About three decades ago I was given a book of notebooks kept by women imprisoned during and after the civil war in Greece (1946-1949). These women had fought against the German occupation during WWII and were now persecuted by their own people for their political beliefs.
They dreamed of a free Greece; they planned to rebuild their country; who they would vote for if and when they'd have the right to vote. There was no stopping them.
The stories of these women informed me of a time I knew very little about. I immediately tried to find ways to share these stories. But it wasn't until thirty years later when Stavroula Toska, a young filmmaker, was at my home trying to sell me on a script she was writing. What I knew of Stavroula's spirit and heart was nowhere to be found in this script. I gave her a translation of the notebook.
A few months later, Toska came to meet me along with her partner, Sophia Antonini. "Olympia, we're going to Greece to find these women and interview them. We've been doing research all this time; many of them are still alive. We're going to make a documentary about them."
"I've lost sleep over this. We have to let Greece and the world knows about these women and what happened to them." If she only knew at the time what she was about to discover in her own family.
They went to Greece and found the women, now in their eighties. They were teenagers fighting against the Germans. WWII was over and the royal family and its supporters returned to Greece from "protective" exile. But many Greek people wanted the collaborators punished; they wanted a democratic government for all parties; they wanted their voices to be heard. Promises were made and then broken. The country was divided in two -- you were either in support of the government appointed by the British or you were a "communist." One of the worst civil wars in modern Europe broke out, and tens of thousands of innocent people were accused of being enemies of the state and found guilty of crimes they never committed. People who had collaborated with the Germans were now collaborating with the Brits, and Greece's so-called "puppet government" was formed.
The women (as well as a good number of men) were thrown into concentration camps in remote Greek islands. These camps, under the disguise of reeducation centers, were used to horrifically torture these people, to "teach" them how to love their country, and to denounce "the disgusting disease of communism." Women from 16 to 86 were sent to these camps -- anyone who disagreed with the government's policies was considered an enemy or traitor to Greece.
In Greece, the surviving women had invited the filmmakers to join them on a three-day trip to Trikeri Island -- the largest women's concentration camp during the Greek Civil War. They shared with them their stories of survival and the tortures they had to endure. They told them about the loss of family members and close friends. These women not only refused to betray their personal convictions, but made the best of their situation by educating one another, teaching the younger girls in the camps, as well as the older women (the "yiayias"), how to read and write. They started a choir. They had a theatre group. They created artwork. They collectively cared for the children of the pregnant detainees. These were everyday, ordinary women whom the government and camp officials believed would succumb to pressure and go home quietly. But, no; these women stood their ground. No betrayal of their ideals at any price.
Two years later, and after the filmmaker's fourth trip to Greece, Beneath the Olive Tree (previously titled Three Candles) is in post-production. I can't help but draw a connection between what happened in Greece after WWII and what is happening now. For the last year we have been watching as thousands of people have flooded the streets of Athens protesting the government's policies, asking for those elected to take responsibility for their actions and be held accountable.
The film is a moving, harrowing and inspiring tale of human courage and dignity under the harshest of times. It dares to ask tough questions about a contentious time in modern Greece, and it defines a filmmaker's personal journey, one that asks a new generation of women to learn about the courage and convictions life demands of us all!
I am the narrator of Beneath the Olive Tree. The filmmakers have put every penny they had into this project in the true spirit of indie filmmaking. For more information on how to help and to watch a promotional trailer, visit www.oramapictures.info.
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