As of September 2018, Dr. Gonda Van Steen takes on the Koraes Chair of Modern Greek & Byzantine History, Language & Literature at the Department of Classics of King’s College in London, at the same time assuming the directorship of the Centre for Hellenic Studies. Professor Van Steen is a devoted scholar and avid researcher of the language, literature and history of Ancient as well as Modern Greece, whose interests, research and publications cover a vast area, from Classics and Archaeology to chapters of 20th-century Greek history, obscure to most people outside Greece.
Having graduated with an M.A. in Classical Philology in her native Belgium, Van Steen continued her studies in the USA, where she went on to pursue a brilliant academic career. She is the current holder of the Cassas Chair in Greek Studies at the Department of Classics and Center for Greek Studies of the University of Florida. She is also an esteemed member of the Modern Greek Studies Association of North America, where she served as President (2012-14) and currently holds the position of Executive Director. Apart from her knowledge of Ancient Greek, Gonda Van Steen is also fluent in five modern languages, including Greek.
The modern interpretation of classical theatre has been a major theme in several of Van Steen’s publications, such as Venom in Verse: Aristophanes in Modern Greece (Princeton University Press, 2000), which was awarded the London Hellenic Prize, and Theatre of the Condemned: Classical Tragedy on Greek Prison Islands (Oxford University Press, 2010) which discusses the production of ancient tragedies by the political prisoners of the Greek Civil War. Her current book project, Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece focuses on Greek adoption stories that become paradigmatic of Cold War politics. Professor Van Steen spoke* to Greek News Agenda about her interest in Ancient and Modern Greek culture, and the ways these can affect our perspective today.
How did your interest in the Ancient Greek language and literature begin?
As a teenager, I was interested in the myths and monuments of Greece. That fascination led me to the Ancient Greek language, itself the key to Ancient Greek literature, which I have loved ever since. I studied classical languages through middle and high school, and I continued on in college in Belgium and through graduate school in the United States. But my interest really piqued as soon as I was able to travel to Greece, which is also what opened my eyes to the need to study Modern Greek. Since my first trip to Greece in the early 1980s, I have fostered a lifelong fascination with all things Greek, starting with the Classics and with archaeology, language, and literature, to then discover Byzantium, Modern Greece, and the complexities of their contemporary histories and cultures.
Gonda van Steen with staff and students after an open workshop at the Faculty of Theatre Studies, UoA in June 2018
So it was through your classical studies that you discovered Modern Greece. However, although many non-Greek nationals engage in the study of Ancient Greek Culture, few have examined the intricacies of 20th-century Greek history.
Indeed, I followed the path of the classicist who discovers the richness of the Modern Greek language and culture. For me, however, that encounter with contemporary Greece was a path of no return, and I threw myself wholeheartedly into the study of everything Modern Greek but especially of the theater, history, and politics of twentieth-century Greece.
You don’t hesitate to explore sensitive issues, such as the recent history of Greece: the military dictatorship and the Civil War, a touchy subject for many. Is your interest in the political as strong as your love for the artistic and cultural aspects of Modern Greece?
I like to approach Greek politics from a somewhat oblique angle, such as through the lens of theater, which I see as a mirror of and on contemporary society and intellectual life. Also, I find myself attracted to topics that have not yet been properly explored, such as the theater of the prison islands of the Greek Civil War, or the performance and censorship phenomena of the Greek military dictatorship. Overall, I shy away from “loud” politics, but I relentlessly pursue the study of the impact of politics and the arts on the margins.
One particularly interesting publication of yours was Theatre of the condemned, a study on the performance of Greek tragedies by political prisoners in Greek internment camps during the Civil War period. How did this subject come to your attention, and what can be learned through this research?
I had read bits and pieces about theater productions staged on the prison islands of the Civil War and its aftermath. But I felt that these performances needed to be studied in their own right, not as vehicles for partisan political comments. That is how I started to read historical and political works on the time period in question and also many memoirs written by the political prisoners themselves. In addition, I conducted numerous interviews with former detainees and was constantly struck by how they felt that theater and culture, and the group collaborations they required, had sustained them through one of the most trying ordeals of their lives. I learned that, among the isolated or the “condemned,” the collective effort that a theater production demands, can be one of the most inspiring and also gratifying commitments.
You are currently studying another issue linked to that era: the mass international adoptions of Greek-born children by USA citizens in the 1950s and 1960s, a fact unknown to many. You have actually been involved in this issue in a more personal manner, rather than purely academic – what made you passionate about it?
I started pursuing the topic of the Greek-to-American child adoptions as another inroad into the politics of mid-twentieth-century Greece. But I soon discovered how much potential this international adoption movement, as a historical and again understudied phenomenon, holds for a deeper engagement with the (most intimate) social history of postwar and Cold War Greece. I offer a historical study of the what, why, and how of this Greek adoption movement that placed hundreds of children in the USA and also in the Netherlands. I delve into Greek, American, and Dutch archives to present a complete historical record. Once again, however, I enrich this study with, and I have personally been much enriched by, the many conversations with Greek-born adoptees, now American and Dutch adults who are looking for their roots in the home country to which they have never been thoroughly exposed. These adoptees’ quests and their first adult experiences of Greece open up a chapter in transnational studies and in “life writing” that is again worth investigating, by lifelong students of Greece and by the broader public alike.
You have recently been appointed to be the next Koraes Professor of Modern Greek & Byzantine History, Language & Literature at King’s College, London. What do you hope to contribute to this position? You stated that you intend to “delve deeper into twentieth-century Greek social history”.
At King’s College, I hope to offer courses in reception studies, language, and literature, and I will indeed delve deeper into twentieth-century Greek social and family history. I am excited to start working with graduate students and colleagues in KCL’s Centre for Hellenic Studies, and I aim to build bridges across UK campuses, to the Greek diaspora community in Britain, and also to the rest of Europe, while maintaining professional contacts with colleagues in the USA.
My prior book and article publications have foregrounded Modern Greek receptions of the Classics. Most recently, I published Stage of Emergency: Theater and Public Performance under the Greek Military Dictatorship of 1967-1974. My current book project, entitled Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece, is the above-mentioned Greek adoption ethnography, which is set against the backdrop of the global Cold War. This project is taking me into the new, uncharted terrain of Greek adoption stories that become paradigmatic of Greek postwar history and international Cold War politics.
What do you believe the study of the social history of Modern Greece can offer to people from the rest of Europe and the world?
The study of Modern Greece and of its social history, especially, is one that offers deep perspective, a rich vantage point of comparison, and also a complex warning signal of how to read and what to negotiate (or avoid) when it comes to state or private interventions (whether the handling of the current economic crisis or the condoning of the mass adoption movement of the postwar past).
You are the Executive Director -and also a former President- of the Modern Greek Studies Association, a US-based institution aiming to “showcase the merits of the Modern Greek tradition and contemporary Greek culture”. Would you share with us a few words about the MGSA’s initiatives and the ways it advances research in this field?
The Modern Greek Studies Association of North America functions as a professional organization of all those involved with the study of contemporary Greece and Cyprus. The MGSA’s journal, the Journal of Modern Greek Studies, is a highly acclaimed, peer-reviewed periodical that features scholarship across various disciplines but always related to the Modern Greek world. It is a truly interdisciplinary journal, and that cross-disciplinarity is also reflected in the spirit in which our biennial symposia, or three-day conferences, are conducted. The latter feature presentations by neohellenists from across the globe and also promote the participation of graduate students in the field of Modern Greek Studies. The MGSA further functions as a clearinghouse of information related to the field and devotes special attention also to the teaching of Modern Greek as a second language. The association was founded in 1968 and celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year.
*Interview by Nefeli Mosaidi
Read also via Greek News Agenda: 100 years from the founding of the Koraes Chair at King’s College, London; Rethinking Greece: Roderick Beaton on the study of Greece and modern Greek achievements; An Englishwoman in Evia: Publisher Denise Harvey on her love for Greek literature and culture
The 18th Athens Technopolis Jazz Festival will be held on June 4-10, 2018, at the Technopolis City of Athens venue, offering music lovers a week-long jazz experience. This year, once more with the collaboration of the Οnassis Cultural Centre Athens (OCC), the festival features one of its most comprehensive line-ups, with performances by twenty-one bands, plus a number of parallel events, exhibitions and some surprises. These include NEW GENERATION 5, the fifth edition of the Greek Jazz Panorama, hosted at the upper stage of the OCC, where virtuosi from the Greek jazz scene share the stage with the new generation of musicians.
The festival’s artistic director for the 2018-19 season is Antonis Zouganelis. Zouganelis has been active in the music and events industry since 2000. Having worked as Strategy Manager for Warner Music, he later created the Archangel Music company, which initiated the music site Jumping Fish for the promotion of young artists, and ARK festival. Since 2014, he has been working as an Event and Sponsors Consultant at the Technopolis City of Athens, as well as being in charge of the concerts programme. We interviewed* Antonis Zouganelis on this year’s Athens Technopolis Jazz Festival, and his hopes for the organisation’s future.
Who had the original idea for the Technopolis Jazz Festival? How did your involvement begin?
The Festival was founded by Technopolis in 2000, conceived and initiated by Fotis Papathanasiou, then Managing Director of Technopolis, and Hirst Deinwaller, then director of the Goethe Institut in Athens. Now, eighteen years later, the festival has become international, is of a weekly duration, with performances by more than 23 artists and 40,000 visitors each year. Until last year, the embassies and educational institutions engaged in the project, together with the Technopolis’ Cultural Department, were in charge of the event’s artistic direction.
Starting this year, and always in collaboration with our partners, we have decided to give the Festival a specific orientation and a new identity within jazz music and steer it onto a new course following the latest trend in contemporary jazz around the world, hosting some of the best young jazz artists and rising stars in the world.
How hard is to sustain such a project in Greece?
Now that the Festival has grown bigger, and with the support of its patrons and sponsors, it has become more sustainable. The festival’s audience has expanded and it has become a staple as the launch of the summer concert season in Athens. Without the support of Technopolis and its partners, however, it wouldn’t have come so far. It is the vision of the Technopolis team, the support of the partners and the response from the people, which has made such a project possible, after many years of commitment and hard work. For a new project of this sort to succeed today, it would require significant investment from a private company, an institution or state agency and still that would be just the beginning. Consistency, hard work and a clear vision are some of the key features a team needs to achieve such a goal.
Are you satisfied with the Festival's progress so far and the people’s response? What do you think it has offered to music lovers?
The Athens Technopolis Jazz Festival is now hailed as one of the city’s foremost cultural institutions – and not by chance. Each year it gets better, with regard to both artistic content and event planning, featuring notable participations from Greece and abroad. The great turnout and response point to an audience with a real interest in jazz, in tune with developments on the jazz scene. This of course creates a responsibility towards them. Every year we strive for a perfect artistic result, we network, we partner up with more and more institutions and foreign organisations.
In these difficult times for our country, our festival has managed to maintain free admission to the events, without giving anything up in terms of quality; it is financially self-sufficient, thanks to its sponsors and partners, something we try to do for every Technopolis production.
What makes this year’s line-up “better than ever”?
This year we’ve added an extra day to the programme, a “Greek showcase” day, giving the audience the chance to watch and discover some of the best jazz artists in Greece and the best jazz projects of the past year. So on Monday, June 4, the John Balikos Trio, Mihalis Kalkanis, the Athens Big Band featuring Dimitris Tsakas and Vasilis Xenopoulos, the Drums & Voices Jazztronica Duet and Alex Dante will welcome the audience on the main stage and on specially designed stages in the premises of the Industrial Gas Museum.
Over the rest of the week, 18 more up-and-coming jazz artists from the international scene will appear, completing the best and biggest line-up in the history of the Athens Technopolis Jazz Festival. Do not miss Binker and Moses from England, who have entered the list for the world's best dynamic jazz duos for 2017, Theo Croker from USA, a trumpeter performing with Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Sebastian Studnitzky from Germany, the man behind XJAZZ, the most hyped jazz festival in Berlin.
Would you give us a taste of the surprises promised in your press release?
Running parallel to the concerts in the course of the festival you will find the Meet Market’s Jazz edition, Dinner in the Sky, and three photo exhibitions - two of which by Greek instagramers. Moreover, the "Booknotes" project, combining jazz with literature, comes to the Athens Technopolis Jazz Festival on the sidelines of Athens 2018 - World Book Capital, after two years of successful book-jammings at Jazz Point Cafe. There will also be many creative learning programmes, workshops and educational programmes for children and families. You will find all the information on our website and on the website of Technopolis.
Is there anything more you hope to achieve in the future? Are you confident that the Festival will continue for many years to come?
Of course! The Festival has proven to be a sustainable project, evolving each year, thanks to the right management and the team’s vision.
What we are currently working on is a special edition for the Festival’s 20th edition, in 2020; we want it to feature many of the best up-and-coming jazz bands from around the world on the three stages in Technopolis, to “open up to the city” through parallel events in various spots around Athens and to form a “club night line-up” expanding the festival’s programme to many Athens music venues. Our goal until then is for Athens and its citizens to discover and experience jazz in every corner and city square, for the duration of each Festival; for Athens Technopolis Jazz Festival to become a meeting point and a magnet for music lovers internationally.
*Interview by Nefeli Mosaidi
Paschalis Nikolaou is Assistant Professor at the Department of Foreign Languages, Translation and Interpreting of the Ionian University, Corfu. His writings on translation studies have appeared in such publications as Translation and Creativity: Perspectives on Creative Writing and Translation Studies; reviews and translations have been widely published in journals in Greece and abroad. He is the editor and co-translator of 12 Greek Poems After Cavafy (Shearsman Books, 2015) and has co-edited Translating Selves: Experience and Identity between Languages and Literatures (Continuum, 2008), The Perfect Order: Selected Poems 1974-2010 by Nasos Vayenas (Anvil Press Poetry, 2010), a volume shortlisted for the Criticos (now London Hellenic) Prize, and most recently, Richard Berengarten: A Portrait in Inter-Views (Shearsman Books, 2017). He is currently reviews editor of the academic journal mTm, consulting editor to the International Literary Quarterly, as well as a regular contributor to the Greek literary journal Nea Efthyni.
His most recent book titled The Return of Pytheas: Scenes from British and Greek Poetry in Dialogue (Shearsman Books, 2017) is a study of poetry and poems through and across two language traditions – Greek and English. While the main focus is recent and contemporary, exchanges reach back as far as Aeschylus and the Iliad. Across four chapters populated with poems compelled by the sharing of reference and imagination, Nikolaou delves into associations that are as constantly desired as they are auspiciously productive, including the endlessly varied conditions and factors that bring poets together as they pursue transfers of self, place, experience, and longing. The result is a close-range mapping of an entire community of poetic dialogues that are intensely lived as they are lived in, constantly revitalizing themselves as they carry into the 21st century.
Paschalis Nikolaou spoke to Reading Greece* about The Return of Pytheas commenting on the encounters between Greek and British Poetry, as well as on the reception of Greek poetry – both ancient and contemporary – by 20th and 21st century British poets, and, their impact on Greek literary production. He talks about the challenge of moving beyond long-standing stereotypes and the contribution of poetry to this end, while he also discusses the role of translation in the diffusion of literature beyond national borders. He concludes that "there is much to accomplish still in improving, coordinating, and deepening, exchanges", noting that "improved results will come from forming networks of universities, and through systematic discussions between them, state structures and private bodies in the future".
In your latest book The Return of Pytheas: Scenes from British and Greek Poetry in Dialogue, you comment that “the figure of the ancient Greek seafarer comes to symbolize a rich panoply of encounters: of a poet with another land and people; of expressions and revolutions in verse of the experiences of travel, long stays abroad and relocation”. Tell us about some such encounters between Greek and British Poetry.
Αbove all, it serves as a reminder to us that in both traditions, themes of exploration were always strong. There is closeness to the sea; our history is also a maritime history. And of course, in some British poets, we come across actual references to the figure of Pytheas, direct treatments. We soon realize interesting contrasts, or rather, interesting asynchronies – in Empire and post-Empire Britain, or a modern Greece that is too often (mis)understood in relation to the classical world, and its inheritance. Some relationships may seem lopsided; the one with Homer going back to Chapman, imports and negotiations of modernist values through Seferis and other poets of his generation.
When it comes to Greek (cultural) space, poetic dialogues are entangled with notions and experiences of travel. Even before Byron, visits to Greece coincide with diary records, dramatizations – and of course, poems. In The Return of Pytheas I am attempting, for the most part, to look at a number of cases post-1960. There are poets who have built a steady relationship with certain regions and islands after long stays in Greece. Sebastian Barker or Kelvin Corcoran for instance, the latter even producing an anthology of Greek-themed poems. British influences, place-names can be found in poets like Nasos Vayenas or Haris Vlavianos but also in the writing – the structuring of collections even – of poets who’ve been to Britain post-1990, often initially as students. Krystalli Glyniadakis comes to mind.
The underlying intention here, of course, is also to ask ourselves about boundaries and borders, interpenetrations which may have already happened: because there are also poets of Greek ancestry who write in English and publish their work in Britain, like Alice Kavounas or Fani Papageorgiou. Τheir poems often contemplate what it means to be Greek, half-Greek, living abroad, pursuing connections with individual and collective memory. So these dialogues can be many-sided, and often internal. On the other hand, there’s a deep, ongoing relationship with Cavafy in poets like Josephine Balmer and Christopher Middleton; again, Vayenas’s resourceful re-transmitting of Gavin Ewart; several of these dialogues happen through translation, or variously reconsider its practices.
How would you comment on the reception of Greek poetry – both ancient and contemporary – by 20th and 21st century British poets? And, in turn, what has been the impact of British poets on Greek literary production?
The impact of British poets is perhaps more diffused, a bit harder to assess. Τhough you can certainly trace resulting inflections and re-arrangements in Dionysis Kapsalis and, from the poetic voices emerging in recent years, the work of Maria Topali, Thodoris Rakopoulos, Katerina Iliopoulou and Yiannis Doukas. A sense of discipline in composition, renewed interest in formal features and narrative appears to follow such encounters (often initially taking the form of translation). Their products are well spread – which means there’s still much more for us to study here – in journals like Poiitiki, Nea Efthyni or Odos Panos. I am talking about the recent past, of course, because shifts occurring in the wake of literary modernism are well-studied. But even earlier, there are such scenes: for instance, Cavafy attempting translations of Tennyson, Shelley and Keats in the 1890s.
British poets – I mentioned this earlier – have been aligning with Homer for centuries, with three notable examples in the 20th and 21st centuries being Logue’s War Music, Walcott’s Omeros of course and Oswald’s more recent Memorial. Dramatic works, Sophocles and Euripides in particular, have appealed to Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Simon Armitage.Τhe result can be staged performances, or meaningful fragments embedded within individual collections, in dialogue with original poetry.
Then there’s the example of Cavafy which is absolutely unique, not only looking at the incredible number of book-length editions, especially post-2001, but also translations done by poets like Don Paterson and John Ash, as well as Cavafy-inspired poems, even collections of poems. Seferis and Ritsos recur less in this sense, but we still come across negotiations of style and themes in a sequence like Richard Berengarten’s Black Light: Poems in Memory of George Seferis, published 35 years ago. Τhe Greek translation, by Vayenas and Ilias Lagios appeared in 2005. David Harsent has put out some mesmerizing versions of Ritsos. I haven’t seen any engagements with Elytis for some time, though the late Sebastian Barker was fascinated with him and often channeled him into his work. Greek poets writing today are even less visible.
David Connolly supports the idea that “many contemporary poets who have failed to make an impact in English translation have undoubtedly suffered from the legacy of Greece’s ancient past and from a particular perception of Greece by Westerners”. How challenging is itto move beyond long-standing stereotypes and form a new imaginary about the country? Could contemporary poetry help to this end?
It is worth noting that Connolly discusses this in introducing his English translation of Yannis Kondos’s collection O Athlitis tou Tipota (1997), itself an example of ‘best practice’, of how to conquer certain problems. Absurd Athlete was a bilingual edition, published relatively close to ‘real time’, and within a series of books of contemporary poetry – Arc Publishing’s Visible Poets, still going strong – that took particular care of details that matter. There’s a point to make, incidentally, with respect to what counts as modern or contemporary verse, for readers in other languages and traditions. Τhe translated Seferis, Fokas, or Anghelaki-Rooke are in some respects nearer in time to the Anglophone reader than they are to us. We need to synchronize our watches a bit more. There aren’t as many examples like Absurd Athlete as we would like (but I happily note the recent translation of Phoebe Giannisi's Homerica), that is, in terms of us thinking beyond a possible Selected Poems, more assertively situating the translation of a poet who is writing in the here-and-now. In 2018, several Greek poets have produced work worthy of this treatment. When it comes to stereotypes, the visual aspect too can be important: we resisted – the poet also – a blue cover initially suggested to us by the publisher for Vayenas’s Selected Poems. (The final cover was exactly the same, but a shade of brown instead of blue.) One realizes how very many book-covers of translated poetry from Greece use blue. Even such colour-codings – or other visual shortcuts – activate a set of responses, and resupply readers with stock images, well into the 21st century. I suspect that until we move beyond a stage of anthologies, a few poets rising above current groups, with recognizable, individual themes and formal concerns, it’s going to be naturally easier for editors or publishers to suggest – or impose – a direction. I’d rather have a particular poet’s perspective, sense of things (not necessarily of Greece) emphasized, a poet that happens to be Greek.
What is more, we’ve noticed in the past that when there’s survival of poetic voice(s) beyond a given frame, beyond the initiatives – commendable as they are – of translators, editors, publishers and so on, this is often precisely because their verse becomes transfused, assimilated, imitated, re-expressed by fellow poets. This would be the case of say, a Cavafy-inspired poem written by Christopher Reid or Evan Jones, who have clearly read Cavafy in translation first. Again, there’s an extra step involved here; when translation leads to something else. Not many poets have endured simply by virtue of their presence in ‘translation proper’. Other echoes, filtrations are necessary. When we start reading poems ‘in the manner of’, then we’re on to something.
Theodoros Chiotis claims that “this particular historical circumstance might be a once-in-a-generation opportunity for contemporary Greek literature to be diffused outside Greece”. Yet, could contemporary poetic voices extend their presence in English beyond the current socio-political frame?
Arguably there are already some distances involved, yet even when the effects of the crisis on Greek society were overwhelming, poetic writing was not decisively bound to social and political circumstances.Poetic voices can extend their presence beyond this sort of frame, and if anything, they must – poetry strives for a different kind of duration, I think. Particular events, behaviours intensifying in those years, are naturally reflected in some form in the literature produced in the period. I believe it happens more effectively in prose fiction than in poetry. Even so, some poets have focused on the socioeconomic crisis in parts of their work (and many more spoke about the crisis).
There is, inevitably, poetry written during the crisis. Whether it’s thematically, formally, tonally different enough from what has gone on before…that’s a harder point to argue. One dominant mode includes disjointed aphorisms, an often unearned lyricism that may even be counterintuitive to absorbing and truly describing the impact of events. On the other hand, when one is editing a book, and working out the ideas and structuring principles behind it – this can sometimes be more clearly part of the poetry of its time. The book enters a critical legacy of the period, and may reveal the way we see, or want to see, ourselves.
I think it’s preferable to consider larger categories, and if one does that, the time soon comes to champion specific poets, to progress beyond groups. And several groups were indeed formed during the crisis – that’s true. Again, ‘opportunity’ is not a word I would use, though I can sense how it is primarily meant; and I agree with Chiotis when he suggests that there needs to be a more consistent book policy, a more intelligent approach to getting people excited about contemporary poetry from Greece. It is, however, a long game; it will take time for a small set, of 2-3 poets to have their names truly recognized outside of Greece – for them to enter, really and consequentially, a literary elsewhere.
When translating from a so-called “minor” to a so-called “major” language or literature, translators do sometimes hold remarkable power, including the power to produce what will in many cases become the only interpretation of a work of literature available in a given language. How do you respond to this power?
Well, it’s true. In most cases, a poet will only get one shot. Cavafy is the exception to the rule perhaps, but we’ve long passed the point since he became part of world literature. Literatures in major languages may often be voracious, but attention-spans can be limited – and sometimes this applies to key poets, Nobel-winners: even recognition on that level won’t necessarily guarantee a continuously maintained existence in this or that literary or cultural memory.
In terms of translation, any such project attempts to take into account several, often competing, intentions. And there’s always a balance to be struck between verse that is representative of someone’s work – those key poems that unquestionably should be repeated across languages – and some titles that lend themselves particularly well, to, say, English or Spanish. Translators need to be involved, I feel, in most aspects of a book’s presentation and reception, including, as I mentioned earlier, the cover. Paratexts, their combined length and balance, need to reflect a good understanding of our intended readers, the amount of information they will normally seek, or be able to absorb. Emphasizing or clarifying intertextual relationships is often a priority.
Even more so in the case of a Selected Poems, there are connections and analogies that readers may be encouraged to pursue. For a poet like Vayenas, whose work I co-edited and co-translated some years back, it was crucial to communicate to English readers his activity as a critic, so Richard Berengarten and I thought it was important to include a brief selection from Vayenas’s essays. And a bilingual chapbook of Greek Cavafy-inspired poems I edited in 2015 also was a chance for English readers to glance at some little known Greek poets.
Overall, one needs to be patient, in so many ways, during the making of a translation and what surrounds it – even more so in cases of collaboration; and then stay involved in variously ensuring this work remains visible, long after it has been translated and published, of course. And yet, one may do everything right – and I’ve witnessed this often – the writer can be truly important, and still not much happens; the moment passes. So, at the very least, you want to be very capable and active in a number of areas, beyond actual translating – as translators, our work is often very close to that of an editor or literary critic, and this is something we also try to communicate to students of literary translation.
In your book you conclude that “there is much to accomplish still in improving, coordinating, and deepening, exchanges”. Could you elaborate on that?
Certain organizations, the Onassis Cultural Centre or the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center for instance, are already doing great work in encouraging dialogues between scholars and poets. A rejuvenated Greek National Library (which has recently moved to the Faliro bay site of the Niarchos complex) has given signs of an ambitious schedule of events, which will hopefully include future invitations to writers working abroad. And there have also been efforts already in managing Estates and Archives of Greek poets. When done right, this kind of activity enhances our knowledge and leads to more consequential dissemination of work – especially when it comes to some key, yet lesser-known names. New discoveries often occur, when drafts and manuscripts are ordered and digitized – and such processes can later be connected to translation. We sometimes think the position of a poet within a culture is stable: non-improvable – or unassailable. But that’s precisely where translation begins. Nor is it just the younger poets that deserve our attention. Re-examinations of tradition, appreciating anew – first of all within Greece – the significance of a number of 20th century poets (Zisis Oikonomou, for instance), republishing them … These are steps that should never really be ‘skipped’.
There used to be some funding programmes, like the often-lamented ‘Frasis’, suspended during the years of the crisis. Re-instating a version of it could be crucial, and ideally, more financial sources should be directed expressly towards translation from some of the private institutions too – involving, even, stable collaborations with publishers abroad: it would be interesting to have a series of books by Greek poets, with a recognizable design and with a solid team of editors/translators attached to it. So it’s not necessarily a case of returning to anything as centralized as just one, state-run programme. Yet this is an environment where co-ordination through the entire chain is truly important, from early presentations of translations, to launching and promoting published books.
There are also certain prizes and awards that draw attention to Greek literature and its study, such as the Runciman, the London Hellenic Prize, the Edmund Keeley Book Prize… The first two sometimes honour translations, but it would be even better once again to see a prize dedicated to translations of Greek literature into English.
Finally, to my mind, few things work better than finding ways to have writers, scholars, and if possible, translators, around each other. A small literary gathering, a ‘summer school’ or ideally, a festival like the one we hosted at the Ionian University in October 2017, when we invited four Irish and four Greek noveliststo Corfu. This kind of event creates a wealth of connections, inspirations, and even sometimes, unexpected collaborations. It may still include academic sessions, book launches, roundtables, various workshops. Early translation efforts and contacts with publishers can all happen in this context. Depending on interesting funding bodies of course, I know there’s no lack of organizations and venues that would host such events; the Department of Foreign Languages, Translation and Interpreting where I’m based, certainly pursues such opportunities. Improved results will come from forming networks of universities, and through systematic discussions between them, state structures and private bodies in the future.
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Where is the limit between fiction and reality in a documentary? How does one compose the portrait of a dear friend when he has stepped into the hereafter? In her recent documentary "Kostis Papagiorgis: The Sweetest Misanthrope", director Eleni Alexandrakis portrays Kostis Papagiorgis, an important essayist and translator. Avoiding sentimentality, her film is a refreshing exercise of intertextuality, in which excerpts of his texts along with testimonies coming from important representatives of the Greek intellectual scene compose an image of the late essayist.
Eleni Alexandrakis was born in Athens in 1957. She studied film at the Sorbonne University, Paris I and at the National Film and TV School of England. She has written, directed and produced several fiction films and documentaries, among which: "A Drop in the Ocean" (fiction, 1995), "Easter is in the air" (documentary, 1999) "The Woman who longed for Home" (fiction, 2004) "Angel and the Weightlifter" (fiction, 2008). She has received several prizes in Greece and abroad.
Alexandrakis talked to Greek News Agenda* about her latest documentary "Kostis Papagiorgis: The Sweetest Misanthrope" (2018) that won the Greek Association of Critics Award at the 20th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. As there was scarce visual material of Papagiorgis, Alexandrakis stresses the difficulty of composing his image from scratch based on the testimonies of the intellectuals, artists and people close to him. A dear friend of his and his wife, Alexandrakis says she was compelled to reread his books after his death, which was the inspiration for the film. Alexandrakis also talks about the inextricable link between his course of life and spiritual evolution which is reflected in his works.
Photo of Kostis Papagiorgis in "Kostis Papagiorgis: The Sweetest Misanthrope" (2018)
Your documentary undertakes the difficult task of visualizing the absence of an important intellectual like Kostis Papagiorgis. Papagiorgis avoided appearing in the media. How did you deal with the absence of visual material depicting him?
Kostis Papagiorgis avoided self-exhibition like the plague, so one can’t find any live pictures of him anywhere. The only live images that exist and that I used in my documentary are various home movies, and some silent shots of him that Nikos Perrakis had filmed in 1994 for his documentary “Polis” (shots that he ultimately never included in the his film). So I had to compose a jigsaw puzzle of Kostis’ personality through the images that his texts inspired in me, combined with the words of the people who knew him. That was extremely challenging for me as I felt that I was rebuilding his image from scratch and that I was creating a ‘musical score’ of the ‘notes’ that compose his life. Intellectuals, artists, relatives or ordinary working people added their own touches to the portrait.
What prompted you to do this film and what was the influence of your friendship with him on the final product?
I was friends for 20 years with Kostis Papagiorgis and his wife Rania. Missing him after his death plunged me into rereading his books so as to “bring him back” or, at least, to shorten the distance between us and the “beyond”. Very soon, without realizing it, I started imagining a film, which was inspired by his words. I was also impressed to discover, in a different way now, how similar his life was to his writings. Without being autobiographical he writes about life and the “human condition” through his own experience with an incredibly clear insight. His texts are very personal, he has a very particular use of language and his approach to passion and philosophy is totally unconventional. The fact that I was seeing his features so clearly in his books gave me the urge to narrate in a film the story of his life through his thinking.
"Kostis Papagiorgis: The Sweetest Misanthrope" (2018)
Although Papagiorgis did not pursue an academic education, he attended philosophy courses freely during his stay in France. To what extent do you feel that this “French period” influenced him?
Papagiorgis was self-taught as he always despised academic education and positions. He was too much of a rebel to be a classic student. He had such self-discipline and a brilliant mind that he managed to learn French entirely on his own and to study philosophy by himself. While Kostis lived in Paris, locked up for days and nights in his little “chambre de bonne” he read Heidegger’s “Being and Time” forty times, among the many other books that he also studied. Papagiorgis admired western civilization, and as he used to say, he really started to understand Plato through reading Heiddeger. This of course influenced and inspired his thinking, as well as the 19th century novel, which he adored. But all this served mostly to make him look inside his heart and soul and through this inner gaze to look clearly at the particularities of his own personality and country. After returning to Greece he felt he should stop writing “with his hand on the library” but he should be writing “with his hand on his heart” which led him to write experientially on passion, drunkenness, jealousy, misanthropy, death, sympathy, Greek history, Papadiamantis Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and a multitude of other subjects. Writing through his own experience he expresses himself on the universal problems of humanity and mankind. After living for eight years in Paris, he translated 54 books from French of the biggest thinkers of western civilization.
Agyris Pantazaras in "Kostis Papagiorgis: The Sweetest Misanthrope" (2018)
Papagiorgis’ rich oeuvre of translation includes works by Βalzac, Foucault, Cioran, Lyotard, Pascal, Sartre, Bergson, Derrida etc. Who were his favorite thinkers?
I believe Balzac, Cioran, and Pascal are probably among his favorites. To show his love of Balzac I give you below a small extract of Papagiorgis’ introduction to his Balzac Anthology of “The Human Comedy”:
“Including in his capacity as a novelist the historian, the physiologist, the alchemist, the psychologist and the sociologist, Balzac achieved the impossible for today's circumstances: he became the mirror of a society that had been struck from the effects of French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars and the Restoration.[…] It would not be inappropriate to think that this hypothetical interview* with Honoré de Balzac allows us to sketch the features of the 19th century itself.”
*Kostis means here that the anthology that he has made of Balzac's phrases is like a hypothetical interview
Akilas Karazissis, Agyris Pantazaras in "Kostis Papagiorgis: The Sweetest Misanthrope" (2018)
Which aspects of his personality did you focus on?
Kostis always said that to write a book he needed to have experienced a stirring fact or event. He needed something that would create a shaking turmoil in his heart. While preparing the script and during the shooting of my documentary, I was permanently looking through his writings to discover those stirring moments and details of his life that made him write each one of his books and the crucial points that made him go so deep in the research of his subjects. I kept trying to understand what was his relation to misanthropy and to negativity, as he proves to be especially accurate in describing those concepts. I tried to find in every book of his the extract that I thought reflected his character in the best way. I also wanted to show that, regardless of the fact that he wrote so often about the dark side of things, he was a very sweet man who never thought highly of himself. In fact, Papagiorgis is characterized by a duality. That is the reason why in this documentary / portrait of his, I chose to have two different actors reading his texts. Argyris Panzaras reads extracts from Kostis’ notebooks and rare interviews in the press, and Akilas Krazissis reads extracts from his books.
"Kostis Papagiorgis: The Sweetest Misanthrope" (2018)
Poetry is often mentioned in your documentary. What was Papagiorgis’ relationship with poetry and how did you balance between poetic vision and realistic depiction, fiction and reality in your film?
The poet Michalis Ganas says in the film that although Kostis pretended not to like poetry, in fact he understood and loved poetry very deeply and selectively and actually Papagiorgis’ writings are so poetic that any poet would envy them. In my documentary / portrait of Kostis Papagiorgis, who is one of the most important essayists of contemporary Greece, I spontaneously followed the inspiration that my late friend and his writings gave me. This ended up necessarily as a poetic approach: I set up images that I mixed with the people who speak about the essayist, respecting a rhythm and a melody that, I believe, makes this film true and non-academic, and possible to follow even for those who are not familiar with Kostis’ books - and, I hope, enjoyable.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi with the contribution of Magdalini Varoucha.
Κostis Papagiorgis, the sweetest misanthrope | Trailer
Thanos Papakonstantinou is a stage director and actor who, despite his young age, has already earned the recognition of both peers and critics, having directed several productions staged by prestigious institutions. A graduate of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki Law School, he went on to get a Diploma from the “Empros Theatre Workshop” School of Drama in 2009, while in 2011 he became one of the founding members of the Helter Skelter Theatre Company.
As part of the Helter Skelter Company, he has directed four plays at the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation, including his trilogy Carnage, based on Aeschylus’ Oresteia. In 2014 he participated in the Athens Festival with Yannis Mavritsakis’ Redwards Shift, while in 2017 he directed Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo at the Megaron - Athens Concert Hall. This summer, on July 20-21, he directs Sophocles’ tragedy Electra, in a production by the National Theatre of Greece presented at the Epidaurus Festival. We interviewed* Papakonstantinou on the challenges of first time directing of ancient drama.
Your ties with Greek mythology have been steadily present throughout your work. Your most recent production was an experimental staging of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, at the Athens Concert Hall, a collaboration with conductor Markellos Chryssicos. Has that been the only time you were a stage director for an opera?
Yes, for now.
Left: L' Orfeo at the Athens Concert Hall (Photo by Efi Gousi) Right: Electra at the Epidaurus Festival (Photo by Elina Giounanli)
Would you want to do that again?
Definitely! I absolutely love this genre; I have been listening to opera from a very young age, it was something I was very happy doing, and I’d be glad to be given this chance again in the future. It was also great to start with this particular work, based on this subject and widely considered to be either the first or one of the first operas; moreover, I was grateful for the opportunity to work with Markellos, one of Greece’s most devoted Baroque music scholars, who had the original idea for the production. I hope to repeat the direction of this particular production, since it was very successful and I loved the result, and of course to work on an opera again.
You have directed the Carnage trilogy, consisting of the plays Venison (2012), Pedestal (2013) and Colossus (2017), which you wrote, inspired by the tragedies The Eumenides, The Libation Bearers and Agamemnon, respectively.
In fact, I wrote the last two in their entirety; in Venison, I had incorporated several texts by Dostoyevsky.
Yes: Aeschylus’ Oresteia signals a transition from a retributive society, where the “eye for an eye” justice of the Furies prevails, to an organised society, a democracy governed by laws and rules, a justice epitomised by the institution of Areopagus, dictating the way citizens should conduct themselves. What interested me, however, was to demonstrate a movement towards the opposite direction: how we often drift from an organised society into disarray. The plays were arranged in that inverted order so that it all ends with Colossus, where everything traces back to this mother, this woman, who takes apart the world she created; all she gave birth to, she sucks it back in just like a black hole.
So everything goes back to zero, that is, to the acceptance that in order to start anew, all things must be destroyed and then created on a completely new basis. In Aeschylus’ trilogy, instead, everything works towards reparation. Of course, our world is totally different compared to that of Aeschylus’ world; in our world, the sequence I propose seemed more consistent.
Colossus at the M. Cacoyannis Foundation (Photo by Stavros Habakis)
In a previous interview, you stated that the reason you chose to write your own plays was to shine a light on what has touched you personally in these tragedies. Now, with Electra, directing for the first time a tragedy in its original form, how different will your approach be?
There will surely be a different approach since, in my entire trilogy, I didn’t use anything from the original texts; my trilogy was the dramatisation of the myths and the material used in the tragedies, in my creative interpretation; these were independent works, based on the tragedies’ core, the way I perceived them, but definitely not actual renditions of those plays.
In Electra, Sophocles’ text is used; but what is of interest το me is how the material I handled in the previous productions will co-exist with the original text in this production. To me, this is the next stage of my involvement with tragedies. Since this play also forms part of the Mycenaean Saga, I pick up where I had left off, focusing on the same elements that interested me in the Oresteia – I don’t start off from a different perspective. These are the concept of ritual, the emphasis on visual imagery, the use of parallel action, the strong presence of sound and music and the musicality of speech; all elements which I hope will be functional within this new production.
You have also spoken of the decisive role that the venue and its stage play in your work as a director. This is your first production in an open air theatre. Will this determine your approach?
Absolutely. This is what has concerned me more than anything as a director: how to handle open-air space. I have never done it before and I actually like closed spaces in my work. I consider space to be of paramount importance in the work of a director, the way what you do function within the surroundings. Each venue, and especially open-air, sets its own rules; of course we each make our own choices, but to me it is essential to create something that makes sense in this particular setting, not something that would fit an indoors performance. This is a tough bet, but also an interesting quest.
There are different rules concerning, for example, acoustics and the placement of actors on stage. It’s not enclosed, so it is not easy to create an illusion – something that has been very important in my work, visually. I think there is a way to achieve that in an open space, but it is completely different. Everything seems to happen in the open, literally; there is no way to conceal something and then reveal it. Besides, I think the element of ritual is even stronger there; it’s like witnessing a sacrament, as in the Eucharist. So the illusion can be created through completely different means than those used in a roofed space, the audience is approached differently.
Electra by the Greek National Theatre at the Epidaurus Festival (Photo by Elina Giounanli)
And what about the fact that this is not just any open space, but the famed Epidaurus theatre with all of its historical weight?
Well, that! It makes things much harder. First of all, I must say I am extremely happy and honoured to have been chosen by the National Theatre of Greece as part of its participation at the Epidaurus Festival. It is wonderful to see such important institutions give younger directors a chance to measure themselves with such a task. But this of course puts great pressure on a director: it’s the Epidaurus, and it’s an ancient tragedy. This theatre is of unique and great value, and it’s only right that it only hosts such productions. But it also carries such historical weight, there is this lore surrounding it; it can make someone -or at least me- think about the wrong things, as in how to differentiate oneself, how this or the other director have approached a play. I don’t think all this leads to anything useful. What matters in any staging is the way the text touches each artist, how it can initiate a personal dialogue between the author and the director. This is where you need to start from.
Where do the rehearsals take place?
At one of the National Theatre’s stages, but we will later have some time to rehearse in an open space, and just a few days of rehearsals on the actual stage of the Epidaurus theatre, before the premiere.
And how do you deal with this added difficulty of having to design you compositions and rehearse on a completely different stage than the one destined for the performance?
With a great deal of imagination! You have to really use your imagination to make up for it. I also drove off to Epidaurus and thought about how I would use the space. There is not much else you can do at this point. I try to familiriase myself with the open space, to sense it: just by standing there, you understand it has some obvious rules you need to comply with; one could of course also ignore them, but I believe you can’t help but follow them. The way this space is configured - without a roof, no walls, the stage being a circular orchestra, the audience surrounding the stage and looking down from above - all these and much more have to be kept in mind or it won’t work out.
Do you form part of the cast in this production?
No, I only direct.
Yet you have often performed roles in your own productions in the past. Is it more or less difficult to direct if you are also one of the actors in the show?
The way I work, I understand what it is that I want in a production even looking from the inside, as an actor on stage. It is of course more exhausting, but it’s something that can be done. I, in fact, have found myself in much more difficult or awkward positions in situations when I functioned solely as a director, rather than when I held this dual role. I actually think I have somehow a better perception of the requirements of a production when I find myself on the actors’ side as well; when I’m just on the other side I feel kind of cut off (laughs).
As you’ve said before, one shouldn’t compare himself with other directors. Have you however found yourself watching someone else’s productions and feeling envious, wishing you had thought of that idea yourself?
Definitely; I have felt very envious of Romeo Castellucci, Robert Wilson, Christoph Marthaler, Thomas Ostermeier, Frank Castorf; but also of Greek artists I admire, like Theodoros Terzopoulos and Dimitris Papaioannou.
And do you sometimes incorporate in your works some ideas you first encounter in someone else’s direction – not plagiarising but rather receiving influences?
Definitely – there‘s no other way to move forward. It sometimes works and sometimes it doesn’t, but in any case I feel like this starts off a dialogue with all the people I admire, either living or dead, not just stage directors but also cinema directors, writers, poets, painters; I think this dialogue is very obvious in my work, I want this and never cared if someone might think that I imitate the works of others.
Electra by the Greek National Theatre at the Epidaurus Festival (Photo by Elina Giounanli)
We have a great quantity of theatrical productions in Greece. Do you believe quality is also high?
Yes, we do have many interesting creators. Things had actually started to change around the time Yorgos Loukos took over as artistic director of the Athens Festival, opening it up and bringing us in direct contact with developments in the international theatre and performing arts scene. I think this benefitted the younger generation of artists immensely, since it’s very different to attend these shows live instead of watching a recording, keeping up with contemporary artistic production. Of course, there is no gain without loss, and these same conditions have also generated some coarse influences and hollow experimentations, but this is what always happens, and I don’t exclude myself.
The main reason for this is that modern Greece lacks a solid artistic tradition; artistic developments came to us late, often as unrefined influences brought here by the few who had the opportunity to travel abroad and have access to original ideas. But we haven’t had the opportunity to form a distinct identity for Greek dramatic arts. There was a rather abrupt transition in the late 80’s and early 90’s, which didn’t result from a gradual evolution based on a solid foundation, as was the case, for example, in British or French theatre. Hence, now there are those who show consistency in their creative quests and those who don’t.
Apart from director and actor, do you also consider yourself a playwright?
No, not at all; I like writing, meaning that I can, in fact, function as an author, but I always have in mind one particular stage composition. The text doesn’t precede the directing concept, it results from it; wording has never been my starting point. I start off with a character, a theme, a myth that interests me, I conceive the idea for the direction and then I move on to the dialogue. In my productions, the text doesn’t have a central role, it is equally important as all the other elements of this synthesis. So I don’t feel like a playwright at all.
*Interview by Nefeli Mosaidi
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Conductor Markellos Chryssicos on Baroque music and its dialogue with the Greek tradition; “Epidaurus Lyceum” Ancient Drama School comes back this summer; Kostas Georgousopoulos on contemporary Greek Theatre
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.
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