NEW YORK – People with roots in Greece, Cyprus and many other homelands gathered at Cyprus House on February 5 for a an experience that transcended ethnicity: The screening of Faces of Phlamoudhi, a documentary by Rupert Barclay based on the book of the same title by Ian J. Cohn.
The movie demonstrated how art can resurrect the dead – people, places and things – and inspire future generations.
Hosted by Amb. Vasilios Phillipou, the Consul General of Cyprus, and organized by Maria Zoupaniotis, the event featured comments by the author and director and greetings by Cyprus’ UN Ambassador Nicholas Emiliou.
Amb. Emiliou thanked and congratulated the artists and noted “as I myself am a refugee from the town of Famagusta and I can absolutely relate with the feelings and memories that these images from the film you are about to see and the book, reflect.”
He also placed the art into the wider context of the aspirations of the displaced Cypriots and refugees everywhere by emphasizing that “refugee issue and everything it entails, the right to return, the right to peaceful enjoyment of one’s home and property, things that are at the core of the negotiations for a solution to the Cyprus problem, are universal fundamental human rights that must be fully respected and implemented by all.”
Cohn’s presentation at the screening was touching from a personal as well as an ethnographic standpoint. The invitation he received as a young architectural student – he is now a practicing architect – turned into the experience of a lifetime.
He served as the photographer to the Columbia University archaeological expedition to Cyprus, but in between his official work, he was personally drawn to the lives of the people he encountered who in turn were enchanted by him, inviting him into their homes as word spread that he took nice pictures.
They became more than family heirlooms: they are for many the most vivid connection to a lost world.
Cohn never forgot it – in fact he often dreamed of it – and now when he looks at the photos he is humbled by how he was able to evoke such remarkable expressions from the residents.
He described himself as a “22-year-old wild-looking man,” but the foreigner’s impressive afro was complemented with a winning smile that evoked warm Cypriot smiles.
Barclay’s film interspersed the photos with contemporary interviews of the people who lived in Phlamoudhi.
Among the most powerful images are the pictures the shepherd Lysandros Lysandrou. He was the perfect evocation of the carefree life of friends and family in an idyllic Mediterranean village before the fateful day of August 14, 1974.
That was when the Turks launched their second invasion, which ultimately engulfed 37 percent of the island.
Survivors described the flight from the Turkish soldiers and their transformation from people living full lives in their homes to refugees with dubious futures in the twinkling of an eye.
Lysandros was among them, but he felt compelled to turn back to defend his home. His family could not dissuade him, and the next time they saw him, he was dead – shot point blank by a Turkish soldier.
The stories told on film from that point on are a combination of descriptions of the transition from rural to urban life – and expressions of loss and longing – all of which made their reconnection with Cohn’s photos so meaningful.
“We were seized with joy and sadness,” one villager said, because they were able once again see family and friends, many in the full bloom of youth.
As Barclay said, “for people who sometimes wondered if the place ever really existed…it provided clarity to once foggy and indistinct memories.”
The pictures, like the memories of refugees and other victims of humanitarian catastrophes, were buried, in this case, stored in a box for almost 35 years.
A casual conversation between Cohn and Pavlos Flourentzos, the director of the Cyprus Museum in 2005 began the process and led to the book and the film.
“Do you know what you have here,” Flourentzos asked a humbled Cohen.
Flourentzos told him the photos were “a national ethnographic treasure…There are no other collections of photographs of a village before the Turkish invasion.” They are now on permanent exhibit at the Cyprus Museum.
At the end of the film Cohn declared “I am just lucky to have been a part of it,” and on February 5 Cohen thanked Rupert for the way he presented his work for helping ensure that Phlamoudhi “a beautiful village in the midst of great natural beauty,” and its people would not be forgotten.
Barclay, who was trained as an archaeologist, spoke after the screening. He introduced his Cypriot wife, Kat, whom he met in 1998 and served as an invaluable translator even though she was pregnant during filming in 2011. He thanked everyone who made the film a reality, including the editor Kyri Evangelou who beautifully turned 22 hours of film into a 45 minute movie.
In the film and during the discussion people declared that the most important aspect of the photos – and what they are most grateful to Cohn for – is that they will be able to convey the reality and beauty of Phamoudhi to children and grandchildren who never saw it.
The book is available at facesofphlamoudhi.com.