By Christina Sanoudou
As Kalliopi Georgiadou tells the story of her family, she speaks a few words of the “foreign” language – the one that her parents, Greek Christian Orthodox refugees from Cappadocia, refused to consign to the darkest recesses of memory following their forced relocation to Greece. When director Maria Iliou asks her to do so, she agrees to continue in Turkish, reminiscing on a lost homeland that she never got to know.
On the other side of the Aegean, Husnu Karaman uses the Cretan dialect to describe the adventures of his family, who were forced to leave Iraklio during the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in the 1922-24 period.
The two stories bear much in common: Though moving in opposite directions, the Muslim refugees from Greece and their Greek Orthodox counterparts from Turkey experienced equally the pain of being uprooted and faced the same prejudices by the country folk in their new homelands.
Challenging the stereotypes that continue to be taught at Greek and Turkish schools, and keeping a safe distance from the prevalent nationalist rhetoric on both sides, Iliou’s documentary “Expulsion and Exchange of Populations (Turkey-Greece: 1922-1924)” aims at filling in the missing parts of the story and completing the puzzle.
The result of the award-winning filmmaker’s years-long collaboration with historian Alexander Kitroeff, the film comes in the wake of “Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City – 1900-1922,” released in 2012.
Without ignoring certain differences in the experiences of the two sides – for example that the Greeks in Turkey faced persecution before the agreement for the population exchange was reached – Iliou also does not try to gloss over some of the more brutal aspects of this chapter of history, such as the destruction of Turkish villages and the slaughter of civilians during the withdrawal from Turkey of the Greek army, which pursued a “scorched earth” policy.
What is probably the most powerful message that emerges from the documentary is that no one has a monopoly on pain, Iliou explains.
“The time has come for us to look at our history with sobriety – maybe this is not the right term, but there is certainly a need for us to approach the past from a different perspective, with an eye on the future as well,” she says.
The filmmaker has brought together rare archival material that had sat forgotten for decades in storage, as well as recent interviews with first-, second- and third-generation migrants to compose a full picture of this turbulent period and explore its impact on the present.
Raised on the stories of her father, a refugee from Smyrna, and her step-father, also a refugee, from the Black Sea, Iliou became acquainted with the concept of the lost homeland from a young age.
Her decision to tell the story – that was there inside her for years but could not be expressed – was greatly helped by her moving permanently to the United States. The distance helped her see things from a different perspective, to see the story in more general terms and to discern different interpretations of events.
Being in the US also meant that she didn’t have to deal with all the bureaucratic and other hurdles that would have stood in her way in Greece.
A series of coincidences and chance encounters, in combination with the persistence of the researchers and the success of “The Journey: The Greek American Dream” – Iliou’s 2007 collaboration with Kitroeff on the subject of Greek immigration to America, which allowed them, among other perks, access to the archives of the Library of Congress – led to the gradual collection of rare material.
Most of it consisted of photographs and undeveloped films from the Near East Relief archive, found in the basement of a holiday home on the banks of the Hudson River, as well as footage from the Red Cross, Princeton University, and documentary filmmaker and Armenian activist Robert Davidian.
To conduct the interviews with the children and grandchildren of refugees, the crew traveled to the south coast of the Black Sea (known as Pontus by Greeks), Cappadocia, Russia, northern Greece and elsewhere in an effort to tell the stories of people who were part of the “big events” and those who were not. Iliou also presents interviews with historians from both sides of the Aegean.
“We pay homage to the people who were lost or who lost their homes, but also to the science of history,” Iliou says.
“Expulsion and Exchange of Populations (Turkey-Greece: 1922-1924)” is being screened at movie theaters around Greece, as well as at the Benaki Museum (1 Koumbari, Kolonaki, tel 210.367.1000) every Sunday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. through December 29.