Saturday, June 6, 2009

Michael Cacoyannis—Attila 1974: The Rape of Cyprus

Journalism is, in the words of Donald Graham, chairman and CEO of The Washington Post, “the first, rough draft of history.”

This quote has several interesting implications—the first is that the journalist isn’t merely a transcriber of events or an information monger who gathers dry bits of fact and assembles them for a readership. He or she is already involved in the interpretation of events, in the making-sense-of-things that we usually imagine is only the historian’s job.

At the start of Michael Cacoyannis’s documentary about the 1974 invasion of Cyprus, the director seems to understand and acknowledge this by making known his own position. “I am Greek,” he announces, “and my name is Michael Cacoyannis.” There’s no pretense to objective journalism here—this is from the start an interpretive documentary.

The other implication of Graham’s quote is that, since journalism is only the “first, rough draft,” the journalist should be given some leeway if he or she gets a few things wrong.

What’s remarkable about Cacoyannis’s film, made at the exact, impassioned moment of the Turkish invasion of his homeland in 1974, is how much he gets right.

The invasion and division of Cyprus was not a simple event—it was a disaster that was provoked by some, carried out by others, and allowed to happen by still others . . . and the island’s continuing division is the responsibility of yet others still. There’s plenty of blame to be spread around, and Cacoyannis is committed to calling out all the guilty parties. It would be easy enough for him to point a finger simply at the Turkish invaders, but he doesn’t settle for that—the British, the Americans, the Greeks, and even many Cypriots come under fire as he teases out the interlocking causes of the invasion.

Of course, Cacoyannis isn’t a journalist, but a filmmaker who was already well into his mid-career when this film was made. He had lived abroad in Greece and England for years, but returned immediately to make this documentary when he heard of the invasion. Therefore, not being a journalist, he doesn’t just give us the facts, or even the facts and an interpretation. Instead, like the filmmaker that he is, he creates a documentary that is as rich in atmosphere as it is in information. He gives us a chance to experience for ourselves what it feels like to be in his country at that moment.

He does this by alternating between information and emotion, by sequencing interviews and factual narration with long—almost embarrassingly long, sometimes—shots of individuals as they tell their stories, cry in sorrow, scream in despair, or simply sit in resigned humiliation. These shots, actually, have no purpose within the narrative of the film—they convey no information, and the flavor they impart could be edited down by a professional documentarian to just a few minutes. But that’s not Cacoyannis’s point. These shots are not just a little spice in the thick stew of important information. They are stories told by the people who experienced them, with no greater purpose than that the people have to tell them and Cacoyannis is there to listen.

Part of Cyprus’s problem is that its history is remembered only in pieces—the Greek Cypriots remember the 1974 invasion; the Turkish Cypriots the violence against them in 1963. Turkey remembers the 1974 coup by Greek nationalists; Greece remembers the 1955 expulsion of Greeks from Istanbul, made in response to the Greek Cypriot independence movement.

What Cacoyannis lets us see is another sort of memory in the making—not the collective memory of the Greek Cypriots as a group, but the deeply personal memories of Cypriots as individuals. These memories are almost entirely of loss—loss of sons, husbands, or fathers; loss of property or a good life; loss of a sense of belonging and of the pride of self-sufficiency. Among other things, this might be the best film made on the experience of refugees, whom we see in their pain, boredom, anger, and stunned emotionlessness.

Again, Cacoyannis shows this though extended, almost too-personal shots of his fellow Greek Cypriots as they communicate, each in their own way, what they’ve lost. It’s a process that continues to this day. As late as 2004, when I was in Cyprus, there were still old women standing by the border crossings, dressed all in black, holding pictures of the loved ones who had disappeared without a trace in 1974. Politics falls away in the face of these women.

Though Cacoyannis opened his film with a declaration of his own viewpoint going forward—I am Greek and my name is Michael Cacoyannis—he closes quite differently. In an epilogue added 25 years later, he is looking back and wants to know only about the dead. “I am Michael Cacoyannis,” he declares “and I want to know, where?” Where are the nameless dead buried?

Just a few years ago, more than three decades after the invasion, bi-communal teams of Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot forensic scientists were assembled, to begin exhuming and identifying remains—from both sides—and returning them to their families. Until they are all identified, however, we have Cacoyannis’s film to help us remember—if not to remember them, then at least to remember their loss.

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