The Way to the West

  The Way to the West Across the road from the unfinished Museum of Modern Art, Sofi Serwan was waiting under the cover of the awning of a café. Serwan is a sculptor from Iraqi Kurdistan, he explained as we sat down inside; he studied at the school of fine art in Baghdad in the 1980’s. ‘We had mainly good teachers’ he said quietly. As he spoke of his experiences in art school my anxiety about interviewing him began to ease. No, following Islamic traditions, they didn’t use life models in sculpture but it’s a complicated issue. Yes, there was a class dedicated to making Saddam Hussein’s portraits, but no, he refused to make them. For Serwan, it was on the whole a positive experience, though not without problems: as a Kurd his presence at the school was considered a threat by some of the staff. ‘Very few Kurds were accepted into the Baghdad art school and so they had to be the best and very motivated. We wanted to show our work, but they wanted to hide its presence.’

“You’re not asking the right questions…”
In Kyriakos Katzourakis’ film, ‘The Way to the West’ the semi-fictional Irina, played by Katia Gerou, begins by reflecting the fear felt by many artists, journalists and film-makers when faced with speaking to and talking about refugees or illegal immigrants. The stereotypes, the law, guilt, injustice, and a distance measured mainly by ignorance makes starting a dialogue a process filled with anxiety. The dramatization of Irina’s plight, based on a theatrical work by the writer Maro Douka, provides the lyrical voice around which the documentary footage of the film turns. European but simultaneously Balkan, Oriental and foreign she acts as a bridge between the thousands of human tragedies the film attempts to cover and the viewer; her own story of exploitation and destruction at once introduces us to the stories of many others and at the same time fleshes out each one with details and feelings that a pure documentary can not show.
The Way to the West Sofi Serwan and I met in order talk about Katzourakis’ work, immigration and its representation. As a sculptor, his first work on arriving in Athens in 1996 and still living in a shelter, was made of whatever material he could lay his hands on: piles of donated clothes and plaster. Since then he has taken part in six exhibitions and though he believes that all his work reflects his migration, only a few pieces focus exclusively on it. Just like many Greek artists, he stresses, he cannot support himself financially as a sculptor and so has to work as an interpreter. Looking at Katzourakis’ paintings, Serwan says that the grey, bitter atmosphere seems ‘about right’ but then, a little shaken, he adds, ‘I believe that immigrants are, above all, people.’

Art and displacement
Serwan’s oblique handling of his own displacement is a product of his experiences, ‘it kills something inside you,’ he says, ‘I deal with my emigration mostly subconsciously… I saw many terrible images and, without necessarily wanting to, I have to avoid them.’ After the first Gulf War he had to flee to Iran and on the way he saw the ‘worst that human beings can reach: mothers fleeing but unable to carry all their children… At most you can pick up one of them…’ he trailed off, ‘it’s not good; I lost my sense of wonder with the world. Many people believe that art should be beautiful, but that’s a mistake, it must express how the artist feels. As artists we live in a dilemma: to create what you want or what sells.’ I looked at the art-deco posters decorating the café and remembered a passage from the prologue to The Way to the West: ‘Everybody expects the writer, the painter, the philosopher, the musician, to depict the image of love, as a type of ongoing exorcism of malevolence. Perhaps the only aid and consolation in attempting to succeed with such an exorcism rests in the dignity one discovers in a face. For the malevolence is vast; reality can be incredibly hard.’

Kyriakos Katzourakis’ paintings are full of figures that are not quite engulfed by the threatening greys and blacks of his backgrounds and exposed by a few rays of hard light. Two people meet but don’t look at each other whilst grimy children and dogs move through the foreground. They are not playing. It is not so much that the city streets are actively hostile as much as dehumanising. The looks of suspicion and fear in the eyes of the men standing in the street of Nightwatch (2000) are the result of displacement and relocation in strange and difficult surroundings. In Athens such faces are at once as familiar and distant as the thousands of migrants and refugees that crowd the streets around Ommonia and Athinas. The harsh yellow street lights glow in bitter contrast to the blues and blacks of the shadows that envelop the scene in a miserable shroud that is only broken by a single girl walking away from the group and towards the viewer, her overexposed face and half open mouth expressing (at least at first glance) a dynamism and unspoilt energy missing elsewhere.

Similarly, Katzourakis’ jaggedly cut film, that won the first prize for a documentary film at this years Thessaloniki Film Festival, includes some of the artist’s paintings and installations to create a film full of images that are at once bleak and at the same time reflect the self-possession of uprooted people. Part documentary footage and part dramatic re-enactment of the plight of Irina, an illegal sex worker from Eastern Europe, the film moves uneasily between her unravelling life and the testimonies of dozens of people who left their homes in search of a life in the West. The uncomfortable hand held documentary footage of Irina moving through the city’s twilit streets is interspaced with her voice-over story, that is at once a poignant narrative of a very human life and simultaneously evidence of its thorough fragmentation and devastation through exploitation, lies and shattered naivety.

The documentary part of the film attempts to confront the problems faced by real immigrants in Greece through their own testimonies and through news footage. The state emerges as a bureaucracy that is at best obstructive and at worst actively hostile and almost always a drain on time and money. A sea of sweaty, desperate people tries to make the deadline for green cards and work permits to avoid the continual threat of immediate deportation. On paper, the procedures for granting political and humanitarian asylum are in place but in reality, a vicious game of nerves is fought in order to encourage people to leave. In a particularly shocking juxtaposition, the film returns to the recurring image of the migration of wildebeests scrambling, struggling and dying on a riverbank.
The Way to the West Cosmopolitan identities
Looking at longer-term immigrants, people who have supposedly settled and spent a decade or more in Greece, the message is mixed. Some people express an increasing confusion and isolation from the very process of settling down: after being forced to leave their homes they find that when and if they eventually return, their migration and changed circumstances have made them foreigners there too. On the other hand, some of the scenes that bring relief to what is otherwise a powerful and rather relentless commentary are those that show how more settled foreigners have begun to create new identities. Moavia came to Greece from Sudan 23 years ago to study and stayed: ‘I’m Cretan! From Crete,’ he says, before bursting into infectious laughter at the surreal implications of his too local identification. The image of a young girl gracefully dancing to a traditional Bangladeshi song in her parents’ living room as her proud father talks about who she is and where she’s from, gives lie to the idea that all immigrants bring to a country are ‘cheap hands’ for menial work.

New spaces
Does Serwan feel he can express himself freely in Greece? Yes, is his answer: he no longer worries about being overheard by secret police or informers. But it’s not enough: ‘It seems we won the battles of the 1960’s and people are free to express themselves and their anger at who ever they want but it doesn’t change things. Look at the anti-war demonstrations: millions expressed themselves and went home thinking they had done their duty. But nothing changed. People have to take free expression and turn it into something.’ Kyriakos’ film underlines this sentiment through its exploration of the real problems faced by migrants. Using a powerful mix of cinematic forms it seems that it achieves at least this first step by showing the human tragedy and dignity behind the clichés and prejudice. In other words, through his work, one confronts the anxieties that prevent a positive discussion of the issue of immigration. Katzourakis’ film and paintings have managed to ‘create a space with a greater feeling of reality’ that moves beyond ‘merely recording testimonies’ to open up room for constructive action.
Leonidas Liambey

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