Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A sad, shocking education: Maria Iliou's SMYRNA: A Cosmopolitan City, 1900-1922

The power of a good documentary to inform, educate, entertain, shock and encourage further thinking and discussion is brought to fine fruition in the film, SMYRNA: THE DESTRUCTION OF A COSMOPO-LITAN CITY, 1900-1922. Even, I suspect, old fogies like TrustMovies, may have some trouble coming up with the time and place that this fabled city existed (and we don't mean Smyrna, Georgia), so long has it been since many of us have heard the name or, for that matter, the larger location in which this city rested: Asia Minor. (It has literally been decades, I think, since I've heard spoken or seen those two words in print.)

Now, thanks to writer/director Maria Iliou (shown at left) and the several experts whom she and her crew have rounded up, this truly cosmopolitan city comes to life -- and death -- in a documentary that should take its place as a prime work of necessary historical excavation. We often hear the world "cosmopolitan" bandied about, in reference to American cities such as New York and San Francisco, but to hear our narrators speak about Smyrna -- the sounds of its multi-cultural music, its languages spoken, fashions worn and food eaten -- is to define that word anew, and definitively.

Filled with wonderfully rich, archival footage, we see a city made up of Muslims, Greeks, Armenians, Jews and Levantines (TM had to look up that word, so he figures you might need the definition, too), each group in its own district and all managing to get along within the borders of the city -- thanks in good part to the kind of "mayor" who made certain that every group was included in the "spoils," so to speak.

The film give us a tale of nationalism vs. cosmopolitanism, and for those of us who've lived awhile, it will not be difficult to imagine which group prevails. Though located in the area of the Ottoman Empire known as Asia Minor, Smyrna was always pulled most strongly between two cultures, religions and countries -- Greece and Turkey, Christianity and the Muslim world. The city became such a popular place that it was, in a sense, "protected" by the Great Powers, at least so long as it served the interests of those powers.

After World War I, the favor of the Great Powers moved from Greece to Turkey, for reasons of trade, among other things. The historians/narrators gives some very good history here, with cogent explanations of what was happening and why. One big question that hangs over the film is why did not the residents of Smyrna realize the horror that was on the horizon, which ought to have been clearer to see. Yet life in the city was so secluded from what was happening elsewhere -- in other cities, in the nearby countryside -- that, like Germany and much of Europe pre-World War II, the populace did not want to believe what they most needed to at that time.

The experts here include Alexander Kitroeff, Giles Milton, Victoria Solomonidis, Eleni Bastea and Leyla Neyzi, and they are all worth seeing and hearing. When it comes time to tell us what happened to Smyrna, the speakers do not stint, and it is among the most horrible tales of destruction and genocide that I can recall -- made worse by the fact that warships of the Great Powers were sitting in the Smyrna harbor all the while and for too long a time did absolutely nothing to help the populace.

The story has its few heroes, as well as its many villains (foremost among these the actions of the Greek military as they withdrew, and then much more so the Turks). After the Armenian genocide, Turkey now has another permanent blot on its honor with the Smyrna story. And of course, that country refuses to own up to anything. Little wonder it is still not a full-fledged member of the European Union. Though, if and when it is finally accepted, this will have more to do with the Higher Powers getting what they want and less about anything so trivial as a judgement on the country's past actions and its refusal to take responsibility for them.

This Smyrna documentary begins its two-week theatrical run on Friday, April 5, in New York City at the Quad Cinema, where director Maria Iliou (shown above) and Historical Consultant Alexander Kitroeff will be present for a Q&A after the 7:00 show on Friday, April 5th. There will be another Q&A with Director Maria Iliou and the film's director of photography, Allen Moore, on Friday April 12th at the 7:00pm show. You can learn of other screenings internationally by first clicking here, and then clicking on SCREENINGS AND NEWS at the bottom of the frame.


Anonymous said...

The Brit empire which set the whole thing in motion is completely left out. A few glimpses of David Lloyd-George, but that's it. The money for guns to Nationalists in the Balkans gets not one mention. The oil in Basra which put the Ottoman Empire in their sights to begin with gets not one mention. The fact the Brits wanted what the Turks had gets not one mention. The fact the Brits set the Greeks up in their quest gets not one mention. That they were setting up the Arabs in the same quest further south gets not one mention. Yet, all that is documented by historians not interviewed in the film. Oh yes, David Lloyd-George, a hapless career politician from Wales. And, just who might he taking arrows for?

Meanwhile, the same games of concealment of real cause and effect are played today on Metropolitan types all over including NYC sophisticates. It is right to show this film to NYC audiences today. But, I am not sure what they are going to learn from it to apply to the world that is being taken from them. The real games that set the whole thing in motion are left out. Yet, they are still being played unseen by filmmakers and certainly these historians (although some of them might know what they are doing). Orwell said it is what is left out that is the biggest lie. There is a big lie left out of this movie while "humanity" or Turks get blamed. Brits then "ruling the waves" had nothing to do with it...Bankers and war materiel lobbyists had nothing to do with it...

James van Maanen said...

Perhaps the Turks are getting blamed, Anonymous, because they were the ones who handled the actual slaughter. Not "humanity," but the Turks who did the deed. You gonna blame the Brits for the Turks' genocide of the Armenians, too? I hope not.

Sure, there is always a behind-the-scenes story, and you are right about some of what you say. But the movie does allude to this, as I point out in the review with my nod to the "Great Powers" working behind the scenes. I suppose the film could have included ALL these facts that you mention, but that would have been another movie, and a much longer one, too.

Those "same games of concealment" you mention are the reason for the existence of Wiki-leaks and their like, and also a reason to keep the internet as free and fair as possible. We shall see how well that works out....

Thanks for commenting, though I do wish more of you would use your real names.

Anonymous said...

Bristol Commission found atrocities by Greece in 1919 Smyrna. Constantinople offered control of Black Sea but offended comitata that rapes East Roumelia. Greeks went to Smyrna and Alexandria because of 1893 national bankruptcy. Trojans were Hittites like Solomon's mom. Send islamosoviet nigrasiates back as kebabs.

James van Maanen said...

Clearly, this movie is stirring up some shit. Always "anonymously," of course. I don't know quite what to make of the above comment. But anyway, thanks for the mention of East Roumelia (or East Rumelia) which I knew nothing of but now do, having looked it up and read a bit about it.

Movies have so much to teach us -- and so, it seems do some of the folk who comment on this blog. Thanks! (But I am still not sure what a "nigrasiate" is, if you'd care to define that term....)

Alex K. said...

Many thanks for highlighting the film!