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Spectres Are Haunting Europe: History reinventing itself


- Maria Kourkouta and Niki Giannari's debut feature is an uncompromising documentary triptych looking at refugees stuck in Greece

Spectres Are Haunting Europe: History reinventing itself

The winner of this year's Opus Bonum section of the Jihlava IDFF (read the news), Spectres Are Haunting Europe [+see also:
interview: Maria Kourkouta and Niki Gi…
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, by filmmaker Maria Kourkouta and writer Niki Giannari, is a decidedly political, but even more humanistic documentary consisting of three parts, the first of which – also the longest – is the toughest to sit through. However, one’s stamina and tolerance will be rewarded with the thought-provoking second segment and the poetic, impressionistic finale.

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The film is set in the makeshift refugee camp in Idomeni, a Greek village on the border with Macedonia, where 15,000 people found themselves trapped in March this year, when the European Commission decided to close the "Balkan route". The first segment depicts everyday life in the camp, which seems to consist mostly of waiting in lines – presumably for food and other provisions. "Whenever I see a queue, I go and stand with the others," one refugee says. Visually, this amounts predominantly to static shots of the shuffling of muddy feet in the near-constant rain, in addition to a weak protest demanding the border be opened and chants of "Germany, Germany!"

The second segment retains the static camera and shows refugees sitting on railway tracks. In protest against the closed border, they decided to stop trains from passing through. Here we have the chance to hear political altercations, mostly between the translator and the refugees. Some of the latter are (rightfully) bitter at their situation, while others seem more inclined to show gratitude. Here we actually get to hear ideas and insight that mainstream news outlets, focused either on tragic experiences or clickable official statements, never bothered showing us. 

The final part of the movie is its most poignant. Shot on black-and-white 16mm film, and silent save for the female voice-over, it immediately brings to mind the atmosphere found in Second World War footage. This is the first time in the film that the refugees communicate with the camera; we see men who were protesting now smiling, and children playing football, goofing around. This disconcerting effect is amplified by the narration, written by Giannari, which forsakes the title's obvious reminder of the Communist Manifesto and combines poetic impressions with mentions of muddy feet of Greek refugees in Aleppo in 1923, as well as "Portbou, Sept 26, 1940" – the place and date when Walter Benjamin committed suicide after Franco closed the Spanish borders.

In their ambitious first film, Kourkouta and Giannari's uncompromising approach makes for a powerful statement, more humanistic than political, despite the title. The gentle poetry of the final segment collides with the rigid form of the first, at times providing an almost cathartic effect, and at others, testing audiences' patience. But a film about European society's most disastrous contemporary failure should not be easy to watch; it has to be like a stone in our shoes, devoid of mud and occupied by bodies with full stomachs and roofs over their heads.

Spectres Are Haunting Europe was co-produced by Paris-based Survivance and Maria Kourkouta. 

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