act quickly enough and if there is a serious worry of destabilization before the next European elections, then the EU institutions and possibly some governments will act more strongly using any relevant policy initiative, including the competition powers, which, as you know, are very strong. I myself, before setting up EURACTIV, was competition official, so I know about these tools.
How about the third dimension you mentioned, the quality content?
The quality content should, first of all, actually exist. It’s not a given. You represent the executive power, there is a second power, legislative, the third one, judiciary, and, in principle, there is a forth one, the press. The press is in great crisis and in order to dilute ‘fake news’, you need to have journalists writing good articles, so that people continue to be well informed. The EU has not handled so far the media sector as a normal economic sector. As you know from books and the university, the EU was first created around coal and steel and in the meantime it has tackled a number of other areas, of course agriculture, the automobile sector, chemistry etc. The media sector has always been thought of as a communication channel. So, people ask us to do more about the EU information, sometimes subsidies have been distributed, but we have not yet tackled the huge need for innovation in the media sector. The media sector itself is trying to innovate, but it has very limited means. Most of the advertising money has drifted towards Google and Facebook, which don’t pay many taxes here, so we can’t even use part of that money to invest back in Europe.
What is the input of the Expert Group in this field?
The Expert Group report is clearly asking the EU to develop a strategy for media sustainability. These things take time, so this strategy can be thought of now, we recommend that there is a study commissioned this summer, which will give ideas to the Commission services, which will then brief the new Commissioners that will come after the European Parliament elections. Hopefully there will be some points from that in the programme of the next Commission, which is endorsed by the next European Parliament.
What reactions did you receive on this report so far?
It was great to see very good endorsement of the Expert Group not only from media circles on this approach. There were also review points foreseen in this report, so it will be difficult for the EU to just leave the report in a drawer. There will be more debate about it. The High-Level Expert Group will meet again in November and there is an even more important review point in March next year, so just before the European Parliament elections, where the Commission will assess how well the platforms have done and whether it is needed to go a bit further and take pore policy initiatives.
Since you mentioned the 2019 EU election, do you fear fake news could affect it?
Yes, certainly. I am not sure there would be a coordinated campaign across all countries, but certainly in some countries, where the national public sphere is weaker, there could be attempts to do so. There was a big worry in Germany after the French elections, but in fact it has not really happened, because I think that the German media sector is strong and also because the public opinion had been prewarned and so it was not a major worry. I don’t think that the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) relative success can be attributed entirely to fake news or to some foreign influence. It’s probably a more home-grown form of populism. But next year, yes, it could happen again, especially because the European election is a less involving election in a way, so it’s typically an opportunity for the electorate to vote for people who have extreme views, when they know that it will have no direct impact on the government. An in a country like Greece, where there has been a lot of turmoil in the last years, I could imagine that it’s a concern.
Let’s shift our attention to the digital agenda. EURACTIV has been one the first media to incorporate the digital agenda in its main thematic. It is also a pioneer in hosting related events, such as the event on the top 40 EU digital influencers last October in Brussels. Could you highlight the importance of the digital transformation in the media sector?
This is really important and I think now we are moving on. To start with your first point, EURACTIV is indeed a pure player. We started without paper and we are still without paper. When we started, it was a bit strange for people, also we decided to be for free, because we stand for transparency and we think EU information should be available widely without pay. Initially that triggered some questions, also from our colleagues in the press core here.
In the meantime, we have expanded. As you know, we are present in 12 countries, notably partnering with the Athens News Agency and a number of other good ones, for example EFE, the Spanish Press Agency and a number of other good media, like the Guardian in London etc. So, the credentials of pure play online media are not at stake anymore. I think now the big challenge for the media is not to go from print to online, because this is nearly done. Of course, paper continues to play a role. I would make an analogy if I may. There are still theatres in every country, but of course the main entertainment channel is TV, in different ways. One day we will think of print newspapers like we think about theatre: This is a luxury product for certain people. I am talking especially about the daily price. The magazines etc have a different role. For me the real challenge is how to move from 1.0, which is still based on the traditional model with advertising and subscriptions, to other types of revenue models, and to be honest I don’t have exactly an answer.
How prepared are the traditional media to embrace the digital revolution?
Two years ago, because I was stepping away from the management of the media EURACTIV, I decided to go on a “tour d’ Europe”, visiting publishers and editors in a number of countries, to try to see which their main concerns are and whether the EU could do something to help them. Coming back from this series of trips, I was even more concerned than before. Even great brands in Europe, great media brands in Europe, are basically SMEs led by all the white men who are not digital natives, people like myself, who don’t know the answers. They don’t know all the answers to the questions, and neither do I. There are elements of solutions and I can tell you that every meeting of media publishers or media editors that I attend is talking about that. There are elements regarding regulation and how to change the balance of negotiation between the media sector on the one hand and the platforms on the other hand. This is important. It is a whole discussion about copyright, and whether the media should be able to charge fees to the platforms for using snippets, part of their content. It is not the answer.
How are new business models shaping the media landscape?
There are elements concerning new types of business models, for example public money, if it can respect editorial independence, which is not easy, or non-profit money foundations of public interest are sponsoring, but not sponsored content, sponsoring of a long term supportive nature, not infringing editorial independence. This is by the way the main model for the EURACTIV network of policy media. There are also things which do not appear like normal media business model, but which are very relevant. You were asking about events. Every year EURACTIV organizes more than 100 events. Most of them are sponsored. They are always leading to a debate. It is not exactly the same notion of editorial independence as you have online, but it is a debate between different stakeholders. You attended one of them which was focusing on social media stars – so to say – but there are many others on more technical issues. Typically for the press, events make money and the traditional media activities lose money. People hope to win more on the one side than what to lose on the other side. Most media groups still have very good brands and they try to leverage their brands with events or supplements or other types of products which can be profitable in an appropriate way, not doing lobbying and which helps to subsidize for the lack of subscription or the lack of advertising.
In an interview 3 years ago, you mentioned that competition keeps you and EURACTIV on your toes. How has the media landscape evolved in the meantime? What are the main challenges for a hybrid, as you characterized it, medium that is neither Brussels-centric nor national?
I will not make very long comments about the competition, because it would not be appropriate and also because I think we keep them on their toes. I am sure they are watching carefully what I am saying. Of course, for some few years now there is a relatively large player in the European media landscape coming from Washington and we immediately said that they are welcome and they still are. We tend to focus more on policies, on depth and we are multilingual. These are the main differences. There are also differences regarding our DNA. We are European and despite French nationality of the founder, you could not say that EURACTIV is French. I would say it’s a bit different for the other main player in the city.
What has changed in the last three years is that unfortunately some other players started to disappear. There was a media called Europolitics, which does not exist anymore and there are smaller players, which, from my understanding, are becoming even smaller, at least in terms of revenues. But we should not confuse EU reporting with the very specialized media that have their centre in Brussels. For me Brussels is not Europe, and that is why early on EURACTIV decided to develop a network of media instead of being centralized in Brussels. We are present in 12 countries and my counterparts are not my colleagues here in Brussels. My counterparts are the entrepreneurial editors in the other countries. Interestingly, they are very faithful. We have very little job rotation in our network. You have people who started with us 12 years ago and who are still leading the EURACTIV affiliates in their country and who are little stars on their own in their respective countries. Some of them are even going to politics, which is nice to see. After having reported and interviewed others, now are being interviewed and influencing policy in a different way. We are in Europe, we are not in the US. We have many different languages, many different cultures.
There have been attempts by the EU institutions to bring the debate at the European level and to translate their websites in different languages. This is a bit of centralizing process. I believe in the reverse. I think we should bring Europe to where people are instead of bringing people to where Europe thinks it is. And that’s why our network is decentralized.
Could you explain how the EURACTIV model actually works given that it is available in so many different languages?
This might surprise you: If I take the total of EURACTIV teams, not only in Brussels, but with the different affiliates, we have among them very few translators, although we have 12 languages. How is it possible? Because they are journalists. They take our articles typically in English or German or French, they decide what to pick, they adapt immediately, they change language, sometimes they have to change the currencies (we don’t have the euro everywhere) and they become really interesting articles in their own language. And, of course, we do the reverse, when some national European news is relevant to EU level, then it is translated in English, and, typically, also in French and German.
We do not see a lot of such initiatives in Europe.
My wish is that the EU or other sources of founders would invest a lot more in this multilingual interface. I wish we had more competitors, not less. There is VoxEurop, which is an interesting initiative, complementing what we are doing. They are inspired by a previous project called Press Europe, which was at the time managed by Courrier International, subsidiary of the Group Le Monde. It was subsidized by the European Commission. Unfortunately, it stopped. I wish there would be many more like that.
Translation technologies have made immense progress. Many people remember the mistakes from ten years ago, but this is today, and I think it is important for European citizens to be able to read about other countries in their own language without going via some Anglo-Saxon media. I am not anti-AngloSaxon, my wife is British, I have worked for an American company before being an EU official, but I believe that if I am Parisian, I want to know about the coalition talks in Berlin in French using German sources and not via some English or American newspaper.
They are the majority of our readership. Clearly, it is not only us who are satisfied, it is also the readers and for a media the key is always the readers. There is a wide variety of partners in nature, because some are agencies, some are political dailies; some have been created in order to be the affiliate of EURACTIV, which is an interesting form of diversity. And, of course, we have to make efforts to coordinate them, but it should remain very decentralized and demand-driven. Our main challenge is not so much on the editorial side, except the translation challenge which I have mentioned (we could be more productive with better translation technologies). Our main challenge is on the revenue side. The advertising and sponsoring markets and also the event markets are still very national and we need to convince our clients that it makes sense to use the same network across different countries. And then there are wonderful scale effects. And if you deepen the debate in several countries and several languages at the same time, of course you really help policy making at EU level. But not every client understands it. Organizations are typically quite national and so this is our main challenge.
What is your personal vision for the media sector in Europe? Are you trying to create an EU-wide public sphere?
Absolutely. I used to say some years ago that the European public sphere is a dream. I share this dream, but it still is a dream. Now I think it’s becoming a bit more of a reality, because of economic necessities. I used to be a strategy consultant and then – as I mentioned – an EU official regarding competition policy, so I think a lot in terms of industry structures. I think the media sector was left behind by the single market. People in the EU institutions have believed that the digital single market would complement the original 1992 single market regarding all the digital affected services’ industries, including the media. This has not happened. What has happened is that the digital single market is facilitating a number of things, notably the expansion of the platforms. Perhaps it is facilitating the development of start-ups across border, but the media sector is still very national. I would say it is shrinking and concentrating at national level, which is an issue for the employment of journalists. It is an issue in terms of democracy, because of the lack of pluralism, and it is also an issue for Europe, because there cannot be a healthy functioning democracy without a healthy free press.
Do you think we will witness more concentration in the media sector in Europe?
I believe there will be more concentration of the media and - it will surprise you - I welcome cross-border concentration; because cross-border concentration would actually increase media pluralism. If I take Central Europe for example, after enlargement there has been a wave of investments by western companies, notably German and American, but also some French, British, Swiss, Italian etc, and that was good. That was a period where democracy was flourishing in those countries. A lot of them have retreated in the meantime for all kinds of economic and also political reasons and I think this is a loss of democracy in a number of Central European countries, where most of the media is controlled either by the government or by some oligarchs who confuse their business and their political interests. In those countries, when there is a foreign media, it is typically the best. And by the way it is typically the one with which EURACTIV likes to cooperate. So, if there were again cross-border investments, it would be good. It would also be good in the West as well.
How is the situation in your country, in France?
In my own country, in France, you can see that there is a progressive concentration of the press around 3 or 4 groups and that is not enough. If there was also a big German player, a big Italian player, a big Spanish player, it would be all the better. Again, I think the EU institutions could help, by accompanying the innovation process with translation, with other forms of help, with retraining the journalists etc. Of course, the main responsibility is of the media sector itself. When I talked to a number of media bosses in France, I asked them about international strategies and they said “yes, we have a great one; it is to go French-speaking Africa”. Of course, this is important, but I think Europe is even more important. This is our future.
* Interviewed for Greek News Agenda by Antigoni Pilitsi from the press office of the Greek Embassy in Brussels. Summary by Regina Zenteli.
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