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)
Hellas Filmbox Berlin is a Greek film festival established in 2015 to highlight the current, highly artistic Greek film scene and present it to a German audience as an affirmative artistic response to the wave of negative coverage of Greek news in Germany that was threatening to influence people's perception of the country.
The Festival Programme
Hellas Filmbox Berlin 2018 kicks off on Wednesday, January 24, 2018 at 19.00 with a multifaceted artistic event that will include short talks, interactive presentations by programmers and guests, performances etc. The opening of the third edition of the Hellas Filmbox Berlin will be preceded by the vernissage of Hellas Artbox Berlin: pop-up exhibition a group exhibition of 13 artists that is part of the Film Festival for the first time. In the 2018 Festival edition, changes will be introduced as the Festival extends its spectrum to include more forms of art. It is going to take place in a new venue, the Urban Spree, an alternative cultural space in Freidrichschein area.
The main event in the Festival’s programme is Box Talks a series of dialogues between Greek and German directors, inviting the audience to a live interaction. The first Box Talk, titled “Every time film” will feature Oscar winner German director Volker Schlöndorff and Yannis Sakaridis, moderated by festival director Ioanna Kryona. In another Box Talk titled “The Passion of Survival,” participants are documentary director and academic Eva Stefani, musician and film director Alexandros Vulgaris (known as “The Boy”) and Friedrich Liechtenstein in a discussion moderated by Carl von Karstedt. New Cypriot cinema will be the theme of the Box Talk between Greek Cypriot directors and German Wave journalist Panajotis Kouparanis.
Keeping up with previous editions, New Vision is a section in which exceptional films from art, experimental and animation genres are promoted. It includes three feature films with “Lines” by Vassilis Mazomenos among them and ten short films including “Ethnophobia” by Joan Zhonga. The films will competefor the best Film award.
The Documentary section includes 5 documentaries directed or co-directed by women, including “Alki’s Long Walk” by Margarita Manda. Seven feature films will be projected, apart from the 30 feature films that were shown in the historic Babylon Cinema for the Warm up event of the Festival (1-17 January). The programme includes a lot of side events that will offer a glimpse to the wider Greek art spectrum.
The closing event of Hellas Filmbox Berlin 2018 includes the film award ceremony, a concert by “The Boy” and an after-show party. Before that, well-known German composer, author and songwriter Konstantin Wecker and Greek filmmaker Zafeiris Haitidis will get into conversation with each other, moderated by journalist Elisa Simantke in the context of Box Talks.
Interview with Festival director Ioanna Kryona
Interviewed* by Greek News Agenda Ioanna Kryona, film scholar, talked about its new character:
The festival focuses on Greek art, the concept of Greekness and the dialogue between Greece and Germany. How does German society perceive Greece? Did you notice any change during the years that the festival takes place?
The festival was very well received from the beginning and beyond our expectations, considering that it is a new event in the city. It made a very good impression and caught the attention of German media, since we started at a time when Greece was in the news - although in a negative sense. We hope, through cinematic experience, to have achieved a certain change of that kind of perspective and indeed enforced a cultural dialogue. Though, one shouldn't overlook that we are talking about Berlin, a multicultural city, where the audience is already politically inclined and curious about different cultures. So I cannot saythat Filmbox had the potential until now to intervene and alter the way the Germans view us, but I can certainly confirm that a lot of German Berliners seem excited that it is taking place and are making sure to book their tickets on time.
Which changes have been introduced in the 2018 edition of the Festival and what is the rationale?
The 2018 Filmbox is not a film festival in the strict sense; it is more an event which offers insight into different aspects of the current Greek creative culture, from cinema to music and visual arts. The idea is to give space not only to filmmakers but also to artists in the broader sense to exhibit their work in the German capital and exchange experiences with their German colleagues. Historically, Berlin remains a city in a state of constant cultural flow; trends and ideas come and go, leaving more or less important traces behind, which contribute to this formation of identity process, which never ends in Berlin. As a Berlin-based festival, our intention is to be part of it, be integrated into this particular profile of the city, which makes it a special place for creative people.
"Soul Kicking", 2006, dir. Yannis Economides
What are the criteria of film selection?
Apart from their artistic value, a very important aspect is to offer the German audience insight into Greek society through the perspective of filmmakers. It has been almost ten years since the beginning of the crisis and filmmaking couldn't but be affected by the situation. Greece – though considered as a part of Europe – is depressed beyond belief and there is a lot of misleading information about this topic in the German media. Since cinema is the most popular storyteller of our time, we decided to give a voice to Greek film right in the middle of Europe. For that reason, the selection consists of films about subjects the German audience would not be able to approach in a different way, a Greece that wouldn't be visible otherwise.
Which are the highlights of this year’s edition?
For me, the most exciting section of the 2018 edition is the Box Talks. The cultural “dialogue” between Greece and Germany will happen through the actual exchange between Greek and German creators on stage, and the audience will be part of it as well.
In order to support Greek cinema, the next step is to develop a film market, which will help Greek filmmakers meet the German industry and promote their projects that would also enable coproduction options. The German press once called Filmbox “the small Greek Berlinale” and this was inspiring enough for us to think of the market aspect, which will actively contribute to the production of Greek films.
* Interview By Florentia Kiortsi
** The Festival is sponsored, among others, by the Greek Embassy Press Office in Berlin.
For more on Greek Cinema visit Greek News Agenda Filming Greece series of interviews
Interview with Dimitris Papadimoulis, Vice-President of the European Parliament and head of SYRIZA party delegation by the European Progressive Forum, "an open space of information and dialogue" that aims to "to promote and elaborate progressive ideas and proposals on the future of EU and Eurozone, the ongoing challenges of the European Project and the steps ahead..."*:
What are the priorities for the European progressive forces and how realistic their goals are?
Since 2015 there have been discussions between progressive forces to tackle the current policy mix in Eurozone and introduce a new wave of policies that enhance social justice and growth.
The rise of Syriza in power has strengthened the need to accelerate such initiatives in European scale. The "Progressive Caucus" in the European Parliament, i.e. with the participation of MEPs from GUE/NGL, S&D and the Greens, and the EU South Summit initiated by the Greek PM Alexis Tsipras, are two of the main pillars of action towards the necessary reform of EU and Eurozone. In view of 2019 European Elections, the aim of all these actions is to shift political balances in the European Parliament and the EU Council, so that progressive alliances can achieve majority.
These political forces strive to tackle austerity policies and bring in surface a pro-growth agenda, increase democratic legitimacy and transparency in decision-making, strengthen the role of the European Parliament, address social and regional cohesion and tackle tax evasion.
These proposals are realistic to the extent that all progressive forces understand the challenges of our era, and try to designate clear lines against the neoliberal parties and far-right populism. If we cannot achieve to bring something new in the EU, I could well argue that the future of the European establishment will be at stake.
Tell us more about the Progressive Caucus in the European Parliament.
The Progressive Caucus is a space of dialogue based on confidence-building and open debate. It was an idea of MEPs from three different political groups that, despite their differences on some issues, they develop similar policies on core issues of European politics, such as social justice and growth, the need to bring about the necessary reforms in EU and Eurozone. Since 2015, the group has been mobilized on trade issues, against TTIP and CETA, providing alternative models, whereas it has supported Greece's efforts to successfully conclude with bailout reviews and push for debt relief measures.
In this respect, the role of Syriza party is crucial as it has accelerated discussions among these parties and proved that a left-wing government can achieve positive results within a framework of negative political balances and tight fiscal monitoring. Syriza calls for a different policy model, and this is the reason why the European Socialists are inviting PM Tsipras in their meetings. The European Socialists have acknowledged the big efforts Greece has made for the final exit from austerity and the commitment to provide a new vision for Europe and its citizens, against neoliberalism and far-right upsurge.
In this respect, one issue that needs to be addressed is that of the 'ideological detachment' of social democracy from the neoliberal camp. In France and Germany we have witnessed a huge electoral downfall of socialist parties because these parties adopted austerity policies. Social democracy needs to abandon austerity doctrine once and for all, and get back to its initial ideological roots.
How the European Left can increase its electoral appeal and turn is agenda more convincing?
Most proposals that I mentioned above have been submitted by the European Left party and Syriza. A big deal of these proposals have been incorporated in the ongoing dialogue for the future of Europe that takes place in the European Parliament, the EU Council and the European Commission.
The next step is to intensify the debate so that EU can move forward and adopt the necessary reforms. In this context, the role of the European citizens, trade unions, civil society and social partners is of paramount importance.
Jeremy Corbyn is pushing for a total transformation of the Labour Party. What could be the effect of this process in other social democratic parties in EU?
This transformation is taking place in a country that has suffered a lot from Thatcher and Blair's neoliberal legacy. Corbyn has identified the need for a left-wing shift in the Labour Party, acknowledged the dire effects of austerity, and invested in the support of middle and lower social classes to push for this transformation.
It is important to point out that even in the midst of Brexit negotiations, Corbyn's leadership can be used as an example for other social democratic parties to follow the same path. We have seen this happening in Portugal and to some extent in France and Germany, always in the framework of the different characteristics of each political system.
What is your opinion on the Portuguese government? Could it be a "governance model" for Greece as well?
The Portuguese government has made very important and decisive steps in the post-bailout era, creating the necessary conditions that are taking the economy outside the restrictive framework of austerity politics.
The alliance between the socialist party, the left-wing Bloco and the communist party is something unique in European scale and it can serve as the best possible model for broader alliances in other member-states. This is the model we are trying to endorse in the EU, pushing for a common agenda that goes against conservative and neoliberal forces.
In Greece, it is even more difficult to import and adjust this model, as the centre-left is keep adopting a harsh rhetoric against Syriza, standing closer to the right side of the political spectrum and the neoliberal doctrine of New Democracy party. At the same time, the Greek communist party remains stuck in obsolete ideas and lacks an effective strategic capability that could allow the formation of a joint alliance. Contrary to its sister party in Portugal, the Greek communist branch cannot properly identity the ongoing challenges for Greece and Europe.
Spokesperson of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU Veselin Jelev is a Bulgarian journalist with a remarkable international career. A long-serving journalist accredited to the European institutions, he has worked with media such as AP and DPA, and his last job was with ClubZ magazine and website. Veselin Jelev spoke with Greek News Agenda* about Bulgaria’s future in the EU, the main messages of the Bulgarian Presidency (consensus, cohesion and competitiveness), the European perspective of Western Balkans, Bulgarian Presidency’s emphasis on connectivity in all its aspects – transport, energy, digital, educational and concludes that “The EU project will not be completed while we have countries in the heart of Europe waiting at its doorstep” adding that "the prosperity and stability of the EU is directly linked to the stability and prosperity of its neighbours, including the Western Balkans".
Bulgaria is holding the presidency of the Council of the EU for the first time since it joined the EU, 10 years ago. How has the country changed within these years and how you imagine Bulgaria’s future in the EU?
Bulgaria enjoys political stability and the highest approval and trust rates towards the EU. Bulgaria’s economy has grown significantly over the last ten years, and continues to grow while the country has stable finances.
Bulgaria joined the EU on 1 January 2007, that is on the eve of the global financial and economic crisis. Today, the country enjoys a 4-per cent annual economic growth, the fourth highest in the Union, compared to 2.3-per cent EU average. Its government budget is balanced (0 percent deficit), compared to a 1.1 percent of GDP average for the EU, and its national debt equals 26.8 per cent of GDP, the third lowest in the EU, compared to a 89.3 percent EU-average.
Bulgaria’s inflation is stable at 1.3 percent (1.7 percent EU average) and unemployment is 6.4 percent of the workforce (7,8 per cent EU average).
The fastest growing economic sector is the ICT. Its total revenues reached 1.2 billion euros in 2016, which reflects a 600-per cent growth rate and a 300-per cent increase of jobs over the past decade. The sector is projected to account for 4.5 per cent of the GDP in 2021. More than 90 per cent of all jobs in the Bulgarian ICT sector are occupied by people under 35 years of age. These are highly skilled young professionals, whose average wage is four times the national average, and 31 per cent of them are women, which is the highest rate in the EU.
EU structural Funds have contributed significantly to the growth in Bulgaria. Bulgaria’s absorption rate over the 2007-2013 programming period was 95 per cent. Their contribution to the GDP was an 11.5 per cent increase over the period.
In the last four years, 35,000 Bulgarians living abroad have returned to Bulgaria, and net emigration has fallen to 4,017 per year on average.
Bulgaria sees its future as a member of a strong, digital and united European Union, which moves forward together and not at different speeds. The three main messages of the Bulgarian Presidency are: consensus, cohesion and competitiveness. Bulgaria’s next goals are to join the euro entry mechanism of ERM II and the Schengen area.
Our country wants to play a constructive and stabilising role in the Balkansand has made the European perspective and the connectivity of the Western Balkans a key priority of its presidency.
The European perspective of Western Balkans is among the top priorities of the Bulgarian EU Presidency, also portrayed as a Balkan Presidency. What are your expectations concerning this perspective? Do you think that the EU-Western Balkans Summit taking place next May in Sofia could revive EU’s interest for the region?
We are convinced that the prosperity and stability of the EU is directly linked to the stability and prosperity of its neighbours, including the Western Balkans. The best guarantee for these countries to live in peace and democracy and to prosper economically is the prospect to join the EU when they are ready.
Bulgaria does not want to create false expectations. The EU enlargement remains a rules-based process including strict conditionality. We want to encourage and support reforms that will bring the countries in the region closer to the EU. That is why we find it important to send a strong message to the Western Balkan countries that the EU remains committed, that its door will be open for those of them who do their homework. Otherwise we risk that we lose the pro-EU political momentum in the region.
In May, Sofia will host a EU-Western Balkan summit. It will be the place to pass the above message. We hope to have it clearly spelled out in a declaration and to have a specific plan for each of the countries concerned by the date of the summit.
Bulgaria also wants ordinary Western Balkan citizens to feel and see the advantages of EU integration in their everyday lives. That is why we are putting an emphasis on connectivity in all its aspects – transport, energy, digital, educational. We are particularly keen on reducing current roaming charges between the EU and the countries of the region.
We are happy that this priority of the Bulgarian Presidency has found unequivocal support both among the EU institutions and among the Member States, which is a sign the EU interest in the Western Balkans is already reviving. Moreover, we have coordinated closely with the upcoming Presidencies, so they will take this priority forward and ensure continuity and commitment to the process.
Bulgaria and Greece along with Romania, Croatia, Serbia and FYROM are recently working closely together in domains such as energy, economy, transport, but also in the domain of refugee crisis and security. Do you think that this regional cooperation, enhanced to a great extent at the initiative of Greece and Bulgaria, can contribute to the prosperity of the countries and the region but also for the benefit of the EU?
As I already said, the answer is clearly positive. Gradual integration with the EU single market will benefit both the EU and its Western Balkan neighbours as it has done with countries from the region which have already walked that path as Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Slovenia. For the EU the region is a market with some 20 million customers. But it is also key from geostrategic point of view. The EU project will not be completed while we have countries in the heart of Europe waiting at its doorstep.
* Interview with Ioulia Elmatzoglou
Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Professor of Sociology, University of Coimbra (Portugal), and Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is director of the Center for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra and has written and published widely on the issues of globalization, sociology of law and the state, epistemology, social movements and the World Social Forum. His most recent project is ALICE: Leading Europe to a New Way of Sharing the World Experiences.
Professor de Sousa Santos spoke to “Epohi” weekly newspaper (Dimitris Givissis: Interview with Boaventura de Sousa Santos, 21.1.2018):
Europe is in a big and multifaceted crisis. Do you think it is a temporary crisis, or do you think it will get permanent and irreversible features?
Europe is not an island. The anomic and dystopic vocation of the global neoliberal disorder is reaching new thresholds as the concentration of wealth and the environmental crisis reaches unprecedented levels. The fall of the petrodollar seems closer and closer as China and Russia buy gold and prepare to negotiate oil and gas contracts in yuan. Saddam Hussein and Kaddafi payed a dear price for their attempts and Venezuela may follow the same destiny, while Brazil, another of the BRICS, is neutralized by the judicial-political coup instigated by US imperialism. For the same reason, Yemen must be destroyed and, in line with his predecessors, President Donald Trump prepares “his” war, this time against Iran.
Particularly after Durão Barroso became president of the European Commission (2004-2014), the EU turned into a subaltern partner of neoliberal globalization. At first, only foreign countries, non-European countries in Africa and Latin American, noticed the changes as they realized how the Brussels technocrats aligned themselves almost unconditionally with US based multinationals, World Bank and IMF officers in negotiations of trade agreements. As the financial crisis of 2008 hit Europe in 2011 (Greeks have a tragic experience of it), it became finally clear to most of European citizens that neoliberal orthodoxy had hijacked the European project (probably an illusion from the start) of combining development with social protection in a wider politically democratic community. Raw economic and hence political power was in charge, the vulnerable countries were made more vulnerable so that the political costs of intervention would diminished. As I said, non-European countries knew all this by tragic experience. For Europeans it was a surprise since most them had forgotten not only about the remote past but also about thr recent one, the World War II.
In light of this, the European Union is tied up to the fate of neoliberalism; in this respect the crisis may be considered as permanent as the crisis of neoliberalism. The political disintegration began with the way the so-called “Greek crisis” was dealt with, continued with Brexit and the rise of the extreme-right under the guise of a new version of populism (always a rightist political reaction, never a leftist one).
The rhythm of the crisis may change and, in my view, it is changing, but the fundamental tendency will continue unless a deeper political transformation takes place. As I write, the rhythm of the crisis seems to be slowing down with the designation of the former Portuguese Finance minister, Mario Centeno, as finance minister of the Eurogroup. As I will argue below, the recent Portuguese political experience has shown that the neoliberal orthodoxy is a lie, a tragic lie, and Mario Centeno was an important protagonist in demonstrating this. Probably out of a survival instinct, the dominant powers in the EU (Germany and France) and the technocrats of the European Commission have concluded that insisting on the neoliberal impositions would lead, rather sooner than later, to the end of the benefits they collected from an unequal integration and for the Brussels establishment, the end of their golden jobs and privileges. They first reacted by showing to the UK that it would pay a very high price for leaving the EU unilaterally; and then chose Mario Centeno as a signal that they were ready for some kind of reformist change. How successful this move may be remains to be seen. Above all, it remains to be seen if Centeno will have, at the European level, the political support he had at the national level to conduct the very moderate but highly successful anti-neoliberal policies. Quite frankly, I doubt it, but, as I always insist, sociologists are good at predicting the past not the future. In any case the reasons for some pessimism are grounded both in the recent declarations of Jens Weidmann, the president of Bundesbank and in the new, socially insensitive European budget for 2018 indeed approved by the European Parlament with unprecedented lack of consensus.
You have talked about the need of building a new vision for Europe. How can this happen? And what will be its features?
Europe faces an intricate challenge: to reinvent itself both from its centre and its margins. Such reinvention will not take place unless a double transformation occurs: a transformation in the ways we know what is happening to us and to the world and in the ways we educate the European youth according to such knowledge (epistemological shift); and a transformation in the political configuration of Europe as a supranational entity and as an international actor (political shift).
Throughout the last one hundred years, Europe became a continent of high expectations and dismally broken promises: the promise of social justice and human rights; the promise of anti-colonialism; the promise of democracy and the end of authoritarian political regimes; the promise of cultural diversity and peaceful conviviality. The expectations were as high as the frustrations were deep in light of a resilient dissonance in real politik. The continuing oscillation between these two poles led to a political culture run by exorbitant hopes and nihilistic fears. Until the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe (what was then Western Europe) was run by the predominance of hope over fear; since then we have entered a period of the predominance of fear over hope. At first, the fear was about the survival of social democracy (democracy with social and economic rights), today it is more and more about the survival of democracy tout court (democracy reduced to civil and political rights).
The new vision of Europe is based on the realistic utopia that it is possible to move to a period of probably less brilliant hopes but hopes that are resilient enough to keep the nihilistic fears at bay. The epistemological shift is premised upon the need to learn from the Global South (both extra-European and intra-European South) which has a long historical experience of living collectively with more humble hopes and with a sustained capacity to resist against fear-inducing oppression caused originally by European colonialism. Since the seventeenth century colonialism has been the core identity of Europe together with capitalism and patriarchy. We should bear in mind that external colonialism was first tried out inside Europe, as internal colonialism, as Ireland, Spain and several countries in Eastern Europe illustrate. The way the recent financial crisis in South European countries has been dealt with by core Europe shows how active and vicious such internal colonialism remains today.
Looking to the world with less arrogance and with the will to learn instead of teaching, involves a cognitive and educational paradigmatic change. This epistemological shift will occur side by side with a political shift. Europe has a future as transnational entity to the extent that it engages in an active anti-colonialist politics, both in relations with the non European world and in the intra-European relations. A new attitude regarding the infinite diversity of the world and of Europe itself. The outside world is expanding and Europe is shrinking. The continuation of the colonial attitude is suicidal. During the Cold War and because it was internally divided, Europe stayed outside the main rivalries among the super powers. This relative distance was the precondition for the relative international autonomy of Europe. After the end of the Cold War Europe surrendered too easily to US global hegemony and became a subaltern partner in an imperialist drive for unilateral power, economically driven by neoliberalism. Such power is declining and the neoliberal disorder is becoming more and more evident. The USA can afford to put America first by threatening wars against any imagined competitor (the real ones are only China and Russia to a certain extent). In Europe such strategy is suicidal given the structural weakness of Europe concerning the most crucial resources to conduct such wars (both military and financial resources). The new vision of Europe demands that Europe distances itself from USA. Only in this way can Europe pursue a credible anti-colonial politics in relation to the world. The problem is that under current conditions of neoliberal globalization anti-colonialism is not possible disengaged from anti-capitalist politics. This is only possible with a significant deepening of democracy beyond the liberal mold. At a time in which the serious ecological crisis is indicating to us the end of the Cartesian view of nature as an infinitely available natural resource, we must sponsor humble hopes of dignity and conviviality. But such hopes can only be kept if supported by a utopian horizon. Such horizon, I would venture, is socialism as democracy without end. This utopian horizon will never be fully achieved; but it will keep us walking in its direction.
The recent years, the European social democracy faces its more serious crisis in the after war years. How do you see its future? What do you think will mean the potential participation of SPD in the next German government for the further developments, as it has some special meaning for the European Social democracy?
The SPD represents the most grotesque ruin of European social democracy. At the moment, we experience an interregnum. The world created by neoliberalism in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall ended with the financial crisis of 2008-2011. The world that follows has not been defined yet. The post-1989 world had two agendas with a decisive impact on left politics all over the world. The explicit agenda was the definitive end of socialism as a social, economic, and political system ruled by the State. The implicit agenda amounted to the end of any social, economic and political system led by the State. This implicit agenda was far more important than the explicit one because State socialism was already agonizing and since 1978 thinking of reconstructing itself in China as State capitalism following reforms by Deng Xiaoping. The most direct result of the end of soviet-like socialism was the temporary demobilization of communist parties, some of them already far distanced from the soviet experience. The implicit agenda was the important one, and that is why it had to occur silently and insidiously, without walls falling. In the phase that until then characterized dominant capitalism, the social alternative to soviet-like socialism was universal and social economic rights, of which were beneficiaries mainly those who, devoid of privileges, only had law and rights to defend themselves against the economic and political despotism that was shaping capitalism, by nature prey to the logic of the market. The most advanced form of this alternative was post-war European social democracy, which at the beginning, in early twentieth century, actually comprised an explicit agenda (democratic socialism) and an implicit agenda (capitalism compatible with democracy by means of minimal social inclusion as presupposed by democracy). After 1945, it soon became clear that the implicit agenda was really the only one there was. Ever since the lefts became divided between those that continue to maintain a socialist solution (more or less distant from the soviet model) and those that, no matter how vocal about socialism, only wanted to regulate capitalism and curb its “excesses.” After 1989, as happened at the beginning of the century, the implicit agenda went on being implicit, even though it was the only one in force. It gradually became clear that both previous lefts had been defeated. Hence, the crisis of social democracy. The demobilization of the social democratic left was for a while disguised by the new articulation of forms of domination that were in force in the world since the seventeenth century: capitalism, colonialism (racism, monoculturalism, etc.) and patriarchy (sexism, arbitrary separation between productive and reproductive work, that is to say, between paid and nonpaid work). Social claims aimed at so-called post-material agendas, i.e. cultural or fourth-generation rights. Such claims were genuine and denounced repugnant forms of oppression and discrimination. The way in which they were conducted, however, led the political agents mobilizing them (social movements and ONGs) to think that they could carry them out without touching the third axis of domination, capitalism. What was being designated as class politics was actually neglected in favor of race and gender politics. Such neglect proved to be fatal when the post-1989 regime fell. Capitalist domination, reinforced by the legitimacy earned during those years, readily turned against the anti-racist and anti-sexist conquests, in its ceaseless search for ever more accumulation and exploitation. The said conquests, devoid of anti-capitalist will or separated from anti-capitalist struggles, are finding it increasingly harder to resist. SPD didn’t even manage to be very active in anti-racial and anti-patriarchal politics. As it went on as well losing its call as a class party, particularly under the leadership of Gerhard Schroeder, SPD became one of the most vacuous socialdemocratic parties in Europe, more vacuous even than the British Labour Party.
Can the countries of the European South form a pole that will question the German dominance in Europe? What kind of possibilities are there in your opinion?
The countries of South Europe are peripheral countries in economic terms, with the relative exception of Spain. For some years, there was a credible belief that economic peripherality would be compensated for by political equality within the Union. The crisis of 2011showed that this was a cruel illusion. The Southern countries fought back. Greece first and with little success. Portugal learned a lot with Greece and followed a different path with apparent more success (see below). But up until now they have resisted in isolation. They have a lot to show to the core countries on how to handle crises and go on fighting for social cohesion . In order to be effective, however, they must articulate their European policies. I hope that will be possible in the near future with Spain on board.
To finish with, could you describe us the current situation in Portugal and make an assessment of the Portuguese government so far?
There is no doubt that the left government in power in Portugal since late 2015 is pioneering. It is not very well known internationally not only because Portugal is a small country whose political processes rarely break news in international politics, but also and mainly because it offers a political solution that counters the interests of the two major global enmies of democracy – neoliberalism and global financial capital – which control the media today. Let’s recapitulate. Since the 25 April Revolution the Portuguese have frequently voted in left parties but were ruled by right parties. While the latter would run in coalition, the left parties, following a long historical trajectory, would run as divided by apparently insurmountable differences. This was what happened in October 2015. On this occasion, however, in a gesture of political innovation that will make history in European democracy, the three left parties (Socialist Party, Left Bloc and Communist Party) decided to engage in negociations to find a parliamentary articulation capable of facilitating a left government led by one of these three parties, the one that had gathered more votes, the Socialist Party. Following separate negociations between the Socialist Party and the other two (mutual mistrust was there at the beginning) it was possible to reach governing accords that made possible a left government without precedent in Europe during the last decades. The genius of these accords resided in several premises: 1) the accords were limited and pragmatic, and were focused on minor common denominators in order to facilitate a government capable of stopping the anti-democratic policies implemented in the country by the neoliberal right parties; 2) the parties would zealously keep their programmatic identity – their banner as it were – and made clear that the accords would not put it at risk since their response to the political conjecture would not put it in question, let alone discard it; 3) the government had to be coherent and needed therefore to be the responsibility of one party alone, given that parliamentary support would guaranty its stability; 4) good faith would preside over the accords and the latter would be regularly checked by the parties involved. The accord documents are models of political contention and rigorously detail the agreed upon terms. Basically, the agreed upon measures had two major political objectives: put an end to the impoverishment of the Portuguese by retrieving the income of workers and retirees according to the income scale, and stop the privatizations which, under neoliberalism and finance capital, are nothing less than acts of piracy. The accords were successfully negotiated; the government took office in a politically hostile climate generated by the then President of the Republic, the European Comission and the financial agencies – all of them servile lackeys of neoliberal orthodoxy. Gradually, the government policies yielded surprising results. Soon enough, many detractors had to acknowledge economy growth, unemployment decrease, and overall improvement of the country’s image. The meaning of all this can be summed up as follows: by putting in place policies that are opposed to the neoliberal recipes, the very results advertised by the latter are achieved without augmenting the impoverishment and suffering of the Portuguese. On the contrary, achieving moderate betterment. More clearly, this political innovation shows that neoliberalism is a lie and that its only purpose it to further the concentration of wealth under global financial capital.
Of course, the national and international neoliberal right is not happy at all and will try to put an end to this political solution with the help of that fraction of the right that never liked the excesses of neoliberalism and wants to grab power again.
“Too much info clouding over my head”, by Vassilis Christofilakis, is a mumblecore, feel good comedy about an overanxious young director searching for success, whose life is further complicated when he is forced to raise money for a movie screenplay he actually detests. Christofilakis is an actor, director and writer who grew up in Athens. He did film studies in the UK and worked in Greek theatre as a director and playwright for several years. "Too Much Info Clouding Over My Head", which is his first completed feature film and acting debut, won 3 awards at the 58th Thessaloniki International Film Festival: The FIPRESCI Award for Best Greek Film, the ERT 'New Cinema' Award and the Greek Film Centre Award for Best Debut Film.
Interviewed by Greek News Agenda* Christofilakis talks about personal and artistic freedom and explains how he works with comedy and why his protagonist is someone many generations in the Western World can identify with. He also explains why being almost broke when making films can be a period of bliss as well as why we love losers (in the cinema).
Wasn’t there a longer title for your film?
When I was contemplating the plot, I thought initially of “Too much Info”. But I wanted a long title that would create a strange feeling. I tried to find a Greek title, but whatever I came up with didn’t seem appropriate. I was influenced by other mumblecore films. Mumblecore is considered the newest film genre which appeared a decade ago, and some of the films have long titles. But Woody Allen also used long titles (think e.g. “Everything you wanted to know about sex but you were afraid to ask”). There is a mass of info, so many things that the protagonist is burdened with that I couldn’t end up with a single word title. To sum up, I did it instinctively.
Eleni Ouzounidou, Vassilis Christofilakis, "Too much info clouding over my head", (2017)
“Too much info” is a coming of age just before the coming of middle-age film for a man who doesn’t really want to grow up. Your protagonist is rather dysfunctional. What is wrong with him and – at the same time - what is so relatable about him? Is he a loser, an ideologist, a psychopath or all of the above?
First of all he is a loser; the loser is a prerequisite for comedy to work. When we do comedy, we take away abilities from the protagonist, whereas in drama we add abilities. The more abilities we substract and the more problems we add which the protagonist lacks the ability to overcome is where comedy starts. So he is clumsy, aggressive, and is also an idealist without a cause some or most of the times, but his chief dysfunction is that he is trapped in the old ways, in a mythology others have constructed for him. He feels he has to make a film that he doesn’t really want to make, but he has to build a career, a reputation. He is also trapped in his relationship with his parents: his mother, his dead father and the antiques he inherited which he must sell in order to make films. His mother pushes him to be an artist and create masterpieces. He doesn’t necessarily want to make masterpieces. So this is his most dysfunctional characteristic, that he is subject to other people’s wishes or mythologies and the coming of age element is that he is trying to construct his own mythology.
Vassilis Christofilakis, "Too much info clouding over my head", (2017)
So he is a captive to his overprotective mother’s dysfunctions, because she dreams of becoming the mother of a great artist.
Exactly; as strange as it might sound, I see the mother as the villain of the story. She is not a traditional villain, but whenever she interferes, she creates problems, despite her good intentions. The connection that exists between mother and child since birth makes his mother a very difficult opponent, because it is very difficult to overcome your parents. And I think my protagonist is relatable, because he is the type of person found everywhere in the Western world with characteristics we can all identify with.
“Too much info” won a series of awards at the 58th Thessaloniki International Film Festival and that is quite remarkable for a comedy. It was also very warmly received by the audience. Where do you attribute its success?
The TIFF is a friendly festival and I had a lot of interaction with the audience. What struck me was the fact that although I had the millennials in mind, the generation born in the 80s, teenagers told me they were enormously touched by the film, as well as others born in the 70’s, whom we call generation X. I was expecting people in their sixties to appreciate it, because it would make them think about their parenting ways.
The common denominator of all reactions was: “a comedy at last”. I didn’t do a comedy on purpose. On contrary, I thought that comedies don’t do well at festivals. People told me they are weary of dramas, as critics did. I was told that it’s a cool, down to earth film that makes audience laugh and identify with, which also had a psychoanalytical depth, a smart comedy. They also told me that it is very real. Reality or sincerity was not in my intentions. I wanted to do what I liked. The first time that I heard that my film was “real” was at the Festival and, I have to admit, it made me very happy. And this provokes a new anxiety that my next work would also have to be “real”. I'm very much afraid that I'll try so hard to do something real which will end up very fake.
Kitty Paitatzidou, Vassilis Christofilakis, "Too much info clouding over my head", (2017)
How did you incorporate your cinematic influences in your film?
I believe that we have to be very open about our influences and show them off without fear that they constitute plagiarism. I used these influences in a very bold way. Years ago, when I was going through a rocky patch artistically, I saw “Frances Ha”, a mumblecore comedy. Back then I had done another film that did not express me at all, so when I saw “Frances Ha” it was revelatory for me. It opened new horizons for me and so I said to myself, “this is what I want to do from now on”.
It goes without saying of course that Woody Allen has been a major influence for me. I like to write, direct and act in my films. I think auteur cinema is the most authentic and personal cinema. I like having full control of my work; and this would be my advice to my peers who are making their first film: to enjoy this period of time, because this time of absolute freedom might not last long. It might be followed by more commercial offers in which you won’t be in control any more. For me, it is important to have control of your work in order to keep your artistic vision intact.
When I saw the film, it reminded me of Tim Burton’s film “Ed Wood”.
I had seen the film a long time ago and I had totally forgotten about it. There are some common elements. I used the fact that my protagonist likes b-movies in order to make him look even weirder. I also used this b-movies element, because it becomes more difficult nowadays for these movies to have an audience. I saw “Ed Wood” again after I completed the film and it’s true they have a lot of things in common.
I’m also influenced by Jim Jarmusch, his dark sense of humor and the way he works with dialogues as well as well as the Coen brothers and their austere cinematic grammar. They use medium frames and single shots for dialogues which I find a sincere and immediate way to shoot dialogues. I also used wideangle lens throughout the film, it was a challenge I wanted to take. When you are shooting a comedy, your frames should be clear, there shouldn’t be ambiguity in comedy. Wide angle lens magnifies movement and slightly deforms faces; it gives them a protruding effect which is an element I used extensively in the film for a comic result.
As far as the use of black and white film is concerned, it was instinctive. I was influenced by “Frances Ha” and “Manhattan”. I wanted the film to have a black and white, New York touch. My film is clearly Greek of course, but I wished for an urban character. There was also an economic parameter in this decision. Black and white made shooting much easier because I didn't have to work with a gazillion colours. Black and white is a stylistic statement for a film and I have to say that this also attracted the actors. They liked the fact they would play in a black and white film.
Nicol Drizi, Vassilis Christofilakis, "Too much info clouding over my head", (2017)
What is the role of the city of Athens in your film?
To be honest, I intended to show a few more tourist attractions of Athens, but I avoided it. Athens is there through its people and its interiors of alternative theatres, bars and cafes. There aren't many shots of Athens as a busy town. To me, Athens can be a quiet town and this comes in contrast with my protagonist who is angst ridden. All shooting took place in Pagrati, which for me is the Greek Manhattan. I was born in Kaisariani, but I've been living in Pagrati for 15 yearsnow, and I will never leave Pagrati. As Woody Allen was shooting in Manhattan, I will shoot in Pagrati.
Your film works on many levels. It describes the adventures of film funding. How does that interest those outside the movie industry?
This part of the film contains a sociopolitical comment. It is relevant to anyone trying to fulfill his or her dreams amid considerable difficulties and no support. Moreover, the funding theme is universal. Making a film is extremely difficult in any part of the world. It is difficult in general to make your dreams come true. You have to overcome family and professional bonds. Of course a film maker going through the same experience will become aware of some other details, but the filming story is a pretext to talk about more universal things.
Konstandina Mihail, Vassilis Christofilakis, "Too much info clouding over my head", (2017)
How has your theatre experience influenced your work?
It has influenced a lot the way I work with actors. I worked many years in the theatre and this helped to get to know the actors and to work with them on a deeper level. To be honest, I didn’t have to work that much in this film with the actors, because I got theatrical actors and since I wanted spontaneity, we didn’t have to do many rehearsals. They felt a bit anxious over this, but at the same time they were alert and gave me the spontaneity I wanted. The actors improvised a lot and I think it all worked fine.
How did you manage to find good actors with a minimum budget?
I had a very specific vision. I had a very small budget, but I managed to pay everyone on time. Everyone knew the money wouldn’t be much. I wanted to finish the film very quickly, with a small crew. Only editing took longer than I expected. Actually, completing this film was one of the most relaxed things I’ve ever done. Many people think it is difficult to act and direct, but for me, having spent many years on the director’s chair it was very invigorating to act and at the same time manage many other things.
Zisis Roubos, Vassilis Christofilakis, Praxitelis Mastoras, "Too much info clouding over my head", (2017)
What about your future plans?
My future plans will soon become present. I will continue with comedy, maybe under easier circumstances, which I don’t know if it΄s a good thing. I will keep the same model as in “Too much Info”, i.e. I will continue to write, direct and act my film. My new film is similar to “Too much Info” and I will try to improve myself. I consider myself lucky because what I want to do can be done with a minimum budget. If I wanted to do an action film or science fiction it would be really difficult.
One last question: As you said, a loser is a component of comedy. In the eighties, we used to say everyone loves the bad guys in cinema. But it is obvious that we love losers too. Why? What is the hidden charm of losers?
That΄s a good question; I believe we are all losers. It takes a few psychoanalysis sessions to find out about our problems and the cracks in our armour. Comedy talks about the way life is, the same way drama talks about how we would like life to be. Consider Hamlet, in drama he recites his famous monologue “To be or not to be”. In comedy, he might fart while doing so. He could do that, he is a human being, he is alone in the cemetery and no one sees him. We are all losers and that’s why we like losers. Charley Chaplin and Buster Keaton were losers too. You enjoy watching them trying to solve problems and making a bigger mess of it all. Losers usually win in the end, for the sole reason that they didn’t give up, in spite of all difficulties. And this is another reason we love losers. We wouldn’t bear it for losers to lose, that would be tragedy. And I really choose to be an optimist.
* 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.
The Municipal Art Gallery of Athens is one of the most important museums of modern and contemporary Greek art, featuring more than 3.000 works in its permanent collection. It was founded in 1914 and has changed venues several times. It is now housed in a two-building compound on Avdi Square, in the inner city area of Metaxourgeio. Apart from the permanent exhibition, various temporary exhibitions and events are hosted in both its main compound as well as the Eleftheria Park Arts Centre.
In 2015, Denys Zacharopoulos was appointed artistic adviser to the Municipality of Athens responsible for its cultural policy, including the Municipal Gallery’s direction. Zacharopoulos is a renowned art historian, critic and writer, who has collaborated as a curator with a number of prestigious institutions internationally. He has served as member of the curatorial team of the Documenta 14 in Kassel, commissioner of the pavilion of France at the 1999 Venice Biennale, consultant for the National Foundation for Contemporary Art in France and Inspector General of the Delegation of Plastic Arts at the French Ministry of Culture, to name a few of his career highlights. Following his return to Greece in 2000, he taught History of Art at the University of the Aegean and, from 2006 to 2015, was the director of the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki.
We met with Denys Zacharopoulos at the premises of the Gallery, where we talked about the role of the state in protecting and promoting culture, the mission of public museums, the political nature of art and the difference it can make in the lives of each of us. He also presented to us the Municipality’s 2018 exhibition programme. It begins at the end of January with an exhibition regarding the Gallery’s collection under the directorship of prominent artist Spyros Papaloukas (1892-1957). The themes of this year’s exhibitions have been strongly influenced by the designation of Athens as World Book Capital (April 2018-April 2019). These include “The stories of Alexis Akrithakis”, with drawings, notes and illustrations by the acclaimed painter, programmed for may, “The book as a work of art”, set to open in October, and “Greek artists and books 1914-1964”, scheduled for September, with illustrations of famous books by renowned artists.
The 2018 programme begins with an exhibition about the artist Spyros Papaloukas. Would you like tell us a few things about it?
This is an exhibition on Papaloukas not as a painter, but as artistic consultant and then director of the Athens Municipal Gallery, from 1940, when he was appointed, until his death in 1957. We have all the archives for every transaction, every artwork bought by the Gallery in that period, all the documents and letters showing which purchases he personally endorsed and actively promoted, and which were imposed either by the mayor, by circumstances or even by the Germans during the Nazi occupation. They illustrate the various difficulties encountered by someone in his position, the efforts to reconcile different goals and interests, and making the best choices with limited options. It has to do with the history of museums, and the way historical events affect their collections.
In the art of the 20th century’s first decades we encounter the notion of Greekness – the sense of true Greek identity. Isn’t that true for Papaloukas’ works as well?
Papaloukas did not embark on a quest for the true meaning of Greekness, as did the artists that followed. He came from a village and started out as a child helping with religious paintings in churches. He later got a scholarship and studied art in Greece and then abroad. For him, as well as for Konstantinos Parthenis and other artists of the 20’s generation, Greekness is not an abstract notion –as it is, in my opinion, for the 30’s generation– but instead, it has to do with journeying across Greece, as he had done, travelling and painting in every possible place. It is not a search for identity but simply about appreciating the natural features of this land, with an emphasis on the light, a very important aspect of painting. The differences in the landscapes and natural light make Papaloukas works change, according to the scenery of the region of Greece where he paints each time.
What about contemporary Greek artists? Can they compete with this recent past?
It is a question of context. You see, at school I was considered to be tall, but compared to kids today, I would appear to be rather short. So, height is a relative measure, and it is viewed differently in every period of time. Likewise, people, and particularly artists, need to see the world with new eyes every time and redefine it. In Greece I believe we are very lucky: having lived through a series of crises, a large number of intellectuals do not lose hope, and there are also many young truly talented people, even if many of them choose to work abroad on account of the difficulties faced in our country today.
You have stated before that institutions, both public and private, can once again become an integral part of cultural life, especially in times like these.
Within today’s globalised market, solutions can only be found in cooperation. The state must work together with regional authorities –municipalities, communities etc – and with members of the private sector. It is of capital importance for a state to protect and promote culture. In my generation, that was the foremost purpose in wanting to become part of the European Community: to know that culture, civilisation and the public interest – as in free education – would be secured against brutality.
So you are particularly interested in safeguarding the public character of the Gallery.
I am proud to say that all municipal cultural facilities offer free admission. Last year, for the Maria Lassnig exhibition, we collaborated with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London, which don’t charge admission either. At the press conference, he shared a story about the driver of a cab he rode, who spoke very fondly of the Serpentine. Not an art fan himself, he had taken his four-year old daughter there to use the restroom while out on a stroll in the park with her many years ago. He chose the venue simply on account of the free entry. Afterwards, the little girl would not leave, fascinated by the artwork around her. She is now completing her post-graduate studies in architecture, and her father credits her success to the Serpentine Galleries.
My generation had this mentality of going places, roaming in Athens, but young kids now don’t do that often. So how could you attract them, unless you make it at least easier for them? Growing up, what really helped me was the exposure to a multitude of stimuli – buildings, paintings, conversations, music, films. I didn’t always understand much of what I heard or watched, and yet they shaped my life. It’s about learning not to fear what you don’t understand.
You have invested in the educational aspect of the Municipal Gallery.
We have a continuous series of educational programmes, such as guided tours given by many different people, including the gallery curator and myself. On the occasion of the Alexis Akrithakis exhibition, for instance, we have scheduled weekly open discussions, each time with two of the painter’s acquaintances, ranging from his physician, his gallerist and his daughter to his colleagues and collaborators, on the subject of his art and the meaning the exhibits we will be showcasing.
Does this educational purpose dictate some of the choices in the gallery’s schedule?
First of all, I believe that a cultural space is by principle linked with the audience and aims to offer each and every visitor a new perception. The audience is extremely diverse, of many different age groups, as well as cultural and educational background, and you have to address every one of them, not just the connoisseurs. I am not however looking for “the average visitor”, arbitrarily setting the bar at a certain level. With each exhibition, we have to try and draw the people in, and this doesn’t refer to the guiding and information provided, but to also designing an exhibition effectively.
In an exhibition I had curated many years ago in France, we had organised a series of music performances using the exhibits as a backdrop, and the concertgoers ended up contemplating the artwork. You don’t necessarily have to supply abundant information, for fear of the audience missing or not understanding something. People also have to learn to just look without any instructions, to gaze, even to linger and idle.
As you mentioned above, many young intellectuals today choose to leave the country. You have had an illustrious career abroad, mainly in France, and yet decided to return to Greece.
This was basically a coincidence. In a way, you never “lose” your homeland. As I recall, Carlo Ginzburg –a noted Italian historian visiting Athens a few years back– was asked a question in the course of an open conversation at the Italian School, on his perception of ethnic identity: he was born in Italy by a father of Russian Jewish descent, and later lived in the USA for many years. He answered that, at some point, he understood that (barring racist remarks) he didn’t mind criticism against any country or nation that was close to him, except Italy. He felt he could criticise Italy, but turned defensive when someone else did this. It’s like a parent: you will reprimand your children, but won’t tolerate a stranger scolding or badmouthing them.
This is how I have always felt about Greece, even after receiving the French citizenship. When I resigned from my position at the French Ministry of Culture in 2000, it was partly due to the political climate at the time –I could see that the far right was on the rise and, indeed, less than two years later, Le Pen would face Chirac in the runoff election– and partly due to family matters, following the death of my father. Of course, at the time, things were looking up for Greece, on many levels, but turned out differently later. I have however never regretted my decision, as I have never felt French the way I feel Greek; deeply rooted and integrated in Greek society, feeling naturally at home here.
So the reasons for this change were partially political. In an older interview, you have stated that art is political de facto, because it is a form of public discourse.
I deeply believe that. It’s like marriage; there might be a metaphysical aspect to it –or not– but what is undeniable is its significance as a political act. Mind you, when I say “political”, I don’t mean politicised art. For the first decades after its creation, a work of art is subject to copyright but then, once it enters public domain, once it becomes part of cultural heritage, it is protected against destruction. It is a public good, meant for public exposure.
My favorite museum is still the “gallery” of my childhood: roaming through the streets, I would often come across an artwork, seen through an open window. In those times, if the owner saw me staring at the work of art, they would sometimes invite me in to take a closer look, and offer information regarding the work and the artist. That is the mission that a museum should serve, to function as an open window between the private and the public life of people.
This for me is the Municipal Gallery’s foundation stone. This is why I place such importance on free admission, as I said before. Art can free you, it can bring out your innermost feelings, bring you great discomfort or great comfort. It is a political given, and the most potent remedy against baseness and vulgarity, it is the best drug substitute, able to give you the most striking hallucinations. Art could have been our society’s most powerful elixir, if only we had acknowledged its importance and potential, instead of treating it as a frill. It is a window to the world, and it is the state’s responsibility to open it for the public. As you can see, people in our country become increasingly introverted, out of fear. I wish more of them would have the opportunity to open up through art.
Athens Municipal Gallery on Facebook
See also on Greek News Agenda:
Athens as a cultural spot: Nikos Souliotis on Athens' modern cultural identity; Marina Abramović: Athens grows as a major cultural spot; Ares Kalandides on rebuilding the country’s reputation; Katerina Koskina on the need for cultural dialogue & EMST’s role as an arts capsule for the city branding of Athens; Elpida Rikou on the Learning from documenta project
Arts in Greece: 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; Athens School of Fine Arts celebrates 180 years
* Interview by Nefeli Mosaidi