The long-awaited historical epic film My Beloved Smyrna (Σμυρνη Μου Αγαπημενη) has arrived in Greek cinema theaters after a glamorous premiere at the Megaron – Athens Concert Hall. The movie is based on the theatrical play of the same title by the iconic Greek actress Mimi Denisi that was a critical and box office success for three years running and looks back at the Smyrna Catastrophe. It examines the conditions and events that resulted in the uprooting of the prosperous and vibrant Greek community of Smyrna by the Turks.
Denisi, who did extensive research, said that the intention was to present the historical facts in an accurate manner and without bias. The film also sought to highlight the plight of the current Syrian refugees that had to face some of the same struggles the Greek refugees suffered when they had to escape Smyrna 100 years ago.
The story follows the path of an elderly Greek-American woman, Filio Williams, who rushed to the island of Mytilini with her granddaughter Helen to assist the Syrian refugees who had arrived there. Filio feels an emotional connection to the island because her own grandmother, Filio Baltazi, had also landed in Mytilini when she was running away from the Turkish army without sharing her background with anyone.
Mimi Denisi plays the role of the aristocratic Filio Baltazi while Jane Lapotaire (The Crown) portrays Filio Williams, who becomes the storyteller of her wealthy family’s history. Denisi, who was also the Executive Producer of the film, said that the production wanted to cast high caliber actors and was fortunate to be able to recruit everyone they approached in Greece and abroad. Leonidas Kakouris, Burak Hakki, Katerina Geronikolou, Anastasia Pantousi, Dina Michailidou, Joanna Kalafatis, Susan Hampshire, and Rupert Graves were some of the international cast.
Greek-American actress Joanna Kalafatis portrays the real-life character of Minnie Mills, the American Dean of the American Girls’ School in Smyrna. Because the fire broke out in the same area, the school became a refuge for staff and students and almost 1,200 terrorized Smyrnaean women and girls. Mills, who witnessed Turkish soldiers pouring petroleum into houses, refused to leave without the children even though she was offered safe passage by the American Navy. Kalafatis said that she was proud to play a character that “was so brave and dedicated under extremely difficult circumstances. Considering the era she grew up in, she was a real trailblazer who went to college and traveled across the Atlantic to teach in a foreign country.” Because Mills felt that the true facts of the conditions in Smyrna were not accurately represented to the American public, she made a statement to the New York Tribune that the brutal massacre and fires were set by the Turkish soldiers and officers and was carried out under the eyes of Allied battleships that left thousands to die or suffer from their wounds as the refugees were exposed to starvation and disease. The challenge was to re-create the vibrant and cosmopolitan aura of the city of Smyrna as it was back in 1922 since the city today is totally different. That was a huge undertaking because they had to film in five different locations and rely on photographs and documentaries as well as props that the locals offered to the production team. The five locations were Lesvos, Chios, Athens, Piraeus, and Faliro. Director Karadinakis was happy with the result after five months of preparation while engaging 100 professionals, and he feels that the final product resembles the atmosphere of the real Smyrna.
The climax of the film was the burning of the port’s waterfront. It was filmed in Faliro and the staging alone took two-and-a-half months of preparation. The recreation of the fire in 1922, started by Turkish nationalists and which lasted four days, completely destroying the Greek and Armenian quarters of the city, was spectacular with the aid of visual effects. This huge undertaking was possible because of the support the creative team received from the production company Tanweer Productions that invested 4.5 million euros. Mimi Denisi said she was grateful for Tanweer’s support that allowed her creative vision to come to life.
For Joanna Kalafatis, it was her first participation in a feature film production in Greece and she said, “it was a fantastic experience, everyone was very professional. During filming in Mytilini we all stayed in the same hotel. It was a great bonding experience. I loved the sets and costumes, the production team paid a lot of attention to details.”
The film also provides a historical illustration of how bitterly divided Greece was at the time and because of that the country was unable to properly react to rising Turkish aggression. It also serves as a reminder of how quickly fortunes can change as it did for the Greeks in Smyrna, who found themselves refugees in a matter of days, escaping to a homeland most never knew. The film is also a lesson about showing compassion to others in their times of need.
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