NEW YORK – Like all art, Maria Iliou’s film about the aftermath of the burning of Smyrna and the Asia Minor disaster, “From Both Sides of The Aegean: Expulsion And Exchange of Populations, Turkey-Greece 1922-1924,” was born of labor, inspiration and passion – in this case, humanitarian love.
Her own personal story is bound up with the film – her father and stepfather were from Smyrna and Pontos respectively. It drove her to travel all over the world to gather the precious images – still photos and film clips beautifully restored thanks to the Bodossakis Foundation’s archive preservation project – that are the heart of her documentary, which is now showing at Manhattan’s Quad Cinema March 21-April 10.
The movie begins with a boat crossing the sea at sunrise. The lovely and tranquil vista is succeeded by images of chaotic docks and desperate refugees.
Allen Moore and John Zecca, the photographer and sound engineer, respectively, editor Aliki Panagi and Nikos Platyrachos, who composed the original music that possesses a timeless quality when played on the ancient santouri, helped give the movie its haunting quality.
The film, which was first shown in Greece in 2012, was conceived after work had begun on the earlier “Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City.” Iliou and her colleagues realized the story could not end with Greeks attempting to flee as their city burned.
The hardships the 1.2 million Greeks who survived the genocides – approximately 500,000 did not – became refugees subject to the mercies a small and impoverished Greece had to be shown.
But as she spoke both to those who lived the expulsions and their descendants who were also marked by them, and to Greek and Turkish scholars, it became clear that the tale does not even end with the suffering of the Greek refugees.
Iliou is committed to telling “our stories by being really objective… we are trying to speak about the terrible things that happened to the Greeks, openly and objectively,” but the Moslems could not be left out…it is the only way to move forward into the future.”
The scholars who speak at beginning of the film place the poignant personal testimonies that follow into historical perspective and the film attempts to transcend national narratives and strike a higher, humanitarian chord.
They also made a stunning discovery: notwithstanding that the Greek were fleeing a murderous genocide and the Turks were not – an asymmetry that the film emphasizes – the stories on both sides were identical.
There are striking moments when the Greek descendants of refugees break into speaking Turkish and their Turkish counterparts whose families were expelled from Greece begin speaking Greek, both using the equivalent words for “the old country” to describe losses that still burn in their souls.
There were stories on both sides of grandparents either keeping their clusters of keys to homes and businesses, dreaming of a return, or consigning them to the depths of the Aegean during their forced passage in painful acts of despair or realism.
Art Historian Eleni Bastea, who told of her family’s experience, noted the irony that even though Greeks and Turks moved into areas their former inhabitants described as paradises, uprooted from their places of birth, the refugees encountered only hells.
Nobel laureate Odysseos Elitis, whose family was from Smyrna, spoke of “our lost happiness.”
Especially for those who left as children, their most powerful memories, such as aromas of fruit tree and flowers, would never find counterparts in their new “homes.” Most bitter was the discovery – by both Greeks and Turks – that their own people treated them as foreigners because of the strange accents or languages they brought with them.
There are stunning images of tents set up in the open spaces of Athens, including archaeological sites, and of people living in theaters. One bittersweet film clip shows children cheerfully doing calisthenics in the shadows of Acropolis and the Pillars of Olympian Zeus.
Alexander Kitroeff, Associate Professor of History at Haverford College, once again Iliou’s historical consultant, noted that Athenians were simply not prepared for the overnight transformation of their city into a refugee camp.
Perhaps the most disturbing moment for viewers is the realization that the pictures and films in the Greek camps were mainly of women, children and old men – the missing younger men were likely genocided back home in Thrace and Asia Minor.
Sana Halo, the protagonist in the book about the genocides written by her daughter, Thea Halo, titled Not Even My Name, recounted the deaths of her mother and sister on one of the marches back and forth across the mountains of Asia Minor.
But there are cases of Turkish friends and neighbors warning and helping Greeks flee impending attacks.
Another similarity between the two groups was the suppression of memories of life in the original homeland and the culture of the refugees by both the Greek and Turkish governments.
By the 1930s, that began to change in Greece as the Mikrasiates felt compelled to express their identity.
The efforts of the Center for Asia Minor Studies in Athens and equivalent institutions in Turkey today combined with individual initiatives were vital, and they have helped create strong ties between the descendants of the victims of the expulsions which include visits “back home” across the Aegean.
A Turkish woman said of her family’s experience in Greece, “We were not enemies, but they made us.”
One of the most touching part of the film came when the late Harry Psomiades, the founder of the Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at Queens College, told of his visit to his forebears’ homes in Pontos.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing the viewers learn is that in 1914 – prior to the ravages of WW I and the Greek-Turkish War, politicians in both countries bowed to nationalist fantasy of pure populations and discussed the mass mutual removal of the minority populations of Greece and Turkey.
Not co-incidentally, the Turkish genocidal attacks on the Armenians had already begun, and may have been on the Greeks’ mind. It is certainly the case that Greek officials acquiesced in the exchange agreed to in the 1923 Treaty Lausanne partly because of fears of more genocide.
Indeed, Greeks were being expelled on masse before the treaty was drafted. Part of the motivation for making the film was to expose the myth that the euphemistically labeled “exchange” was a text book case of an agreed-to peaceful movement of peoples and humanitarian intervention.
The film closes with an idyllic scene of a seashore, which fades to pure blue.
By then, the pain and losses of the people whose stories the viewers learn about clash with the likelihood that the expulsions may have been the only way to prevent war and avoid even more deaths, but Iliou’s film sends two clear message to today’s policymakers and civilians alike: just because people do not die does not mean that lives are not destroyed, but also, some losses can be redressed by succeeding generations, and the lessons they learn and convey can form the basis for a better future.