Portrait of an Artist as Provocateur By Dimosthenis Xifilinos
The FIPRESCI award for the best film in the international section of the 7 th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival went to Elias Petropoulos: a World Underground (Elias Petropoulos: enas Kosmos Ipogeios). The director of the film, Kalliopi Legaki, presented us with a portrait of a man considered by many to be the most important of Greek folklorists. The late Elias Petropoulos (he died a year ago) was certainly not a person who could stay silent and obey the authorities. That’s why he became a “persona non grata” in his own country and chose to live for approximately 30 years in Paris, France. The director succeeds in the way she approaches such a complicated character, although she doesn’t surprise us with the form she uses. Having conducted a long research, she managed to arrange a really interesting interview with him only months before his death. That interview supplies us with original information on Petropoulos’ views of Greek history and especially towards people who live on the so-called margins of society.
Ms. Legaki shows us parts of their meeting, where Petropoulos presented many aspects of his historical research, which is in contrast with what the majority of the academic and literary world believes. But what really helps Legaki’s effort is her idea of presenting his life through his own texts. In other words, she doesn’t follow the common method of third person narration, but we witness a series of statements by Petropoulos himself from his own books. There are phrases that fluently express his vision of presenting a larger audience with «dark» parts of contemporary or older history. He even doubted the origin of the famous Greek kilt, declaring that the “foustanela” -as it is called- is an Albanian dress! He liked to be a provocateur, that’s for sure.
His work on “rembetiko”, nowadays a widely acknowledged Greek music genre, is surely unique. His dictionary of the “kaliarda”, the language used by homosexuals and transvestites, sent him to prison. Getting in and out of jail was repeated many times, until he left Greece. Ms. Legaki’s camera focuses on the face of a well-known Greek transvestite, a convict, but also a famous painter. It’s the right thing to do, because she proves (with this selection) the variety of Petropoulos’ connections. He could be related – in one way or another- to all sorts of people. And the film sticks with that and promotes it; it neither betrays the image of its “hero” nor makes “a saint” out of him. Legaki dives into Petropoulos’ past and – through the use of details- she somehow explains his personality, his obsessions. The made-for-tv film Elias Petropoulos: a World Underground deserved its award, not because of some extra visual virtues, but for its sober approach to its subject.