Greek-Australian Filmmaker Mary Zournazi on Latest Film, Rembetika Blues (Video)

Greek-Australian filmmaker and professor Mary Zournazi holds a DVD of her award-winning documentary Dogs of Democracy and spoke to TNH about her latest project, Rembetika Blues. (Photo by Eleni Sakellis)

NEW YORK – The Greek diaspora communities have always had a great deal in common and with the advent of modern transportation and the current technology available, we seem to be drawing closer and closer together, making this small world even smaller through our shared immigrant history and experience, our heritage, and our love of the homeland. Award-winning Greek-Australian filmmaker Mary Zournazi recently visited the offices of The National Herald to discuss her life, work, and latest documentary film currently in production, Rembetika Blues.

Zournazi told TNH, “The Rembetika Blues is a documentary film about the power of music and what makes us human. Rembetika music or the Greek blues is a music of the streets and a music of refugees. The film explores the heart and soul of Rembetika music through peoples’ stories of love, loss, and belonging.”

With roots in Asia Minor, Zournazi noted that her family settled in Egypt following the Smyrna Catastrophe, and later moved to Australia. She said, “I became fascinated by Rembetika music because of its history and my personal relationship to the music. I am the granddaughter of refugees from the Smyrna disaster [Catastrophe] in Turkey in 1922.”

She continued, “The film tracks my grandmother’s story through images of the Smyrna disaster in 1922, and the arrival of refugees into the port of Piraeus, Greece. As the film develops, I travel back to Smyrna to capture some of the feelings and memories of this place and its history. Through the interweaving of my story with narration, interviews, and the music, this film brings together the depth of humanness of the refugee experience and the intergenerational relationships of memory and trauma.”

Zournazi noted that “my film provides a unique approach to Rembetika music and to the refugee experience by exploring the music as it continues to evolve in Greece and in the diaspora. Given this angle, this film works to bring to light the feelings, experiences, and memories of refugees through the music and its poetry. It focuses on peoples’ experience across different continents around the world, to explore the fundamental human experience of forced migration and exile. To help understand the conditions and trauma of life without a home, and what it means for our identities. Weaving together the different characters and stories, the film provides a timely discussion of how music can connect us to each other and to our common humanity.”

The film is currently in production and still requires some funding as it nears completion, Zournazi told TNH, adding that donations are being accepted on the Documentary Australia Foundation and she just received fiscal sponsorship through the New York-based Women Make Movies, the world’s leading distributor of independent films by and about women.

When asked about the filmmaking process, Zournazi noted that two years of shooting and researching have gone into Rembetika Blues, traveling back forth to Greece as well as the U.S. and Australia. She hopes to complete the film by the end of the year.

Zournazi also mentioned some of the diverse characters that emerged during the process, each with their own specific story and connection to rembetika including musicians from all walks of life and backgrounds who have connected to the music in powerful ways and continue to perform this living tradition, adding layers of meaning, and making it their own.

Rembetes 1933 in Karaiskaki, Piraeus, among them at left with bouzouki is Markos Vamvakaris and in center with guitar is Yiorgos Batis. Photo: FAL, via Wikimedia Commons

Rembetika as the urban music of poor, marginalized people evolved over time and continues to evolve through the work of contemporary artists. In 2017, rembetiko was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.

As Zournazi noted, “music connects people,” and the film “provides an urgent and timely discussion of what makes us human.”

She noted that “over one million refugees arrived into Greece from the Smyrna disaster in 1922 and since 2015, over 1.5 million refugees have arrived into Greece from Syria and other Middle East countries.”

In exploring the refugee experience through music, Zournazi highlights “the universality of peoples’ experience and our common humanity.”

Zournazi’s first documentary film, Dogs of Democracy, had its New York premiere at the 2017 New York Greek Film Festival, and is now available on DVD. Exploring life on the streets through the dogs’ eyes and people’s experience, the film is an essay-style documentary about the stray dogs of Athens and the people who take care of them. Dogs of Democracy won the Spirit of Activism Award at the Nevada Women’s Film Festival in March 2017 and Best Documentary Feature at the 2017 Imagine This: Women’s International Film Festival in Brooklyn, NY. The film was also screened at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago in 2018.

Zournazi is also the author of several books including Foreign Dialogues, Keywords to War: Reviving Language in an Age of Terror, Hope: New Philosophies for Change, and Inventing Peace co-written with the German filmmaker Wim WendersShe is the co-author of the play Solomon’s Dream with Christos Tsiolkas. Zournazi has worked extensively with writing and producing radio documentaries for ABC Radio National. She teaches in the sociology program at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

The trailer for Rembetika Blues is available online:

For those interested in making a tax-deductible donation to the film:

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