A Surge in Films about Greek- Americans

With the dawn of the new millennium came a new surge in Greek-American documentary films. Previous entries discussed in my ongoing series of articles can be found on TNH’s website or the Preservation of American Hellenic History website: pahh.com.
This piece examines Greek-American documentaries that largely if not entirely have been overlooked. Not all of the documentaries necessarily feature Greek-Americans; some address the leading roles of Greeks as historical participants and as historians in the labor disputes of the American West mandate.
is a two-hour documentary that premiered in May 2000 (www.kued.org). It is available both on the Internet and as a feature-length film. It is a unique film for many reasons. First it deals objectively with the violent labor disputes that raged throughout the 1900s in the American West from the Canadian to the Mexican borders. The unchecked political, financial, and social dominance of the Robber Barons Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie was challenged by the union organizers and the striking workers. The 40-hour workweek, workers’ compensation, minimum wage, child labor laws, pensions – all the workplace rights we take for granted today – were at the core of this series of violent disputes. That is not the history one finds in ever schoolbook and that fact alone is a subject for inquiry all on its own. {44961}
From a Greek-American perspective, this documentary resonates on several levels. For those Greeks in North America who trace their ancestors back to the 1880 to 1920 waves of immigrants, nearly all had relatives west of the Mississippi who were involved in these extended labor troubles. Family stories abound with tales of grandfathers and great-grandfathers who were directly caught up in that long period of turmoil. Given that this was the case it is not surprising to discover that Greeks were not only union members and strikers, but that they also were vocal leaders in these events. As in all things Greek, those Hellenes involved in these extended labor disputes were both in the unions and outside the unions operating independently but in solidarity with the union strikers.
The research of two Greek-American scholars who are interviewed, at some length, during the course of this documentary, Helen Papanikolas and Zeese Papanikolas, warrants careful consideration. Mother and son, the researchers are published scholars on the labor disputes of the American West. In many ways, Helen Papanikolas’ array of writings spearheaded much of the research not simply concerning immigrants and labor disputes but also those dealing with immigrant folklore and immigrant women’s studies in the West. Zeese Papanikolas’ , while not exactly a historical study in the traditional sense did bring the leading role of Tikas, the Greek immigrant union leader during the 1913-1914 Colorado coal strike, back into the overall historical discussion.
Consequently this film, for a Greek-American viewer, operates on several levels simultaneously. First as an objective history of events in which Greeks were directly involved and then as a document that attests to what Greek-American researchers can do to actively correct the historical record. While Greek American academics use to assert themselves in their various fields – giving a balanced view of what Greek-Americans had achieved – that perspective is long gone. Sadly the current generation of academics is nothing more than followers. Whatever the “literature” says in their respective field concerning Greek-Americans (if it says anything at all) they follow, unquestioningly. All this, keeping in mind, when more Greeks and persons of Greek descent occupy more academic positions than at any other time in history.
Greek-Americans have somehow become the bad guys that have little or no “real” understanding of their Greek heritage. Or so goes the argument from a Greek-in-Greece perspective of the history of Greeks in North America. From this point of view every action or belief must be judged from what was happening or believed correct in Greece. Not only is this an ahistorical or asocial position to begin with, but if in studying Greeks in North America then it only seems logical to pay attention to what those persons did, thought or believed. Otherwise, the study would bear little resemblance to any of the social sciences.
But that flawed portrait of Greek-Americans was not always the case. Theodore Saloutos, on two separate occasions, changed how the American literature on immigration studies was understood. Helen and Zeese Papanikolas basically created them out of whole cloth folklore and ethnic studies in the American West. Andrew T. Kopan literally penned the definitions, for many of the words still used in immigration studies. But all of that is gone. The rules are different now. To many, folks who were not born in Greece and do not speak Greek fluently simply do not count. Accordingly, those with an unshakeable sense of self and heritage would enjoy and benefit from viewing this documentary.
Another film that appeared in 2000 was the 20-minute by Maria-Christina Dimitridou as part of her master’s thesis at Emerson College. Accompanied by a production book and her 100-page thesis, only one public copy of the documentary appears to be available, and that is from Emerson College itself. (I have not seen it.)
A documentary I have seen several times, however, is the A*E Biography program’s presentation of the life and career of Telly Savalas. A deft mix of family photographs, home movies, and other footage, the biography is a clear and concise presentation of Savalas. It is an especially fine balanced presentation of a complex and talented individual.
A man who was never ashamed of his Greek heritage, Savalas remains a prominent figure in Greek-American history. It is now a forgotten moment but in the 1960s and 1970s; figures such as Savalas, Michael Dukakis, Olympia Dukakis, and yes, even Spiro T. Agnew were recognized figures of the larger ethnic mosaic of the United States. Those individuals became emblematic of the New Ethnicity that was just one element of what was then called the Movement.
In a career that included radio, theater, motion pictures, a Las Vegas singing career, and television, Savalas never denied or underplayed his Greek heritage. Whatever might be the sentiment nowadays Savalas was in step with his times back then. A perfect example is that he hosted the documentary . Savalas’ very presence underscored the success that the new immigrants to North America now enjoy.
Testament to the fact that Savalas is more than just a flickering image in the rerun heaven of late night television, comedian Tom DiMenna will be appearing in early February at the Huron Club at the SoHo Playhouse in New York City. In “Who Loves You, Baby?” a play in which DiMenna, as noted in the Los Angeles Theater Review, “plays the hairless icon with comedic grace… [the show is] simultaneously ridiculous and refreshing.” As DiMenna’s stage act demonstrates, popular culture never sleeps.
Another of the locally-produced documentaries is . While this 122 minute program was originally aired October 28, 2001 on local cable television program a viewing copy is held at the Dayton Metropolitan Library. (Unfortunately I have not seen this film.) With Father Dean Nastos officiating the film records “a live program held at the Library to accompany a photograph exhibit.” Dr. Georgios Anagnostu was the keynote speaker with panel members: Gregory Caras, George Gounaris, William Pangos, Kate Scott, Demetrius Zonars and Harry Bouris. While the available documentation does not indicate, I wonder if the photograph exhibit was part of the deposit of images, documents, and memories that the Dayton Greeks have deposited at their local library through the good offices of the Greek woman librarian. Not only is that a rich historical collection of visual materials but it is a fine example of what other Greek-American communities can do around the nation. As this last film demonstrates, we need to know more about the documentary films that now exist on Greeks in the United States.