Here is an idea: If you have some left over footage, from the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, for example, instead of discarding it, why not recycle, rehash and reproduce it as something original, say, in time for the Bicentenary of the Greek Revolution, or rather as the official merch calls it: “the 200 years from the Revolution.”
This appears to be what our Helladic cousins have done, if their latest promotional film clip for the Bicentennial festivities is anything to go by. Rule One of the Youtube generation prescribes that if it takes longer than one minute to unpack, viewers have already moved to the next unboxing segment. Bizarrely, in the overly lengthy 2021 promotional clip, a full quarter of said moving image is devoted not to content, but instead, to credits, a miniscule list of unreadable names scrolling down a blank screen, an apt metaphor for modern Greek political culture and self-congratulation, if there ever was one.
As for the content itself, it is quite mystifying. The relevance of a smattering of white-clad, socially distanced youth who at best, look as if they took the wrong turn at Nuremberg and thus missed the Hitlerjugend rally, so they have been offered a gig at the Panathenaic Stadium as a consolation prize instead, or at worst, are, without their knowledge, not in Greece but rather, in a Purgatory for unsynchronised and unco-ordinated Soviet bourgeois reactionary callisthenists, to the Revolution, except to ask the question: Is this what Androutsos was murdered for? is unfathomable.
Indeed the setting is equally bizarre. As men prance down the Panathenaic Stadium banging the same drums that they did in the Athens 2004 Olympic opening ceremony, (again a worthy allegory for a discourse that has been repeated for so long it is now threadbare), do we look for a deeper meaning? Do we assume that the directors, influenced by Different Strokes, are trying to make a point about diversity and moral pluralism? (Now, the world don’t move/ To the beat of just one drum,/ What might be right for you,/ May not be right for some), or have they merely made use of whatever they could find in the props cupboard? What does this manifestly Olympic setting have to do with the Greek Revolution?
The Athens 2004 Olympic Games had a worldwide audience. It would have been natural and understandable for the organisers to employ certain clichés and stereotypes so as to render Greek culture intelligible to a broader audience. The celebrations for the two hundredth anniversary of Greek Independence however, is not such an occasion. No one is invested, emotionally or otherwise in this most important event, except for ourselves. Why then the need to resort to tacky western oriented stereotypes that, far from propagating a narrative, however narrow, of nationhood, achievement and pride, merely betray deep seated insecurities about identity, the past and by corollary, the future, considering that the producers can only express themselves in colonialist tropes, especially, if no one else is listening?
The aesthetics of the production also give pause for thought. Directionless movement acts as a conduit for a seething mass of palpably contrived joy, overlaying self-conscious protagonists who apart from mindlessly miming the lyrics of a song Milli Vanilli style, are visibly uncomfortable. The puerile attempts at symmetry, the amateurish mobilisation of the masses in a failed homage to North Korean optimism and enthusiasm, the ambivalence of a dance routine that is indeterminately ballet or faux karate, causes the tableaux to fall decidedly flat, as if Leni Riefenstahl called in sick on her way to film Triumph of the Wills, rendering the whole production as charming, attractive and effective as the private videos of Goebbel’s driver. You know, the ones he shot during his family vacations.
One element that is particular arresting is the use of the Herm. Unlike Herms of ancient times, which were a sculpture with the head of Hermes above a plain, squared lower section, on which male genitals were also carved at the appropriate height, the Herms in this production are Janus-faced, that is, they have another head behind them facing the opposite direction. Does the fact that Janus is the Roman god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, frames, and endings, express the production teams conviction that Greek civilisation has run its course? Is this an oblique reference to Kazantzidis’ «Δυο πόρτες έχει η ζωή;» Or, most likely, have the script-writers not thought the motif through? I don’t think so. For significantly, the most important part of the Herm, the phallus, which the ancients would rub for good luck, is missing on the second Herm, implying that we no longer have the gonads required to be taken seriously as viable national entity.
Does the young female dancer rubbing herself upon the phallus of the first Herm, while playing chasey with a tight-panted male, broadcast the message that when all else fails, we may as well rub our gonads for good luck? Is this a homage to a national pastime? Or is this a coded communication about the role of the patriarchy in determining the modern Greek discourse? One thing is for certain: when Alcibiades was convicted in absentia of vandalising the Athenian herms at the outset of the Peloponnesian War, the offence was a capital one. Which phallus chopping saboteurs the producers are suggesting are similarly responsible for Greece’s ills since the Revolution is difficult to discern. Whoever they are, they can shove it up their Janus. As an aside, there is an Aesop’s fable makes fun of a Herm. When a pious dog offers to ‘anoint’ it, the god Hermes hastily assures his worshipper that this is not necessary. Criminally, there are no animals in the 2021 promotional video. There are also no Greeks Abroad, nor for that matter, members of any ethnic, cultural or religious minority. According to the Committee, all Greeks are youthful, sort of cute and able to bounce upon Herms.
The “Strength through Joy” Hitlerjugend mouth the lyrics of Dionysios Savvopoulos’ famous song: «Ας κρατήσουν οι χοροί», which loosely translates as “Let the dances continue.” It is an interesting choice of ditty, especially considering that the first of its stanzas “Let the dances continue and we will find other alternative regional hangouts,” conjures a rural setting that has nothing to do with the Panathenaic Stadium. Indeed if you believe the whole choreographed extravaganza, the Greek Revolution must have taken place in Athens, for the benefit of Athenians. There is no visual reference point to any other place within Greek topography and the penultimate dance routine, in which the dancers coast around each other, arms outstretched in circles aptly portrays the omphalocentric perspective of the 2021 Committee.
A token flashing of shadow puppet-like silhouettes of Greek Revolutionary Heroes to the cringeworthy accompaniment of cannonfire as the fun but frivolous lyrics of Savvopoulos’ song unfold, looking retrospectively, like an aged reveller past their prime, towards “a future form of Rock” instead of embracing and seeking the new, is a slightly unfitting tribute to people who sacrificed their lives and fortunes so that we may be free. These are not figures in a Karagiozi play, and their brief, decontextualised and irrelevant appearance upon the seats of the Panathenaic Stadium actually insult their memory, dealing with them in the flippant cliché ridden manner in which Savvopoulos attempts to summarise the sum total of our experience (Kι είτε με τις αρχαιότητες/ είτε με ορθοδοξία/ των Eλλήνων οι κοινότητες/ φτιάχνουν άλλο γαλαξία) suggesting a Commemoration Committee that is decidedly not across the meaning of that which they are supposed not only to celebrate, but to honour.
The last two hundred years have not been easy. They have been full of as much pain as they have been about joy and they have caused Greek society to question and reinvent itself on numerous occasions. All this should be reflected in commemorations of the 2021 Revolution. This means that the protagonists of that Revolution should be afforded the dignity and respect they are due as we reflect not only upon the privilege of being free but also how easy it is for that freedom to be compromised. That is not to say that we cannot be jubilant and exuberant in the way we rejoice in our Bicentenary. However, that message we propagate needs to be broad, inclusive, embracive and nuanced, elements that are sorely lacking from the 2021 Commemorative Committee’s lacklustre new offering. Selections from Nobel Prize winning poet Odysseas Elytis’ Axion Esti, as set immortally to music by Theodorakis, would have granted any such meaning the poignancy that is its due. Instead we are presented with a packet of bald platitudes that we are expected to reassemble into a paean of resistance, as if they were an Ikea flat pack of suitable Hellenic values.
The 2021 Committee claims, paraphrasing Savvopoulos that «στα 200 αυτά χρόνια η «σύναξή» μας ξεδιπλώθηκε, μεγάλωσε» (in these 20 years our gathering has unfolded and grown). It is more accurate to say that it has unravelled and to make light of the experiences that compelled hundreds of thousands of Greeks to leave their homeland, is highly insulting to the sensitivities of an entire worldwide diasporan community. If Kolokotronis was alive today, he would have had their Herms for breakfast.
The Greek Revolution, and not the Olympics is the key common reference point of identity for the Greeks of Australia as is evidenced by the trouble we take over our 25th of March celebrations every year. As the Milli Vanilli-ites prance, prattle and pound their drums around a stadium constructed from funds donated by a diasporan Greek, let us, as Greek-Australians, pause to solemnly consider what the bicentenary of the Greek Revolution means for us here and how best we can express that significance through our own activities on a local level, even as we smile indulgently at our Helladic cousins’ effervescent efforts. After all, the 2021 Commemorative Committee would do well to remember that «Ας κρατήσουν οι χοροί,» can also mean to place dances on hold, a most suitable metaphor for an entity that ought to reflect a good deal more, before acting. Investing in a wardrobe might assist too.