Solitary Subversives is about the Power of One in the face of oppression. About how one person’s refusal to succumb to authoritarian lies can make a difference. It begins with an almost forgotten Greek film, that I vividly recall having made an impression upon me along such lines, and then relates two other stories highlighting the capacity of one person to resist against all odds.
Solitary Subversives is our sixth article for the Witte de With Review (an initiative of Rotterdam-based Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art) of which we, vitalspace.org and I, are their… ‘Athens Desk’). Click here for the Witte de With Review site which contains several photos missing here. Or read on…
Stepping Out/In. Photo by Maria Papanikolaou (with the assistance of Dimitris Lazoulos), vitalspace.org
As the sun rises over the sea, an exhausted film crew roll the camera and a tall, slim model begins to move toward it, wearing a black evening dress and a long, black, fury scarf with which she is seductively occupying her hands. The perfume advertisement in progress is almost in the can. Alas, the crew’s hopes for a one-take shoot are quickly dashed.
A man in a suit enters the frame, walking along the beach toward the camera, a hundred meters or so behind the model. Terrified that they will lose the early morning light, the crew scream at him to get out of the frame. When they notice that the stranger is holding up a clear plastic umbrella, the director instructs the cameraman to keep filming—the odd man with the umbrella seems to have appealed to his artistic sensibilities.
With the look of one lost in thought, sheltering mysteriously under his plastic umbrella, the man does not notice the crew even once he reaches them. The assistant director’s question forces him out of his stupor: “Can’t you see you entered our frame?” Visibly shaken by the voice, but without lowering his umbrella, the man looks at the crew and asks: “Frame, what frame?” “Our camera’s frame, can’t you see?” the assistant director snaps, pointing to the equipment, the camera, the crew.
“I am sorry. I am very sorry,” replies the man before turning toward the sea and, with the umbrella consistently over his head, walks into the water. As he enters the sea, the crew smile bemusedly. Within seconds only the floating umbrella remains visible. Their chitchat lasts a minute or so until it becomes clear that the man is not resurfacing. A couple of them strip down to their underpants and dive into the water. To no avail. The man with the umbrella has vanished.
Cut to the next scene, hours later, in broad daylight, a helicopter hovering over the sea, the police searching the beach, and a coastguard boat crisscrossing the spot where the man disappeared. An air of resignation on the faces of the uniformed and plainclothes men of authority.
Thus begins The Colours of Iris, a movie by Nikos Panayiotopoulos that I recall watching in the fall of 1974, on the day it opened in Athens. It was made before the collapse of the military dictatorship in July of that year. Scripted to bypass the neo-fascist censors, The Colours of Iris combined lyricism and the absurd to produce a subtle tale of the subversive power of a single person.
In the film’s second scene, when the film crew return to base, anonymous men from state security visit the advertising agency’s director. In a series of eerie monologues they explain to him that the absurd is acceptable as long as it is ruthlessly confined within artistic expression. The authorities’ inability reasonably to answer the question of what happened to the man with the umbrella “creates cracks in the public’s trust of the state.” These cracks must be cemented immediately with “an explanation that is plausible, independently of whether it is true.”
A few hours later, the director convenes a press conference in which he announces, triumphantly, that “Greek advertising has, at long last, come of age.” That it has all been an advertising trick meant to promote a new umbrella brand. “The disappeared man was a figment of our advertising agency who used it to capture the consumers’ imagination.” His last words are drowned in applause, as journalists and advertisers clap and nod approvingly.
Nikos Stratis (played by Nikitas Tsakiroglou), the agency’s talented composer and sound engineer, is the only member of the crew who refuses to buy the official version. As one after the other the members of the crew accept it, some more grudgingly than others, Stratis becomes obsessed with the missing man. He stops working on the musical comedy that he was composing (which he intended to entitle The Colours of Iris), steals the banned negative depicting the man’s disappearance, tries to mobilize the press, even posts missing-person posters, and circulates photos of the man with the umbrella all over Athens.
The authorities exert some pressure on him, with the secret police harassing and searching his home, but they are confident that they can neutralize his campaign without resorting to violence. After all, he is a solitary subversive lacking the power to create cracks in the official version. Even his wife thinks he is deranged. Still, to deal one final blow to his stubborn campaign, and prove beyond doubt that Stratis’s account cannot be right, the district attorney orders a ‘reconstruction.’
So, in the film’s final scene, the original crew is back on the beach, reconstructing the scene in full view of thousands of curious spectators standing behind a police cordon. Cheerleaders entertain the crowd while marketing folk give away free umbrellas, identical to the one that the missing man had made famous. Stratis is also holding one of these umbrellas. For he has sought, and was granted, the role of the man with the umbrella in the reconstruction.
While the crew and the district attorney are getting into position, he practices his few lines with the assistance of the script girl. At last, he is told that everyone is ready, the model is in place, and the reconstruction is about to begin. Holding the clear plastic umbrella above his head, Stratis approaches the set, speaks his lines, turns toward the sea, and walks into the water until the umbrella floats and his head is fully submerged.
The crowd applauds and begins to dwindle, the show is over. Until someone shouts: “Where is he? He has disappeared! He has not surfaced!” Police divers wave despondently that they see no sign of him. An air of concern engulfs the officials. The camera then focuses on the faces in the crowd, goes into ultra slow motion and captures the expressions of disbelief, the cracks in the authorities’ credibility, the mounting force with which men and women are pushing against the police barricades, resisting officialdom and moving ominously toward the sea. A solitary subversive’s disappearance becomes a moment when the power to indoctrinate cracked.
For those of us whose early life straddled a brutal dictatorship, The Colours of Iris was a pivotal cultural resource whose utility, unfortunately, lasts to this day.
Aris was twenty-three. I was almost forty. We were serving in the same conscript unit of the Greek Army but our lives and positions could not be more different. I was a university professor transferring from Australia to Greece, and had to complete a few months in the army for my Athens University appointment to be finalized. He was a committed anarchist who had spent nineteen months in the army, instead of the normal twelve, due to the daily prison sentences that our officers were slapping on him for insubordination. 1
My first encounter with his defiance happened during my first day in my new unit. In the morning roll call, all of us were lined up, as spic and span as we could be, awaiting our captain’s inspection. Except Aris. Purposely disheveled, he was wandering around our neat lines, inciting us to break ranks. “Stop behaving like pawns,” he derided some. “Show them that they have no right to cage us in here,” he told others. Upon the captain’s arrival, he greeted him with obscenities that were, clearly, anticipated. “Another five for you Aris,” said the captain straining to remain unperturbed by Aris’s pestering and to retain his fierce authority over the rest of us. Thus Aris’s interminable army ‘career’ was prolonged by another five days, as has been going on daily for a while.
That morning, the captain recruited me to be his private secretary, courtesy of my computer skills. In the afternoon, he summoned me to his office to discuss Aris. He was in a bind, the captain told me. On the one hand, he wanted to get rid of Aris; to give him his army discharge certificate and see his back once and for all. On the other hand, he confessed to worrying that the other officers would accuse him of giving in to an insubordinate anarchist, thus undermining regimental discipline. To reconcile the two he asked me for a favor:
“Talk to Aris. Convey my willingness to let him go home. All I am asking of him is that he stops taunting me or the other officers for two or three days. Tell him I shall turn a blind eye to his absence from the roll call, from sentry duty, from any duty for that matter. Just convince him to stay in the dorm, away from the officers’ gaze. Two days is all I am asking for. That way, I can rescind the hundreds of prison days that he has accrued to date and grant him his army discharge certificate before the weekend.”
That night, I approached Aris with the captain’s secret offer. Aris looked at me mockingly and asked: “Are you mad? Do you think I have endured what I have endured in order to reach any deal with your captain? Do you really believe that I shall give him the satisfaction of thinking that I am prepared to legitimize his power with a deal? Never will I do anything of the sort! If he wants to return me the freedom that his institution robbed me of, he must do it while I am taunting him.” Startled, I confessed to Aris that I had erred. All of a sudden, the captain’s offer seemed far less generous to me than it had seemed earlier that day. I was, unexpectedly, deeply impressed by my younger colleague’s principled stance against a forced incarceration that served our country not one iota.
As the sun rose over our barracks, Aris was at it again, taunting the captain in his usual manner. Back at the office, the captain asked me if I had conveyed his offer. Upon hearing my reply, he was livid, but also worried. “I do not want to see this impossible boy be harmed but I cannot vouch for the other officers. Especially the more junior ones,” he said. Two weeks later, his concerns proved to be well grounded. In the middle of the night, three junior officers entered the dorm, took Aris by force to a nearby warehouse, locked the door behind him, and proceeded to give him a beating that lasted for hours. His screams were only dimly heard but not one conscript failed to notice them.
The next day, during the late-morning unit inspection, as we were all lined up in the yard, Aris was taken away on a stretcher, an ambulance was waiting outside to take him to Athens’s military hospital. Both his legs and one arm had been broken, his face was unrecognizable, his left eye totally closed up. But his spirits were intact. As the stretcher passed by us, I heard him address us in his usual manner: “Stop behaving like pawns, you jerks!” And then turning to the officers who had beaten him up, he shouted: “Is that all you could do you little sissies?” “Look at this arm,” he said, waving around his only good one, showing them his middle finger. “You have failed to break it you useless bastards. Even at torture you suck!”
None of us moved or said anything. Our cowardice ruled supreme. Desperate not to prolong my army tenure with prison days added on for insubordination, I immersed myself in the shame of not saying anything. Of letting the torturers off the hook, empowering them and prolonging their reign with my silence. Aris’s stance, and my subjugation to the authority that he would never deal with, made me feel like the particularly low form of human life that I was. At that moment, it occurred to me that, unlike in The Colours of Iris, the power of one subversive, however potent it may indeed be, may not suffice to make the rest of us pull the barricades down and speak the truth.
The Health Inspector’s Insubordination
The following is an extract from a letter to the Greek Tax Office written by a public health inspector living and working in the north of Greece.
In response to your recent memo, according to which I owe the Tax Office €3000, I am writing to inform you of the following:
Over the years, the Tax Office had been returning approximately €1000 p.a. to me from taxes withheld from my monthly public sector salary. With this sum I used to finance my family’s central heating bill during our long, cold winters. Suddenly, in 2012, your office not only did not return any tax to me but, in addition, demanded an additional €1500 even though in the previous year my salary had been reduced by 20 per cent, following the austerity cuts. Combined with the doubling in the price of heating fuel, the cuts in my wife’s pension, and the fact that the drugs on which my health relies are no longer available on the National Health Service, these income cuts and tax hikes have made it impossible for my family and myself to survive in dignity.
In addition to the injury brought upon my family by the tax increases, the wage cuts, and the dismantling of our health service, there is also the insult: these ‘changes’ have been imposed upon us by a foreign occupation force and its local stooges who are legislating accordingly. Those of you at the Tax Office who are sending us reminders of taxes owed, are acting as agents of an occupying force that imposes upon our people impossible policies, policies that even the International Monetary Fund (not known for its social conscience) considers faulty and unworkable.
In short, I do not owe the Tax Office anything. Indeed, it is the Tax Office that owes me. I refuse to recognize any debt to my country’s occupiers as a debt that I have toward the Greek State and, for the same reason, I refuse to file any tax returns with your office until and unless the occupation ends and our national sovereignty is restored. As for your implied threats to confiscate my home, which I have worked a lifetime to build, during which I have always paid every penny of taxes due, I consider them to be unlawful. Defending my home and defending my country from you and your bosses is my utmost duty; a duty imposed upon me by the Greek Constitution whose Article 120 states that the preservation of the Greek state and its constitution relies on the citizens’ patriotism.
3 April 2014
Cracks in the public’s blind trust of the powers-that-be are, indeed, potentially subversive. A single person can effect these cracks with devastating impact on illegitimate power. They are absolutely necessary if authority is to be questioned en masse and kept in check. Alas, they are anything but sufficient.
Our recalcitrant composer in The Colours of Iris succeeded in liberating a passive audience from its unexamined acceptance of the establishment’s plausible lies. My personal encounter with Aris, and my own cowardice, suggest that there is a strong possibility that the movie character’s success reflects nothing but Panayiotopoulos’s (the film’s director)—and our own—wishful thinking.
Thankfully, the jury is still out. Of these three Greek stories, the last’s finale remains unscripted, incomplete, undetermined. Solitary subversives, like our health inspector, are springing up across the country, as Greek society’s implosion continues under the ironclad policies imposed by foreign creditors and their local agents. Will the crack in the official version of our crisis lead to its shattering? Or will Greek society behave shamefully, like I did as Aris’s stretcher was being taken out of our barracks?