"Birds in the Mire": A Greek Tragedy By Michel Euvrard

in 10th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival

by Michel Euvrard

The film is Birds in the Mire by Alinda Dimitriou; it is not in the running for the international critics’ prize, but I want to see it because it depicts “the participation and contribution of women to the Greek Resistance during the German occupation of 1941-1944”.

The set up is simple, there are a few archival sequences, the women are filmed sitting at home, up close. They belonged to the various resistance networks EAM, HELAS PEON (Unified Panhellenic Youth Organization), and they collected and distributed food, carried messages, scattered pamphlets on the floor of the cathedral, distributed the clandestine press after the curfew — few people had radios then, and often those who had one had surrendered it to the Germans. They led women and children to the town hall with pots and pans to demand food, painted the walls of Athens green, blew up the headquarters of collaborationist organizations.

When Greece was liberated in October 1944, these women should have been national heroines. Instead — and here was the shock to me — as early as December 1944, they were hounded, tried and sentenced to long prison terms, imprisoned, tortured and exiled to island camps! Shamed by my ignorance of recent Greek history, wanting to understand this stunning reversal, I saw two more films available at the festival, Exile Island (Makronisos) by Elias Giannakakis and Evi Karabatsou and Places of Exile and Historic Memories: Ai Stratis by Leonidas Vardaros, and best of all, I met Alinda Dimitriou.

There is a Greek tradition of exile to the islands; the island of Stratis was a place of exile for political opponents, “internal enemies” and “unpatriots”, from 1929 onwards, after the strikes of 1936, under the dictatorships of Venizelos and Metaxas, and again during the civil war from 1947 to 1950. Unlike Makronisos, Stratis had a local population and the film confronts the memories of ex-prisoners and children of prisoners and of local inhabitants.

Off-screen, a woman says she was arrested for possession of a certain newspaper; sentenced to a few months of detention she was kept seven years on the island.

A local fisherman gave unsold fish to prisoners and was beaten for it. His brother told him the exiles were communists. “So what? Aren’t they human beings?”, he said, and became a communist. One man was sent to Ai Stratis because he had written to the papers to protest Beloyannis’ execution.

The prisoniers were pressured to sign a “declaration of repentance” but few accepted. Those who complained and demanded to leave the island were handed over to the Germans. There was little to eat and one man remembers they ate puppy dogs, cats, even a dead donkey. Prisoners were allowed to marry; the bride was permitted to come to the island for one day. An ex-prisoner, today a dealer in used furniture, says he was born on the island.

Exile Island starts with people, seemingly tourists, embarking on a cruise ship to the island of Makronisos, and it ends with the ship sailing back to the mainland. On the way out, when red flags are unfurled on board, and a guide starts pointing out along the coast the location of the “Sapper battalions” camps on the PA system, it becomes obvious that a number of the passengers, old and young, are ex-prisoners, sons and daughters and members of the families of prisoners.

Exile Island is the film that tells most about the daily life of the prisoners and its contrasts. It tells of “the staged parades for visiting VIP’s”, of the prisoners forced to come out in the cold and strip, of the cold water poured on them and of how they were forbidden to dry themselves. Yet they wrote poems and songs, staged classical and contemporary plays… In theory, the prisoners were to be rehabilitated, and those who signed the declaration of repentance were to be conscripted in the army to fight the partisans. Of those, many deserted and rejoined the partisans. Few signed the declaration; an ex-officer — in a striped dark-blue three-piece suit and tie — admits: “Those who signed it were considered with suspicion by their comrades and those who signed says: “I knew I could not take much beating, so what if I signed? will they own my soul, my conscience?”

Alinda Dimitriou was born, she says, “in the year Hitler came to power in Germany”. She is a compact, trim lady who holds herself erect and looks straight at you with very black eyes, laughs easily. Apologizing for my ignorance, I asked her to explain how, so soon after the liberation, its actors could be persecuted, tried, condemned to exile. After Yalta, and because Greece is the gateway to the East, it became a disputed territory, a pawn between the Soviet Union and Western powers. After the king and a right wing government were reinstated with the help of the British, war broke out betwen the regular army and the left and communist partisans.

But already on December first, 1944, a big demonstration in Athens, then a left-wing stronghold, was attacked by the police; many were killed and wounded. It was followed by a wave of repression, a harbinger of the civil war. Dimitriou has directed many films, including a ten-film series on human rights; they are, she explains, about human beings, but human beings considered within society, and therefore social and political.

As I ask her how she manages to make them, when the times are not particularly propitious for films of that type, she answers: “We are the alibi of the right, they don’t care. And our own people don’t care”. Also: “I have the good fortune to have a husband, who from time to time gives me 20 or 30 euros to buy the souvlaki!” Alinda is finishing the editing of the sequel to Birds in the Mire, on the republican army and the women in exile. Her work is “a scratching and a digging” and she will do it, she says — in French — “jusqu’au bout”. A great lady.

These films are a reminder that social classes and the class struggle exist, that there is a right and a left. The Greeks know it, they remember: the audience award for a film over 45 minutes went to Birds in the Mire, and they gave Alinda Dimitriou a standing ovation; the prize for a film of under 45 minutes, went to As Seen though These Eyes by Hilary Helstein, “a journal of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of the artist, of people who, by the very act of creating, rebelled and risked their lives by doing what they were forbidden to do”.