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'Dogs of Democracy'

Australian filmmaker Mary Zournazi explores life on the streets of crisis-stricken Athens through the eyes of the dogs, sending across a message of dignity and kindness

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Mary Zournazi in action. Photo: Nikos Moshopoulos

05 December 2016

Dogs of Democracy is an essay-style documentary about the stray dogs of Athens − "a universal story about love and loyalty and what we might learn from animals and people's timeless quest for democracy," as Mary Zournazi describes it.

Zournazi has penned several books that have been produced as radio series for the ABC network, including Keywords to War, Hope - New Philosophies for Change and Inventing Peace with German filmmaker Wim Wenders. She has also worked extensively with writing and producing radio documentaries for ABC Radio National. The Inventing Peace radio series was nominated for the UN Media Prize (Australia) in 2014, the same year Greek Australian Zournazi decided to travel to Greece for the very first time.

"Both my parents are Greek, from Egypt, and even though they had been going backwards and forwards to Greece, I personally hadn't been to Greece before," she tells Neos Kosmos.

"When I arrived, I was struck by Athens, I immediately fell in love with it but at the same time it was very tense because it was in the heart of the crisis. I also noticed another thing that was happening. It was these dogs, so many dogs in the city and the people were taking care of them no matter how hard it was."

Loukanikos, Athens' famous riot dog.

Zournazi soon realised that these dogs were well cared for by volunteers, community groups and even homeless people. Almost in that same instance she was walking around Syntagma, the idea of a film came about. The filming, however, lasted for months and altogether Dogs of Democracy took a good two years to complete with the help of producer Tom Zubrycki. Meanwhile, in 2015 she made a short radio documentary about one of Athens' most famous strays, In Search of Loukanikos, which was broadcast on ABC RN.

"I immediately became fascinated by how well they [the dogs] looked and how they were part of the city," she explains. "Then, I became interested in what that has to say about people's capacity to care, to look after dogs, look after each other.
"So while Dogs of Democracy is on the surface a tale about the city's stray dogs, it has a deeper message about hope, dignity and the human capacity for kindness."

Shot on location in Athens, the birthplace of democracy, the documentary is about how Greece has become the 'stray dogs of Europe', and how the dogs have become a symbol of hope for the people and for the anti-austerity movement. Zournazi's aspiration is to deliver a universal story about love and loyalty and explore what we might learn from animals and people's timeless quest for democracy. Amid daily protests and social upheaval, people struggling to survive themselves still took time out to care for these dogs, which brought meaning and purpose to their lives.

"I want to point out, though," she interrupts, "that regardless of how often Athens and Greece's predicament make it in the news these days, it's still happening. I went back three times and the people are indeed suffering. The crisis is real and it's not going away."

At the same time, people still have a spirit of hope. Zournazi first witnessed that through the people's relationship with the strays and subsequently with each other. In spite of the turmoil and hardship, this warmth Athenians surrounded the centre of the city with made everything seem less bleak.

"The care people can give to animals and each other was, to me, a sign of hope," she muses. "It's a film about how we take care of one another from the ground up, and dogs, in a way, provide that mechanism for us to see that potential."

This realisation inspired Zournazi to attempt filming from a dog's perspective; try to see the world and the people of Athens through their eyes, follow their trail.

"I basically followed dogs and people around the city for months. It was quite interesting to do that and experience life on the street in this way," she continues.
"I filmed at the level of a dog, a dog's 'point of view' but from my camera, on me, not on the dogs. It's my first project as a filmmaker and it's not even from a human perspective."

Zournazi in front of a mural of Loukanikos.

Filmmaking has always been something that is part of Zournazi's interests, having collaborated closely on a book beside German filmmaker Wim Wenders.
"I'm used to watching his films," she says, explaining that she "became part of his life in a way", enamoured by the process.

"It's also part of my research, as apart from writing books I have also been making radio docos for about 20 years now. It's just adding the visuals to it."

Her honesty and respect for what she does is evident throughout the film. She manages to convey the reality that has taken over the once-tireless city of Athens, that is gasping in the grip of austerity, yet Zournazi achieves exactly what she aimed for: to inspire hope. Even though this is an essay-style documentary, it is bound to tug at some heart strings. The music underscoring the scenes is written and performed by internationally acclaimed Greek songwriter and composer K.Bhta (Konstantinos Vita).

"The Greek composer K.Bhta very kindly donated his music and I tried to connect different songs with different dogs, tried to get a feel for the dogs and their movement and character," she says. "Admittedly, his music really accentuates moments, evoked emotions and helped attribute character, vibe to the overall feeling of the film, through the dogs' adventures," Zournazi says.

Dogs of Democracy is currently competing in 30 international festivals including the Thessaloniki Film Festival. Ronin Films is distributing the film in Australia. Broadcast screening are to be announced soon. Oz Dox has arranged a special screening event in Sydney on December 14 at 6.00 pm, to be held at the AFTRS Theatre.

Watch the trailer here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4deL_HmIBQ

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