Monday, June 16, 2008


A moustachioed, fez-wearing man is galloping across a plain, to the right. The camera focuses upon his face. Turning to his companions, he points off the screen and shouts: «Από εδώ!» They all turn their horses and gallop off. Next scene: a voluptuous girl dressed in Pontian traditional attire is walking slowly through the fields with a semi-hypnotic, ecstatic smile on her face. Pan back to Fez-man, galloping this time in the opposite direction. He points across the horizon to his companions once more. «Από εκεί!» he shouts and the host gallops off the screen once more. Meanwhile, the hallucinogenic Pontian damsel traipses across the Swiss meadow until she comes to the foot of an olive tree. A wizened old man sitting at the base of the tree holds his kemenche and starts to bow it, producing a Pontian tik. The girl, contracting in the throes of ecstasy, throws up her arms and begins to dance. Pan back to Fez-man who is still galloping across the plain. Pointing once more to the horizon, he shouts: «Από δώ!» and his band of merry men ride off into the next scene.
This lame, “Sound of Music’ scenario, was a Greek attempt at making a movie about the Pontian genocide and it impressed Australian-born Pontic doyen Peter Stefanidis not a bit. In fact, as secretary of the Pontian Federation of Australia and committed to perpetuating and maintaining Pontian culture in the antipodes, he was incensed enough by Greece’s paltry efforts to resolve upon a bold undertaking: to make his own film that would portray some of the more human aspects of the Pontian Genocide.
It is no small wonder that of all the diatribes that get posted upon the Diatribe website, the one that receives the most hits, is the one entitled “Pontos: The Movie,” and which purports to be a review of Stefanidis’ short film. In fact, not a week goes past that I do not receive an email from a reader, requesting more information about the film and its gifted creator. Most of these enquiries come from overseas, primarily from Russia, though I did once receive a bizarre email from a reader in France, written in Karamanlidika – Turkish, in Greek characters.
If teaching yourself film-making and making your own film about a topic that has eluded the inspiration of the greatest of Greek film-makers is not audacious enough, try this for size: Stefanidis’ short film, “Pontos,” a masterpiece of redemption and reconciliation has just been shown at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, to critical acclaim. Considering that most prospective entrants to the Festival are rejected, this surely is no mean feat and speaks volumes not only as to his enormous talent as a film-maker, but also as to the boundless breadth of his artistic vision. Indeed, his presence at Cannes just last month is also of vast historical importance to our community, as it marks the first appearance of a Greek-Australian film-maker upon the Cannes scene. Further, his appearance is manifested through an artistic creation that is purely Hellenic in its inspiration, though tempered by his antipodean experience.
Stefanidis’ latest achievement, in having his masterpiece screened at Cannes, is significant for another reason. Up until now, the Genocide discourse has been primarily an endo-hellenic one. Both in Greece and in Australia, campaigns to raise awareness of the Pontian genocide have concerned themselves with preaching to the converted within the comfort zone of the largely disinterested community, (and this in turn has had the lamentable effect of various warring Pontian organizations abrogating the Genocide as a means of sparring with each other), save for Jenny Mikakos’ spirited speech in State Parliament and the ill-fated Return to Anatolia conference, which though initially promising, has, through the machinations of its self-appointed chairperson, seen the successive alienation of the Pontian, Armenian and Assyrian communities from what was supposed to be a joint, communal endeavour. In the single act of making and showing a film, Stefanidis has globalised a message, not of antagonism, ethnic hatred or revenge, but of suffering, triumph in the face of adversity, hope and regeneration. He has done so without demonizing or alienating anyone and in such a broad and culturally pluralistic a manner, that arguably, could not in any way have been mastered by Greeks living within Greece.
For as Fanis Malkidis, lecturer at the Aristoteleian University of Thrace and renowned Genocide scholar noted during his recent visit to Melbourne, after being barred from addressing the Return to Anatolia Conference by its chairperson, it is of enormous significance that a Greek from outside Greece, has placed an ostensibly “Greek” issue upon the global proscenium, while simultaneously carving out for it, an international context. He argues passionately for the role Greeks abroad can play in promoting Greek issues and creating sympathy for Greece. According to his views, Greeks abroad are often able to perceive the whole Greek package in its wider context, divorced and untrammeled from the petty indignities of the everyday struggle for existence in the motherland. Being thus able to view the bigger “picture,” they are in a unique position to repackage it in a manner palatable to an audience not as well acquainted with it and thus ensure its easy digestion and assimilation.
Endeavours such as those of Stefanidis, which, owing to broad and easily accessible form of media in which they manifest themselves, should thus be given the full support of the Greek government. Essentially, Stefanidis and the countless other nameless apodimoi devotees of Greek culture who spend countless hours trawling through the internet for information, write letters to politicians, ring talk-back radio, write letters to newspapers or give lengthy lectures to their non-Greek friends on diverse Greek-related subjects, are doing the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ job with much greater agility and panache than the ‘career diplomats’ could ever do themselves, simply because by living here, they have a better knowledge of their target audience and the methods that need to be employed in order to effectively pass on various messages. Most of the time, their efforts pass unnoticed and unrewarded by the Greek government and the impotent and navel gazing Greek community, whose own practice of contemplating itself until it disappears up its own fundamental orifice constitutes it for the most part, incapable of rendering these passionate apostle of Hellenism, most of them belonging to the second generation, any worthwhile assistance.
It was thus heart-warming to see that the Council of Greeks abroad most generously offered to put up the cost of Stefanidis’ travel to Cannes, in order to get his message out into the celluloidsphere. This is more than the Pontian communities of Melbourne have done for one of its brightest sons. Indeed, enmeshed in the throes of internecine strife, most of their leaders, especially those purporting to guide the organization that he once served with great distinction, into the future, attempt to malign him and his good works at every opportunity. Of course it comes as no surprise that their children are conspicuously absent from the cause they say they are promoting. Also unsurprising is the lack of first generation interest in Stefanidis’ historic achievement. The letters in the Greek competent of this publication continue to discuss such weighty issues as mediocre poetry, community redevelopment pipe-dreams and the perpetual spewing forth of really bad karma. It is thus with great satisfaction that I recall my advice to Stefanidis, years ago, upon him giving an inspiring speech to the Pontian youth about how they could involve themselves in their organizations more, and asking me how one could avoid the pitfalls of hatred, jealousy and indifference while traversing the minefield that is Greek community endeavour. “Carve yourself a niche where no one can touch you,” I told him “Do something that is so noble and high that it will cause you to rise above their petty criticisms, plots and schemes and render them unable to even come close to you.” At least that is what I think I said.
Stefanidis has done this and more. He has placed himself in an unassailable position vis a vis the stagnant Greek community by refusing to enter into its dialectic. Instead, he is carving his own, with a medium so awesome as to only be engaged in by the most dexterous. The Greek community and the Greek dialectic in general, which predictably enough will be the first to capitalize upon his successes and genius, without of course ever providing any practical assistance will have much growing up to do before it could ever attain the requisite maturity with which to assail his position.
Cannes was a surreal experience for Stefanidis. In many ways it demythologized much of the glitz and glamour of film-making. He was able to witness at first hand, some of the darker and more exploitative aspects of the whole scene, including the way producers, directors and executives pressed themselves upon nubile, would-be young film-makers, in order to extract sexual favours. He noticed how some members of the guild jealously guarded their secrets from each other, lest another benefit from their experience. Most importantly, he discovered that Cannes is a dump in which it is impossible to obtain a decent bite to eat and that in order not have one’s stomach abandon one on strike, the only solution is to seek refuge in the culinary paradise of Lyons.
Peter Stefanidis also discovered that integrity, selflessness and dedication to a cause may also pay dividends. For in the make-believe world of Cannes, he was granted the unique privilege of explaining his motivation and techniques to some of the most important members of the industry, from which he has garnered a wealth of advice. Furthermore, he has had tantalizing nibbles from various European production companies, who are encouraging him to develop his short film into a movie length feature, for their consideration – truly a sound measure of the extent of the potential of this remarkable artist and are lesson to those who would despair of our own self-imposed, narrow horizons.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to Peter Stefanidis. Not only because his indomitable love for his people and their history has caused him to push the boundaries of the Greek discourse into the global context, so that finally the Pontian genocide may obtain the publicity that it deserves, but also because his determination serves as a lesson to the small-minded, weak-hearted and despondent among us, who cannot see beyond the confines of the walls of the ghetto we have constructed for ourselves. The lesson is that we can still work miracles and that even when we cannot, we have nurtured a generation among whom there are visionaries that will set us free. Just how much we will nurture them so that they will feel comfortable enough to identify with us and stand by our side, is ultimately, up to us.


First published in NKEE on 16 June 2008