Can't Go Back to Constantinople

An interview with the Director

by Mihalis Boutaris

An interview with the director of a documentary film in process by PERA FILMS

"They came, and all the Greeks and Armenians and Jews, who made their money here and made this city so wonderful, left."

Ara Gler, photographer, The New York Times interview (April 10, 1997).

PoR: What will this film be all about?

NB: The film will be a feature-length documentary to be shot in 16mm film and video. The film's most concrete purpose will be to recount the story of the once large and important Greek community of Istanbul, and to give an in-depth portrait of what remains of its contemporary life. The structure of the film will be based on the narrative of its demographic decline. It will, therefore, cover the history of the discriminatory legislation, harassment on both institutional and personal levels, and the sporadic violence that have been the cause of the exodus. But our purpose is not to create another incriminatory documentary, nor a sensationalist news piece such as those that have been produced and continue to be produced by Greek television and others, and which contribute nothing to the development of a new approach to such issues. Instead we aim to situate the decline of the Greek community within the context of both parties' nationalism, and of a retaliatory animosity and mutual distrust that gradually destroyed a centuries-old pattern of fertile -if not unproblematic- co-existence.

Along, then, with recording the life and culture of the Greek community, one of the priorities of the production will be to make our subject matter relevant to Turks by situating it firmly at the intersection of two distinct but related processes: the development of a modern national culture in Turkey and the uncontrollable growth and continued immigration of rural populations, that has irrevocably changed the social, cultural and physical landscape of Istanbul over the past few decades.

PoR: What are your target audiences and project goals?

NB: We intend to strike a careful balance between in-depth and general interest subject matter, that will make the film neither boring and esoteric for viewers who are nor familiar with its topic, nor schematic and superficial to those who are. There will be elements that, for Greeks and Turks, will be enlightening on a community and on historical episodes that they may know little about. There will be elements that will make Istanbul natives smile with an insider's recognition.

But for the Western viewer -our primary audience- Can't Go Back... will not only give a portrait of a fascinating city, but will depict how modern nationalism broke down the city's ancient way of urban life, one once common to the larger region; this film could feasibly be made about Salonica, Alexandria -now Sarajevo too- or any of the area's great urban centers. Thus, it will inform viewers about a part of the world that is much in the news lately but still, we feel, poorly understood. It will hopefully do so in a way that provides more complex causal background for the viewer -beyond 'ancient tribal hatred', that is- and that generally will avoid the simplistic exoticizing discourse that has characterized Western treatment of recent tragic events in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the former Ottoman sphere at large. We also believe that the themes the film will deal with both directly and indirectly -minorities and pluralism, urbanization, nationalism and 'before the revolution' nostalgia- are universally relevant, especially at the end of the twentieth century, and will be understood by viewers throughout the world.

For Greek viewers, the film will document the culture and history of a community which continues to occupy a particularly important symbolic position in the structures of Greeks' historical consciousness. It will suggest that Greek attitudes, both from within the community and from the Greek state, are also partly responsible for the unfortunate developments, and it will examine certain issues of Turkish urban life in a manner that will hopefully shake some Greeks out of their ignorance of modern Turkey and its society. For both Greeks and Turks, we hope the project will make a strong statement concerning our inextricably bound identities and historical destinies. Perhaps it may convince more and more individuals that exchanges, expulsions and cleansings have impoverished both Greeks and Turks, as well as humanity in general.

PoR: How will the film be addressing the current trends in the contemporary life of Istanbul?

NB: Just to mention first a few indicative traits of the situation: A restoration project of the Byzantine land walls that becomes a political issue; a Patriarchate convening of American Orthodox bishops that makes the cover of a major news magazine; a fundamentalist mayor who vows to enter the Patriarchate through its sealed main gate; a minor craze for 'rembetika'; a flood of new Turkish translations of modern Greek fiction dealing with the war of the twenties and the population exchange; photo essays on Pera in the 1930's celebrating its bygone glamour and diversity; older Istanbulites who lament the Greeks' absence; academics who wish the minorities were more vocal about their rights as part of a larger civil rights movement in Turkey; romantic repatriation schemes -all this against a backdrop of the general surge of religious and ethnic animosity in the larger region, and against the double-edged sword of a powerful religious fundamentalism on the one hand, and a renascent Kemalism that many feel is the only effective response on the other.

The film will give the details of a systematic campaign of harassment that seems to continue almost out of habit, to a degree out of all rational proportion to the numerical and social strength of the group on which it is inflicted. It may serve as a small part of a hopefully much larger effort to stop this. But it will give voice, as well, to the number of Turks who have found this campaign objectionable. It will therefore put forth the proposition that this harassment did not and does not have the extensive popular sources or support in Turkey that it is ideologically or psychologically convenient for many Greeks to believe; thus it will provide some facts for those crusaders for our "national issues" who I feel should be better informed before embarking on their righteous campaigns. I believe, moreover, that a portrayal of urban life in Turkey, and of the complexities and intensity of contemporary social debates among Turks, will shock some Greeks out of the Orientalist platitudes and complacent ignorance of modern Turkey that prevail among us even in progressive sectors.

PoR: What has stimulated your involvement in this topic and what is your vision about it?

NB: As a Greek myself, aside from providing the opportunity to make a filmic portrayal of a city I love, I would like this film to make some implicit ideological statements on Greek identity and modern Greek culture as well. Probably this project's main theme is loss -loss of the connection to a city and a part of the world I believe to have been arena and center stage for an overwhelming portion of our history. While the spread of nationalism in the larger region is the obvious reason for this loss, I also feel modern Greek nationalism specifically, its misguided political and military moves, and -as an ideology constructed squarely at the intersection of the twin discourses of European colonialism and Western classicism- its long-standing, dis-Orienting social and cultural policies, to be largely responsible for severing those connections and isolating us from the geocultural area around us. As part of the larger state project of the past two centuries, a broad, diasporic, heterogeneous, cultural identity with millennial roots and duration was crammed into the confines of a nation-state, leaving us alienated and disconnected from what Ammiel Alcalay has called "the dense and intricate interconnectedness of the Levantine world," of which Greeks had been not only a part but a foundational, constitutional part. I believe that this was a sterilizing experience that cut and unsettled our social and cultural moorings in irreparable ways that we are only now beginning to understand.

I hope this film, through its depiction of what is left of the most important among the Greek urban communities in the Near East and Eastern Europe, will contribute to the building of a discourse through which those connections can be rebridged, through which a productive engagement with our neighbors' presence can be begun -at a time when it appears more crucial than ever to do so -and whereby a working relationship to that broader historical space can be found to replace the self-destructive fantasies we suffered from in the past.

PoR: Thank you very much. We can only hope too that our readers shall somehow contribute to your praiseworthy project.

Nicholas Bakos has studied documentary production at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. He is currently directing a documentary film on Greek Orthodox chant in the United States, and has directed and assisted several short films and videos.