Sunday, March 16, 2014

FROM BOTH SIDES OF THE AEGEAN: Maria Iliou is back with a follow-up to her fine "Smyrna" doc

Evidently, though I did not realize it at the time, Maria Iliou's excellent documentary, Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City, 1900-1922, was but the first of a two- (and maybe even more) part series that now continues with FROM BOTH SIDES OF THE AEGEAN: Expulsion and Exchange of Populations, Turkey and Greece, 1922-1924. No one would ever accuse Ms. Iliou of creating marquee-friendly movie titles, but she certainly does give us interesting films about a part of the world with which most of us will have had little familiarity.

In this second work, the filmmaker (above, left) and her historical consultant, Alexander Kitroeff (above, right), take off pretty much from where the first film ended. We do see some of that history of the great cosmopolitan city of Smyrna and what happened to it and get a quick course in the part played by WWI and the "Great Powers" in this whole sad business. This takes up perhaps 20 minutes of the new film, and then we're pushed ahead to see and learn what happened after the destruction and how and why well over a million refugees (1,100,000 Greeks alone!) were herded unnecessarily from what was now -- after the end of the Ottoman Empire -- suddenly part of Turkey or Greece. (Unless I missed it, I don't think figures were given for how many Muslims were sent packing back to the "new" Turkey.)

We learn more about the Lauzanne Negotiations, and what these meant to displaced Greeks and Muslims/Turks. These refugees were families who, often for generations, had lived in the same towns and had sometimes very important jobs and businesses -- for which their compensation ranged from little to none. One thing this documentary makes enormously clear (as did the last one) is how the push for "nationalism" rather than for cosmopolitanism, can create such havoc in so many lives.

Once again we see and hear interviews with younger family members who tell us stories they heard from their elders, and all this is woven together with the use of more of those wonderful archival photos. One thing the movie will probably have you considering: How much better may have been the old Ottoman Empire, with its grand inclusivity of cultures, religions and ideas, when set against the nationalistic states that have, in its place, since surfaced: Turkey, The Balkans & the Middle Eastern states.

One thing I noticed in this second documentary is that Ms Iliou seems less quick to blame Turkey over Greece for all that happened here, something I felt might have been a tad imbalanced in the first film. This second documentary doesn't whitewash anyone but simply seems less pushy toward the Turks. Hearing the stories of the displaced Muslims, as well as the Greeks, goes a long way toward achieving a good balance.

These tales make you realize anew that refugees and their stories are so very similar in so many ways. This is a terrible way to live, and it doesn't matter who is on the giving or receiving end.

If From Both Sides of the Aegean doesn't quite come up to the level of the earlier Smyrna documentary, this may simply be due to its not having a subject as grand and awful as the horrible destruction of that in-some-ways model city.

A must-see for anyone whose family hails from these parts, the movie should also appeal to anyone curious about the history of the world outside our relatively small sphere.

The new documentary -- from Proteas and Proteus NY Inc. and running 87 minutes -- opens this coming Friday, March 21, for a two-week run at New York City's Quad Cinema. Elsewhere? Not sure. But you can click here to keep up to date with other scheduled screenings.

Filmmaker Maria Iliou and Historical Consultant Alexander Kitroeff, will attend the opening night screenings on March 21 at 7 and 8:30pm and on March 29 at 7pm for a Q&A. Cinematographer Allen Moore, Historian Eleni Bastea and director Iliou will be present on Saturday, 
March 22, at the 7pm screening for a Q&A.  


Anonymous said...

What a beautifully and artfully woven tapestry this outstanding documentary is, not to be missed by anyone drawn to the recent history of the area. I would like to point out that 400,000 Muslims from Greece vs. 1,100,000 Greek Christians from Asia Minor were 'exchanged.' This is mentioned in Bruce Clark's (a significant contributor to the documentary) book "Twice a Stranger". Turkey was in a much more advantageous position to receive its refugees and accommodate them in the ample properties 'vacated' by the Greeks of Anatolia. Coupled with Turkey's new-found nationalist pride at the time, this diminished the need, so to speak, for Turkey to accept foreign aid (as was the case for Greece) to sustain the influx of its refugees.

James van Maanen said...

Thanks for this comment, Anon, and for securing the number of Muslims from Greece who were "exchanged."