Nina Maria Paschalidou Headshot

Riders on the Storm

Posted: Updated:

A Crisis (from the Greek κρίσις - krisis) is any event that is, or is expected to lead to, an unstable and dangerous situation affecting an individual, group, community or whole society.

In May of 2010, even though I was miles away from Athens, I found myself trapped in the storm of the Greek crisis. I had just wrapped up a fellowship at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service as I found myself involved in debates regarding Greece's future.

It was about that time that Lee Hamilton, head of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC at the time, invited me to a meeting to explain the reasons why Greece had become a rogue state shifting away from its true values. With the ashes from the burning down of the Marfin Bank in downtown Athens still hot, I stood in front of Lee Hamilton, speechless. I wondered too, what had happened to my country?

Had democracy, born in these very white rocks, given its place to cleptocracy? Did Greece truly belong to the West? Or had it lost its authenticity, surrendering its eastern soul to a wave of modernization that came along with the forced need to fulfill the European dream? There was no specific explanation to why Greece had plunged into such a state of decadence. Our conversation ended with a quote from the Greek poet Odysseus Elytis, "Why does anyone need Cathedrals when he can have a white house in the Cyclades?"

When I left the Woodrow Wilson center, I had already made my decision: to return home and tell this story. I was not alone on this journey. Director Nikos Katsaounis, my partner on the project, who lived in New York at the time, was also thinking of returning to Greece to film. He too found himself questioning his Greek roots, revisiting the Greek ideals he had been raised with. So we combined both our strengths and weaknesses, our strengths being his experience with multimedia and my documentary film making, our weaknesses being our love for a country that had always betrayed us. A country that had never given us any opportunities and that had always limited our dreams.

Maybe the true motive behind The Prism GR2011 was to prove that we could do it. We could create something that was independent, collective, did not depend on the broken Greek system and could give aspiration to the youth, a tormented Greek youth. In the end if we could succeed in this endeavor, why not Greece? Why not the Greeks?

The idea was to create a multimedia project that would combine short stories in an attempt to objectively document a critical period in Greece's history. We traveled the country from one corner to the other and listened to all kinds of voices, from the voice of a shepherd in Crete to the voice of a public worker in Athens. We had very little money and everything looked grim but we were driven by a sense of responsibility to tell this story, to find the balance between our past and our present, to hear our ancestors' voice clearly again. We also desperately needed to find the truth about Greece, a truth different from the one portrayed in the headlines of newspapers and on the nine o'clock news.

I still remember the day I arrived in Athens that fall. It was clear blue, there wasn't a single cloud in the sky, and I thought to myself, "We are spoiled by such beauty." A few days later, shaken by the first riots on Syntagma square, we sat on my balcony with the smell of molotov cocktails still in the air and announced our simple plan to a group of Greek photojournalists. One Spaniard, a rebel Catalan, also joined the team. I realize now with Spain on the brink of catastrophe how prophetic his involvement was.

Part of the experiment was to empower the people who participated in this experiment. To give them a different prism on their work and teach them not only how to film but also how to overcome their fear of creating something in a country that does not believe in talent. Most of these photojournalists were trapped in the very fragmented system they were born in, very much like the rest of the Greeks. This is why I consider one of the best residuals of The Prism the fact that the photographers became equipped with skills that they can use in their work. They were given a small window of opportunity, as we were given a small window of opportunity to create something in a time of destruction. A strong and unique team was formed while the worst of the crisis was unfolding.

We shared our vision with them and they trusted us. We taught them how to film using the DSLR cameras and helped them make the transition into multimedia storytellers. We began to film in November of 2010 and finished shooting and editing the short stories in July of 2011. Subsequently, we edited parts of the material into a documentary film called Krisis and released the whole project in the fall of 2011. We then spent a year touring festivals, as the interest on Greece was immense. Suddenly we were there not only directors, but also as ambassadors of Greece, trying to explain to everyone that Greece could actually come out of the crisis. That Greece could survive. And that the Greeks are not thieves, but capable and intelligent, creative people.

The task wasn't easy. In my previous assignments, while documenting unfortunate stories in various corners around the world, from the albino killings in Tanzania, to the Chinese migrant workers in Guang Dong who recycle computers, I had Greece to return to. My beautiful peaceful and God blessed Greece. During these two years, I felt that there was no escape. I would wake up every day knowing that I would have to witness one more story of anguish and despair.

During the filming I met and spoke to many Greeks. I saw how the crisis reflected in their lives. The interviews and perspectives in The Prism range from armchair warriors to art teachers, athletes, poets, to 103 year old Stamatis, a Greek who knows a little something about politics and lives off wine and philosophy on the island of Ikaria. We followed cyclists, cruising on the surface of the sprawling cement crust that covers the Athenian basin, a bunch of lunatic bicycle riders reclaim public space with their environmentalist DIY style. We followed Muslims praying in underground garages and warehouses in the only European capital without a single mosque for Muslims to practice their faith.

We also met with young entrepreneurs who have made the impossible; they have created profitable businesses in the crisis, and have succeeded in competing internationally. Such a man is Blind Type's creator Panos Petropoulos, and Aris Kefaloyannis, CEO of olive oil company Gaea. These are Greeks who have been creative during this difficult time and have stood out with their persistence and resistance. To me they present the only hope Greece has to change its course. I like to call them "Riders on the Storm."

During The Prism one question that we were frequently asked was how one could be creative in a society of unhappy citizens, amidst the unavoidable disruption of all institutions, something that violates the hearts and souls of the underprivileged. There was nothing that resembled peace or unity in this culture of barbarism, economic corruption, nepotism and lack of meritocracy. There were many who challenged us and criticized us. In one of the festivals in Greece where the film was screened, a lady who was a member of the communist party inquired with us about the funding of our project. She thought that some suspicious multinational company who wanted to manipulate the Greeks funded The Prism GR2011. It is this kind of conspiracy theory that has entrapped Greece in its current situation and that we therefore tried to stay away from. In a country where taxi drivers tell you that the crisis has been created by dark forces that want to undermine the Greeks because they will otherwise conquer the world, logic is not the obvious choice.

Trying to lift the veil of Greece's existence and delving into whatever lies beneath was no easy task. Without an agenda, without political affiliations, the task was even more challenging. The Prism was more than an exploration. It was an adventure. And like any adventure, monsters will be slain and villains will be defeated. I think of this small adventure as a microkosmos of the great challenge Greece faces today, the challenge to "know thyself." In this epic, just like Odysseus did, Greece has to kill all monsters in order to reach Ithaka. To face Charybdis and Scylla one has to be brave. And as Aristotle once said, "We become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions."

The Prism GR2011 (www.theprism.tv) is a collective multimedia experimental project. It is a documentation of events, in the form of 27 short stories and interviews, recorded in Greece during 2010-2011 in the midst of an on-going crisis. The material was further edited into a documentary film with the title Krisis. The Prism GR2011 was a Finalist in the Picture of the Year Awards 2012, and an Official Honoree at the 16th Annual Webby Awards.