ASTORIA – The powerful, beautifully shot documentary Last Song to Xenitia was the final film screened at this year’s New York Greek Film Expo, presented by the Hellenic Film Society USA at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria on May 11. The film offered a perfect conclusion to the Film Expo bringing together the experience of diaspora Greeks, the return to the homeland, and the ancient tradition of the folk songs of Epirus through the incredible journey of 103-year-old Vasiliki Papachristou Scotes back to her native village of Theodoriana.
Her granddaughter Athena Scotes directed the film and attended the screening along with her father Thomas J. Scotes, former Ambassador to Yemen, who had copied down the over 340 songs his mother had brought with her when she came to the United States as a bride in 1931 for the book Weft of Memory, published in 2009. The documentary focuses on the journey back to Greece with the book and the songs which were recorded by renowned musician Lakis Halkias.
Director Athena Scotes spoke with The National Herald about the documentary, noting that she originally thought it was a film for the Greek diaspora, but, in fact, the Greeks in Greece have responded enthusiastically to the message of the film and to Yiayia’s words about xenitia and about following your dreams. Vasiliki’s dream was to be a teacher, but her father and grandfather took her out of school at a young age, something she never forgave, Scotes pointed out, noting that Vasiliki made sure her children received the best education.
The documentary begins with the definition of xenitia, “living as a stranger in a foreign land,” and then follows the journey back to the Tzoumerka Mountains, part of the wider Pindus range, with the stunning mountain scenery transformed through the seasons and through the last year of Yiayia Vasiliki’s life. The sublime beauty of the landscape and the harshness of economic reality for so many of the residents adds such poignancy to the film as the local priest tells us that in the summer there are 2500 people in the village, but in winter there are only 12, including himself.
In Athens, the family visits then-President of the Hellenic Republic Karolos Papoulias, also from Epirus, who honored Vasiliki as a folk poet and for preserving an ancient oral tradition. The recording of her songs and the return to her village for the concert of her songs with Halkias and George Kotsinis were especially moving. The spirit, vibrant personality, and wit of this remarkable woman shine throughout the film, and her words of encouragement to the young people of Greece in the midst of the crisis are especially moving because she speaks from a lifetime of experience.
Athena Scotes writes on the film’s website, “She was thankful for everything that America gave her, but she never forgot her homeland. For over 80 years living in xenitia, she kept hundreds of ancient songs alive. They linked her to those she left behind and to the homeland she loved so dearly. These songs evoked bittersweet memories of why she and many like her were forced to leave and seek a better life in xenitia. She sang these songs to her children and grandchildren. Nearing 100 years old she would dictate over 340 songs to her son- these songs were eventually published in a book [Weft of Memory].
“While on this journey, she finds that Greece is in crisis. Economic crisis, cultural crisis and, perhaps, even an identity crisis. We travel through Greece together and meet young people, who are struggling with the choice of leaving their homeland once again to live in xenitia. Vasiliki spent her life in xenitia – for her and her generation this was the answer to their problems. But she tells the youth that today, for them, xenitia may not be the answer.”
Hellenic Film Society USA Founder and Director Jimmy DeMetro introduced the film as well as a special live performance which immediately followed the screening. Highlighting the ancient Epirotic song tradition depicted in the film, the talented singers of the Academy of Hellenic Paideia’s Polyphonic Group, including the Academy’s principal Demetra Varsami, Antoneta Varsami, Kostando Kolezi, Valentina Moka, Vasiliki Kosta, Vasiliki Dalani, Dimitroula Pandeli, and Katerina Alexaki who introduced the three songs, gave a moving performance accompanied by the gifted Yiorgo Bezani on clarinet for the first song.
A lively Q&A session followed the performance with many expressing their appreciation to the director for her excellent film and also for capturing the remarkable experience of her grandmother and sharing her with us all.
More information about the film is available online: www.xenitia.net and on Facebook: Last Song to Xenitia.
More information about the Hellenic Film Society USA and the New York Greek Film Expo is also available online: hellenicfilmusa.org.