Can a Film be Like a Nest?: Revisiting History, Constructing Utopias and Heterotopias of a Borderless Future in the Hybrid Film Amygdaliá (2019)
Rabab El Mouadden, University of Groningen, Netherlands
In this paper I focus on Amygdaliá (Christina Phoebe, 2019), a non-fiction film which follows the journey of the filmmaker, Christina Phoebe, back to her childhood to find answers on the meaning of homeland, and engages in a process of constructing and deconstructing Greekness. I argue how experiences of displacement of the protagonist Christina Phoebe and the co-protagonists, also displaced women, necessitate the creation of a space of belonging and a borderless land. I use theories of utopia and heterotopia to explore these places that are under creation. I also pinpoint the significance of the refugee influx of the 2010s along with the collapse of communism in the 1990s in the comprehension of the images and the sounds of the film. The use of first-person aims at extracting unofficial stories from the women’s memory, and the relationship between the filmmaker and the other characters becomes an important factor to discuss. Lastly, I introduce an aesthetic approach to a scene that contributes to the redefinition of Greek national identity in a dream-like land, bringing to the surface elements from the past and the future.
This non-fiction film, Amygdaliá (2019), made by the filmmaker Christina Phoebe, is one of the case studies of my master’s thesis. It is autobiographical and homemade, highlighting the significance of authorship and modes of production. Some of the questions that initiated this research are rooted in my wish to excavate how a film itself becomes a world within a world – an archive of silenced voices and repressed histories, but also a personal or collective creative exploration. While there has been much research on postcolonial exilic and diasporic cinema from Gilles Deleuze, Laura Marks, Hamid Naficy, and Raminder Kaur and Mariagiulia Grassilli, there has been an absence of attention paid to the utopic and heterotopic dimension of the home toward the future in relation to contemporary geopolitics and the socio-political environment of the last decade.1 Previous research has focused mainly upon nostalgia for a homeland, whereas in this case I investigate the affiliation of home with heterotopias and queer futurities.
Amygdaliá is a first-person documentary focusing on concepts of belonging and displacement connecting the filmmaker’s experience with other women residing in Greece, many of whom carry an immigrant status. The story unfolds from the main character's traumatic school experience of not being able to know what Amygdaliá means in Greek when her family returned to Greece from the US. Cart-postal images from a land called “greece” and predominantly female bodies are what perform and play the leading part. The film raises questions around the definition of borders and their interrelation with the Eastern European, or more specifically, the Albanian wave of migration after the collapse of communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the refugee movements of the 2010s. It also interrogates the perception of Blackness in white Greek culture. Without adopting a paternalistic role of protecting migrants, and thus contributing to the European identity of the Greek protagonist who attempts to embrace humanitarian European values, the filmmaker places herself horizontally next to the voices of the other women appearing in the film.2 Ηaving all been affected by solid Greekness, they seek a new fluid identity to embrace them, transcending defined borders and identities.
Phoebe’s utopic vision of home lies in her recollections of herself as a child trying to question borders and celebrate cultural hybridity. Her journeys between Greece and the US, and the complexities that these relocations brought, brings her closer to the women’s experience of migration. Through her childlike first-person narration, Phoebe creates a space where public and private are in dialogue. She puts the women’s voices next to her own, avoiding any condition of othering, contradicting all previous representations of the Other in Greek cinema. Finally, she opens-up a political discussion of the role borders play in our collective consciousness regarding the definition of “foreigner.” She highlights the discrimination she and the other characters have faced as a result of geographical boundaries, the boundaries of the Self and the Other, and the boundaries between adults and children.
The filmmaker, through her criticism of the real xenophobic world, manages to construct the utopic which consists of a borderless place. Like Gloria Anzaldúa’s semi-autobiographical book Borderlands, which examines the invisible borders between Mexico and the US, men and women, homosexuals and heterosexuals, Chicanas and non-Chicanas, while trying to cross the passage towards mestiza, Amygdaliá is suffering from the borders that separate Greece from the other countries in which the characters of the film are coming from.3 Since the film is a diasporic child’s exploration of utopia, memories of estrangement and discrimination fluctuate between fiction and reality. A mixture of official history, private memories and postcard images from Greece makes this film experimental and diasporic, while the autobiographical use of first-person and the variation between fiction and documentary define Amygdaliá as a film of hybrid cinema. This cinema diffuses fiction, documentary, and experimental elements to express various marginalised groups and is aligned with “the film production of people in transition and cultures in the process of creating identities.”4 This hybrid form illuminates the transition people and cultures are experiencing and the need for a dominant filmic language to articulate a non-western perspective cinematically.5 In the following section, I am going to argue how the utopian land the filmmaker is longing for is formulated and expressed in her documentary, and the way a heterotopia is formed within the Greek societal reality.
The idea of utopia from the 16th- until the 18th-century followed the pattern of the spiritual journey or pilgrimage not geographically determined, a quest of the ideal but not on earth. The idea of an actual utopia became more common from the 18th-century.6 Herbert Marcuse adopts his term of “concrete utopia” and views it, unlike most Marxists, in a more positive way. He separates the designation “utopian” and the function of utopia, highlighting that the former does not own a transformative force as the latter does.7 Ernst Bloch's work attempts to involve Marxism into the utopian notion in his book The Principle of Hope, where hope was seen as a practical and theoretical tool.8
Using Bloch’s theory of utopian hope, we realise that he views hope as a motivational force, producing images of satisfaction and fulfilment expressed in daydreams and cultural productions. Contrary to night-dreams, daydreams carry wishes of world-improvement that manage to reach their destination – the place of their fulfilment.9 This journey to the end that daydreams entail corresponds to the utopian consciousness of a better life – a situation, common in fairy tales and, broadly, in works of art. The final stage of artworks is always unprecedented, demonstrating each time with its manifestation of a Not-Yet-But-Possible future to come.10 On the other hand, heterotopia ignores the concept of the unrealistic utopia and seeks a common ground between reality and utopia which exists in the mirror. The mirror is a “placeless place” and thus, utopic in the sense that it depicts a virtual space and mostly the self when it is absent. However, at the same time, the mirror is heterotopic and real since it reflects someone or something existent in real life.11
José Esteban Muñoz’s more contemporary view absorbs elements from Bloch’s concept of utopia to approach queerness. He develops a framework through the reflection of a series of queer artistic spaces and social moments from the past and the present that awakens the need for dismantling social injustice, and pictures a future vision of queer possibility. In Cruising Utopia, he uses hope and utopia to reflect on previous anti-utopian queer critiques and to develop the theory of queer futurity which reviews the present.12 Both queerness and futurity involve a “temporal arrangement,” allowing the subjects to move between past, present, and future.13 He adds that, for queer people and other marginalised groups, the present – the here and now – is hostile and lacks a sense of belonging, which is found only by the most privileged of the population. Thus, alternative temporal ways of the past and future are available.14 Nevertheless, these ways are not always rigid categories, they can also exist in fluidity. According to Muñoz’s examples of the past, queer future in the heterosexual reproductive present is possible.15
Phoebe’s quest towards utopia is characterised by a return to a chronotope where she was a child, a step back to the past to find answers. Deriving from the Greek words “chronos,” meaning time, and “topos,” meaning space, the term chronotope was introduced by Mikhail Bakhtin and developed in his 1937 essay “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel” to describe the concepts of time and space in literature.16 Phoebe’s throwback refers to a child’s imagination of a world where oppressive systems of racism and border control are dismantled. According to Bloch, wishful thinking is experienced in daydreams and encountered in human affairs; myths and fairy tales have a compensatory function by highlighting the scarcity in actual life and by generating an urge towards a transformative future.17 In Amygdaliá’s case, childhood memories reflect on the wishes and desires of marginalised communities and people affected by border politics. The role of national borders is to create barriers between the Other and the Self as an act of protection from potential or perceived danger. Within the frame of each nation, particular images and memories reflect the group of people that constitute that space. An easily distinguishable characteristic that differentiates social groups and contributes to the creation of borders is language.18 The language barrier is what leads to Phoebe's traumatic experience in school when she first moved permanently to Greece; her ignorance of the Greek word “Amygdaliá.”
“We are first foreigners as children. All of us were strangers in an adult world”
In this phrase, the filmmaker expresses the angst produced by dislocation and the unnecessary need to define someone based on their homeland starting from experiences during childhood. It relates foreignness to the experience of children understanding themselves as aliens in an adult world. In that sense, it is saying that foreignness is a universal concept first experienced in childhood as a tension between life stages, a tension between belonging and not belonging. On many occasions, the saying “Our only homeland, our childhood years” has been used in alt-left sport team slogans, contemporary Greek songs, and engraved and sprayed in graffiti, raising a question to an entire generation about the abstractness and the immateriality of a homeland.19 This contradicts Naficy’s view on the perception of the homeland by exilic and diasporic subjects which is related to material access that, consequently, produces and reproduces utopian and dystopian images based on land conflicts.20 The filmmaker and main narrator of Amygdaliá, floating between the socio-political reality of the past few years in Greece and the recollections from her movements, refuses to give the homeland a material hypostasis, but instead encloses it within her childhood, characterised by pain, joy, and carelessness. Homeland is the utopian vision of a child that ignores borders and nations, and visualises home as a feast of colour and experience.
“What makes a place? The ground? Its surfaces? To lessen my distance from greece, maybe I should lie down on her. To feel closer.”
All this rage towards the present has led the filmmaker to excavate in a child’s mind the essence of homeland and to minimise the role of a nation. The latter is observed in the use of lowercase ‘g’ when writing “greece” in the English subtitling. This practice aims at dismantling the hegemonic discourse of Greek virtue of hospitality and humanitarianism while associating with the foreigner inside her.21 According to Julia Kristeva and Albert Memmi, as surmised by Philip Phillis, in order to break the barriers of estrangement, one needs to abandon themselves and find the Other within themselves.22 The filmmaker shares her childhood memories to position herself as a diasporic subjectivity. The starting point of this realisation derives from her ignorance of the meaning of the Greek word Amygdaliá, meaning “Almond tree,” when she was asked in school. This retrospection acts as a propulsive force into a transformative future proclaiming a world where homeland is not defined by borders and languages. At the same time, inspired by her co-protagonists’ stories, Phoebe also criticises the present and explores the past to ensure a future.
“When did you hear for the first time the word ‘foreigner’? Were you the foreigner? Or was it someone else?”
Phoebe’s memories resemble Bloch’s daydreams which are one of his forms of utopian thinking. In Principle of Hope, Bloch highlights that daydreaming, in addition to the wish for world-improvement, aims for a destination.23 While aiming for the journey to end, daydreams dive into the imagination usually in artistic ways to find themselves later breathing new life into possible real images.24 Phoebe’s recollections communicate with the present world, intending to identify the source of intolerance. Her approach communicates mostly with the central concept of what constitutes a Blochian utopia, the Not-Yet-Become that is expressed through humans’ hope. This notion refers to the material world and an indefinite possible future. The filmmaker wonders about the source of bigotry which, according to her, derives from the element or situation that segregates people from each other: borders. Her anticipation and hope are based on the reification of a borderless world, linked to la mestiza. From the very first page until the end of Borderlands, Anzaldúa refers to the physical borders between Mexico and the US southwest, but, in reality, she draws a parallel between the sexual, psychological and spiritual borderlands where different cultures, and specifically the Anglo and the Mexican/“Indian,” collide. In that sense, both Anzaldúa and Phoebe are torn between two worlds.
“Where do borders come from? Who agreed to them and when? Who didn’t agree?”
In Borderlands, Anzaldúa critiques dominant white culture of harming Indigenous peoples and Chicanas, and Chicanas of importing the concept of ‘machismo’ which was generated by the Anglo as a means of hierarchical male dominance, which consequently led to women’s degradation by men of the same race.25 She proposes to free ourselves from the dominant identity and cross the border, leading to a new territory. The painful but also creative passage to the new consciousness includes a new value system that connects us to ourselves and to the earth. In this consciousness, history is redefined with new symbols and perspectives for dark-skinned people, women, and queer people. The author adds that an initial transformation must begin internally, which then precipitates changes externally, in the outside world, corresponding to the transformative utopia that Bloch mentions.
In Amygdaliá, Phoebe invites us to enter a new consciousness and a new hybrid place and time which connects the fictional and the real, adulthood and childhood, official histories, and personal memories. Neither walls nor borders exist, the foreign is not defined by ethnicity and race, and homeland exists in a child’s fantasy. The new territory that the filmmaker suggests also lies in the sisterhood of women, bonded by their distressing memories and the fluid and non-fixed national identity they choose to embrace. This is apparent in the film with the mutual exchange of traditional Greek-African clothing in one scene (Figure 1; 00:49:49).
“Can a film be like a nest? Where we can sit among twigs and grasp the light?”
Starting with the externalisation of these memories in front of a camera in a documentary, archival form, we realise that narrations of the past are accumulated in this feature film. Memories and moments from official history are stored in Phoebe’s Amygdaliá which functions as an archive in the same manner that libraries and museums have been described as heterotopias and heterochronies, referring to the accumulation of all places and all epochs correspondingly, in one place.26 This compaction of past recollections is aligned with the value Bloch gives to the past. Karine Basset and Michèle Baussant describe stories as “critiques of the present, sometimes projections of an elsewhere (temporal and spatial) which are rooted in an idealisation of the past.”27 They include past experience within the present experience to create a new one in the future. Basset and Baussant link nostalgia to the past as it is related to the future, emphasising a past yet to come. Both nostalgia and hope are thereby associated with the future.28 However, the women in Amygdaliá do not praise the past; what they need is transformative social change. The voices of the women reflect on an-Other world within the official world to share stories that are silenced. According to Annette Kuhn in her book Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination, the documentation of memories and the audiovisual representation of identities is an essential part of memory work that contributes to the assimilation of the private and public sphere, associating someone’s memories with historical events.29 Michael Rothberg, meanwhile, offers a definition of memory as the “past made present,” where memory is connected to the past and happens in the present time but is also a “form of work.”30
The women in Amygdaliá look to the past and recall experiences that still resonate with the contemporary geopolitical Greek reality. This practice intends to construct a political response from the audience of the present and the future to communicate the need for social justice. That being the case, the narrator’s utopian thinking and wish for a borderless land come into an agreement with the heterotopic-heterochronic narration and memories of the women that are parts in a film, as an archival record of stories. The women, despite coming from different backgrounds and recounting different experiences, are caught in the oppressive systems that consequently manage to bond them and put them in the process of creating a sisterhood. bell hooks’ sisterhood is based on political solidarity among women that eliminates their division and acknowledges the privilege of some in comparison to others.31 Similarly, Amygdaliá recognises the differences between the stories of the women in the documentary, yet it places them alongside each other harmoniously and produces a sense of affection between them. A question that is raised is whether it recognises the difference between them as women.
Amygdaliá expresses the voice of the filmmaker/narrator and other women in the first person. The similarity of all stories lies in the connectedness of the women’s recollection, and especially of the narrator’s childhood memories, of immigration, discrimination, and borders. Phoebe manages through these embodied experiences to criticise border politics and the consequent discriminatory practices. Rather than reflecting on the dominant narratives, these “inside” stories express the memories and private histories of the women recounting them, a feature of many minority films.
Amygdaliá attempts to offer various perspectives of otherness outside the categories of migrants and locals. What the filmmaker may intend to prove is that it is not only individuals with different national and racial identities that are excluded from the national network, referring to her own experience and that of other perceived locals. The fragmented storytelling makes it difficult to understand which woman is a local, a first- or second-generation immigrant, or a person with a displaced background. That may be Phoebe's goal – the lack of clear boundaries. However, a difficulty that arises from this pattern is whether each woman's difference and individuality is recognised or if they are all placed in the same position. It is evident that there is a connection between the stories, and that it would be possible for them to form an alliance or even a sisterhood, as was mentioned earlier. What might jeopardise this sisterhood is the perceived shared identity or an assumed sameness that lurks under the blending of different experiences by merging sameness with equality. The mass-based narration, or blending of voices, which is observed in the film gives the impression that it ignores what differentiates the women from one another and makes it difficult to ascribe the film with a more feminist, solidaristic approach.
In this case, Rothberg’s theory of “multidirectional memory” is worth mentioning as it comes to stabilise my observation and critique with Christina Phoebe’s choice of fragmented storytelling and memory-sharing. Rothberg argues the existence of an interaction of different collective memories standing against any competitiveness between them, and views memory as a non-privative and continuing process of discussion.32 Memories determine our identities of the present, but their fluidity of time connects us to the ones expected to be the others. As Rothberg further states, this has as a consequence the formation of “new forms of solidarity and new visions of justice.”33 Correspondingly, the lack of clear boundaries and the fragmentation in storytelling in Amygdaliá has the potential to create this new form of solidarity standing against the notion of a competitive memory.
Phoebe demonstrates narrations from non-dominant and non-western views, while using the tools of production and sometimes the subject-object relationship in her filming. The filmmaker is adopting both binary roles: the subject is making the film while also becoming a part of the story in this personal documentary. The language spoken does not derive solely from the individual but it develops through their interrelation with other social groups.34 The peak point of this correlation is found in the last scene, which depicts an intersection of trolley cables accompanied by the voices of women echoing simultaneously, highlighting the interconnectedness of the displaced women (Figure 2; 01:08:35). The tangled cables represent the complex ways the women are connected in their activity of travelling, while the filmmaker expresses her voice and the voice of other women to condemn the situation that borders and nationalism evoke.
The film is connected to Fifth Cinema, “a cinema of subversion” that integrates migrants and refugees, and defines their activity of travelling as “an act of resistance against militarised borders,” fusing art and activism.35 In this documentary, there are voices of migrant women articulating the subsequent repercussions prompted by the border-crossing to Greece; yet neither the filmmaker nor the women are refugees. Nevertheless, the film continues to be a resistant response to European border politics, taking into account both the aesthetic and the political aspect. This approach corresponds to the definition of accented cinema that Naficy introduced in his book An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. The term “accented” refers to the stylistic approach that takes into consideration the filmmakers' heritage as diasporic subjects.36 Accented cinema undermines the dominant through the modes of production, the lingual and cultural interchange, the non-common way of storytelling, and the aesthetics of imperfection.37 Amygdaliá prefers a diverse representation depicting women from various backgrounds telling their stories in an unrestricted way.
The documentary vocalises the experiences of those women that have been considered foreigners by Greek natives. The filmmaker also being a voice among the Other ones manages to raise questions and pose problems around the definition of borders and their interrelation with the Eastern European or, specifically, the Albanian wave of migration after the collapse of communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the refugee movements of the 2010s following the Arab Spring. Over time, many Greek films have represented the Other from the Greek viewpoint reinforcing the hegemonic binaries between the Greek protagonist and the migrant Other.38 In the Greece of the 1990s, foreign was coterminous with Albanian, and Albanian was considered a derogatory term as one of the women’s voices in Amygdaliá comments, or “Black,” a term often used as an insult in Greek, as another woman mentions through the main narrator’s voice. This memory of the former along with the slogan in the background, “You will never be greek, you albanian, you albanian,” corresponds to other recent historical events, such as the international football match when Albania beat Greece in 2006, as well as the stabbing of a 20-year old Albanian by a Greek supporter after the Greek victory in Euro 2004, which provoked a series of violent racist episodes between Albanian immigrants and the natives with the police’s complicity.39 The inferiority of Albanians in the Greek consciousness was attributed to their perceived association with organised crime, cheap labour within the employment market, and their communist past.40
The socially constructed inferiority of Albanians has parallels with the contempt toward Black people in Greece. In Amygdaliá, one of the women’s voices is echoing a derogatory phrase she often heard that includes the word “mavri,” which means Black (for females) in Greek. Max Papadantonakis, in his ethnographic research at the micro-level of a street market in Athens, demonstrates that Greek whiteness is constructed by the racialisation of others. Male workers and immigrants from North Africa, Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent are also labelled with this term by Greek workers, leading to their ostracisation. Olfaction and language are used as symbolic boundaries for racial distance and the preservation of social hierarchy in the market context.41 This racial animosity is also seen in the reporting of American reporter Fahrinisa Campana from Al Jazeera, who, after a trial where members of the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn were convicted of several crimes, interviewed some Afro-Greeks outside the court.42 One of them claimed that race is a concept not easily digestible by the broader Greek society.43 The lack of education surrounding this topic is an important factor for this, as was discussed by Afro-Greek activist and cultural worker Jackie Abhulimen who states “if you look at the anti-racist law, what’s considered racism and racist is basically any type of discrimination, so that’s why Greeks think that something that’s racist is just any form of discrimination [that is] not associated with race.”44 Anna Carastathis refers to the widespread use of “racism” as an “umbrella term,” and relates its extension to other regimes of oppression beyond race, such as the LGBTQIA+ Greek activist context and the adoption of “intersectionality” in movement discourses.45 Specifically, she examines “how these two vocabularies – of racism and intersectionality – are operative in movement discourses, but also how they shape and are shaped by activists’ perceptions, analyses, and theories of oppression.”46
Phoebe continues raising questions around borders and their creation. The images of her hand playing with a barbed wire or of a man collecting orange life jackets from a beach signifies the arrival of refugees to the Aegean islands and the inherent danger of crossing borders. The responsible authority to regulate the refugee flows to Europe in the last decade is the Dublin system, which expects the first member state of the European Union to take the responsibility for the entries of migrants and refugees.47 The rising number of asylum applications and the increasing number of immigrants resulted in the need for a distribution of responsibilities between the state members, and since May 2015 the wave of refugees from Syria on the West Balkan Route has intensified.48 The first immigrants to enter the EU/Schengen area of Greece, continued their passage through Macedonia and re-entered the EU/Schengen area when arriving in Hungary.49 It is interesting to notice that after the very recent 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainians are following a different route, seeking asylum in the neighbouring countries of Poland, Romania, Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia, and Belarus.50 Andrew Geddes, Director of the Migration Policy Centre, highlights that there is a contrast between the “warm welcome” that Ukranian asylum seekers receive with the “hostile response” the Syrians faced, as well as the other asylum seekers from Africa and “Middle East.”51 The source of this treatment, some have argued, lies in the non-whiteness of the latter.52
The border consciousness characterising Amygdaliá is often found in border films, in which hybridisation and experimentation can be found in “multifocality, multilinguality, asynchronicity, critical distance, fragmented or multiple subjectivity, and transborder amphibolic characters.”53 Similarly, this film is split into many subjectivities, each using their pronunciation in their narration. However, the transborder characters, which in this case are the refugees crossing the Aegean Sea, have never been active or fully present in the film – their existence is implied in alternative audiovisual ways.
More recently, border controls in European countries have been challenging and contradicting the European humanitarian values of hospitality and integration, reinforcing narratives of an obscure illegal immigrant/Other.54 As was already mentioned, the immigrant or refugee is considered Other on a scale of (non-)whiteness. At the same time, in Greek cinema many filmmakers do not develop the Greek character through their experience, but instead use migrant characters represented as Others to mirror the crisis the native character is suffering, rendering the Greek protagonist a stranger in their land.55 Specifically, migrants and refugees are envisioned as paradigmatic non-belonging agents who mirror the Otherness of a Greek protagonist who, “unable to express or come to terms with his estrangement, discovers the stranger within him through the encounter, making him a more responsible individual. This implies atoning for racist crimes, becoming more accepting of multiculturalism or providing humanitarian aid.” In this way, the Other manages to reflect, if not Greekness, but an “overall crisis in representation.”56 In Amygdaliá, the main narrator and filmmaker abstains from this narrative – she does not put the Greeks and non-Greeks aside; all women are connected owing to the foreignness they have experienced in their life. The association of each recollection with the other does not occur by placing any of them out of view or by comparing and limiting their significance.
Up until now, we have mentioned the immigration process of entering Greece. However, in this documentary, voices are also expressing and communicating a reverse route – from Greece to another country. Being already aware of Phoebe’s diasporic background, we know that the country of reference is the USA. It is historically known that the two waves of mass Greek immigration of the last century to North America were between 1900-1924 and 1965-1980. Based on Nicholas Alexiou’s research on Greek immigration, the first wave is included in the Great Emigration from Europe that started in the 1880s.57 This period was characterised by the need for cheap manual labour, hence convenient immigration legislation. Greeks were the last of the Europeans to enter the country and in a smaller number compared to neighbouring Italy. The majority settled in New York, Florida, Chicago, Detroit, or Pittsburgh. The second wave, which is likely the one in which the filmmaker’s parents were involved in, was a result of the Hart-Celler Act, as reported by Alexiou. The Act removed discrimination against ethnic groups of earlier anti-immigration laws which had also denied entry to Greeks for four decades. As a result, 200,000 Greeks entered the country and settled in urban centres, with Astoria in New York becoming one of the largest Hellenic settlements. Since then, there has been no large-scale immigration from Greece to the USA, owing to the economic growth of Greece after the state’s admission to the European Union, combined with more restrictive immigration laws in the USA.58
Amygdaliá consists of an assemblage of images, sounds and voices resembling somebody’s dreams or memories. This dream-like narration appears to lack coherence, owing to the fragmentary vocalisation of the narrator’s thoughts, while each sequence and scene lasts only for a few minutes. Phoebe’s attempt to reframe Greekness and Otherness leads to a quest for a better land where the borders are of minimum significance. To comprehend this concept thoroughly, I am going to analyse a scene, centring on its formal and aesthetic aspects.
This scene depicts men and women wearing traditional Tsolias uniforms in a mountainous urban landscape, walking aimlessly while the camera is steady (1:02:42-1:04:49). According to Naficy, mountains, having been connected to spirituality, radiate “ancient sentiments and collective longings” in accented films.59 There is little action occurring, but essence is emerging with the selection of clothes and characters. The Tsolias costume is clothing worn by the presidential guardians standing in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier located in Syntagma, where the Greek Parliament sits. In the film, the subjects wearing the Tsolias costume, however, differ from the conventional soldiers that represent Greekness and courageousness. The national identity is deconstructed when this male uniform is worn by females and Black subjects. While accented cinema is characterised by binaries of home and exile, Phoebe creates blurred lines between the past, the present and the future.60
The past is revived with the symbolic Greek clothing, and the future is implied by the harmonious coexistence of the characters in the same land. These subjects produce a new story in a film based on memories and thoughts. The sound of nature, lack of dialogue and the slow movement encourages the spectator to reflect on the image and invent a new story. Like hybrid cinema, myths are destroyed and recreated, and the agents of this fictional reawakening are the “intercessors,” which in our case are the new Tsoliades.61 These characters wearing the uniform are moving fluidly between the rigidity and virility that a national costume entails and the lightness that is found in their harmonious togetherness. In this case, hybrid writing communicates with cyborg writing in the sense of reversing and subverting the myths that derive from western culture.62 As discussed by Laura Marks, hybrid writing is understood as the experimental diasporan cinema which uses western tools to narrate a story addressed to a mixed audience, while cyborg writing is the re-writing of myths that have already been told from the western perspective and seeks to liberate itself from the imposed dualisms of the self and the other.63
This new, recreated story comes to redefine national identity while signifying the need for social change. The filmmaker imagines a borderless land where the Greekness that haunts her own and the other women’s memories succumbs to a new hybrid identity, represented by the new Tsoliades. While both Phoebe and the women were repressed by the dominant national myth, hybrid cinema brings to the surface their silenced stories that were excluded by the official history.64 In our case, the cinematographer and simultaneously the filmmaker playfully and humorously brings us to a Greek utopian land of the future without fetishising the past. The Tsolias uniform reveals an irony that minimises the significance of the conventional national identity which is also affirmed in the next scene.
The next scene depicts the filmmaker’s dive into the sea in the uniform (01:04:50). Generating an allegory where the costume is the Greek identity, Phoebe demonstrates that the Tsolias uniform results in an insignificant piece of cloth underwater and a fluid material. Similarly, Greekness is not innate but obtains important or unimportant meaning from the “outside.” Furthermore, the contact with water signifies both hybridity and liquidity, in contrast with the solidity of the ground in which traditional Tsoliades are supposed to stand still for a long time. In this way, Phoebe challenges ethnocentric narratives that have always been oppressing her.
Phoebe’s excavation of her childhood memories manages to produce a desire for a homeland where she is accepted, and a border thinking that is reframed. Her hybrid cultural identity is protected in the new borderless land. This utopian world is freed from the oppressive systems the adults construct and perpetuate, which leads to a division between what is deemed to be the Self and the Other. The global systems that implement geographical boundaries collapse, along with the power of adults over children. Therefore, the filmmaker’s introspection and retrospection function as a utopian generator that needs to be put into effect in the future. The current socio-political reality within Greece does not lead the main narrator to idealise and glorify the past, but, through her daydream in her early youth, allows the filmmaker to collect tools that will bring her back to the present to claim a better, changing future. Her voice is harmonised with the other women’s, despite the dangers of sameness that this may entail. Their memories form a solidarity between a group of different people, creating a community and functioning as a heterotopia. Specifically, this Other world within the officially recognised one is organised in a record representing women, and forms an assemblage of stories that connect affectively. Both cinematically and contextually, Phoebe demolishes concepts of Otherness that have been excluding and oppressing both herself and the other women.
Alexiou, Nicholas. “Greek Immigration in the United States: A Historical Overview.” Hellenic American Project, January 2013. https://hapsoc.org/greek-immigration-in-the-united-states-a-historical-overview/.
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Rabab El Mouadden (b. 1996, Athens) is an independent researcher who focuses on diasporic exploration through audiovisual media. She recently graduated from University of Groningen attending the master's program Film and Contemporary Audiovisual Media, completing her thesis with the title “Searching for Home: Utopian visions dismantling systems of oppression in the diasporic and exilic films Home? (2018), Amygdaliá (2019) and Women's Country (2019)”. She runs an Instagram page called rai.rebetiko as an online space for comparative analysis and mapping of two genres of music (North-African rai and Greek-Turkish rebetiko) and a way to explore the intersections of image and sound in pop culture. Finally, she is member of the collective project Surplus Cinema, a travelling film program centering moving image works by women and non-binary artists produced in the greek context and the diasporas.