Documenting Social Sensibility in the Greek Migrant Communitas in Germany.
Text by Ursula-Helen Kassaveti, Adjunct tutor, National & Kapodistrian University of Athens / Hellenic Open University
While the Greek inward migration after World War II has been prevalent as subject matter in many Greek popular cinema films, particularly during the 1960s, outward migration to European countries or overseas has only been predominantly limited to references on comedies with rich uncles and other relations that repatriate. In another instance, some more progressive attempts at commenting on immigration were scarce, such as Alexis Damianos’s Mehri to Ploio / To the Ship (1966). At the same time, documentary films had been oscillating between folklore and tourism. It was not until the advent of New Greek Cinema and the experimentation with a new visual language in the next decade that documentaries became a vehicle for social and political criticism. Giorgos Karypidis’s Teleftaios Stathmos, Kreuzberg / Last Stop, Kreuzberg (1975) was allegedly the first documentary film to shed some light on the Greek community of migrant workers living in Germany and expose some of the actual problems of their daily routines.
In the light of such a shift towards the Greek diaspora and their struggle to survive, director and poet Lefteris Xanthopoulos (1945-2020), an alumnus of the London Film School, decided to document the life and times of the Greek community of Heidelberg in his first documentary film. Based on his university thesis and his experience as a worker in German factories during the 1970s, Xanthopoulos composed in Elliniki Koinotita Haidelvergis / The Greek Community of Heidelberg (1976) an exemplary mosaic of the Greek immigrants in Heidelberg. Touching upon identity issues, cultural distance, and social difference, the director offered an insightful commentary about the ambivalence surrounding the immigrants’ feelings towards Germany. Their host country supports them financially but leaves them culturally void and their national identity in peril. Interestingly, the Greek community fully funded the filmmaker’s venture and helped him in all stages of its production.
From the collective conscience and the communitas of Heidelberg, Xanthopoulos brings the individual into the spotlight. His second medium-length documentary film, O Giorgos ap’ ta Sotirianika / George from Sotirianika (1978), features Giorgos Kozombolis, an immigrant from the village of Sotirianika in the Peloponnese, whose Greek restaurant in Western Germany attracts many Greeks as well as local Germans. The documentary film focuses on Giorgos’s success story: coming from an impoverished village, he survives in a European city. He becomes a well-respected entrepreneur, selling images of an idealized Greece to his foreign customers. Xanthopoulos observes his subject and lets him freely unfold his story, everyday life, hopes, and dreams without polishing his fears and problems. Eventually, the filmmaker provides an alternative view of what had been stereotypical of the poor Greek immigrant. For the first time, he shows an extraordinary social sensibility towards the Greek migrant community.
Xanthopoulos’ subsequent film Sta Tourkovounia / In Tourkovounia (1982) completes his “trilogy of emigration,” presenting inward immigrants near the center of Athens. His overall view of the world of immigration to Europe has opened up a window to a visual archive. Τhe latter complements all official and unofficial literature and the accounts of the Greeks that decided to find work abroad, despite their Heimweh.