LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
Letter from Athens: The Wound Creates:
An American Teaches Filmmaking in Greece
Kαλημέρa. Mε λενε Judith Zinis kai είμαι από την Αμερική. Ο παππούς μου γεννήθηκε στην Ελλάδα, αλλά εγώ δεν μιλούν ελληνικά πολύ καλά. Έτσι, θα μιλήσω τώρα στα αγγλικά.
In 2012, these were the first words I spoke to my class at the University of Athens where I was teaching Film of the Sixties as a Fulbright Scholar. I wished them Good Morning, told them my name, that I was from the United States, and my grandfather had been born in Greece, but I did not speak Greek very well. Therefore, I would only speak to them in English. Nevertheless, my inability to communicate in my ancestral tongue didn’t keep me from recognizing two important truths: life in Greece is not for the fainthearted and an inclusive, participatory, and creative classroom reaps tremendous academic and personal rewards for all involved.
I came to Greece for those rewards: I wanted to live where my grandfather had lived, wanted to research the avant-garde Greek American filmmaker, Gregory Markopoulos, and wanted to teach Film of the Sixties to university students as it seemed the best fit during a time of crisis in their lives. I thought the subject of the class, cinematic expression during a time of upheaval in America, would resonate with students during the economic upheaval in Greece. As Markopoulos wrote in his journal, “The wound creates.” I hoped the same for my students. Moreover, the classroom would be a place to analyze the art of cinema and the context for that art. Each class would began by immersing the students into the sixties playing music of the era from Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendricks while images of protest, be-ins, and police brutality were projected on a screen. We would discuss the ethos of the era, view and analyze the films, and do some of the work of a filmmaker such as writing a screen treatment and, if they choose to, make a film.
My colleagues at the Fulbright Foundation in Greece and the University of Athens were skeptical. After they had seen my syllabus, both encouraged me to consider that teaching at a Greek university was quite different than teaching at an American university. I heard their concerns but did not heed them. I was determined to give my students an American educational experience, which meant group work, weekly written reactions to course material, on going discourse in the classroom, and alternative assignments. They weren’t sure if I could get students to participate in groups, as they were not used to such activities, and they were concerned about the workload since students usually don’t have work required of them during the semester. They only take exams once a course is over.
My first class was illuminating: I began to understand the concerns over my syllabus and my expectations. First of all, students can register for a course over a series of weeks, and they come and go as they explore other options. Secondly, in Greek universities, professors teach on the average two to three classes a semester; however, those classes can easily have over 100 registered students. Mine did; therefore, I could expect to be grading many film journals each week. In addition, students were accustomed to being the empty vessel, which the professor fills up with lectures, and they were not familiar with the interactive experience I would create.
A 2010 study for the National Board of Economic Research by Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc, and Andrei Shleifer, explored these pedagogical differences, that is, between societies that teach vertically, a teacher lecturing, and societies that teach horizontally, students working in groups. Horizontal classrooms are more likely in the United States and vertical classrooms are more common in the Mediterranean including Greece. The study indicates that a higher level of trust and government effectiveness results from horizontal teaching. Given the political situation in Greece, the horizontal approach seemed most appropriate.
Students need to participate in their own learning, to critically analyze what they are learning and how they are learning. These are invaluable skills for the workplace and for being a citizen in a democratic society.
My students and their work proved this approach reaps extraordinary rewards although my first day teaching was not without incident. My classroom had seats for over 100 students and a wall of windows. However, the blinds on many of them didn’t work, so students had difficulty seeing the film I showed that day and many other days. There were no smart classrooms at the various universities where I lectured in Greece. In my particular classroom, I had to use a portable projector that seemed to have a mind of its own and would stop working for no apparent reason. Also, I hadn’t taken into account the Greek attitude towards time, which is quite flexible. Students wandered in a half hour or even an hour into the two and half hour class. Our ten-minute break was open to interpretation. I said exactly when to be back, and they added 10 even 20 minutes to the return time. Colleagues shrugged when I described my experience and warned me, “No classes start on time.”
On that first day, “Volunteers” by the Jefferson Airplane was blasting and images of a San Francisco be-in were projected on a screen. I began the class by introducing the students to the Port Huron Statement, the manifesto of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), that is, the student organization found on many American college campuses during that era. Written in part by Tom Hayden, its values and goals represent the philosophy of the sixties, at least the youth that got the most attention and seemed to be the most active. In general, the Port Huron Statement calls for tolerance, transparency, and discourse.
After we reviewed it, the students were directed to work in groups, to choose one of the values, discuss it’s worth, and whether a person in Greece could live by it. They were dumbstruck. Get in groups? Discussion in class? Nevertheless, they rose to the challenge. When the subject was opened to the entire class, the crisis in Greece came to the forefront. One brave girl, in the spirit of openness espoused by the Port Huron statement, suggested the neo-Nazi party, the Golden Dawn, could be useful. The tension in the classroom rose uncomfortably, yet the students gave her room to speak while respectfully disagreeing. At the end of class, many approached me in dismay. Did I really expect them to do work that had to be brought back to the next class? I assured them that discourse would be a significant part of our time together and it could only happen if they came prepared.
They followed through, found their voice and used it well in class and in their written work. For example, I had them read Tom Hayden’s Rebellion in Newark, his account of the 1967 riots where hundreds of African Americans were killed and their neighborhood was burned and looted. We had been exploring documentaries made in the sixties such as Crisis, which covered the integration of the University of Alabama and the Newsreel film collective’s account of the Black Panthers. The students’ task was to develop a screen treatment for a potential film based on Hayden’s book. They not only had to apply critical analysis to a text, they, also, had to apply their own voice to the task. The work was excellent. We even sent examples to Tom Hayden who was intrigued by the process.
At the end of the semester instead of writing their final paper, I allowed them to make a film using either the film styles of the sixties or the issues of the sixties. I brought in an avant-garde Greek filmmaker, Yiannis Isidorou, to share his approach to filmmaking and to show his own work. He encouraged the students to use found video to avoid the technicalities of making a film and the film he showed was a mockumentary that indicted well-known buildings in Athens for causing the present crisis. He was ecstatic over his experience with the class. Previously, he had spoken at a number of universities, but this was the first time students had shown interest and expressed their ideas. Usually the professor thanked him after his presentation, and he left without any student interaction.
Giving the students the option of making a film also provided new learning opportunities. The only films these students had made were the usual recording of family events, which are not planned activities. In order to make a film that functioned as an essay, which is what Jean Luc Godard, a member of the 1960’s French New Wave, considered his films to be, they had to choose their subject. For the most part, they focused on the issues they were forced to face and endure as the Greek economy in 2012 fell 6.4 percent from 2011 with a cumulative decline from 2007 to 2012 of 20.1 percent. Then, they had to plan what would represent their subject. Would it be found videos of the protests that took place almost daily in Athens? Would they stay closer to home and interview family and friends? What questions should they ask? Finally, from all the footage, what would they keep and how would they stitch it together? And there was the problem of equipment. Some did not have access to an editing program and so we had to consider editing in the camera. Some didn’t have a camera. In fact, two students used my IPhone to make their film. Given that I don’t read or understand Greek, and they were English majors, they would have to provide subtitles.
The finished films portrayed a courageous, compassionate, and resilient people who are facing heavy decreases in pay and pensions, high unemployment, reduction of social services, immigration problems, and increased cost of basic needs. Life in Greece is not for the faint-hearted. The students’ films reveal the conditions under which most Greeks live whether it is loss of a job, leaving the country to find a job, hunger, poverty, attraction to fascism, or even suicide. For example, all pay for public workers was cut 30% and for private workers 20%. Pensions had been cut several times, some as much at 60% as reported by the BBC. And it is these pensions that are keeping some families afloat as the children of pensioners rely on their elderly parents.
A number of the films considered the consequences of job loss and unemployment. Jobs were few and far between and those who had jobs often went unpaid for months. Women were more likely to be unemployed in every age group. Among men age 45 to 64, nearly one in six was out of work. Among men 30 to 44, the figure was one in five. The picture was glum for those teenagers who did want jobs. Youth unemployment climbed to the 57 percent.
One student film explores the despair Greeks experience under such conditions. An increase in suicide is a disturbing consequence, rising 45 percent during the first four years of Greece’s financial crisis according to the Athens based group, Klimaka. The year before I arrived in Greece two grim examples were reported, both of older men. One 77-year-old pensioner, a retired pharmacist, shot himself in Syntagma Square, in the heart of Athens across from Parliament. Eyewitnesses told police the man was in apparent despair over his financial debts, shouting just moments before killing himself, “So I won’t leave debts for my children.” Later that year, a man who worked for the struggling Greek state bank ATE died after jumping from the Acropolis
Some of the films provide footage of people rummaging through trashcans in search of food for there is hunger in Greece. One student used black humor as a way to explore this unsettling situation. The principal of an Athens’ elementary school has seen children searching for food in trashcans, suffering from hunger pains, and asking their classmates for leftovers.
One of the first discussions my class had was about the rising popularity of the Golden Dawn, the fascist group that promises jobs and even distributes free food. It offers hope to a desperate population, but as Hitler designated various scapegoats such as Romans, Gays, and most notably Jews, the Golden Dawn uses immigrants as their go-to scapegoat, assuring the Greek people that once immigrants leave the country, Greece will get back on its feet. They have taken it upon themselves to attack immigrants and immigrant businesses. On one such occasion, they destroyed street carts only to discover that their owners were Greek citizens; however, to the Golden Dawn, they didn’t look Greek. They are responsible for murdering a young singer, Pavlos Fyssas, who wrote songs of protest against the organization. This generated anger towards immigrants resulted in violence at a strawberry farm in the southern Peloponnese region of Greece. Three foremen were accused of shooting and wounding 28 Bangladeshi workers who were demanding 6 months’ unpaid wages. The three Greeks, 21, 27 and 39, were accused of opening fire with shotguns on a crowd of around 200 fruit pickers.
The economic situation in Greece provided ample material for my students. They approached the project in a variety of ways. Some used found video to represent the state of humanity, others interviewed family and friends for a picture of life in Greece, one made an animated film on immigration, and two students befriended one of the unemployed cave dwellers of Filopappou Hill located across from the Acropolis. On the last day of class, the films were screened at the Cheap Art gallery in Athens hosted by Yiannis Isidorou, the filmmaker who visited my class. He was impressed noting that some of the work was better than his film students. Students, family members, friends, and professors from the University of Athens attended the screening. The experience thrilled all who were present and gave a voice to a generation who given the present economic situation may feel powerless.
To view the student’s films on YouTube, click here:
Judith Zinis was a 2013 Fulbright Scholar in Greece where she taught film studies at the University of Athens and researched Greek-American filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos. As a professor at Ocean County College, she has developed and taught Film of the Sixties, World Cinema, and From Literature to Film. At Mathey College at Princeton University, she presented several examples of Greek Cinema. Recently, she published an article on the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival for the publication Urban Agenda.