Decoding the truth behind old newsreels

When filmmaker Barry Levinson filmed «Wag the Dog,» revealing how the media can concoct an entire war for specific purposes, he may not have known that at the turn of the century an American cameraman who did not have time to film the American attack against the Spanish over Cuba, set up the scene on the outskirts of New York. Fotos Lambrinos, producer and director of the exemplary television series «Panorama of the Century,» has been involved with cinema newsreels for some 40 years. His interest in newsreels goes back to his studies in Moscow (1965-1970), alongside top filmmaker Mikhail Romm, and even earlier, when he decided to tell the story behind Grigoris Lambrakis’s assassination. In 1963, he teamed up with Dimos Theos and filmed «One Hundred Hours of May» after acquiring information from newsreels that dated to the time of the assassination. Since then, history and cinema have been of equal importance in Lambrinos’s filmography, which includes 1981’s «Aris Velouhiotis: The Dilemma,» 1987’s «Doxombous» and 1995’s «Glendi Genethlion – Mia Vouvi Valkaniki Istoria» (The Birthday Party – A Mute Balkan Story). Cinema and history are also what Lambrinos has been lecturing on at the universities of Crete, Thessaly and at Panteion University in Athens. In his recently released book «Ischys Mou i Agapi tou Fakou» (My Power is the Love of the Lens), he makes use of all the material he gathered during his lengthy research in a very stimulating and enjoyable way. The publication is accompanied by a 50-minute DVD, which is divided into three parts. The first part is called «The Adventure of Democracy» and features newsreels from 1926 and the declaration of democracy under the Papanastassiou government. The second part, «The Return of the Eternal Enemies,» follows the two funerals of former prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos (March 1936) and King Constantine (November 1936). The third part, titled «You Should Honor This Uniform,» focuses on parades and celebrations and people in uniform during the Metaxas dictatorship in Greece. The director comments with humor and intervenes to highlight details from the images, to classify and explain the events. Fotos Lambrinos calls on the reader-spectator to interpret the multiple meanings of images. «They should understand that film is not innocent, but is closely related to the development of codes of behavior, ideology, mentality and thought,» said the director. «My greatest ambition is for the reader-spectator to start having doubts about what is shown on television today. They should understand how film helps create stereotypes by claiming it is showing reality. But this is not the case. There are also fabricated newsreels.» Lambrinos discovered American newsreels dating to 1922-23 showing American sailors leading Greek children to the Smyrna pier to save them. «All the children are wearing similar clothing and that of course is not something that was filmed in Smyrna…» «The filmmaker’s intervention between the fact and the spectator is not a simple representation of natural images, but it is in fact the filmmaker’s own version. That version may merely be depicting a portion of the fact and not the entire fact; it may falsify the truth and can even fabricate it.» The book is divided into 11 chapters, with an prologue by Yiannis Yiannoulopoulos. It starts off with an introduction to the international history of film records, from the birth of cinema to the years between the two world wars and then moves on to the fabrication element in newsreels (at the Olympic Games, the Balkan Wars, the expedition to Asia Minor, the Metaxas dictatorship and more). The final chapter refers to the making of the television series «Panorama of the Century.» Events that were not filmed during the 45 years that the edition covers, such as the 1923 general strike that led to 11 dead and the popular revolt in Thessaloniki in May 1936, also feature prominently in the book. These events contrast sharply with the so-called «favorites of the lens:» the Greek royals and their funerals were the cameramen’s favorite topic until 1940. King George I’s grandiose funeral was filmed with great detail and lasted nine minutes and 30 seconds, a rare phenomenon for 1913. Lambrinos comments on the attire of those following the funeral procession, both the foreigners and the Greeks, as well as on the heavy presence of the clergy. He concludes that Orthodoxy and the Crown are the main symbols represented in George I’s lavish funeral. Regarding the material from King Alexander’s funeral (who died of a monkey bite), Lambrinos notes that although it starts off as a documentary, with titles by the Gaziadi brothers (the main cameramen/directors at the time), it was edited years later, probably during the Metaxas period, because it contains serious mistakes. December 12 is mentioned as the funeral date, but Alexander died on October 12 and was buried on the 16th, in 1920. The book’s main strength lies in its smooth narration, which is informal and enriched by descriptions and original material that both inform and entertain, provoking thought and interest in the reader.