Lesvos: fall in Love and the liberation of the island

Event held on November 9, 2016 delivered at Mytilene House with 200 people in attendance

“Lesvos will continue to function as an island. That is what we are, an island. It is not a Dubai, it is a remote island.” 

Good evening, how is everyone? I’m here to talk you a little about a film I was involved with; the star being LESVOS. I am also hoping to talk you about the island and its liberation and reunification with Greece in 1912. You see Lesvos has an incredible story to tell, a story that goes back thousands of years. What we tried to do is capture part of those stories with a quirky film at a time when Lesvos has had the international media spotlight focussed on it.

The refugees and migrants have made the headlines. The humane treatment of the refugees and migrants by the islanders has been publicised but not well enough. For a news outlet it’s easier to create a story of fear and how migrants may impact Europe. It’s always about Europe and feeding fear.

Let me ask you a question. Who has been to Mytilene recently? Have you been attacked, have you seen any brawls?

NO

Lesvos is safe and the refugees arrive, get processed and then leave. Yes there has been the occasional mishap in the camps. And this can happen anywhere when dozens of nationalities and in a confined space. This does not happen on the streets. Hence we wanted to showcase the island for what it is. A safe place, a home for almost 100,000 people, the home of such incredible souls, Sappho, Odyseas Elytis, poet Alcaeous, Aristotle, Theophilos the painter (some of his work is here ttonight), the artist Tzeli Hadzidimitriou (whose book we have here for sale).

Lesvos has always welcomed refugees. In the Byzantine times many would flee from Ottoman occupied lands to the island. In 1922, the greatest rescue operation in history occurred when an American missionary, Asa K Jennings, convinced Attaturk and tricked the Greek government to give him command of the Greek fleet to rescue hundreds of thousands of Greek Orthodox from Smyrna. My pappou was probably one of them. Most were brought to Mytilene. So you see, Lesvos is a home to those who flee persecution and war. A safe and hospitable home. I believe 24,000 Greek speaking refugees were settled there permanently. I should mention that in 1914, we also took in refugees from Asia Minor.

This is a film that was funded by the Mytilene Brotherhood of NSW. They did not even think about it when we requested support, they knew it would be a good promotion for our island.

Starting off in London with my filmmaker buddy and a few friends, 3 of us ended up in Lesvos on a road trip and that is what we will present over the next half an hour. A few local celebrities feature, an award actress from Turkey and a number of towns and villages. Principal photography was set in 2015 and we finished the work in June 2016. We actually debuted the film in London to a packed audience and last month it sold out two cinemas at Norton Street as part of a Lesvos promotion by the Adelfotita and the Greek Film Festival.

What is Lesvos famous for: philosophers, artists, ouzo, sardines, arguably the best olive oil in Greece, the Petrified Forrest, refugees, the international women’s festival; and the first meeting of the head of the Greek and Roman Catholic churches in hundreds of years (2016).

The Film: will therefore show the island for what it is… an island. A home. A village. A gathering. A place. A very safe and quirky place.

Shortly we will play the film. I am happy to take questions immediately after. Before we press play, I just want to ask, does anyone know what today is?

Liberation

The island was one of the last Byzantine strongholds technically connected to the Byzantine Empire, the Greek medieval empire. In 1354 it was ceded by the empire to the Genoese to govern though it was still part of the Byzantine sphere of influence. The fortress in Mytilene was renovated by 1373 and arts and literature became well known. In 1462 the island was taken by Sultan Mehmet II the Conquerer. As long you paid your taxes, the island remained calm.

In 1817 when members of the Philikoi Etaireia arrived patriotism was stirred. In 1821 Dimitris Papanikolis shelled the Turkish Frigate Moving Mountain, sinking it in Eressos. In retaliation the Turks led to the killing of many Greek Orthodox which was known as The Great Assault. Around 1850 a large number of Olive trees were destroyed forcing hundreds of inhabitants to move to neighbouring Asia Minor.

Early 1900s, and the patriotic spirit of the islanders resulted in attacks against the Ottomans.

During the Balkan Wars fought by Greece which resulted in around 40% increase of our territory under Eleftherios Venizelos, the island benefited from the ascendancy of the Hellenic forces. The second Balkan War commenced in October 1913, however there were doubts that Lesvos would be liberated for the Hellenic Fleet was based in Lemnos. Here they sought to blocking Ottomans and their movement to the Aegean Sea. A number of prominent citizens of Plomari were agitating for liberation and actually wrote to European powers. Early November, Thessaloniki the city founded by Philip II was liberated. Venizelos and the Admiral P Koundouriotis knew what needed to be done. The Admiral delayed entry to Mytilene a few days to coincide with the feast day of the protector of the island, Archangel Michael (Taxiarchis). On November 8, 1912, the island was liberated by the brilliant Admiral P. Koundouriotis who came with a small fleet led by the impressive battle ship Averof (named after one of the great modern Hellenes). The people of Lesvos began yelling at around 7 am that they could see the ships entering the harbour. The commotion woke the city and everyone was out by our harbour. The Ottomans were no match. Koundouriotis had Greece in his heart and Lesvos as the next element to build modern Greece. Finally, after almost 6 centuries of foreign occupation, Lesvos was once again part of the Greek speaking world. Ironically this was not confirmed until the following year and again in 1923 after the disgraceful population exchange with Turkey, which resulted in the end of Greek history in Asia Minor.

I should note that a small force of Ottoman troops retreated to Klapados and surrendered a month later.

JUST Want to say thank you the people who arranged the event today, all the ladies who cooked including my mum. They help make every Mytilenean event special. And of course to the technical people, Steve, Andreas, John, Peter, Myrsini and the rest of the Committee. Tassos for awesome bouzouki playing

The Team

A Sydney-sider by background, writer-director Billy Cotsis has dedicated his life to documenting the worldwide Greek Diaspora, and never so passionately as this cinematic love letter to Lesvos. Spending more than a year in Lesvos afforded Billy the opportunity to get under the skin of Lesvos village life and know it like a local – so much so, he now refers to Lesvos in the first-person possessive of ‘our’.

Teaming up with London filmmaker Basil Genimahaliotis and another Sydney cohort, the group set out on a road-trip to uncover all that is unique and wonderful about Lesvos, as well as the current refugee crisis that has well and truly hit the island. They have some laughs as they look into the making of ouzo, discover must-see sights and pay homage to Sappho, the first ever lesbian.

Cameo appearances and non technical support by Arthur Seli throughout the film,

A number of local identities and award-winning Turkish actress, Ayça Damgacı, also make an appearance.

The film is the first in what will hopefully be a series that will promote the Greek nisia and culture

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