"Bathers": The Summer of the Golden Age By Dimitris Haritos

in 11st Thessaloniki Documentary

by Dimitris Haritos

Amongst the 14 Greek documentaries in the official selection, there were a respectable number of films whose merits rendered them equal in their claim for the prize. I consider these to be, along with Bathers of course, Bells, Threads and Miracles by Marianna Economou, T 4 Trouble And The Self Admiration Society by Dimitris Athiridis, Filo and Marina (Filo kai Marina)by Calliope Legaki, There Was No Other Way (Allos Dromos den Ipirhe)by Stavros Psillakis, Zeru Zeru the Ghosts (Zeru Zeru ta Fantasmata)by Yorgos Avgeropoulos, Charisma X – Iannis Xenakis by Efi Xirou, et al. These are instances of films that confirm the recent (and gratifying) realization that Greek documentary films outshine their fictional counterparts. We’re talking about a kind of cinema of documentation with a rich variety in subject matter, which in turn is in close contact with the current social realities; a kind of cinema that is characterized by firm narratives and a sentient gaze of admonition and activism in issues of ecology, racism and oppression.

Focusing on Eva Stefani’s Bathers, the film reminds us that, diachronically, the Greek is a creature of the summer, both as an individual and collectively. The sun, with its cruel yet divine light and its life-giving warmth, redeems him from emotional oppression, from psychological frustrations, everyday problems and from the disciplined social conformity. The Greek thus becomes unscrupulously chatty, optimistic, almost theatrically acquiescent, while at the same time releases — mainly via words — an unexpected eroticism. And all the above become — paradoxically — outward while he is heading towards his (third) golden age, or is already in it.

In Bathers, Eva Stefani, one of the most talented Greek documentary filmmakers of the 90s generation, records with an astute observational eye, incidents and behaviors of senior citizens who every year spend a part of their summer in spa towns as part of the therapies for various afflictions. A necessary addition to the therapies, of course, is the entertainment that comes with staying in such a town, in ways that the ages of the vacationers permit. One could say that it’s difficult to discern where the priority of the benefits lies, in the therapy or the entertainment. It’s probably a combination of the two; perhaps the psychological outburst from the hidden reservoir of the seniors, along with the ghost of unavoidable death that slowly, or even abruptly, approaches. This eruption of joy, dancing and recklessness acts as an exorcism.

The documentary takes place in the spa towns of Kaiafas (in the Peloponnese) and Edipsos (on the island of Evia), both places that are now way past their glory days; both are located by the sea and used to offer a cosmopolitan summer vacation. For the past few decades the ‘faithful’ that frequent them are usually people with relatively low incomes, retirees, senior citizens from the provinces and the ones who traditionally trust the healing properties of the spas. These, indeed, are the bathers.

In Edipsos, the focus of the story lies mainly in that ancient weakness of the Greek, the discussion of politics. A respectable number of men there recreate the Small Parliament of Edipsos — imitating the actual one —, where the attachments to various political parties cause hilarious fights, of Homeric proportions. Sometimes the fanatical words are ‘assisted’ by hand gestures as well: a true cinematic invention. On the contrary, in idyllic Kaiafas the women are the most dominant, while of course the (indispensable) men can be found there as well. The women are carefree, loud, sarcastic and have an undimmed, albeit concealed, eroticism, which unavoidably is found only in words. The communal spa activities are often accompanied by love songs, nostalgic songs or religious hymns, all ‘performed’ with the same Dionysian hyperbole. While everyone is covered in mud, they are seen to caress their grimy, naked, plump bodies with a latent sensuality.

There is nothing, however, that can conceal, throughout the whole film, the underlying sorrow and melancholy; the obvious nostalgia and inability to bring back lost time. Furthermore, this intractable fact, this optimism that tries to mask the ephemeral, is one of the main features of the work and subjects of Eva Stefani. Bathers is her first film to date that attempts to cover up with humor the background where the nightmare of the end resides immovably. The goodbye scenes and the wishes exchanged between men and women until their next meeting cover the fear and exorcise the ‘losses’. This is familiar to all who have been participating for years in these spa rituals.