Before the bloody nationalistic conflicts of the 20th century, there was a world of empires, when ethnic coexistence gave rise to a fleeting era of cosmopolitanism that was doomed to end in death and displacement. The latter is the sober theme of a new documentary by Maria Iliou which sheds light on the forced exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The film, “From Both Sides of the Aegean: Expulsion and Exchange of Populations, Turkey-Greece: 1922-1924,” recently screened at New York City’s Quad Cinema, is the second part of a trilogy which started with the destruction of the city of Smyrna in 1922.
In this documentary, which follows “Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City – 1900-1922,” Iliou tells the story of what followed: the first compulsory “exchange of populations” in the modern world, in which 1.2 million Greek Orthodox and 400,000 Muslims were forcibly relocated from Turkey to Greece and Greece to Turkey respectively. According to the documentary’s historical consultant, Alexander Kitroeff, the history of the population exchanges is the story of the 20th century: “All the wars and revolutions of the 20th century, apart from the millions of victims and the destruction, resulted in a large-scale displacement of populations.” He mentions “the thousands of immigrants created by the Russian revolution, the political refugees after Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War, the persecution of the Germans from Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War, and the millions who were exchanged, without any kind of diplomatic agreement, between India and Pakistan after their borders were drawn in 1947.”
Without ignoring history, Iliou’s aim is to introduce a new perspective: the human element. Her film recounts the ethnic cleansing and violent expulsions of ethnic Greeks from Asia Minor and Muslims from Greece, as told not only by historians but also the refugees themselves. The probing interviews reveal the painful similarities of the experience, their testimonies coming to life with the aid of some remarkable archival films and photographs, as well as music of Nick Platyrachos that was inspired by the era.
The film itself was the realization of a promise Iliou made to her stepfather Takis, revealed the director, a Greek from Asia Minor, on opening night: “For years now I have been unable to forget this image: A quiet garden and my stepfather, Takis… telling me that at the age of 7 he suddenly saw his own father, an eminent Greek from the Pontus, dead, hanging from a tree in the courtyard of the command post in Kerasounta… My promise to Takis when I left Greece to study cinema in Italy was that one day I would make a film about the expulsion.” Iliou remembered that, “for many years, only the Asia Minor Catastrophe and the pain of the expulsion of our people existed for my family.”
It is a feeling shared by Meni Atsikbasi, a daughter of Greek Orthodox refugees from Turkey who was interviewed for the documentary. Atsikbasi grew up in a village on Lesvos inhabited exclusively by refugees: “I met many refugees and saw how their souls wept. And they always smiled wanly when they spoke of Asia Minor, their homeland, their houses, their lives there... This conversation took place every day. They'd finish work and then start talking about their homeland, what they did there, what it was like… And I can honestly say that from what they told me, I am familiar with every square inch of their homes... where the gardens lay... the pomegranate trees, the jasmine bushes where the bakery was located... everything about their life as though I was there.”
Husnu Karaman has a similar story to tell. His Muslim family left Crete for Turkey, but in their new home in Cesme, the conversation was always about Crete: “No evening went by without Crete. It was always Crete. What did Crete mean to my family? It was their homeland. My father always said they lived there 300 years... We sprouted roots there. We grew up there. But we were uprooted. Nothing you tell a refugee is of any value; all he seeks is his homeland.”
Iliou hopes that such narratives, preserved as family history, will allow for a new understanding of the past as a history of personal attachments to ancestral lands and a world of ethnic coexistence. Yet one doesn’t need to be a Greek or a Turk to relate to the story: This is a longing felt by any person who has been forced to leave their homeland behind. And as Kitroeff says, it’s not all in the past either: “The practice of populations exchange went on during the second half of the 20th century and continues to the present. The current developments in Crimea and the possibility of a redrawing of the borders foster the danger of new displacements of minorities between Russia and the Ukraine.”