When he was in his mid-60s, Stamatis Moraitis was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. His doctor told him he had between six and nine months to live. Living at the time in the US with his Greek-American wife Elpiniki and their three children, Stamatis was not going to be dictated to.
“The cheapest funeral at the time was $15,000. I told her that in Icaria island, a priest friend of mine will do a nice funeral for me for $200. So, we can go to the island for the funeral and the $15,000 can go for the kids. Why should the undertakers have it?” says Stamatis in Haris Raftogiannis’s “True Blue,” which screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival this week.
So the couple moved across the Atlantic to the idiosyncratic eastern Aegean island about 30 miles off the Turkish coast.
Nine months came and went… then years. Stamatis somehow managed to save something far more precious than his $15,000. Rather than succumbing to the disease, his ailing health gradually improved.
When he decided to check with his doctors back in the States, he found out that “they were all dead,” he recalls, giggling at his kitchen table as he takes another sip of his “medicine,” Icaria’s sweet red wine.
Scientists from around the world have sought to crack the mystery behind the good health and longevity of the inhabitants of this small, lush island with a population of less than 10,000. A 2009 study published by the National Geographic Society listed Icaria among five so-called “blue zones” where residents were found to outlive the American and Western European average by around a decade. About one in three Icarians was found to live into their 90s, while the population featured much lower rates of cancer and heart disease and significantly smaller chances of suffering from dementia or depression.
Producer Vicky Micha thought at the time that making a movie on the subject was bound to attract global interest. However, coming up with funds for the movie proved to be a challenge, Raftogiannis, a media-shy filmmaker in his late 30s, said during an interview in the northern port city.
“The project was in a coma for a few years, and I was close to pulling the plug on it last spring,” Raftogiannis said. Like Stamatis, the leading character, the project had its own back-from-the-dead twist. After taking one final look at the material and trying out a different structure, Raftogiannis managed to put together a 28-minute gem that seemed to resonate with Thessaloniki audiences.
Stamatis, now in his mid-90s, and his “girlie,” as he likes to call his wife, are a delight. Married for over 60 years, they are the epitome of joie de vivre. They spend their days chatting, teasing and helping one another, tending to their garden or cruising the island’s winding roads in their red Lada.
The news about Greece’s economic woes on the TV does not seem to disrupt their routine. The only thing capable of briefly shaking their existential tranquillity is bad news of a different kind: the death of or a memorial service for a fellow villager.
“I am interested in loss and how people deal with it,” Raftogiannis said. “Love, life and death is the trinity that plays on my mind, my existence; that’s the kind of thing I become obsessed with,” said the filmmaker nine years after making a short about unrequited love in a butcher's shop.
“So what is interesting about this couple is how chilled out they are about everything, like they don’t give a damn. Even when things are serious, they find a way to ride it out, and I found that fascinating. It’s this idea of overcoming: seeing a bad thing coming and finding a way of coming out unscathed,” he says.
But how much of this is thanks to Icaria?
“Icaria, yes, there is certainly something special about the place, but I have no idea what it is. Some people say it is the natural radiation emanating from the ground,” Raftogiannis said in reference to the island’s granite rocks and famous hot springs. “Everything there is just slower.”
Scientists tend to link the Icarians’ high life expectancy to a range of factors, including the local version of the Mediterranean diet, a healthy social life (exemplified in their Dionysiac “panigyria” or outdoor feasts), daily exercise on its rocky slopes and the habit of taking afternoon naps.
“It’s possible it has something to do with the place. But you must also have it in you as well. The place alone is not enough,” the director said.
Any stressed-out urbanites watching this heartwarming, uplifting film will likely feel a longing for the couple’s relaxed lifestyle. Raftogiannis, for one, is not coy about his sentiments.
“You can’t help liking their carefree nature while also feeling a bit envious. They are cool, charismatic people.”
Haris Raftogiannis is currently working on three new documentaries and one feature-length fiction film to be called “To Potami” (The River), “an existential fairy tale about love.” The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival ends on March 20. For more information, go to tdf.filmfestival.gr.