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Monday 27 February 2023

Old Stories in new ways: Using the TV documentary form to revisit national history

On 22 February 2023, the European Studies Centre welcomed Stathis Kalyvas (All Souls College) to talk about his TV documentary series “Disasters & Triumphs.” The talk, entitled “Old Stories in New Ways: Using the TV documentary form to revisit national history,” was chaired by Marilena Anastasopoulou (Pembroke College).

Kalyvas began his presentation by outlining a widespread view of Modern Greek history according to which the country is frequently depicted as an unworthy successor to a great ancient civilisation, and its modern trajectory is viewed as stumbling from one disaster to another. Unhappy with this traditional account, Kalyvas conceived the idea for his 2014 book of moving away from this pessimistic view of modern Greece. His goals for a TV documentary series were threefold: to build on the thesis of his book; to do so in a research-based way; and yet to do so in an accessible and attractive fashion.

Such an endeavour naturally poses many challenges. National histories follow powerful conventions and scripts that are difficult to change, as people are highly attached to them. However, such stories can be frequently both deceptive and dysfunctional. Furthermore, public history has to contend with a world of social media that often dumbs down and polarises debates.Following a brief discussion of the theory behind documentary film-making, Kalyvas expounded on the process itself. First among the tasks was turning abstract concepts into images. Places and buildings, as well as art and moving images, would have to be used to represent the argument. The bicentenary of Greece’s independence helped this process, imbuing them with special significance.

Secondly, it was necessary to devise an appropriate language for talking about modern Greece. When asked what modern Greece is, the conventional response is “a modern version of ancient Greece.” Part of Kalyvas’s task was to move away from this misleading view by introducing a realistic, yet more optimistic take on the country’s contemporary history. Furthermore, the documentary avoids cliches as well as provocations, inserting social science into the debate.

Thirdly, Kalyvas talked about how the documentary was structured. The series has seven episodes, each disaggregated into four parts. These four parts form the narrative core of the argument: a disaster, a flashback to the origins of the disaster which were embedded in a highly ambitious project, the path that led to the disaster, and how success was wrested from the jaws of disaster. Put more simply, the documentary is a story of seven major projects followed by seven disasters, each in turn succeeded by seven rebounds. These collectively and sequentially produced the Greece of today.

The seven episodes tell the story of the following events:

1. The War of Independence leading to military defeats and followed by independence being achieved despite these defeats.

2. State- and Nation-building, an arc that began from failed state and led to a stinging military defeat in 1897. Nevertheless, both processes proved much more successful than initially acknowledged.

3. The expansion of Greece which led to both debacle in Asia Minor and a highly successful integration of Anatolian Greeks.

4. Institutional modernisation during the interwar period, culminating in Civil War but also in a remarkable reconstruction immediately afterwards.

5. Economic modernisation followed by dictatorship, which in turn gave way to the emergence of a new democratic regime.

6. Democratisation gave way to populism, but produced long-term democratic consolidation.

7. European economic integration begetting crisis, with the final resolution of this episode still open.

The seven episodes also convey seven underlying stories: the idea of Greece as a nation state; the process of state and nation building; the contradictions of nationalism in a post-imperial age; the three interwar political experiments of democratic capitalism, fascism, and communism; the great escape from economic underdevelopment; the democratic revolution of 1974; and the trading of economic sovereignty for integration into the European Union.

Kalyvas described the creative process behind the documentary. His book on modern Greece was used as a starting point, and many interviewees in the documentary had already been cited in it. He also shared some experiences from the process of film-making. The match with Anemon Production Company was a happy one, though the pandemic did make their working conditions much more difficult. Nevertheless, the pandemic also meant that many scenes could be filmed in the centre of an empty Athens, and that all the work could be done at once rather than happening in short bursts.

Finally, Kalyvas talked about the documentary’s reception and his next steps. He noted that the cycle was shown during primetime and received very limited backlash. He posited that the explanation might be his being an “equal opportunity offender.” Indeed, the documentary was called a “history of traitors” by some on the far-right and “a pitch for international capitalism” by some on the far-left. However, the overall reception was very positive. The most natural next step would be to produce an English version of the documentary, but this of course entails changing the narrative to the needs of an international audience.

In the question-and-answer session, Kalyvas discussed some of the practical and theoretical challenges of filming a documentary. He defended his use of the ambitious projects-disasters-triumphs structure as a helpful narrative device. He also highlighted Greece’s special significance as a case study: it has been a “very early late moderniser.” As one of the earliest new nation states in Europe, Greece was the site of the first institutionalised population transfer, and democratisation and modernisation occurred there before they were undertaken in the post-colonial world.

The connection often made between ancient Greece and modern Greece, Kalyvas argued, is a double-edged sword. The Greeks, of course, used it to win external support during times of crisis, so much so that others accused them of being impostors taking advantage of their history. On the other hand, Modern Greece will always fall short of its glorious ancient predecessor, which inevitably begets an understanding of modern Greece as a failure. Kalyvas argued that his goal was to show why the study of modern Greek history offers uniquely valuable insights, irrespective of the country’s connection to its ancient past.

Ladislav Charouz (SEESOX Research Assistant)

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