The film Future Suspended is from Crisis-scape research project examining crisis-ridden urban public spaces in Athens, Greece. www.crisis-scape.net
Interview by Debbie Humphry with Jaya Klara Brekke of the Crisis-scape collective and co-director of Future Suspended. 26th September 2016
Debbie: Could you briefly explain the research idea that drove the film?
Jaya: The film is the coming together of several research strands. So the way Crisis-scape was set up, five people worked on the project. Ross Domoney was the project photographer and filmmaker. I worked through interactive digital media so I did a lot of tying theory together with visual practices. Dimitris Dalakoglou was focusing on the waves of privatization that were happening following the sovereign debt crisis in Greece – the selling off of assets and the privatization of public space. Antonis Vradis did ethnographic research looking at everyday interactions in public transport in Athens, and Christos Filippidis was focusing on the militarization of public space and how crisis discourses were impacting marginalized people like refugees. I worked these different strands into a script, that myself and Ross finalized into the film. So the film was the grand finale of the project with everybody’s input brought together into a more general picture of what was happening in Athens at that time.
Debbie: I really thought the film was fantastic on every level, academic and visual. Because you can get academic films that have lots of brilliant content but visually are weaker, and vice versa – strong visual films that don’t have the analysis.
Jaya: It’s really because of all of us being involved, so everybody brought different strengths to the film.
Debbie: The sovereign debt crisis started in 2009, and obviously austerity came in. And I know in the film it said that in 2004 there was a boom, with lots of money coming in for development, but were people already struggling before the EU debt crisis, or was it really that sovereign debt moment and the austerity measures that changed it for everybody?
Jaya: Obviously it depends on who you’re talking to. Crisis is a weird concept that can be used for a lot of different purposes. But what happened when the financial crisis became a sovereign debt crisis, things got a lot worse for everyone, including the middle classes that all of a sudden had the stability and ground ripped away. What you might have considered steady improvement and steady growth and some kind of secure prospects for your kids, or some kind of class stability, all of a sudden was taken away and people were faced with a lot of insecurities that they didn’t have before. And that was quite a dramatic, quite a drastic and fast process.
Debbie: Why did you as a team want to make a film as an output? Or to put it another way, what do you think are the benefits of having a film as an output for a research project?
Jaya: Well there’s the obvious benefits of reaching completely different audiences. And also there’s something about using a visual way of story-telling that can give a different sense of what’s happening. You can give people a sense of something, a sensory experience. You can do that to some extent with written text as well but text tends to be a bit more intellectualized, whereas with film you can really work with bringing out some of the felt narratives, and some of the feeling of a space, of a place at a specific moment in time. So that’s why both the film and also the photography was a big thing in the project. So it can to reach different audiences. The initial wave of screenings were mostly in activist and anarchist spaces, in different social centres and occupied spaces around Europe, so you’ve got a lot of the local activists and groups working on these issues already. And then distributing it freely online makes a big difference because it goes through the various social networks, and gets seen by lots of people and their grandmothers kind of thing. Various people have picked up the film and used it for educational purposes so in that situation I would expect it might have also been seen by people who are not necessarily sympathetic to or understand the issues. It’s been shown at some festivals too, so there’s also a bit of an arts audience. With text you end up thinking a lot about issues, wanting to address a problem. But I think what visuals do, and what that form of story-telling does, is it allows people to get a feeling for something, and it’s a different form of solidarity that you can get from that. It’s like, I get a piece of your experience now, and that means I can feel and be with you in a different kind of way. This was a conscious effort when working through the script and the visuals, to make sure we were making a film that was not just talking heads, discussing structural issues, but that we would put the city at the forefront, letting the audience explore the city and see actual events as they played out. And that’s what I think it powerful about it.
Debbie: So in a way what you’re saying is that it generated more chance for there to be solidarity with the people in the film, with the migrants for example?
Jaya: I would hope so.
Debbie: So rather than just intellectualizing it, it might spur action, or some kind of empathetic response.
Jaya: Yes. Absolutely. Ok, we all know that visuals can also be used against people. Representing other people on film is always a tricky thing. There are ways of showing things where you can victimize people in a way that isn’t very empowering, or doesn’t allow a person to speak for themselves. There can be a lot of problems in using film. But I think that’s one strength that Ross has with his camera, he manages to have a very subtle way of showing people as their own subjects. They speak for themselves. Rather than it being like, I am now going to take this picture of you that strips you of being a unique person and makes you look like a category of people, a poor victim or something.
Jaya: The main challenge is how do you make a film that does something that text can’t do. It’s quite easy to fall into the trap of having talking heads. It’s quite easy to fall into the trap of having people just explain things, rather than showing things. And the two are quite different. So that is the big difference between a filmmaker, and a researcher that picks up the camera. A researcher picks up the camera, is used to an interview format, so they can go out and do a lot of interviews and they’ll capture material where the subject is speaking, and you piece together some opinions and perspectives. But showing and story-telling where the visuals get to speak for themselves is where it’s a documentary film, with things happening on the screen that allow you to witness something. That’s a different thing entirely. A few of us knew Ross from before because he’d been making films in Athens already. He’d been shooting a whole bunch of demonstrations and actions because he’d been around that scene. So some of the footage we used was stuff Ross had already shot. So it was kind of accumulated knowledge. Rather than it being like, we’re going to make this film, these are the shots we need and this is the story we’re going to tell. It was more something that emerged out of research efforts and work that all of us had been doing for a number of years, and then it came together in this film format.
Debbie: The three key themes of the film, which is ‘Privatisation’, “Devaluation’ of migrant space, and ‘Militarization’, have there been any key changes in these spheres in Athens since the film was made?
Jaya: Yeah definitely. The biggest thing was, when we were there the party in power was New Democracy, which is a kind of Conservative right-wing party. Golden Dawn, the far right neo-Nazi party, were very powerful. They’re still polling surprisingly high, like six, seven per cent now. But at that point it was 12, 13 per cent. So there is a difference with Syriza being in power. For a period of time the level of violence and conflict was extremely high, in that period of time when we were researching. That has gone down a little bit, in terms of public space conflict. I think Golden Dawn is starting to be a bit more active on the streets in this past year, but for a period of time they were quite quiet. Also because they committed a murder. They killed Pavlos Fyssas, quite a well-known anti-fascist activist who was also a hip-hop artist. Killah P is his hip-hop rapper name. They stabbed him on the street and that sparked a series of court cases against Golden Dawn that also went back in time because they were known for other various crimes. And for a period of time that meant that their popularity really dropped as people were like, ok we’re for an anti-establishment party, but not like people that are killing. So there’s been a shift in the mood since Syriza came into power, but at the same time they ended up imposing all the austerity measures anyway so it’s kind of like a depressed calm. Where at least before there was a clear enemy. And now without the clear enemy, it’s a bit of a cliché but the Left party is the party that has allowed for a consensus. They created the social consensus to push through austerity measures that otherwise would be seen as absolutely unacceptable. So that’s been a big political betrayal for a lot of people, and so there’s quite a depressed mood. It has been a year or so since I was working there, so it is hard to give specifics, but that is my impression at the moment.
Debbie: Do you know what’s happened about the public space situation in terms of privatization? Is that still going on? The thing you really got from the film was that basically public land was being sold off but, relative to the debt, for miniscule amounts. So it was actually giving everything away and gaining very little, and I just wondered what had happened?
Jaya: There was a bit that I really wanted to put in the film but we couldn’t manage to translate it visually. So there’s something called the Hellenic Republic Asset Development Fund, which is a private fund that’s responsible for selling off public assets. There’s a lot of corruption surrounding it. But on the website you literally have drop-down menus such as ‘Infrastructure’, and the drop-down will show you, say, an electricity company. Or islands. They list all the islands that are for sale. Its like a kind of website shopping experience.
Debbie: Ebay for the super rich.
Jaya: Exactly. So that to me was so in-your-face, but it’s hard to represent. A website on a film just doesn’t really work. So we didn’t use that in the end. I haven’t traced it in detail, but from what I can understand they weren’t very successful in selling off assets. It’s been slow.
Debbie: But that’s still basically the policy of the government. My other question is about the opposition. It’s really interesting how that’s shifted since the government changed. So my question is partly what is the state of the opposition, because the opposition seems to be no longer focused at the political party level. And then, secondly, what would be the way forward from these issues that, as you say, haven’t actually disappeared?
Jaya: So in Greece, when you say opposition, it’s not like that was ever primarily channelled through parliamentary politics. There has been a large anarchist movement for many many years, for example, and the broader left. And there is the solidarity movement. The solidarity movement cuts across the Left and includes a broader spectrum of people who wouldn’t necessarily place themselves like that politically. The Solidarity movement was something that really came about during the crisis, and it spans a whole wide range of basic material needs that people then have been trying to work out other ways of covering. So if your social security is ripped away then how do you start getting organised to make sure that basic social security is re-established in different ways? That’s what the Solidarity movement really has been doing, so you have Solidarity clinics where doctors are donating their time. Refugee housing initiatives, educational initiatives, and all the different kinds of occupied spaces, such as solidarity kitchens, and language classes. Then there is some organizing starting to happen around housing, because they’re in the process of changing legislation to make it easier to evict people if they can’t pay mortgages. So the opposition is a movement based around re-organizing how we provide for and protect basic needs.
Debbie: Because the state is no longer doing that.
Jaya: Yeah. Exactly. And there’s obviously a lot of things that have to be thought through and worked on when it comes to that kind of political practice. Because what is the difference between that sort of political practice in an empowering way where you’re really creating resources for yourself, or alternately in a way that is a constant drain. These debates have been very present in the UK, especially around the Big Society and volunteer economies where it’s a bit more of a forced solidarity, where the government wants to create a Big Society and everybody should step up and provide for the social services that no longer exist. The difference I guess between the UK and Greece is that there’s a strong political consciousness behind those actions in Greece. So there is some thinking through about how do you translate that into something that can become an autonomous force? Instead of just covering the holes the state has left behind. But it’s open questions, and questions around rethinking economics, how you organise resources, and how you make sure these things are long-term sustainable.
Debbie: Did the grassroots Solidarity movement come directly out of the financial crisis?
Jaya: Yes, and it was lots of very different people who were coming together around it. Also things like organizing other types of food distribution so there’s what they call the potato movement, which is people bringing in food from rural areas, so circumventing the supermarket chains. So selling cheaper. A lot of reorganizing basic needs and resources.
Debbie: The Solidarity movement sounds really well-organised. Do you think in terms of activism and organization in Athens, compared to London or other European cities, is there something historically in Greece that has enabled this to be so well-organised, or is it simply because the situation is so desperate?
Jaya: I have a particular angle on Greece because of the people I surround myself with, but my impression is that Greece does seem to have a strong historical memory. A lot of people have a mistrust of authority. In the UK there is a mediation by authority that tends to happen a lot, and it feels a lot more fragmented in terms of communities and politically. It’s more of a struggle to get people together, for there to be a shared understanding and a shared historical narrative around who we are, and who we are in relation to authority. Whereas in Greece that’s quite strong. And I think that makes a big difference.
Debbie: Can you elaborate on what you think historically has impacted on that in Greece?
Jaya: Well there’s the dictatorship in Greece, and there’s still dates that are celebrated around that. So 17th November 1973 is when there was an uprising by the students at the Polytechnic University that led to the fall of the dictatorship, and that’s celebrated with big demonstrations every year. Whilst the UK it’s subtle things, like these holidays are called bank holidays. Even Labour Day, 1st May, it’s called a bank holiday, it’s not called International Workers Day or anything like that. So the universal combining narrative of the ‘bank holiday’ depoliticizes things. Greece is culturally more homogenous than the UK so I’m not going to glorify the Greek tradition, but it’s two very different ways of organizing society. Lets just say there’s a very strong common sense of history from specific groups in Greece. So the Anarchist scene has been around for a long time and they’ll have things that they remember. The same with the Left, and the same with the Right wing. And there’s strong lines of continuity so people will remember this and this family that was part of the police or were involved in the Dictatorship, or were fascists back then. Again, this is my impression as a non-greek who has been working and hanging around there for some years.
Debbie: Do you have any more thoughts on the way forward for Greece?
Jaya: You were saying the Solidarity movement is well organised, but it’s also fragmented. How do you step up and progress in a situation where resources are really tight? So there are the usual kinds of problems around solidarity-based economies, such as burnout and lack of resources.
Debbie: I wondered what you thought about Brexit here in the UK. I mean we had the left Lexit position that wanted to leave because it was critical of the EU enforced austerity measures such as you see in Greece.
Jaya: The two countries are politically in very different situations. So I think one thing is the signal you’re sending around, like whether you agree with EU austerity measures, or the way the EU is structured, or what is stands for as an institution. But another thing is what the vote symbolizes for domestic policies, and the issue with the Brexit was the way it tied so tightly with the right wing politics domestically.
Debbie: And the cultural politics of how we think about immigration.
Jaya: Yeah exactly. Like these types of referendums are more a kind of registry of sentiment, because you’re not actually voting on a specific policy. Nobody knows what a Brexit materially will actually look like. All those things take years of negotiations. So you’re not really voting on anything specific, it’s a sentiment. And the way the sentiment was constructed in the UK was a right-wing sentiment, in the way that it was debated in the media. That’s why it was a bit different in Greece. So the Lexit in the UK, I think that might be an important position to take but maybe it wasn’t strong enough for that sentiment to be understood if you voted for Brexit. That wasn’t how it was going to be interpreted. In Greece the 2015 referendum was a signifier of no, stop, no more austerity. But the government decided to ignore that. So thinking about a way forward on the larger scale, when it comes to EU policies, it’s quite a complicated question because the EU is in a strange state right now. After the Brexit and with the refugee situation, Greece seems to be put in a worse and worse position. It seems more like a territory that’s being negotiated over its head. Geographically it’s between Germany and Turkey, and Greece is like a holding place for refugees, and a place where various economic policies can be experimented with.
Debbie: What I really loved about the film was the fact it managed to focus on the everyday experiences but also give a sense of the wider structural causes.
Jaya: Thank you and it is great to hear that we managed to do that. It was a very conscious decision – and we worked hard to make that happen. It was probably one of the trickiest parts when I was working and reworking the script, to make sure that the structural bits and talking heads were always then grounded in images of actual events in a meaningful way. Our intention was to make a film that would primarily give a lived and sensorial experience of Athens at that time, while also giving enough information of the structural events and contexts so that the audience would be also able to make sense of it.
To see map of racist attacks www.map.crisis-scape.net
For editorial and articles relating to Future Suspended and its themes see CITY Vol. 18 nos 4-5.
Debbie Humphry is web editor for CITY-analysis, a researcher and photographer, currently a research fellow at University of East London’s (UEL) Centre for East London Studies (CELS), with interests in housing, neighbourhood, class, social mobility, social justice and participative visual methodologies. http://www.debbiehumphry.com