Back to the Roots

in 44th Thessaloniki International Film Festival

by Mariola Wiktor

For a long time the problems of immigrants and ethnic minorities have stimulated the imaginations of the Greek film makers. In the Greek cinematography leaning towards the everyday lives of average people, foreigners have appeared only recently, at least on such a large scale.

An example is the 44th Thessaloniki International Film Festival. In the Greek Panorama section, emigrants and people threatened to deportation have made their presence, significantly felt in at least a few films such as Kalabush, Red Thursday, When Dancing Together, A Touch of Spice, Head in the Clouds as well as in the bitter and depressing documentary The Way to the West. What does however distinguish these films from others which take on similar subjects, are the rather surprising choices made by their characters and the growing self-awareness of the price immigrants have to pay for their decisions.

The Syrian Mustafa who is illegally in Cyprus and his Russian friend in Kalabush consciously allow themselves to be handcuffed and deported. Demosthenes Taxiarchis in Head in the Clouds does not desire to emigrate to New York despite the possibility of doing so. He can not, as he assures himself, live without the view of the Acropolis outside his window. He also does not want to, much like the rest of his family, wash dishes in some American restaurant. He is soon joined by his father who also declares his unwillingness to return to America. A Touch of Spice tells about people forced to leave their homeland as a consequence of a conflict between two political views: Turkish and Greek. However, after years, the leading character of the story, Fanis’ return to his birthplace Istanbul is possible, but also risky. The point is that you never have a chance to return to the same river twice.

The French wife of the main character in When Dancing Together – although illegal residency is not an issue in this case – admits that even after many years she is not becoming used to living in Athens. The thought of returning home, although for totally different reasons, is also in the mind of another foreigner, a British wife of a Cyprus Greek in Red Thursday, while he can not live in the country which is absurdly divided among ethnical and political lines and which forces ordinary people to smuggle goods through the green border, constantly balancing between legality and lawlessness. This inability to adjust and the even harder decisions about returning home or the unwillingness to migrate at all in the era of the ubiquitous globalization are significant signals of the disappointment and the end of the utopian thoughts of life in a better world. Although globalization can not be stopped, it is luckily accompanied by the afterthought of the price which must be paid by anyone who will board this train. These tendencies are most strongly illustrated in Kalabush.

The scene in which Mustafa realizes that being an illegal, he can not even inform the local police that next door from his illegally rented apartment, a Cyprian man is beating his wife – is very significant. A man without papers and no identity is nothing. He does not exist. It does not only mean as repeatedly said by the character “no work, no money, no love”. It also means, which is no less painful, the lack of the right to protest against the obvious evil.

The directors of Kalabush, Adonis Floridis and Theodoris Nikolaidis, go even further to unmask the illusions about a better world. The lack of papers is not the only reason for the alienation of immigrants. It is characteristic that the only legal persons with whom the characters come into contact are outsiders e.g. the garbage man who helps Mustafa, the battered neighbour. The frailty of these relationships and their temporary nature is marvellously symbolized by the vase broken by the woman and glued together by Mustafa. When the garbage man dies, he becomes invisible to all that surround him – an ironic metaphor of the problem which the deceased man personifies. The society of legal persons pretends not to see the problem, just as it fails to see the illegal immigrants.

It is precisely the legals which the satire strikes at hardest. The mayor of the town, his assistant, his driver, the reporter of the local television station are all grotesque characters. They are marionettes who care about the immigrants as much as about the artificial ostrich eggs which decorate one of the town squares. The absurd and surreal world forced to become the stopover for emigrants in Kalabush, is underlined by a real ostrich which unexpectedly and ironically appears in their apartment as a deus ex machina. The bird which earlier escaped from the zoo causes more commotion in the media than the immigrants. It is a metaphor filled with spiteful humour about their twofold alienation and misadaptation. It’s time to return home. The atmosphere of the carnival fever which overcomes the inhabitants at the moment of Mustafa’s arrival on Cyprus makes this world even more unrealistic. It is however far from the paradise fairyland of Aphrodite’s Island.