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Athens, Panepistimiou Street, photograph by Odysseus Fokas, c. 1900, (Photo archive of the National Gallery - Alexandros Soutsos Museum)
ATHENS – Maria Iliou’s latest documentary ‘Athens and the Great Idea 1896-1922’ is a living icon of triumph and tragedy in light and sound.
The auditorium of the Benaki Museum – Piraeus 138 in Athens was packed on January 23 for the premier and the film was introduced by Iliou, its director and producer, who also thanked and asked her colleagues – including TNH columnist Prof. Alexander Kitroeff, the film’s Historical Consultant – to rise and be acknowledged. Iliou also offered deepest thanks to all the individuals and organizations who are benefactors of the project – a list too long for this article.
The film is the second of five in the series titled ‘Athens Rising’ produced by Proteos. The project documents the rise of modern Athens from its condition as a large village after the War of Independence to the global metropolis of 2021.
Thanks to the great research effort, the film includes previously unknown images from archives in Greece, Europe, and Australia. Iliou noted the 25-year period the film documents included five wars that aimed at the realization of the ‘Megali Idea – The Great Idea’, the ill-fated dream of bringing most of the land where Hellenes resided under one state, and a civil war – ‘the great division’ – between royalists and republicans.
The distinguished historians who appeared provided excellent background for the remarkable images – photos, paintings, and movie clips.
Iliou also noted that, “during these difficult years of the city, the musical life of Athens is a great surprise… while the citizens reacted to the war situations, the songs referred to love, the joy of life – but also of war.” The delightful operettas and songs of Theofrastos Sakellarides in particular are a revelation. His music – highlighted in the fine score composed by Nikos Platyrachos – “a montage of sound” said Iliou – helped pull the audience into the film, along with the “montage of images” created by Aliki Panagis’ editing.
The well-presented story – especially valuable to Diaspora Hellenes – unfolds chronologically, beginning with the consequences of the disastrous war with Turkey of 1897 that threatened even Athens. The reforms whose necessity were revealed by the war were delayed – provoking the 1909 military coup whose aftermath included the rise of Eleftherios Venizelos.
The city itself through, developed culturally and economically, enabling its full participation in Europe’s La Belle Époque, especially revealed by photos and film of the art and architecture that emerged, much created by Hellenes who lived in places like Vienna and Paris. Indeed they reveal that by 1920, as a European capital, “Athens has arrived.”
Iliou deftly uses the images of cafes, restaurants, squares, mansions – as well as sidestreets in poor neighborhoods – to also reveal the social cleavages. Also seen, however, were the places where all Athenians were welcome and blended, such as coastal Paleo Faliro, whose development was nicely portrayed.
Some pictures reminded of a division that puzzles today – men and women bathed in separate parts of the beach – but the winds of change were blowing for women too. One Sakellariades operetta lyric declares: “I am a woman, and I will smoke and I will vote!”
The film concludes on a sober note after the Asia Minor Disaster unleashed more than a million refugees, many of whom came to Athens, instantly impoverished and often radicalized, but the film also spotlighted the subcultures driven by economic strife which existed prior to 1923.
Photogenic to begin with, the Acropolis and Mt. Lykavetos and other manmade and natural beauties at its heart, the pleasant images of the city dominated. Indeed, as one commentator noted of early tourists, “the thing that everybody has to see is the Acropolis.”
One of the most interesting revelations is that the remarkable and vital archeological excavations by foreign institutions were driven by concessions the state granted due to dire budgetary realities.
Economic development did occur, however, as Kitroeff noted, especially infrastructure – electricity, transport, and most notably, the paving of streets that reduced the city’s notorious dust.
Greece’s military potential also rose, which was actualized by the shrewd alliances of Venizelos – the Balkan wars doubled Greece’s area, and World War I prizes added Thrace right up to Constantinople and Ionia – but the latter gains were surrendered due the Asia Minor Disaster – and glorious Hellenic Smyrna was no more by 1922.
Again, music and images brought the joys, strains, disappointments, and horrors to life. Images of tattered soldiers fleeing Ataturk and Greeks lined up on Smyrna’s Quay – thousands unable to flee and soon to die – are shattering. In a few moments La Belle Époque yielded the screen to tents erected throughout Athens and Piraeus, filled mainly by hungry and devastated elderly and mothers with their children.
The music made the most poignant closing statement through the famous song with the lyric: “Τι σε μέλλει εσένανε από πού είμαι εγώ – what do you care where I’m from?” At the start, the kanonaki plays the tune sweetly, suggesting the girl means “it’s so wonderful you couldn’t appreciate it” – but the mournful violin that follows cries: “because my village is destroyed.”
A photo exhibition reflecting the themes of the movie is on display at the Benaki Museum’s renowned Koupmari 1 location through April 23, 2023.
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