The film "Meltem" by Basile Doganis - shot in Lesvos through Franco-Hellenic cooperation - hopes to participate in the Cannes Film Festival. The film is a co-production of Greek Blonde company and the French production company Elzévir Films, of which Denis Carot is the Manager/Producer. Two months prior to the Festival, the team is working feverishly to finish post-production in Greece.
We interviewed* Denis Carot, initiator of the project with Basile Doganis, on how the project idea was born, and especially how filming on the island was, where the presence of migrants continues to be very prominent. He emphasized that “Meltem” is not a documentary, but a fiction film in which the life of the island is of course reflected.
What are the reasons that made you choose Greece, and, more precisely, the island of Lesvos?
Initially, this was done very naturally, since we developed this project together with Basile Doganis, the director and scriptwriter of this film; Basile is Franco-Greek, though first Greek, so Greek-French! He wrote this scenario which takes place entirely in Lesvos. This is the story of three young French people; the main character is a young Franco-Greek woman who returns to Lesvos with two friends, both French but of immigrant origin, one from North Africa, and the other from West Africa. We see at the beginning of the film that she comes to Lesvos Island in order to sell the house of her Greek mother who died a year ago. Her step-father, with whom she does not get along, is still there.
The three young people think that they will spend pleasant holidays, but the action takes place in July 2015, when the first big flow of migrants arrives on the island of Lesvos. The three heroes meet a fourth character, a young migrant who makes them believe that he is Spanish, but they will quickly discover that he is actually Syrian and seeks to cross over to continental Europe to find his mother who is probably in a refugee camp, so they try to help him.
This film is interesting in that it questions the notion of identity and roots, because everyone has a particular story. The fact of being in a foreign land, facing immigration problems. But this is not a drama; at the beginning it is a comedy that gradually turns into a drama, as there is a moment when everything changes. It is the story of these young people who find themselves in this context, which in itself, is very dramatic. Where does this bring them in their thinking and where does it lead us? This film pushes them and pushes us to think.
Could we approach it as a documentary?
No, it's fiction that challenges reality. I equally discovered on this occasion that most of the inhabitants of Lesvos are also migrants, most of who come from Asia Minor. Elena's step-father – she’s the heroine of his film, interpreted by Daphné Patakia - who is Greek and a biologist, works for the police on a program to collect the DNA of shipwrecked migrants, so that families can identify their corpses. The whole story revolves around that.
Karam Al Kafri, Lamine Cissokho, Daphne Patakia and Rabah Nait Oufella, "Meltem" (2018) © Chloé Kritharas Devienne
How would you describe your filming experience in Greece? Especially on an island that is in the front line of migratory flows?
So, in the film, migrants are kind of present everywhere, voluntarily - again this is not a film about migrants. When the young people come out of the airport, in the first sequence, they are on their way home, they go through the port and they see a lot of migrants huddled there, and they are very intrigued by the presence of these people. The step-father explains that they have just arrived, that the island is invaded by migrants. That's where we had a good partnership with producer Fenia Cossovitsa, from Blonde company, because it's a complicated situation locally, and we had fears about the municipality's participation in the scene reconstruction, but in fact it went fine. Local authorities have been very cooperative and have complied with our requests. Fenia, without a doubt, was one of our great assets.
Tell us about your experience with the people of Lesvos. Did you stay on the island a long time?
They were very welcoming, very receptive, very positive vis-à-vis our project. Yes, the shooting lasted six weeks, from early September to mid-October.We let the peak tourist season go by and we benefited from ideal weather conditions,it is one of the many advantages of Greece. We had a lot of sequences with extras; we reconstructed a traditional festival in a village. We were very well received, the people were very friendly. The team was almost all Greek, the entire technical team, people from Athens but also excellent local technicians, because other shootings were also taking place in Lesvos, including the latest film by Tony Gatlif before us. But above all the quality of the teams is paramount, we have worked in many other countries that work differently, like Belgium, Poland, Morocco and even Tajikistan; but the work organization in France is very similar to what is practiced in Greece. And in addition, they are very good technicians; a good team is one of the keys to success.
Did you use Greek technical equipment?
For the filming equipment, all the technical equipment we used was from Greece, except for the camera, in order to respect a certain balance between France and Greece; we should have some French expenses. That's why we brought the camera and its accessories from France, and we worked with Greek electrical equipment and machinery.
At what stage of post-production are you now? Why did you choose to make it in Greece?
We finished editing images that we filmed in France. Now we are at the stage of post-production that we are doing in Greece: sound editing, film design, mixing, color grading and music recording. We hope to present it at the Cannes Film Festival in May, time is running out, we have to be ready by the end of March because competition among the first films is fierce.
Daphne Patakia, Karam Al Kafri, Lamine Cissokho and Rabah Nait Oufella, "Meltem" (2018) © Chloé Kritharas Devienne
Could you tell us about your co-production work?
It was our first co-production experience with Greece, with the Greek company Blonde, Fenia Cossovitsa who recommended excellent service providers in Greece.We had a small amount of money, so we tried to optimize the allocation of resources, prices being cheaper in Greece than in France, so this economic issue also guided our choices. We tried to reach a certain balance. With Fenia, things went very quickly, she took decisions very quickly, very professionally, there was a lot of Greek money, since we had the support of the Greek Film Center for minority co-productions, we had the Franco-Greek mini-treaty, and perhaps we will have participation from Greek television. A relationship of trust was quickly established between us, things followed without a hitch as soon as the final green light was given.Fenia took care of the locations, found the technical team,she was the one who recommended the young Greek Photography Director, Konstantinos Koukoulios - it is his second film. All the important posts were occupied by Greeks.The financial aspect also played a big role because salaries and charges are lower in Greece; we could not have made the film in France with our budget.
Three months ago you met General Secretary for Media and Communication, Lefteris Kretsos here in Paris. He told you about the new incentive law for filming in Greece. Have you been able to benefit from this financial aid?
Alas no, because filming took place before the voting on the bill. These are excellent measures, especially if Greece is in competition with other countries, for example, in case of footage shot in several countries. Thanks to these financial advantages, arbitration would be in favor of Greece. Afterwards, for the co-production to be formalized and to benefit from these incentives, Greek financing of at least 20% is necessary. This remains an excellent initiative.
Are you considering a subsequent production in Greece, another film with Basile?
Why not? We can also consider the opposite with a Greek production and a French co-production, and a new collaboration with Blonde Audiovisual Productions.
Will you come back on holiday in Greece?
I do not know yet, I have made many round trips recently, and it was very nice. I enjoyed the hospitality of Greeks, tasted the savoury cuisine, especially with grilled fish and honoured ouzo, the famous local drink! This was not my first experience in Greece, I taught Cultural Project Management for three years straight, at the French Institute of Athens. I enjoyed the sweetness of life in Greece!
Meltem, film directed by Basile Doganis
Original music: Kyriakos Kalaitzidis and Hockyn.
Production: Elzévir Films and Blonde Audiovisual Productions
* Interviewed by the personnel of the Press and Communication Office of the Embassy of Greece in Paris
Translated by Nicole Stellos
Read also via Greek News Agenda: One more reason to film in Greece: A new legal framework of economic incentives, Lefteris Kretsos on bringing Greece on the global map of the Game and Film Making Industry, “Filming Greece”: our new series of interviews on Greek Cinema.
Klaus Dörre is Professor of Sociology at the Friedrich-Schiller-University of Jena (Germany) where he chairs the Department of Labour, Industrial and Economic Sociology. His areas of research include the theory of capitalism, finance capitalism, flexible and precarious employment, labour relations and strategic unionism, and the Green New Deal, among others. He is the current director of the German Research Foundation research group Post-Growth Societies.
In Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s booklet The "German Job Miracle" - a Model for Europe? (2014) Klaus Dörre described the “German model” as a social model of full but precarious employment, in which people in insecure jobs and the socially excluded pay the price for an export model that is exacerbating inequalities in Europe and so destroying the foundations of its own success. In his contribution to RLF publication “Europe - What's left? Working on the strategies” ("The Limits of Landnahme: Capitalism will not die by itself, but it can be overcome"), he shows how different theoretical approaches and practices of left policies could be combined in a process of co-operation and mutual strengthening of converging efforts in favour of a better social order.
Professor Dörre spoke to “Epohi” weekly newspaper (We have to devise new ways of conceiving progressive, socialist politics, interview with Dimitris Givissis, 17.2.2018):
The issue of "Europe" is the center of the public discussions. How do you judge the developments?
The European Union continues to find itself in a deep crisis. The faulty design of the Eurozone and the extreme imbalances caused by the German export model have become an obstacle to European integration. Originally intended as a response to neoliberal globalisation and a kind of guarantee against German dominance, the EU and EMU have long morphed into a deregulation machine. This affects the Southern European countries the most. Forced into a new type of debt servitude as a result of the European banking and financial crisis, they are now compelled to enact disastrous austerity policies, the outcome of which is devastating. The austerity diktat counteracts the European Central Bank’s policy of low interest rates. Cheap money cannot enter the circuits of production and stimulate urgently needed investments because demand, including productive public consumption, is hampered by the imposed austerity while redistributive mechanisms – from tax policies to collective bargaining policies and collective security systems – have ceased to function. The economy inside the Eurozone is therefore growing highly unequally and at a low rate, while neither wages nor inflation are rising accordingly. The expansion of precarious employment conditions and the weakening of trade union organisational power act like a lead weight on wages, dragging down the wage ratio. The combination of these factors is now having an effect on the core European economies, particularly Germany. Germany needs the EU in order to maintain its export model. Yet due to the imposed austerity, the German government has aggravated processes of erosion which ultimately threaten the continued existence not only of the euro, but of the entire EU. That is why even German elites have come to realise that the EU and the Eurozone are in urgent need of structural reform.
What do you expect from the new German government? Do you think there is any chance for Germany to exceed itself and change its politics in the direction of a more flexible encounter of its European partners?
That remains unclear, at least for the time being. Should the grand coalition actually materialise, there will likely be a commitment to reforms and a readiness to increase the German contribution to the EU’s budget. That said, I doubt that the German government will really agree to far-reaching reforms as proposed by French president Macron. The resistance against such measures within the Christian Democratic parties, particularly in the (Bavarian) CSU, is too great. Likewise, the SPD has not yet come up with any new European policy. All the parties involved in the anticipated coalition government have supported austerity in the past. In light of all this, I am highly sceptical that any of these parties will have the strength to actually implement a fundamental course correction. Given enough pressure from France and the countries most affected by the crisis, however, the scope of political action for Greece and other Southern European countries may indeed increase. The example of Portugal, with its minority government tolerated by the parliamentary Left, shows that minor adjustments to austerity are both rational and possible.
How do you interpret the fact that SPD takes part in the new German government, in spite of what Martin Schulz had said right after the elections? Which factors contributed to this development?
The SPD is in a deep crisis. Beginning with the ‘Agenda 2010’ and the introduction of the ‘Hartz reforms’, the party has steadily shed its traditional political profile. The price for its electoral victories has been the abandonment of its political identity. But what goes around comes around: the SPD has lost a substantial part of its erstwhile working-class base of support. The share of workers among voters with a preference for the SPD receded from 44 percent to 17 percent between 2000 and 2016. It must be added, however, that the working-class proportion of the entire electorate decreased during the same period. The fact remains, then, that the erstwhile workers’ party SPD enjoys below-average representation among working-class milieus today. With regard to the shares of both unskilled workers (24 percent) and trade union members (19 percent), the SPD ranks noticeably behind the right-populist AfD (Alternative für Deutschland – ‘Alternative for Germany’) (36 percent unskilled workers, 24 percent trade union members) as well as the Left Party (23 percent unskilled workers, 27 percent trade union members). While the supporters of the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats come from nearly identical social backgrounds these days, the Left Party and AfD managed to distinguish themselves among working-class milieus. Compared to all other parties, the AfD received the largest share of votes among workers as well as unskilled wage earners. Actual electoral behaviour indeed conforms to this pattern. The AfD regularly emerged as the strongest party among workers and unemployed in various regional elections over the course of 2016. Alongside the migration issue, social justice was indicated as a prime electoral motivation by the party’s voters. This trend continued in Germany’s September 2017 national elections, albeit to a somewhat lesser extent; 12.6 percent of all voters – but 15 percent of trade union members (14 percent in the West, 22 percent in the East) and almost 20 percent of workers – voted for the populist Right.Unfortunately, Social Democracy’s de-proletarianisation and the abandonment of its traditional platform cannot be easily reversed. The party is in free fall in recent polls, with figures below 20 percent – a development which threatens its existence as such. As long as the party remains in a coalition government with the Christian Democrats, any meaningful policy change is impossible. When Martin Schulz became the new party leader, many hoped for a German Corbyn or Sanders. What they got instead was a bearer of hope without any political substance. At the moment, an improvement of the situation inside the SPD is not in sight. A quarrelling party leadership primarily interested in holding onto power is about to lose its last bit of credibility, thereby putting the future of Social Democracy as a whole at risk.
Given that SPD's participation in the new German government has caused reactions in a big part of its electoral base, how do you see the prospectives of Die Linke inside the new political scenery that is being formed?
The Left Party would stand a good chance, if only it demonstrated more unity in central political questions – which, however, is currently not the case. With regard to important issues like the euro, the future of the European Union or how to deal with forced migration, the party is at odds. The Left Party has also lost working-class voters – especially in the East, where it lost several hundred thousand votes to the AfD. At the same time, its support among urban left-alternative milieus is growing. Nevertheless, the party is currently unable to translate dissatisfaction with the governing parties into support for an alternative left-wing politics. Internally, this has led to explosive controversies. Oskar Lafontaine and Sarah Wagenknecht consider the party project a failure and advocate for a new broad left movement, while party leaders Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger oppose this suggestion. In my view, the idea of a new broad left movement is not wrong in principle, but it lacks a corresponding programme, leadership figures and above all the social movements which such a project could actually base itself on. The greatest danger today is that the Left could become divided and disintegrate into even smaller groups, all of which would then have to fear falling below the 5-percent threshold required to enter parliament. That would truly be a disaster, for the only opposition would then come from the far right.
What does it mean for the political system of Germany that AfD will be from now on the biggest party of the opposition? What kind of dangers do you see?
Jürgen Habermas has spoken of a new breeding ground for fascism, and he is right. There really is a national-socialist danger in Germany. Through the Pegida movement and its offshoots, the far right has become a factor on the street. Moreover, the AfD now holds a considerable number of parliamentary mandates at the national level. Having started out as a radical free-market formation, the AfD is increasingly becoming a völkisch, or ethno-nationalist, social-populist party. Correspondingly, leading figures of the party like Björn Höcke declare that the ‘social question today’ does ‘not primarily’ consist of the ‘distribution of national wealth from the top to the bottom’, but ‘the new German social question of the 21st century’ is a ‘question of distributing national wealth inside instead of outside the country’. Simultaneously, they advocate for a tough border regime of ‘zero migration’. While the liberal-conservative current within the AfD is calling for a ‘national capitalism’ in the sense of reconciliation between small- and medium-sized business and labour, the national-social wing is keen to appropriate the labour movement’s 150-year-old legacy. The latter current accuses the German trade union confederation’s membership organisations of incredulously practicing an ‘oppositional relationship with employers’ because they resemble ‘state-run unions’ and are part of the establishment. This strategy is actually working, and neither the Left nor the trade unions have been able to formulate an adequate response thus far. Along with the AfD’s success, the boundary of socially acceptable discourse is clearly shifting to the right. Adding together the parliamentary mandates of the CDU/CSU, FDP and AfD, Germany has a structural right-wing majority of more than 60 percent. A left project is currently unable to win a majority. To be honest about this fact would be a first step. We have to devise new ways of conceiving progressive, socialist politics – not only in Germany, but all over Europe.
Read more via Greek News Agenda: Collective Labour Agreements: Regaining the lost ground
Watch Professor Klaus Dörre speaking at Rosa Luxemburg Foundation conference on the 100 years since the first Berlin edition of "The Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to an Economic Explanation of Imperialism" (March 2014):
What really happened in the eighties? Was that decade a curse, an omen or an unfulfilled wish? For those in their forties and thirties – those who survived it and those who relished it – there's a fascination with the 80’s maybe because in them lies the key to understanding today’s reality. Nancy Biniadaki’s latest film “The Surface of Things” tries to rematerialize the Greek eighties fthrough the stories of four women, three friends and their teacher at High School in a poor Athens neighbourhood.
Nancy Biniadaki was born in Athens in 1971 and lives in Berlin. She has studied Classical Philology and Film Direction in Athens and Sheffield, England. She has directed several awarded short films, feature-length documentaries mainly for the Greek Public Broadcaster ERT, plays, videos and live performances. She has been awarded with the Greek State Award Melina Merkouri in 1999, the Grimme Preis 2017 for her short film “The Moon and I” (2015) and an award of recognition at the IndieFEST USA for “The Surface of Things” in January 2018.
Biniadaki takes Greek News Agenda* along the path of conflicting emotions that the past inflicts on individuals. As a girl who lived her adolescence in Athens in the eighties, Biniadaki explains the reasons she identified with the novel on which the film is based. As a Greek who lives in Berlin and asked to reflect on what Greeks and Germans think about the eighties, as well as what the eighties meant for her, Biniadaki responds that regardless of whether people love or detest their past, they cannot discard it, and that is something they find out along the way. Biniadaki goes on to explain her complicated relationship with Athens, another cherished character of the film.
“The surface of things” is based on the novel of Angela Dimitrakaki “Four Testimonies about the Exhumation of the River Errinyos”. What prompted you to make the film and how did you work with its adaptation?
The reason I wanted to make this film initially had nothing to do with the novel. We often want to say something, we’re tortured by feelings and ideas, we go through difficult periods, and we believe that there is no story in the whole world that can express what we feel. And then, at least that's how it works with me, literature comes to save me. Someone happens to offer me a book, or a book that I had read long ago comes and finds me and shows me the story that I'd been looking for.
I was introduced to Angela Dimitrakaki's novel by a good friend of mine many years ago, while I was doing research for a documentary about the river Kifissos for the ERT TV Series "Paraskinio". I liked it very much and I used an extract in the opening scene of the documentary. But I also got to know Angela, I read her other books and I admired her work very much. Sometime later my life changed drastically. I left Athens for Berlin, and it was permanent, it was a conscious decision, so I had to adapt to a completely different city and different people, and I guess in the shock of this huge change, the unconscious fear and homesickness, together with the fascination and hope for all the new things to come, the novel just came back to my mind, demanding its place. I knew that I wanted to tell this story. I knew that this was the film I wanted to make.
My collaboration with Angela was amazing. She supported me, she inspired me, she challenged me, and gave me much freedom. It was obvious for her too, that the film is not a mere "adaptation" of the novel, more or less faithful, but a new work of art. The script has been through many stages, many different versions, more or less faithful to the original story. It took us eight years to realise this film! So it changed a lot. I changed a lot while doing it. And what I wanted to say kind of changed too! But the deeper need to tell the story of those girls, which had become my story in the meantime, was always there. That's why I didn't give up, although I was often very close. Then came the collaboration with these beautiful actresses: Each one of them took on a character and made them richer, deeper, and more real if I dare say. There is a little piece of each one of us in these women. There is a piece of me, a piece of the actresses, a piece of the original characters of Angela's novel, I hope. It is just magical how many little personal stories can fit in such a frame!
Two days after the premiere at the Thessaloniki Film Festival, someone who had seen the film, someone I didn't know before, sent me this simple message on Facebook: "I miss your heroines". This is why I did this film, if you know what I mean.
You work in Germany. What is your experience of making films there as compared to filmmaking in Greece?
I have not made a feature film in Germany yet. I have worked of course, but I wouldn't compare the professional conditions and average budgets there to the conditions we had in Greece while doing a small, personal, very-low-budget film like "The Surface of Things". But I couldn't have made such a personal film in Germany either; at least not yet. I needed to speak the language of my characters, I needed to know them deeply, I needed to "feel" the locations, the sounds, the colours. I also needed to be able to communicate on set directly and quickly with all my collaborators. My first film had to be shot in Greece, there was no other way!
The river theme is a metonymy in your film about the eighties, a promise of a new life that wasn’t realized. In recent years, there is a certain obsession with the eighties in Greece. How do you explain it? Do you think there is a similar phenomenon in Germany?
It's always interesting to see the different thoughts that a film evokes in people. To me the river was not a metonymy for the eighties specifically, because the river is eternal. It's the "avenging" river that reappears in the '80s, but the river itself is ancient, it's deep and dark, it was always there, it's even older than the dinosaurs that so much fascinate the little boy in the film.
Now to the second part of the question: when we were growing up in the '80s, there was a huge fascination with the '50s and the '60s. They were the years of our parents' youth and our parents were in charge. Now we are the grown-ups and we are in charge so to say, so we talk about our youth in the '80s, we feel nostalgic or we hate it, we analyse it, we generally enjoy dealing with it. Sofia, one of the characters in the film, says that she doesn't believe that we tend to think like our parents, as we grow older. Well, I'm afraid we do sometimes...
There is something similar in Germany too, but it has many different parametres of course. In Greece we were living the crazy optimism of the very first socialist government, the promise of social justice, more democracy, equality and other social-democratic ideals, together with a promise of a generalised progress and prosperity. All of that later proved to be a little too much, but people then were naive enough to believe in a bright and easy future. Germany was still divided in two countries. East Germany was living the last years of socialism in poverty and isolation. West Germany was clearly influenced by American pop culture, without any guilt feelings though – contrary to us, with our deep-rooted Anti-Americanism. The girls in my film were dreaming of the far away cities of the song that marked our teenage years "London, Amsterdam or Berlin...,"** the capitals of the underground. Everywhere would be nicer than in the neighborhoods of Athens. We didn't know that the underground, the post-punk, gothic and new wave scene, as well as the alternative cinema and arts that we were dreaming of, was not a generalised phenomenon in Europe either! In Germany the centre of the sub-culture was the tiny city-island of West Berlin, this walled-in microcosm. Whoever wanted to live differently would flee from a prosperous but conservative and boring West German city or little town, and move to the charmingly run-down, depressing but creatively inspiring West Berlin. It was a different world that we grew up in.
The funny thing though is that the fascination with the '80s as far as fashion goes, is much more obvious today in the streets of Berlin than in Athens. You see kids perfectly styled, like jumping out of a 1980s magazine! But again, Berlin is such a tolerant city, you can just wear whatever you want, do whatever you want, be whoever you want to be basically, as long as you are true. This is unique, and it is liberating, and it has nothing to do with just the '80s of course! The tolerance, the free spirit and the hedonism of this city is part of the subject of the documentary that I'm working on at the moment.
What did growing in Athens during the eighties mean for you?
I had to make this film to find out! Well, I still don't know exactly. The truth is that I spent literally my whole adolescence in the 1980s. In the early eighties I was just a kid listening to Duran Duran, observing my parents' total euphoria, despite our constant financial problems. By the end of the decade I had become a restless teenager who still couldn't relate to the political situation, suffocating in a post-working-class/ new-petit-bourgeois environment, desperately wanting to look like Siouxsie Sioux, but who would never dare walk like this in the streets of my neighborhood! So I was content listening to my dark music and falling for my dark idols, closing my eyes to the ugliness around, and hoping that the decade of adolescence (mine and that of my country's, sort of...) would at some point end. Inevitably, it did. In 1989 I became an adult and the decade ended.
I didn't know then, what the heroines of my film also tried to forget, that there is absolutely no way you can throw away the past; especially your teens. I am still that girl, like my heroines are still the same girls. We have grown up, but it's still us, and there are many more around us lost in the crowd. I hope they come to see my film at some point. I think I have a lot to share with them!
How does the city of Athens function in your film?
Athens is like a character in the film. I treat her like a real person. It's not just a location. But that's how I see Athens in real life anyway. She's something like an older sister to me! We have a rather complicated relationship!
If I however wanted to describe in details the role of Athens in the film, it would be like making a thorough analysis of my own film, which I wouldn't like to do. Let's just say that "The Surface of Things" is a declaration of love to the city. My heroines are trapped in a similar complicated relationship as me: Ioanna is still living in the same neighbourhood where she grew up and she hates it, it scares her and oppresses her, but she also somehow feels safe there; Sofia lives in a flat with a view over the whole city and she doesn't even look at it anymore; Mrs Nardi finds refuge in the dead silent ancient cemetery of Kerameikos, an oasis in the heart of the city; And Katerina moved as far away as she could, to a city less ancient, to Berlin, and builds houses there, she's an architect. They are all defined by the city. "The Surface of Things" is certainly an urban film. It plays in apartments, in streets and on concrete. But it also has the strong bright sun of Athens, the city’s anarchic appearance, its sounds, noises and people. Oh, I miss her terribly now that I talk about it!
I wouldn't say that the film deals with "women's issues", I'm afraid that it would make it sound essayistic. I didn't try to present and analyse problems or propose solutions - that was not my intention. But "The Surface of Things" is certainly a film about women, in the sense that it shows interesting, I hope, female characters that have a story to tell. Men are very obviously absent in the film, because my aim was to show how women cope with difficulties when forced to be on their own. In that sense, yes, women's issues are being addressed. And that was very obvious after the screenings at the Thessaloniki Film Festival, when we had long discussions with the audience about women in Greek society, the women of our generation, the role of women in general. But the most beautiful thing is that many women were moved as they saw themselves in the film, they could identify with the characters and the story. A lady in her 60s identified with the character of the history teacher and made comments on behalf of that generation, she talked to me on behalf of my mother and her generation so to speak! And some very young members of the audience began to talk about the teenagers of today, about imagination, dreams and what it means to be young today as compared to the 1980s. This was so exciting and so very moving, and that is why I wanted to make films in the first place. This is my way of discussing "issues", by telling stories and making people feel emotional. I am not an academic or an essayist. I prefer to communicate my ideas by moving people.
And more important than making films that deal with women's issues would be for me to see more women making films, to see more women artists, more women in politics and science. This world needs more of the women's perspective! As a female filmmaker in a rather male-dominated field, I had to struggle a lot in order to be able to make films. But the most important battle I had to fight was not against old patriarchal figures and old-fashioned male colleagues, but against my own personal fears and fixed ideas. The characters in "The Surface of Things" have to come to terms with their position in life, with their decisions, conscious or unconscious, their traumas and their mistakes, their broken dreams and disappointments, and then they are free.
What are your future plans?
I have written the script for a short children's film. It's imaginative and funny and playful, it's very refreshing to write for young children, it's liberating! I've done it before and I enjoy it very much.
My biggest project is a documentary which does actually deal with women's issues! It concerns the life and work of a woman German painter of the 1920s, who loved painting women. The film is about the role and position of women in society today, how this began to take shape in the 1920s in Berlin and how it is depicted in the work of this painter. It's a fascinating period, and I'm portraying a great painter and a very brave woman. Because there were times when it took a lot of courage to be a free creative woman! And somehow, it still does.
I'm also working of course on the script for my next feature film, a drama which will most probably again be set in Athens.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
** "London, Amsterdam or Berlin you've forgotten exactly where you want to go...": Wondering Soul song by "Tripes" Greek Rock Band (1983 - 2001)
"The Surface of Things" was projected in the 58th Thessaloniki International Film Festival International Competition Section and was available in the international film viewing professional platform Festival Scope, a TIFF initiative for the promotion of Greek cinema abroad.
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Welcome to the Greek 80s: Interview with Panayis Panayotopoulos, Reading Greece: Angela Dimitrakaki on Subjectivity in Global Landscapes
Watch the "The Surface of Things" trailer:
The first translation of modern Greek literature in Swedish was Demetrios Vikelas’ Loukis Laras in 1883. A translation of a series of folk songs had preceded in 1876. Since then and until 2007, 100 books have been translated - some of them from English or French - by 73 translators and were published in 43 publishing companies.
In their interview with Literature.gr* scholars and literary translators Jan Henrik Swahn and Rea Ann-Margaret Mellberg tell us about their involvement with translation and they delineate the image of Greek literature in Sweden. They also refer to institutions that promote or support Greek literature in Sweden such as the Swedish Arts Council (Kulturrådet), part of the Swedish Ministry of Culture, which financially supports Greek translations.
Under what circumstances did you decide to learn Greek and engage in the Greek language?
Jan Henrik Swahn: My interest for the Greek language started in 1994 after a trip to Athens, Delphi and Rhodes, where young Swedish writers met with 6 Greek poets (Dimitra Christodoulou, Stratis Paschalis, Alexandra Plastira, Thanasis Chatzopoulos, Dimitris Chouliarakis and Haris Vlavianos). The initiative for the meeting was taken by the magazines 90TAL and Entefktirio from Stockholm and Thessaloniki respectively.
Why did you decide to undertake the translation of Greek literature in Swedish?
Jan Henrik Swahn: I translate from many languages and I wanted to expand in the Greek language. I thought that translation is the best way.
Is Greek literature well-known in Sweden? Is there interest for new translations?
Jan Henrik Swahn: During the years of the dictatorship (1967-1974) there was a lot of interest for Greek literature. Literary works by Odysseas Elytis (Nobel 1979), Giorgos Seferis (Nobel 1963), Yiannis Ritsos, Tassos Leivaditis were translated thanks to Mikis Theodorakis; they were recognized and loved thanks to the musical compositions. Works of expatriate writers were also loved, such as those of Theodor Kallifatides, Kostis Papakongos and Andreas Nenedakis. We should add here that Nikos Kazantzakis’ and Constantine Cavafy’s works were translated and spread in the 1950s. After 1974 the interest for Greek literature weakened. We find scattered translations of new writers without any systematic organization. Writers search for Swedish publishers on their own and the discussions take place without the mediation of National Book Centers or other relevant institutions. The prospect for new translations is not particularly encouraging. For example, the anthology with Kiki Dimoula poems (I kroppens främmande land, 2016) would not have been published if us two had not taken initiative.
Is the fact that the Swedish Academy awards the Nobel Prize an additional motive for Greek writers and publishers to translate Greek books in Swedish?
Jan Henrik Swahn & Rea Ann-Margaret Mellberg: Yes. Of course! Each year, many writers, more and less famous send us works with the hope that we will take care of their translation and publication in Swedish.
What is the profile of the Swedish audience that reads Greek literature?
Jan Henrik Swahn & Rea Ann-Margaret Mellberg: A small part of readers that are interested in Greek literature. Readers that are curious to learn something more about modern Greece; the financial crisis, modern politics, the everyday life.
Is it important for Swedish readers today to come in touch with Greek literature? Why?
Jan Henrik Swahn & Rea Ann-Margaret Mellberg: Yes, of course it is important. Greece is an indivisible part of Europe and in the united Europe in which we live, literature is the best guide for us to get to know people, places and lifestyles that regard us increasingly.
Based on your experience, what could impress the Swedish readers of a Greek book?
Jan Henrik Swahn: Its literary quality, active narration and its commerciality in the country of origin; however, the latter is an uncertain criterion. For example, Judas Kissed Wonderfully had no success in Sweden.
Do Swedish people love literature in general?
Jan Henrik Swahn: Swedish people are among the most reading inclined people in the world. It is mainly women that read reaching a percentage of about 90%. I should note that the biggest interest regards crime novels. We should not forget that Swedish writers are pioneers of this genre.
Bearing in mind that the (Greek literature) translator does not only translate the book, what other difficulties or problems might be faced from the choice of the book to its publication?
Jan Henrik Swahn: In case I translate poets or authors to build an anthology, I come across the issue of choosing. If the proposal is made from Greece, it is not definite I have the liberty to select my writers without directions. The younger writers are usually in the shadow of the older generation and a lot of effort is needed for important fresh voices to be heard.
Are there institutions in Sweden that could be used for the promotion of Greek literature in Sweden (e.g. public libraries)?
Jan Henrik Swahn & Rea Ann-Margaret Mellberg: The Swedish Ministry of Culture: Swedish Art Council (Kulturrådet), continues funding translations of Greek works. The fund is decided by a commission which judges case by case. Regarding the promotion: book fairs; mainly the annual Gothenburg Book Fair. Some libraries, museums and expatriate entities organize readings and literary meetings with Greek and Swedish invited authors. For example, the presentation of Kiki Dimoula’s anthology took place at the Stockholm City Library (Stadsbiblioteket) with the participation of Stina Ekblad, the famous actress of the Royal Dramatic Theatre, Dramaten.
What would you suggest for improving the possibly problematic situation of the translation of Greek literature in Swedish?
Jan Henrik Swahn: More writers should be presented in Sweden with the support of the Greek state. Not only the Swedish Ministry of Culture, but also other organizations, cover the expenses of selected writers who receive invitations to visit countries abroad and international book fairs. Greece should do the same.
What are the peculiarities of translating from Greek to Swedish?
Jan Henrik Swahn: The problems are mainly located in the big difference between north and south.
Is the translator a creator or a mediator between the writer and the reader?
Jan Henrik Swahn: The translator is a creator!
What do you consider a good translation is and what could the handbook of a good translator be?
Jan Henrik Swahn: A good translation does not strike one as a translation. The works that are translated from the native language are always better, since possible mistakes of an intermediate translator are avoided. The problem with not widely spoken languages, such as Greek, Swedish, or other languages is that usually there are not enough or available translators, so one resorts to translations they cannot control.
What important experience you have had through all these years translating Greek literature would you like to share with us? (maybe unknown incidents, or relationship – communication with the author etc.)
Jan Henrik Swahn: The most interesting of my experiences was my choice to translate the narratives of the anthology of the new Greek authors Fikonträdets sång, (“The fig tree’s song”). On this occasion, I met and got related with most of the 25 authors. But Glikeria Basdeki I almost did not meet! They had given us a phone number of a place somewhere in Northern Greece; an elderly woman with the same name was answering the phone giving us confusing information. Supposing that she was a relative, I called multiple times with the hope that at some point the writer herself or somebody with whom I could communicate would answer. But unfortunately, nothing happened… A great disappointment; I gave up, since the elderly lady with her squeaky voice told me to stop disturbing her and to never call again! So, I included the narrative without permission. When the anthology was published, Basdeki learned I had translated her work! She happily got in touch with me and after some time we met in person! We are now friends and I particularly appreciate her literary work!
Jan Henrik Swahn: He was born in 1959 in Lund. Between 1982-1983 he was a scholar of the French state and he studied in Sorbonne IV. His first novel is called Jan kan stoppa ett hav (“I can stop a sea”). Eleven of his novels have been published until today, most of them by Bonniers. His works have been translated in Russian, Polish, Greek and Hebrew. He often writes for marginalized people (alcoholics, homeless, “crazy”, loner, elderly people – but without following the norms). He worked as an editor for Bonniers Litterära Magasin (BLM) (1997-99) and president of the Writers in Prison Committee, president of the Swedish PEN (1990 – 92) and member of the Administrative Board of the Swedish PEN (1988-93). In the past ten years he has been working with women that have been involved with drugs, prostitution, were homeless or were in any way abused. He is a well-known translator from, among other languages, Greek, Polish, French, Arabic and Danish. He has translated many books written by the Polish writer Olga Tokarezuk and the Greek Kiki Dimoula. Both are nominees for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Rea Ann-Margaret Mellberg: She was born in Piraeus in 1951. She is the Minister Counsellor of Cultural Affairs at the Embassy of Greece in Stockholm. She has graduated from the Department of Classical Studies at Stockholm University. She is holds a Doctorate from Lund University (Thesis Topic: Greek poets of the ‘70s). She worked as assistant professor of Modern Greek Studies at Stockholm and Uppsala Universities. She has translated: works from Strindberg, Ibsen, Dagerman, Almqvist, Swedenborg etc., Cavafy (in collaboration with the Swedish poet Magnus William-Olsson), Greek poets of the ‘70s generation and Cypriot poets. She is a regular collaborator of the Greek literary magazines Γράμματα και Τέχνες (“Letters and Arts”) and Εντευκτήριο (“Enteftkirio”). She is a member of the Writers Union in Sweden and in Greece. Among other things, she has translated, edited and presented in collaboration with Swedish musicians and Egyptian actors, texts about Hypatia (Alexandria 2002) and Cavafy (Alexandria 2007). Moreover, she has translated and presented texts about Dagerman (Athens, Nicosia, Kavala, Samos 2006).
* Literature.gr: H ελληνική λογοτεχνία στο εξωτερικό: O Jan Henrik Swahn και η Ρέα-Άνν Μαργαρίτα Μέλμπεργκ για την ελληνική λογοτεχνία στη Σουηδία (Greek literature abroad: Jan Henrik Swahn and Rea Ann-Margaret Mellberg on Greek literature in Sweden)
Literature.gr is an online magazine aiming at the promotion of literature, through the work of modern Greek writers, as well as the acquaintance of the Greek reader with the modern thinking of foreign writers. In this context, selected material is presented both in Greek and English. In the context of exploring Greek literature’s introversion and extroversion, Literature.gr has recently launched a series of interviews with translators (Greek literature abroad). The series goal is "to find out what exactly is happening abroad in relation to Greek literature; how widespread and well-accepted it is from foreign readers, what obstacles may impede its diffusion. Moreover, through these interviews and through the accumulated experience of the translators, it seeks to trace the difficulties the latter face, the special features of the translation of Greek literature and the role of the translator in general."
Many thanks to Nicky Psychari, Press and Communication Counsellor - Embassy of Greece in Stockholm
Born in Lamia in 1937 Kostas Georgousopoulos is a prolific figure for Greek theatre. He is a theatre critic, writer, translator and versifier. In 2008, he was awarded the Grand State Prize for Literature for his complete work.
In an interview with Greek News Agenda, Griechenland Aktuell and Grece Hebdo*, Georgousopoulos takes us to a journey on the History of Modern Greek Theatre, stressing that It took modern Greeks a very long time to recognize tragedy as their own creation and to find ways to represent it. He also stresses the presence of prominent contemporary Greek playwrights and expresses his disappointment that Greek theatre doesn’t get sufficient amount of promotion.
Can we go over a brief history of Modern Greek theatre since the establishment of the Greek state?
Since the establishment of the Greek State we have an official history of theatre, but Greek drama precedes this. First of all we have that giant of Greek theatre, Spyros Evangelatos, who unearthed plays of the 14th and 15th centuries. Greek theatre thus goes way back, but we obviously had to discover it all over again from the start following the establishment of the Greek State, because the Ottoman rulers had put an end to theatre. But it wasn’t the Ottomans alone; we need to tell a few truths about the Orthodox religion, which was under the influence of Oriental tradition, i.e. the Judaic point of view (Old Testament) was quite strong. Let's not forget that we experienced Iconoclasm and Iconolatry - and what does this mean? We do not attend, we do not imitate, "thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image"; not only were there no theatres, there were no icons or statues, everything was destroyed, including the paintings of the Church at that time, as Orthodoxy detested imitation.
John Chrysostom attacked the theatre from the pulpit, but he also imparts valuable information. He preached against makeup, but there are contradictions. When Basil (St. Basil the Great) and his brother Gregory (St. Gregory of Nyssa) came to Athens, they watched Greek tragedy. They returned (to Constantinople) amidst a crisis regarding Church attendance. There were shows and entertainment in Constantinople at the time, people did not go to church, and a way had to be found to attract the public back to Church. And then Basil, who had seen tragedy performed on stage, sat himself down and wrote the Liturgy, which imitates ancient Greek theatre: not only architecturally, as with the three gates for example, but also with the periaktoi, namely the moving icons, the left and right psalterion (chanting podium for chanters), the soleas (extension of the sanctuary platform) etc.
This aside, however, there is darkness, no development. Whilst Europe has a rich history of theatre, we had no such tradition and mechanically imported the aesthetics and practices of European theatre, and most of all Italian theatre. There was however the Ionian and Cretan theatrical tradition (from 16th cent.), which was closer to Europe’s. It took us a very long time to recognize tragedy as our own creation and to find ways to represent it. Europeans did not understand or appreciate the chorus, and they wrote tragedies without one. It was beyond comprehension for them that great passions could unfold right before the audience and be judged by it. And that was precisely the gift, the pride and glory of Greek Democracy: European theatre confined itself within walls in living rooms, where no one knew what was happening outside, and it took Europeans ages to discover the democracy of an open-air exposition of human passions under the open sky.
What is the place of Modern Greek drama today?
Our theatrical resources are quite significant, meaning not only ancient Greek theatre but also playwrights of the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries like Gregorios Xenopoulos, as well as the post '50s dramatists, with the most prominent being the group led by Iakovos Kambanellis. There are a dozen or so playwrights who are in no way lesser than their major European counterparts. Europe has no post-war theatric tradition; we do, with writers such as Kambanellis, Yiannis Chrysoulis and Giorgos Maniotis who have an important body of work that was also staged during the years of the military dictatorship (1967-1974). There would be no point to my job if it did not support and promote Modern Greek theatre; that is also the mandate of the 1930 Act of Establishment of the Greek National Theatre by then Education Minister Georgios Panandreou. Its chief purpose was the initiation of the Greek public into world theatre and the support of Modern Greek theatre. That was how things were in our time. And in those difficult years for the Greek people, perceptions, resistance and moral confrontation with the Junta passed through those great works of Kambanellis, Pavlos Matesis, Yiorgos Dialegmenos, Kostas Mourselas. These works were staged at the time, and were also televised by state broadcasters; but now this is no longer the case, and I could very well denounce this. It cannot be possible that Matesis, Mourselas, Loula Anagnostaki have passed away, and none of their work has been staged by the National Theatre. It is unbelievable - considering especially e.g. that the Royal Court in England staged Sarah Kane’s work when she was just 21 years old.
Author Kostas Mourselas (1932-2017)
The crisis has brought about a social reshuffle. Is this reflected in contemporary theatre? Hasn’t there been also a gradual depreciation of revue theatre?
You’re touching on a matter of huge significance. A characteristic feature of our theatrical history has been revue theatre. It was critical, but it has disappeared. Revues were a major Greek genre. There is no such thing in Europe, but it became obsolete because of television.
Then came the periodic press and morning shows, altering in the process the substance that was the subject of satire. As regards the theatre-crisis of today, the State bears responsibility for ending state subsidies. I was behind the establishment of subsidies, I founded DIPETHE (Municipal and Regional Theatres), which focused on the Greek repertoire and relied on grants for independent theatre, whilst theatre companies dedicated to great theatre were formed: Spyros Evangelatos’s Amphitheatre, Giorgos Michaelidis’s Open Theatre, the Theatre of Antonis Antipas, the Theatre of Giorgos Armenis - these no longer exist. They all performed from the Greek repertoire. Stoa Theatre and Karolos Koun’s Art Theatre were giants in the field of Greek repertoire. They don’t stage as many Greek plays anymore. There are very good Greek plays, lying in shelves.
We’d like your opinion on the Epidaurus festival.
I was fortunate enough to be at the premiere of the Epidaurus festival in 1954, to see Hippolytus directed by Dimitrios Rondiris, and since then I have been involved with Epidaurus for over 60 years. I have seen everything, and on each occasion I witness with sadness a slump. Until 1960 there was an ancient drama team at the National Theatre, people who were exclusively engaged and preparing the summer Epidauros Festival from September.
Does Greek theatre today hold a place in world repertoire?
It could indeed hold a place, and a distinct one. About eight or nine years ago, the Hellenic Ministry of Culture commissioned the Society of Greek Playwrights to select 30 Modern Greek drama works to be translated into European languages. I was president of that committee; we chose 30 works and they have been translated. But there is a catch: The Ministry of Culture would have a 50% stake in the production cost of these Greek plays i.e. contribute as much as the foreign company staging the play. This however has never been realized, as the Culture Ministry has never come forth willing to contribute such a budget to a foreign theatrical company. Kambanellis was staged in Russia by the Moscow Art Theatre, alternating with Chekhov. This could have been happening with theatres throughout Europe because we have all these works, translated, and available on the website of the Greek Playwrights Society.
The crisis has brought Greece to the forefront, along with an interest as to what the cultural product of this crisis will be. Greek cinema is blooming; couldn’t it be the same with theatre?
Certainly it could, but it is a question of policy. When it comes to theatre, we don’t have, for example, the kind of policy that we practice for the promotion of our ancient heritage. Why can we not subsidize an American theatre company stage a Kambanellis play as we do with an exhibition of sculptures from Tegea in New York? We have thrown our weight behind the promotion of our antiquities which are a huge thing, but we have other treasures as well, such as great music and art. For several years, Greek music (especially during the years of military rule, 1967-1974) has been conquering audiences around the world; that’s when Manos Hatzidakis, Mikis Theodorakis, Yannis Markopoulos became known. There is no such cultural diffusion nowadays.
Director Spyros Evangelatos (1940-2017)
Does Greece generate more theatre groups than it could hold?
I have nothing against this. We are a society suffering from self-promotion syndrome. You cannot deprive someone from wanting to come out centre stage. There is a multitude of theatrical groups, a thousand different shows performed every year, 1,000 different productions; this does not happen anywhere else in the world. I do not think it is bad, but a kind of non-professional approach has been set in motion as these kids often put money out of their pockets in order to go up on stage. This is amateurism. I cannot reconcile with the idea that we could perform without stage sets. It would be more honest to admit that "these are the means we have, come and see us if you like". You cannot perform Chekhov without sets, when Chekhov, as a naturalist, has 4 sets. When all is played out in the same setting without scenery and props, then the essence of the play has been lost.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi, Avgi Papadopoulou and Kostas Mavroidis. Translation by Magda Hatzopoulos.
The Athens School of Fine Arts (ASFA) is Greece’s most renowned and oldest University in the field, as well as one of the country’s oldest higher education institutes in general, with a history almost as long as that of the Modern Greek state. In 2017, ASFA actually celebrated its 180th anniversary. On this occasion, Greek News Agenda spoke* with Panos Charalambous, Dean of the Athens School of Fine Arts since 2014, about the School’s past and its current significance within the contemporary art scene.
Professor Charalambous is an acclaimed artist who has worked with various materials, sometimes -especially in the past- taken from the context of Greek provincial life, and has experimented with many forms of visual and performance art. He attributes his personal style of expression to both his rural upbringing as well as to his ASFA teacher, visionary artist Nikos Kessanlis; he also considers his training in Italy as a highly formative period in his life. In his view, artistic expression constitutes a conceptual articulation, which has to take historical and social experience into account.
At the ASFA’s 180th anniversary celebratory event, you stated that “art in Modern Greece exists because the Athens School of Fine Arts exists”. Could you elaborate on that?
There is an incident described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his memoirs regarding a show trial in the USSR, at the time of the Great Purge; a priest under trial is asked how he can prove the existence of God, to which he responds that, since there are temples, there is God. So, taking into consideration that the Athens School of Fine Arts was established just a few years after the founding of the Modern Greek state itself, it is demonstrably responsible for shaping art in the country – and I’m not just referring to its positive qualities. This institution, having gone through many different stages and, at all times, having some of Greece’s most representative artists as teachers, managed to successfully cultivate the talent of many young people.
Of course we cannot deny the existence of some dominant trends and styles in Greek academic circles, especially in the prewar era, shaping the School’s profile, and some radical, ground-breaking mindshad found it hard if not impossible to be accepted there, as was the case with George Bouzianis.
So what are those stages, the phases that the ASFA went through, from an artistic point of view?
Well, the ideas dominating the ASFA evolved in parallel to those pervading the country in general. During the Bavarian regime for instance, the mentality was to educate citizens in accordance with European standards, but the School was also supposed to function as guardian of the spirit of Classical Greece, which at the time was regarded as one of the main pillar of Western civilization (together with Roman law and Judeo-Christian values). The modernisation and westernization pursued by the government was not easily accepted by a society with a Balkan mindset, so the School of Arts was created, along with other establishments -such as the Supreme Court of Greece and the Archaeological Society of Athens- with the aim of forming a pool of people that would carry out this transition. This, I think, was the main purpose of the ASFA until WWII.
After the war, given that the world had changed and the spheres of influence were different, Modern Greek culture -manifest through the movement of the 30’s Generation- embraced a double ideal: One the one hand, preserving traditions, and on the other, seeking innovation. This was especially true after the establishment of the Third Hellenic Republic, when many teachers with a cosmopolitan outlook, such as Kessanlis, Kokkinidis, Dekoulakos and Mytaras, expressed the desire for rupture, because functioning solely as guardians of classical values was very restrictive. To this day, this continues to be our main concern as teachers: to be situated in the present time without being oblivious to the past, the multiple traditions of Modern Greece – because there is no one unique tradition. A glorious past should never be forgotten, as long as we can still be relevant to current times.
I actually endorse a view expressed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in relation to Kafka: the dynamic of minor literatures and, by extent, minor art scenes, minor cultural scenes in general. These should not have the objective of rivaling major scenes on the same terms, but should instead try and transform their so-called weaknesses (their regionality, their small scale, their minority state) into advantages in the field of communication. Experience has proven this to be fruitful: At international fora, artists from Greece or other peripheral countries have attracted attention exactly for demonstrating elements of a national, or Mediterranean, or in other ways localculture.
Did ASFA’s relocation to its current premises (on the grounds of a disused textile factory) also contribute to this change of the institution’s character?
It was an initiative of Nikos Kessanlis, who had very strong views on the issue, from an architectural point of view. First of all, the historic Polytechnic School compound, with its neoclassical buildings -a generous offer by past public benefactors- was deemed by then too small (2,5 km2) to accommodate the functions of the School. At the same time, on account of the plunge in industrial production in the 80’s, there were several abandoned buildings in areas like those around Pireos Street.
Kessanlis, a cosmopolitan with studies in architecture and building restoration and with experience from other European countries on the decentralisation of universities, had this idea of laying down a new connection between the classical past and contemporary sites blessed by human labour. So we didn’t lose the classical aspect whilst we gained in terms of available space, not just halls but also open spaces, where students could work under direct sunlight, experiment with techniques that require large spaces, such as action painting etc. Some, then, complained about what they perceived as loss of a more intimate environment, the sense of a “nucleus”, but I think that advantages have counter-balanced possible losses. We can’t be cut off from international trends pointing in this direction. My personal aspiration, which actually coincides with the approach generally adopted by the School’s faculty, is to establish a meeting point between Classical and contemporary art. It is a matter of talent, adaptability and perceptiveness.
The Masters Course “Art, Virtual Reality & Multi-User systems of Artistic Expression“ was founded in 2011, in collaboration with Paris 8 University. In your opinion, could digital arts replace traditional art forms in the future?
Personally speaking, I am not alarmed by the increasing use of technology in art; it is just an issue of techniques, a transition, auxiliary patterns that help people better understand the world around them. Art is the field of intuition, but as long as these technical interfaces help expand this field, there is no reason to be afraid. The only case where concern would be justifiable is when any stance -whether it be technophilia or an attachment to the past- culminates in doctrinism.
In order to exist in the present (which constitutes a continuum linking past and future) and not be caught between extremes, synthesis would be the best way to go: maintaining a balance so as to not be overly taken with either technology or nostalgia, given that they both have their positive and negative sides. I am not talking about keeping completely equal distances with each of the two extremes at all times, but rather about being flexible, versatile, “dancing” -if I may say so- between the two. Because, for instance, I do support cases of artists deeply committed to some old form of art; unlike science, where using obsolete tools is disastrous, in art an ancient instrument can be poetically transposed to the present and actually be functional – but it takes talent.
What about Greek art in particular? Does it have a distinct identity? You mentioned the Generation of the 30’s, a movement in quest of the meaning of “Greekness”…
This question has been posed by every generation in some way since the foundation of the Greek state – more imperatively so at the beginning of the 20th century. This country cannot be clearly grouped with either North or South, East or West; both its geographical position and its history define it as a crossroads, a passage, like an expanded port. Contemporary Greek art does exist, and I believe in it, as I believe each place deserves to have art that expresses its particularities. There are international trends, big markets and megastars, and then you have this particular type of local artist, who owes his singularity not to being secluded in a place, but to his ability to efficiently communicate with it.
My experience abroad has taught me that, when all you do is replicate grafted foreign styles and patterns, you don’t really resonate with an international audience. This was the case with Young British Artists, when suddenly identical movements started popping up everywhere in the world. Art is not just a bundle of patterns, it’s a conversation; when you can make an actual conversation with the other cultures on a certain level you will see they need you just as well as you need them. This is what art is about, exchanges, transformations.
The issue of “Greekness”, as it has come to be known, does pose a burning question that has lead to polarising positions, with some becoming overly attached to an idealised notion of nationality, carried away by poetic fervour, while others demonstrate a desire for rupture, identifying themselves as nationless “world artists”. Both approaches have their own appeal, but extremes work better in theory than in practice…
I would also like to ask some questions regarding the Athens School of Fine Arts more specifically: could tell us something about its famed annexes, called “Art Stations”?
These annexes, workshops situated in various regions throughout Greece, were an initiative that began in the 1920’s, inspired by a desire to bring students closer to the Greek landscape, both natural and cultural. We now have eight of them, and intend to open more. Their function will be enriched in the future, with the function of summer schools etc. Their operation has been very successful, with a great number of participants from many foreign institutions, with which we have ongoing collaborations. Participants are truly thrilled with the experience, the chance to work close to nature, in an idyllic environment.
I must point out that the annexes have been, in great part, the result of donations and sponsorships. Benefactors have contributed a lot the School’s expansion, as was the case with our library, recently renovated with the support of Niarchos Foundation. We also have received support from NEON organization, and other expansions have been planned thanks to future donations announced by the Contemporary Greek Art Institute, Eleni Vernadaki and others. In difficult times, there are many Greek private institutions that have helped in the domain of arts.
*Interview by Nefeli Mosaidi
Read more on Greek News Agenda: Athens School of Fine Arts celebrates 180 years; Katerina Koskina on the need for cultural dialogue & EMST’s role as an arts capsule for the city branding of Athens; Denys Zacharopoulos: A museum should function as an open window between the private and the public life of people; Alexandros Psychoulis on the idea of symbiotic bliss & the reality of working as a visual artist in Greece; Gary Carrion-Murayari on “The Equilibrists” & the contemporary arts scene in Greece; Efi Kyprianidou on Art and Compassion
Watch a short documentary specially created for ASFA’s 180 anniversary (in Greek):
Based on Gerald Durrell’s most famous book “My Family and Other Animals” where he narrates his idyllic, if oddball, childhood in the Greek island of Corfu, a drama series commissioned by ITV Channel to acclaimed screenwriter Simon Nye, entitled “The Durrells”, began airing on 3 April 2016. The series is mainly filmed on Corfu.
The series begins in 1935, when Louisa Durrell suddenly announces that she and her four children will move from Bournemouth to Corfu. Her husband has died some years earlier and the family is experiencing financial problems. A Homeric battle ensues as the family adapts to life on the island which, despite a lack of electricity, is cheap and an earthly paradise.
“The Durrells” was met with great success as a British TV series. What do you think is the secret of its success?
Family – real family that everyone can relate to. Simon Nye comes from a large family and so draws on this experience when writing the scripts. This mixed with humor, nostalgia and the wonderful community and setting that is Corfu is hard to beat.
Why have you decided to film the series in the natural setting of Corfu instead of a studio or a place somewhere closer to London?
There is nothing quite like the real place. Corfu is so integral to the story- it’s a character in itself. Though we scouted other locations we kept coming back to Corfu.
What was the response of local authorities and the locals to your decision to film a British series in Corfu? Did they welcome your project? Were they helpful?
Everyone was very helpful, and the support has only increased the longer we have been there. We have worked with local teams to build a filming infrastructure that did not exist before and now it feels like going home and revisiting friends and family.
In your cast there are many Greek actors. What are the challenges of cooperating with multicultural and multilingual actors in a British series?
The cast are all so brilliant it really does not feel like a challenge. The emotions we are working with are human and that provides the groundwork we need. It’s one big, multicultural family.
You filmed the “Durrells” during the most acute phase of Greek crisis. What challenges did you have to face?
The fluctuating exchange rates were problematic, and we had to take cash out on a regular basis due to problems transferring large amounts of money. But we’ve made it work and it’s been worth it.
Do you think TV dramas appeal nowadays to the public more than reality shows?
TV dramas are definitely gaining in appeal these days, especially compared to film. The long format suits intelligent and complex story telling, and the public love that.
Both the “Downton Abbey” and the “Durrells” refer to the first decades of the 20th century. Is it by coincidence? Do you think that dramas related to this historically critical period have greater appeal to the public or does the social context of that time offer more directorial alternatives ?
The early 20th Century setting certainly provides an opportunity to enter into the richness of nostalgia – it’s far enough away to be ‘other’, and just close enough to be within family memory. By setting a show in the past it also helps crystalize what really matters.
In reality though, it is the stories and the characters (beyond their contexts) that attracts us – so maybe it is just coincidence.
You are a famous producer for making successful, outstanding TV dramas. Have you ever thought to get involved in cinema drama productions?
At the moment we have some film projects on our slate at Sid Gentle. What’s important to us, however, is that the medium suits the story be it film or tv.
Recently a new law voted by the Greek Parliament offers tax relief to productions filmed in Greece. Given this would you consider to start a new project in Greece?
Absolutely. It’s a wonderful country to film in with kind, warm and talented people. They’ve been incredibly welcoming to us so we would always consider coming back. Hopefully with another series of the Durrells. We adore Greece and particularly Corfu.
Read about the General Secretariat for Media and Communication of the Ministry of Digital Policy, Telecommunications and Media initiative for the enhancement of audiovisual production in Greece: One more reason to film in Greece: A new legal framework of economic incentives
Our sister publication GrèceHebdo interviewed* Nikos Lakopoulos on the relationship between Décadence Club and Surrealism, André Breton, Arthur Rimbaud and Dada and on the rebirth of this singular place for Athenians.
In the late seventies, the villa of the former Viceroy and officer of the military junta, George Zoitakis, became a mythical place of alternative Athenian scene, forever altering all the conventions of night clubs: the Décadence Club. But it was not until the early nineties, when Nikos Lakopoulos, journalist and writer, appropriated the place that Décadence progressively acquired its legendary status, becoming a unique corner in Athens, recalling the movements of surrealism and Dada: we discovered, among others, delirious theme nights (ranging from poetry to ... beach volleyball games) where there were also film sessions with a projector dating from 1916 (called Lola), and a hairdresser or even a vegetable seller. A self-proclaimed "independent state" bar that ran its own newspaper, the Décadence Times, the first free newspaper in Greece, and even had its own currency (DE) that allowed for the purchase of drinks on the spot. But above all, a 90's club where the biggest groups of the alternative scene in the 90s came to play almost incognito. The bar frequented by Leonard Cohen in the 80's became, a decade later, the local haunt of Nick Cave, Iggy Pop, Tindersticks, Walkabouts, Deus, Archive and others, and also the bar loved by Greek writers and poets, musicians, transvestites and moviegoers from Athens. The latter made screenings or sometimes shot their films there (Nikos Nikolaidis' film, Loser Takes All (“O hamenos ta pairnei ola”), was shot in the Décadence Club). Even Mikis Theodorakis spent a few nights there.
Nearly a decade after Décadence closed in 2009, Nikos Lakopoulos once again reclaimed the lease of this haunted house and aimed to resurrect the spirit of a place that fascinates even the youngest generations, even though they never experienced it.
Tell us, how would you introduce Décadence to someone who has never been to or ever lived in the 80s-90s in Athens? What made this place mythical in your opinion?
First, it should be noted that it is a building of 1934, which was indeed the house of an officer of the Junta of the Colonels (1967-1974), George Zoitakis, who will be tried and convicted for life imprisonment (later he received a lighter sentence ).
It's not even a neoclassical building or well preserved. But perhaps the atmosphere of this two-story house or its location in an alley, hidden behind Strefi Hill, near Exarcheia, all contributed to the birth of a somewhat hidden place. Décadence has become a kind of hiding place for artists, poets and the "underground" of Athens, a place frequented by very diverse people ranging from artists and punks to Athenian transvestites. One could find Leonard Cohen there, who spent his nights drinking dry martinis here before taking the boat to his home in Hydra, and Alexandros Yiotopoulos, one of the suspected leaders of the terrorist organization November 17.
For some reason, already frequented by poets and artists, Nick Cave had visited it four times from 1992 to 1994 and spent some twenty nights there before and after his concerts. Iggy Pop and his band were also among the regular customers, as a hundred other groups of the independent scene such as Tindersticks, Deus, Walkabouts, and Archive, who all fell in love with Décadence during their stays in Athens in the '90s. Legend has it that one of the Archive members married a barmaid of Décadence!
Personally, I visited it for the first time in 1979. A few years later I thought it would be a nice place to create a radio station, when my radio program “Radiosynnefoula” ended with ERT (Translator’s note: the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation). Finally, this station never saw the light, so that's why I made “WC FM” - a radio station that could be heard in the toilet of Décadence. I do not know if it's a "mythical" place as you say, but there's certainly something special about Décadence.
Why the name "Décadence"?
The place was founded in 1978 by the painter Yiannis Philippou. As he himself told me, the name came to him while the building was being painting: he looked at the building and said to himself: "Décadence”! And that's how the club got its name. Afterwards, the bar was renamed "Dafnos bar" according to a loyal customer, Alexandros Dafnos. For a short time, it had the name "Jim’s Bar" until 1990, when the idea to me to call it "Girls’ School, sweet Décadence", but we disagreed with colleagues and so we have returned to the original name: Décadence.
Décadence recalls the Dada movement or the atmosphere of May '68: it was a place of unrestrained imagination and aesthetic subversion that was at the same time a cultural center, a beauty salon, a beach, a grocery store, a bar, a poetry house, and a cinema! All the initiatives were the fruit of collective work and there were well-known phrases such as "Do not sleep in battlements" or "Entertainment is not bought, it is created". Are there any references to certain artistic movements or political movements in this cultural proposal that were ultimately yours?
Obviously, there is a connection with France; first of all the name "Décadence" is French. Also it must be noted that there was a French style crêperie in the basement bar. Our slogan "Entertainment cannot be bought, it must be created" refers to the fact that the Athenian locals at that time saw customers as banknotes, while for us, this was an insult. The phrase "Do not sleep in the battlements" comes from the "Immaculate Conception" by André Breton and Paul Eluard and was also used in my book "The ABC of the Soldier", which became a bestseller at the time and contributed to financing Décadence. Of course, there is a lot of Surrealism inDécadence and also references to places such as the Café Lautréamont, a small bar used by Surrealists in Paris that had been reproduced in Athens for a brief period in the '80s, or to the Cotton Club.There was another little-known bar that also marked me, Ypersyntelikos, on Akadimias Street in Athens. Yet these links exist in a fuzzy form, not a copy. The DE notes issued by the Décadence bank bear the symbol of Arthur Rimbaud's face, accompanied by the phrase "Innocence is back".
As for the walls above the bars, there was a poster of Albert Einstein and glasses by Edgar Alan Poe.So I would say that Décadence, with its deep dislike for false culture and all that was "cultural" but not true art, combined its own version of Dadaism with punk. But all this without labeling.
Why did Décadence proclaim itself an independent state by issuing its own banknotes and its own newspaper? Will this be repeated today? Perhaps Décadence will give the answer to the "Greek crisis"?
Ha, ha! The self-proclamation of Décadence as a chamber-state was made through its newspaper Décadence Times as a kind of protest against energy suppliers whose bills were unpaid. The title on the front page was: "OTE-DEI: Stay out of our territories!" (Translator’s note: OTE: Hellenic Telecommunications Organisation; DEI: Public Power Corporation) It was symbolism, like the slogan "Give retirement at the age of 20". It was then that I proposed to Tzimis Panoussis to become the leader of the political party "Décadence" and to participate in the elections, but he refused. I wanted to found a party that would organize events like parties, without political speeches, with music, clowns and jugglers. I also wanted to apply for recognition of our independence by the United Nations, but I did not find a lawyer to do that. You know, it's like saying, "When the wise man points to the moon, the idiot looks at his finger". In any case, during the last months, we have printed new Décadence tickets to help pay for the bar. The Libération journalist who paid tribute to us was impressed. "And what is the exchange rate of your currency against the euro? She asked. "A DE = 7 euros," I said. "We have a strong currency."
Today, is Décadence is only a club or does it aspire to become something else again? How can we avoid nostalgia and launch something original today? In other words, what does Déca propose in Athens in 2018?
Certainly, we have respect for the past, but above all, we have more respect for the future.
*Interview by Magdalini Varoucha; Translation from French to English: Nicole Stellos
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Urban transformations | Nikos Souliotis on Athens' modern cultural identity
Dora Masklavanou, Photo Copyright: Aris Rammos
Dora Masklavanou is a film editor, director and actress, known for Coming as a friend (2005), and Sweet banch (1983). Her filmography includes nine documentaries and three feature films, the latest of which is Polyxeni (2017), which was awarded Best Feature Film Youth Jury Award at the 58th Thessaloniki International Film Festival.
“Polyxeni” is a period drama about a twelve-year-old orphan Greek girl separated from her younger brother in 1955, when a prominent Greek Istanbulite couple adopts her. She embarks on a new life and a future that looks bright. She receives an education, comes of age and falls in love, unsuspecting of the plot against her, targeting her hefty inheritance.
Dora Masklavanou talks to Greek News Agenda* about her central character, an interesting female persona, and explains why it is difficult for Polyxeni to escape her destiny, given her social position and the way she was brought up. She observes that it is part of the female condition, even in contemporary society, that women's self reliance is impeded and undermined. With the quest for love, trust and acceptance being the focal point in the film, Masklavanou explains that through her films, she is trying to give voice to the loners, the losers and the outcasts trying to find their position in this world.
Katia Gulioni, "Polyxeni" (2017)
Polyxeni is decisive enough to defy her preordained life but she cannot escape other entrapments, despite her education. How would you describe this interesting combination of strength and weaknesses in your protagonist and how do you feel about women’s position in contemporary society?
Polyxeni was adopted at 12 and under certain conditions. She had to prove every day with her hard work, obedience and silence, that she was worthy of the parents’ choice. But at the age of 12, memories, love, traumas and desires are very much alive and active. She may not be allowed to talk about the things she left behind, but she thinks about them and misses them and nurtures them inside her soul. She may have been offered education, but not the actual weapons with which to defend herself, and that is why she reacts impulsively. Let’s not forget that the time setting is the 70’s, a difficult and precarious period for the Greek community of Istanbul.
Polyxeni was chosen by her well established parents for many reasons of their own. As they are rich, childless and middle-aged, they consider the benefits in a process from which Polyxeni is absent. The adoption, which is a benevolent decision in itself and a golden promise, ends up as a poisoned gift from a couple of noble, trusted people. It is a combination that didn’t work, in a Greek community that used to be enviable, but in the 70’s it is hunted, wounded, and insular. Polyxeni is raised as something between a daughter, a foster child and a maid. She always had to be obedient and grateful, and that is why she explodes when she feels she’s in danger. Polyxeni reacts emotionally, not rationally. She is the kind of person that doesn’t accept social pretexts; she only understands clear and pure feelings, unaffected by social conventions.
As far as women’s position in society is concerned, I have to underline that if Polyxeni were a boy, everything would be different. That is why it is regrettable that we are raising this issue even today. Women's position and self-reliance in most parts of the world will always be questioned, judged and impeded.
Nikos Karathanos, Alexandros Milonas, Katia Gulioni, Lydia Fotopoulou, "Polyxeni" (2017)
Your film is based on a true story. What were the elements that moved you and made you decide to turn that into a film, given the challenges of filming a period drama in Istanbul?
The core of the film is a true story. An orphan girl is transported from Greece to Constantinople at the age of 12. She is forced to part from her brother and to forget him. But how can a young girl bear such a burden? It is a personal tragedy, a bitter life by definition. I am interested in wounded people who have no means to go after their desires because they are alone in a strange environment, territory or situation, but they keep struggling with what they have and come crashing against a wall. That's why Polyxeni has become an important figure for me. Without being a fatalist, she is a tragic woman that can’t escape her fate. For me Polyxeni is an admirable true heroine who will spend her short life being faithful to what she loved. We tried to bring to life this powerful story with Katia Gulioni, the actress who carried the film on her shoulders as Polyxeni, with Claudio Bolivar, director of photography, our stage designer Giorgos Georgiou, our costume designer Despina Himona, our make-up artist Yannis Pamoukis and the rest of our collaborators. We wanted to find the atmosphere, the tones and the pulse of the film. We wanted to discover Polyxeni and get carried away.
Alexandros Milonas, Katia Gulioni, "Polyxeni" (2017)
“Polyxeni” deals with issues of otherness and alienation as well as the difficulty of integration. Has the migration crisis that Greece is facing influenced you in a way?
The migration crisis in Greece touches our soul and affects our everyday life. It is not an issue that came from nowhere. At the same time, thousands of Greeks today look for a way out of their own country. It may seem surprising to us that we are currently experiencing it, but it has been there always: Feeling unwanted, inferior, a despised stranger and struggling to find a place in the world is deeply ingrained in our memory and in our blood. But human nature is both warm and brutal: it both nourishes love and revenge; thus it has been and always will be. It is our life cycle.
Ozgur Emre Yildrim, Katia Gulioni, "Polyxeni" (2017)
Lack of trust is a focal point in “Polyxeni”. Why is trust always so difficult to find?
“Polyxeni” is a film about trust. This is the most precious feeling in life, and the older I get the more I realise it. In trust, there is everything: love, faith, jealousy ... All intense human feelings are mixed, competitive; they can bring either joy or pain to people. Trust is an absolute and healing feeling. This is why it is rare; and it can come from unimaginable places. You offer it to someone because you love him or her unconditionally. Polyxeni comes close to Kerem because she is looking for trust, and he responds unconditionally: like stray dogs, they instinctively recognize each other, their common needs, their common wounds, and move along together.
Ozgur Emre Yildrim, Katia Gulioni, "Polyxeni" (2017)
You are also a singer and you have incorporated in the story the Rosarte children choir. Could you elaborate on the role of music in your film?
When planning the film began, I often imagined “Polyxeni” as the leading character in an opera. Her temperament and situation in life produced within me intensely dramatic material that was drenched in music. In the film, of course, we used what we thought was necessary with composer Nikos Kypourgos: melodies that would fit the simplicity, childishness, loneliness and memories of Polyxeni Luckily for us, the Rosarte choir came to enrich the film, they carried on their shoulders the end of the story lifting it off to a higher ground.
Katia Gulioni, Lydia Fotopoulou, "Polyxeni" (2017)
What are your future plans?
I want to make one more film for a person who has screwed up and tries to find his place in life. For the person who is ignored, the loner, the loser. I want to offer this person the right to life in any way I can. And then I want to do another film, and then another one ... I do not consider making films as self-evident or natural. It's a tough decision every time, it's just necessary for me and for anyone who wants to make films. You have to convince your friends and colleagues to work with you on a film. Even if you are the initiator of an idea there is no work that is more collective than cinema. You need the faith and contribution of all the participants, and, above all, its living matter: the actors, which for me is the film’s dearest element.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
** The film was projected in the 58th Thessaloniki International Film Festival and was available in the international film viewing professional platform Festival Scope, a TIFF initiative for the promotion of Greek cinema abroad.
Maria Petmesidou (Ph.D. Oxford University) is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Democritus University of Thrace, and Fellow of CROP (Comparative Research on Poverty) of the International Social Science Council under the auspices of UNESCO. She has published extensively on social policy and welfare reform in Greece and Southern Europe. Recently she co-edited the books: Economic crisis and austerity in Southern Europe: threat or opportunity for a sustainable welfare state? (London, 2015) and Child poverty and youth (un)employment and social inclusion (Stuttgart, 2016). She has also co-ordinated the research programmes "Health and long-term care in Greece" (2013-2015, funded by the Institute of Labour) and "Policy Transfer in the field of Youth Employment Policies" (2014-2017, funded by the Europan Commission under the STYLE project).
According to Petmesidou, despite rising social spending after the 80’s, poverty rates remained high and stable over the last decades: overall, Greece under-spent in social protection in terms of its wealth. The crisis facilitated reforms towards system rationalization but did so under conditions of severe spending cuts and receding public provision, gravely harming the middle and lower-class. In a scenario of increasing social polarization and sharp contraction of the middle class the move towards a mass-supported comprehensive, rights-based welfare state is not on the horizon. Neither are there any signs of reinvigoration of “Social Europe” that could have a positive effect on the welfare state future in the country. It is quite likely that disillusioned and impoverished strata may switch political support to right-wing parties. In conclusion, instead of the trodden path of a tourism-based economy, supplemented by low value-added manufacturing, an alternative scenario would be a move towards a robust industrial structure and innovation system, which would tap into niche-markets for high-value added products, and could support a more socially embedded form of flexibilization, combining flexibility with security:
How do you believe the welfare system in Greece compares to other systems in Europe? Is it a part of a South European model? What are the economic and social factors that can help us understand welfare politics in Greece?
Greece shares a number of characteristics with the other three South European countries (Italy, Spain and Portugal) regarding social and welfare structures. Late industrialization, a record of authoritarian regimes until late in the post-war period and political clientelism (of less prevalence in the Iberian Peninsula though) are among the main features that account for the “lagged” welfare state development in these countries, compared to North-West Europe. In relation to the three welfare state regimes typology –as identified in the well-known work of Esping-Andersen (“The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism”, Polity Press, 1990), welfare arrangements in South Europe have been for a long time characterized by a “hybrid” form that combines elements of all three welfare regimes.
First, income transfers (primarily pensions) developed on an occupational basis, according to the Bismarckian model of continental Europe. But social insurance systems remained highly polarized and fragmented, compared for instance to Germany, France and other countries. Fragmentation has been most prevalent in Greece and this is reflected in the very large number of social insurance funds (about 130 until recently) that are characterized by great inequalities in the scope, generosity and quality of their provisions. Second, between the late 1970s and early 1980s, in all four South European countries, a social-democratic element (a feature of the “social-democratic” welfare regime of Scandinavian countries) was introduced in healthcare with the establishment of a national health system providing health services free at the point of use. Yet in Greece this shift to a national health system remained incomplete until recently. Private health expenditure kept growing and the system has been halfway stuck between a highly fragmented social health insurance and a national health service model.
Third, social care services and social assistance are under-developed. Scanty provision of social assistance to the neediest through means-testing indicates a liberal orientation (manifest in the liberal welfare regime of the Anglo-Saxon countries). In the other three South European countries, limited statutory coverage in social assistance triggered a more or less dense network of NGOs, with the Catholic Church (through its well-known organization “Caritas”) playing a significant role in this respect. In Greece however third sector social activity remained restricted. This can be partly attributed to the values of Eastern Orthodoxy and its historical limitations of social activism, which hardly provided fertile ground for institutionalized volunteerism. The recent crisis has significantly increased volunteering, as a fast growing number of people struggling for the basics (food, rent and utilities) are turning to charities. Nevertheless, even amidst the crisis, the percentage voluntary work for an organization in Greece is far below, for instance, that in Italy (8% of citizens in Greece, compared to 20% in Italy, and about 25% in the EU27, according to Eurobarometer 2012).
Another major feature of South European welfare states is that they started expanding at the time when economic strains –linked to deepening globalization and the ascendancy of neo-liberal ideas from the late 1970s onwards– had shaken the politico-ideological legitimacy of welfare states, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world. At the same time, demographic ageing, new social risks of precarious employment, long term unemployment, in-work poverty, changing family patterns and gender roles exerted pressures for restructuring and cost containment. Soon fiscal constraints became highly pressing in Greece (and in the other South European countries) particularly under the project of joining the European Monetary Union. In these countries, reform had to confront not only the above mentioned new problems, shared to one degree or another by all European societies.
Especially in Greece, reform equally needed to address the issue of rationalization of the social protection system by tackling extensive fragmentation and deep inequalities, while at the same time expand coverage to a number of deprived social groups for which hardly any social safety net existed (those employed in the underground economy, the young unqualified persons without work experience, the long-term unemployed and particularly unemployed women, old-age people with no rights to social insurance and other vulnerable groups). In the decades prior to the crisis, responses to these pressures by South European countries differed significantly, ranging from minimal change in Greece to more profound reforms in Spain, Italy and Portugal.
Also, I would like to stress that, in order to understand welfare politics in Greece, we have to look at the historical origins of public welfare in the late 19th-early 20th century, when the first social insurance funds were established. These laid the ground for a stratified system where different occupational groups are covered by distinct programmes – consisting mostly of cash benefits – with great differences both in funding and provisions. Well-entrenched legacies of fragmentation, deep polarization and particularism were further established in the 20th century as social insurance expanded. These features are closely linked with the wide legitimation of rent-seeking behaviour patterns, ingrained in statist-clientelist structures and practices, which dominated socio-political integration in the country for a long time. “Political credentials” have persistently functioned as crucial means for the appropriation of resources. They defined access to clientelistic networks (and the “revenue-yielding” mechanisms of the state) by households, individuals and businesses.
These conditions hardly favoured universalistic social citizenship values. Instead they cultivated a perception of social problems in individualist/familialist terms, with the family playing a crucial role in pooling resources from various sources (the formal and informal labour market, welfare benefits, access to public employment and others) in order to provide support to its members. I call this pattern a “male breadwinner/familialist” regime. The term “male breadwinner” reflects women’s “ancillary status” in labour market and social insurance, as most often women are entitled to derived rather than individual social insurance rights. The term “familialism” captures the key role of the family in welfare provision.
Greek political science and Greek public discourse have been strongly influenced by the “underdog vs. modernist culture” paradigm and a general view of Greece as an exception from the European canon. Would you like to comment on this?
In my view, what makes Greece different from the European canon is the historical consolidation of statist-paternalistic structures in the 19th and in much of the 20th century. Socio-political conflicts focused around access to the state and its revenue-yielding mechanisms. I cannot expand on the historical origins of this form of socio-political organization. Suffice it to say that a mode of income generation and distribution, in which the state functioned as a vast apparatus for creating and distributing wealth, income and benefits by extra-economic, i.e. political, means and criteria, has been a prominent characteristic for a long time. This significantly influenced the country’s particular social and economic development. This feature does not limit the pre-eminence of market processes in the economy, but stresses that in some domains these processes were extensively conditioned by political intervention (creating “windfall profits” and “political rents” for those groups that enjoyed access to the poles of political power). In the political history of Greece we find several examples of divisive identity politics that provides political credentials of access to the state to certain groups, excluding others. For instance, during much of the postwar period, the prevailing division was between “Nationalists” (ενθικόφρονες) and “Communists” (κομμουνιστές, μιάσματα). After the restoration of democracy, a new division emerged between the “Progressives” (under the banner of PASOK) and the “Conservatives”, which extensively reshuffled the groups enjoying access to the revenue yielding mechanisms of the state.
Strong forms of statism and paternalistic social organization in combination with familialism and clientelism originate in Eastern autocracy. Political parties dominate civil society and this limits the ability of the latter to create a value system independently of statist practice and ideology. These conditions considerably hindered the development of rational-bureaucratic structures, collective solidarity and universalist social citizenship values. Instead, the dominant culture supported a particularistic/discretionary system of welfare provision. Hence the high degree of fragmentation of social insurance, the great inequalities and gaps in coverage and in the range and level of benefits, as well as the strikingly low redistributive effect of social spending.
Extended social protection in Greece essentially begun in the 80s. What were the characteristics of the welfare system that was established then? What were the obstacles in building a fair redistribution system?
PASOK’s landslide victory in 1981 created a propitious environment for expanding social welfare. Social spending increased rapidly during the 1980s: from 12% of GDP in 1980 to 22% in 1990.Social security coverage was extended and improved (both in rural and urban areas) and the “social role” of the state was strengthened. However, the fast expansion of social expenditure was not accompanied by any changes in the composition of social benefits. Heavy reliance on pensions persisted while social service provision hardly expanded. Also the logic behind the distribution of social benefits did not change. Clientelistic exchanges continued to play a dominant role, further strengthening the unequal distribution of privileges among social groups. Rather than building comprehensive, rights-based welfare arrangements, policy measures provided favourable concessions in a discretionary manner, such as early retirement schemes and various cash benefits for certain socio-occupational groups. These concessions exerted considerable strain on the social insurance funds’ finances. Already by the mid-1980s, the total deficits of social insurance funds reached 16.7% of their revenue and 3% of GDP. Under these conditions, the consolidation of a number of socio-political “veto” points greatly hindered reform towards system rationalization and a fairer redistribution. Markedly, despite rising social spending, the poverty rate remained high and stable over the last decades. This indicates that actual redistribution has been persistently limited.
The attempt to introduce a national health system in the 1980s provides a stark example of the obstacles confronting reform. Law 1397 of 1983, which established the national health system (ESY), purported a radical change towards universal entitlement, linked to citizenship and a fairer distribution of health resources. Major stipulations in the law included uniform funding and service provision for all citizens, the gradual absorption of the private by the public sector and a more balanced regional distribution of health infrastructure and personnel. Yet these provisions largely remained on paper and the implementation of the law did not significantly change the status quo in health insurance. Universal access was limited to hospital care, primary care was neglected (largely provided by the private sector), private spending continued to rise, and many privileged health insurance funds maintained their prerogatives.
The watered down version of reform that PASOK finally implemented was a politically expedient solution as the government was confronted by strong veto points within the medical profession and the privileged health insurance funds. Thus, quite soon after the proclamation of a radical reform, social policy returned to its old patterns. It took a major economic and financial crisis and strong outside pressure by the country’s international lenders (the so-called “Troika” - the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank) for some major provisions of the “path shift” introduced in 1983 to be progressively materialized (namely, the unification of health funds, the standardization of contributions and of the benefits package across socio-occupational groups etc.). Albeit, under conditions of harsh cuts in funding and receding public provision.
According to some analysts, rising social spending during the last three decades has contributed to the crisis, in the sense that the Greek welfare state grew to a level the country could not afford. Do you agree with this assessment?
Ι do not fully agree with this statement. The problem is perverse redistribution, reflected in the persistently high poverty rates. For a long time, acquiring resources through rent-seeking statist-clientelistic practices functioned as a substitute of a welfare state, and this has perverse distributional effects. It is true that profligate borrowing by successive governments in order to fund “clientelistic” pay-outs, has contributed to the sovereign debt crisis. But this does mean that there was an overgrown welfare state. On the contrary, Greece lagged behind other EU countries in developing welfare state institutions, particularly social services.
Social spending rapidly increased over the last three decades prior to the crisis, and EU funding flowing into the country significantly contributed to this. However, we must keep in mind the following: First, Greece started from a comparatively low spending level in the early 1980s (12% of GDP) and at the onset of the crisis it still lagged behind the EU-15 average (24% of GDP in Greece; 27% in the EU-15, in 2007). Second, even though per capita GDP (measured in purchasing power standards for reasons of comparability) in Greece eventually converged to the EU-15 average, reaching about 90% when the crisis broke out, per capita social expenditure (also measured in purchasing power standards) hardly surpassed 80% of the respective EU-15 figure. Third, employment in public social services has been persistently low in Greece (11% in 2008, compared to 15% in the EU-15, not to mention Sweden where the corresponding rate stood at 25%).
These findings run counter to the “growth to the limits” argument, which is supported by some colleagues in the debate on the causes of the current crisis. Rather, the findings indicate that Greece under-spent in social protection in terms of its wealth. Another side of the same coin is the very low level of state revenues in Greece (37% of GDP in 2008, compared to EU-15 average of 44%) and the highly regressive fiscal policy pursued, given extensive reliance on indirect rather than direct taxes, the comparatively large informal economy, and the persistently huge tax evasion, particularly from the well-off groups. All these considerably limit the size of the social budget. Just to give you an indication of foregone revenue by the state due to black economy payments and fraud in the health sector: according to a recent study by colleagues from the Faculty of Nursing of the University of Athens, at the time of the eruption of the crisis, the sum of such payments was estimated to about 50 billion euros, an amount that equals the cumulative public deficit for the period 2003-2009.
How did the crisis and the subsequent rescue deals impact welfare in Greece? Could the crisis be an opportunity to rationalize and modernize welfare?
For the reasons I briefly discussed above, when the crisis broke Greece was characterized by a “gridlocked” social protection system. Rationalizing a fragmented and polarized system has been long overdue. The crisis brought reform to the top of the agenda of the successive “rescue-deals”. Indeed, some reforms are in the right direction. These include the amalgamation of social and health insurance funds into two single units respectively, the standardization of provisions for all socio-occupational groups, the equalization of pensionable age in the public and private sector (and between men and women), stricter conditions for early retirement, as well as a shift from derived to individual rights for women.
However, the question is whether the prevailing priorities of harsh fiscal consolidation can allow reform measures to redress inequalities by upgrading social provisions. Or, instead, a downwards equalizing attempt to a common low denominator will prevail. So far, the balance sheet of the reform indicates a downwards levelling of public provisions across the board.
We could briefly argue that, so far, two types of reforms have taken place. On the one hand, radical institutional reforms have been introduced in the fields of social insurance and labour market policies. A wholesale pension reform strengthened the insurance principle and significantly decreased the generosity of the public scheme. Labour market reform dealt a serious blow to labour rights and increased “flexicarity”, that is flexibility without security. On the other hand, in healthcare, drastic spending cuts and receding public provision have been pursued in the name of saving the national health system. But the diminishing scope and quality of services has already jeopardized universal access. This is reflected in rising unmet healthcare needs among middle and low-income groups, for reasons such as cost, long waiting lists and distance. According to the latest Eurostat data, in 2015 about a fifth of the population with an income that falls in the lowest income quintile declared unmet needs for medical examination compared to 0.6% in Spain and 6.4% in Portugal. But even among middle-income groups, the respective figures ranged between 10 to 15% in Greece. Unmet needs among middle income groups were negligible in the other two countries.
The change in the structure of pensions led to the replacement of the single-tier public pension scheme by a multi-tier system (for a long time advocated by the OECD, the IMF and other international bodies) consisting of a basic (quasi-universal) non-contributory and a contributory pension. Given the drastic cuts in replacement rates, these two tiers will need to be complemented by funded pension schemes and private savings, in order for future pensions to ensure a decent living. But a funded, occupational tier has been very little developed in Greece so far. We also have to mention also that a considerable length of time is required for a system of funded occupational pensions to mature. Undoubtedly, inequalities of access to an occupational scheme (as well as to private insurance) will further increase poverty among the elderly and erode collective solidarity.
Current pensioners’ incomes have been severely affected too. Successive rounds of pension cuts – up to 40-50% for certain categories of pensioners-, in tandem with significant hikes in indirect taxes and special levies, hit disproportionally middle to low incomes. Strikingly, the justification for the successive pension cuts under the bailout deals is that pensioners are at a lesser risk of poverty in comparison with the working-age population. This may be true with regards to the relative poverty rate, which has increased faster for the working-age population, due to rapidly rising unemployment and precarious work. But the relative poverty rate is very much affected by the range of incomes, given that the poverty threshold is defined as a percentage of the median (equivalized) income. If there is a fall of incomes across the board and a diminishing range of differentials, the relative poverty figure may even decline. In this case a better indicator for the living standards would be the poverty rate measured at a fixed moment in time, namely in 2008 when the crisis erupted. This indicator clearly shows that, during the crisis, poverty increased equally sharply among pensioners and the working-age population.
Hence, any claims that there is still room for reduction in pensions, because retirees have been less severely hit by poverty is totally unfounded. It is interesting to compare Greece with Spain, which experiences equally high unemployment. In the latter country, poverty among the working-age population (measured on the basis of the 2008 threshold) increased to a lesser extent in comparison to Greece. But the most striking feature is that, in Spain, pensioners were sheltered from the adverse distributional consequences of austerity measures (see Figure below).
In a nutshell, the crisis facilitated reforms towards system rationalization (e.g. standardization of contributions and of the basket of benefits and services) but under conditions of severe spending cuts and receding public provision. Suffice it to mention as an example the reform of primary care that is underway by the Ministry of Health. Developing a unified network of public primary care units has long been overdue. As mentioned above, this was a major provision of Law 1397/1983, which never materialized. Hence any attempt to improve statutory primary care provision is in the right direction. Yet, if, as announced by the Ministry, the planned units are targeted mainly to one third of the population who experience poverty and social exclusion, universal access will be jeopardized.
You have claimed that underlying the reforms imposed by the memoranda is an attempt to redirect the Greek economy towards greater openness, through labour market liberalization and internal devaluation. Do you think this approach will bear fruit? Is there an alternative scenario for achieving this openness?
The structural reforms set forth in the memoranda aim largely at liberalization and an internal devaluation within the constraints of the Euro-area regulations, in tandem with the rationalization of public administration and the shrinking of the public sector workforce. These reforms are held to increase competitiveness and support outward-facing, market-based policies. As I stress in a recent publication, the tradeable sector in Greece has been persistently small and has failed to become a catalyst of growth. Indicatively, between 2000 and 2007, when the country experienced sustained economic growth of over 3% annually, growth had come almost entirely from the “non-tradeable” sector, namely locally rendered services and construction. This sector has been persistently larger than tradeables, which include manufacturing, agriculture and raw materials.
Of crucial importance is how greater openness will be sought when the economy recovers. Will it be sought along the trodden path of a tourism-based economy supplemented by low value-added manufacturing? Can an alternative path be followed towards a robust industrial structure and innovation system, which would tap into niche-markets for high-value added products in Europe and elsewhere? Following the trodden path implies a gloomy scenario of a race to the very bottom: wages will further shrink to match those in the neighbouring Balkan countries and the welfare state will contract to the most meagre means-tested social assistance benefits. This scenario is more or less evident in the international lenders’ approach: they advocate wages to match those of the neighbouring Balkan countries, and strongly support means-tested programmes to the neediest (e.g. a minimum income scheme) instead of universalist welfare policies addressed to the entire population.
A different scenario, of a move towards a high-skill, high value-added economy, may support a more socially embedded form of flexibilization, which combines flexibility with security. This is a “social investment” approach, which, for instance, has been a long tradition in the Nordic countries. This approach places a great emphasis on the prevention of disadvantage through quality childcare, family support, education and training. It favours the development of universal social services rather than rudimentary, means-tested provisions and balances flexibility to security. However there are no signs of a move in this direction.
The structural adjustment recipe has gravely harmed the middle and lower-class. A study carried out by a foreign research institute in 2015, has shown that middle class households lost over 40% of their wealth between 2007 and 2015. A re-composition in the occupational/employment and earnings distribution within the middle class is highly likely. This will consolidate a divide between the upper ranks of the middle class that will comfortably increase their earnings, and a large majority who will be the losers facing persistently unemployment and insecurity. This looks more like a kind of “Latin-American” future, with rigid and permanent socio-economic divides in the EU southern periphery in tandem with a bleak scenario of a two (or multi)-speed Europe, which has recently resurfaced in the debate on the future of the EU after Brexit.
What do you believe is the future of the welfare system in Greece? How will it affect the middle classes and their political alignment?
In a scenario of increasing social polarization and sharp contraction of the middle class it is highly likely that the individualization of risk will prevail, under conditions in which great strains will also be exerted on the traditional family model of care provision. A move towards a mass-supported comprehensive, rights-based welfare state is not on the horizon. Neither are there any signs of reinvigoration of “Social Europe” that could have a positive effect on the welfare state future in the country. The recent effort by the Commission to develop a European Social Pillar has not so far contributed to a refocus on the EU’s social dimension. It remains a rather rhetorical proclamation. Besides, the ongoing refugee crisis fuels political divisions between and within EU countries and highlights the big obstacles towards interstate solidarity and adherence to the values of “Social Europe”.
Of significant importance is the sharp decline in trust in the political establishment (including the trade unions). This brought the party system in a deep flux in Greece. Support for the two main political parties (the right-wing New Democracy, and the centre-left PASOK), which have alternated in power since the restoration of democracy in 1974, reached record low levels, and new parties, both on the far-right, centre and left have emerged. It is difficult to predict how mass social discontent will be channeled at the political level. When in opposition, SYRIZA’s platform for a fightback approach (against austerity) garnered considerable support that propelled it to power. However, the harsh reforms of the third bailout deal of July 2015 and the refugee crisis are increasing disillusionment. Whether SYRIZA will continue to be a credible voice to address discontent (and deliver on its promises) is an open question. It is quite likely, though, that disillusioned and impoverished strata may switch political support to right-wing populism. This will play the role of an “exhaust valve”, which, albeit, will intensify institutional frustration in the country.
*Interview by Ioulia Livaditi
Read more about the Greek welfare state and its characteristics via Rethinking Greece interviews: Rethinking Greece: Christos Papatheodorou on the impact of austerity measures, poverty and social protection; Rethinking Greece: Manos Matsaganis on the Greek welfare state and its under-protected outsiders
Read also Maria Petmesidou's recent paper "Can the European Union 2020 Strategy Deliver on Social Inclusion?" (Global Challenges - Working Paper Series, June 2017)