A dangerous journey…
Konstantine Giannaris’ new film questions some basic assumptions about migrants, terrorism and xenophobia. The film’s ironic title Hostage refers to the dramatised interpretation of a real-life deadly bus hijacking by a young Albanian, Flamour Pisli, in 1999 in which he took over an intercity bus and demanded a ransom and safe passage back to his country. The bus however, was taken over by one man, in the film, Elion Senia, and his hostages are the numerous bus passengers unlucky enough to have boarded the bus that particular morning. The title thus plays on the obvious distinction between terrorist and victim: the gun-yielding hijacker Elion could be the ‘hostage’ of the title and is certainly the focus of the director’s attention.
As the drama unfolds, the series of events that led to his decision to take over the bus are shown through flash backs: Elion’s expulsion from Greece, the humiliating rejection of his marriage proposal in Albania and finally, his involvement in a gun running scam with a local police officer that ends in his arrest and graphic humiliation after he sleeps with the officer’s wife. All this takes place against the background of his fragile legal status and palpable racial prejudice; themes accentuated and explored in the film through the claustrophobic interactions between passengers inside the sweaty bus and the massive police escort outside it.
The film’s astute undermining of prejudices and deliberately messy structure play to and then undermine the audiences preconceptions. A black African finds time to write a letter to some friends expecting a baby - not in Africa as another passenger expects - but in a crowded suburb of Athens. Another man suffering a heroin come-down gives a patriotic-racist speech extolling the cultural superiority of Greeks over the barbarian Albanians, nicely subverting everyday myths of Greek uniqueness. The film on the whole however, paints a bleak picture of forced proximity, official corruption, media exploitation and individual tragedy.
The reality of immigration in Greece was explored by a recent lecture at the Greek General Confederation of Labour. According to UN figures, by 2015 Greece will have a population of 14million (from 10m today) of which 3,5 million will be non-EU migrants. The fact that this is a recent phenomenon was underlined by one of the speakers, the member of parliament Anna Diamantopoulou, who highlighted the fact that until 1991 the legal regulation of immigrants in Greece was based entirely on a 1929 law. Since then, Greece has become the country (along with Belgium) with the highest percentage of migrants per head of population (at 7,5%) in the EU.
Drawing on experience from Germany and the Low Countries Professor D. Thränhardt from the University of Munster pointed out the importance of legalisation and the integration of immigrants into the legal system. As Giannaris’ film suggested, the insecurity of illegal status is part of the problem that led to the extreme solution chosen by the film’s protagonist Elion. The speakers at the lecture reinforced the notion that whilst not effecting the numbers of immigrants arriving in a country (as the far-Right would have us believe) the ability of migrants to enter the legal and tax systems of their host country has significant repercussions on their own lives and is usually beneficial to the host nation too. Citing evidence of lost government revenue through the illegal and untaxed labour market as well as the social problems that come from marginalized communities living within but beyond the state, the speakers suggested that legalising and accepting inevitable immigration is a way of overcoming the demographic problems that European countries such as Greece are facing as their populations age.
Egnatia: a journey of displaced memories
The practical problems involved in the process of integration and the individual stories of migrants is the focus of a European art project started by the Italian team STALKER. The project ‘Via Egnatia’ has agencies of artists working across Europe to explore the different realities and myths around the movement of populations along the ancient Roman road that linked Byzantium (now Istanbul) and the Western Roman capital in Rome. Cutting through the Balkans, the axis has been the site of the mass movements of people from the blind Bulgarians purged by a Byzantine emperor, to the 1922 exchange of Greek and Turkish populations and finally to the more recent movement of economic and political migrants in the context of the EU.
The reality of these later migrants journeys, in particular those who have ended up in the Lavrio Refugee Camp 50km from Athens, together with the conditions of their acceptance and the complicity of Greece’s own cultural, political and economic circumstances in blocking this, is the focus of the Athens Agency’s work. The projects include a re-mapping of the refugee camp, documentary video work and a sound installation bringing Turkish and Greek experiences of the 1922 population exchange together. Some of these pieces were exhibited as works-in-progress at a weekend Egnatia event at the Yeni Djami in Thessaloniki organised by Oxymoron, Athens. Academic speakers joined with artists, architects, refugees and the public to explore some of the issues of memory, displacement and immigration. The Egnatia project is in the process of recording real accounts of people who were moved or have moved along the Egnatia “bridge” between East and West. Egnatia’s aim is the creation new spaces and processes for the effective confrontation of the issues of integration and difference. Through such works the Agencies are attempting to weave these marginal arrivals into the imaginative fabric of Europe.