In 2012, Greece entered the fifth year of its nationwide meltdown and perhaps its worst to date. As it still remains today, a google search then of “Greece” yielded a hurricane of austerity, pay cuts, tax hikes, plummeting pensions, brain drain, Neo-Nazis, skyrocketing crime rates, riots, unemployment, inefficient governments, et al. In that very same year, I watched Greek-American engineer, physician, and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis make a brave case for optimism amidst global pessimism in a now iconic TED Talk. “The news media preferentially feeds us negative stories, because that’s what our minds pay attention to,” he said. “So given all of our digital devices that are bringing all the negative news to us seven days a week, twenty four hours a day? It’s no wonder we are pessimistic. It’s no wonder people think the world is getting worse.” He finishes, “I’m not saying we don’t have our set of problems. But ultimately, we knock them down.” I became familiar with another Peter a few years later in what was then year seven of the Greek “crisis”. Brand strategist Peter Economides, who over his career has worked with Apple, Audi, Volkswagen, Heineken as a master innovator and communicator of identity. I remember hearing Peter say in his GINETAI speech (which went viral), “Greeks need to create their way out of this crisis.” What I heard collectively was a plea for Greek citizens to re-imagine their position in the world and to resist the convenient narrative provided to them. That call was answered by Apostolos Sianos, a young man who, years before either Peter took the stage, began defying the status quo. I met Apostolos in February as he would eventually become a subject in my upcoming documentary film, Freedom Besieged.
In 2010, Apostolos and three other young, like-minded Greeks founded an eco-community in the village of Agios on the island of Euboea, the second-largest Greek island next to Crete. The mission statement of this community can be found in its name, “Free and Real” — an acronym for Freedom Of Resources For Everyone, Respect, Equality, Awareness, and Learning. With only a narrow straight separating it from mainland Greece, Apostolos is always within an arms reach of his former life but never intends to go back. “To be honest, Athens was like a cement cage,” he says to me. “I was exhausted.” Apostolos packed up his Athens apartment and fled a well paying job as a website designer to pursue a life cut off from the national electricity grid, free of traditional currency and the shackles of modern civilization. I can already hear a table of disgruntled Greek patrons at a local cafe in Athens, cigarettes hanging loosely from their mouths, “It’ll never happen. They’ll freeze to death in the winter.” And it’s true, the first years of the project were difficult. The harsh realities of autonomy, self-sufficiency, and cultivating uncertain terrain reared its ugly head and, although I cannot speak for Apostolos, I’m sure he has at times been nervous and afraid. But as I have grown to know Apostolos and the permanent residents of Free and Real I have realized that their will for freedom rises high above their fear.
Eighty percent of the food consumed at the commune is produced from their garden as part of a completely vegan diet. Apostolos and the other permanent residents of Free and Real sleep communally in yurts that they built with their own hands and they create their own toothpaste, soap, and other necessities. At the time of our filming, Free and Real were holding an “Energy Mastercourse” in partnership with SEYN (Sustainable Energy Youth Network) focused on low impact technologies and renewable energy resources. Like-minded individuals focused on sustainability from all corners of Europe gathered, from Britain, Germany, France, and the list goes on. They built solar panels, Bluetooth sound systems, solar chargers for mobile devices. Free and Real have acquired an additional three acre plot of land on Mount Telaithrion, a short but adventurous drive from their headquarters in Agios, where they plan to build a multi-purpose project consisting of a school for self-sufficiency, a research centre for sustainability, and a model eco-village that hopefully will inspire similar creations in other parts of Greece and the world.
For my upcoming film, I interviewed New Democracy Party Leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the likeliest of candidates to become Greece’s next Prime Minister, and we discussed two positives that have come from out of this crisis: (1) solidarity between Greek citizens of varying demographics (2) a surge in innovation and creativity amongst many young Greek entrepreneurs. In another conversation I had with Noam Chomsky months earlier, he explained to me, “Revolution can begin anywhere, large or small. A hotel room, a village, a farm.” Apostolos Sianos and the members of Free and Real are living proof of a Greece that I would like to start talking more about. Educated, accountable, brave, and fiercely motivated. They are rewriting the rule book on success and redefining happiness. Will they ever completely sever their ties to money or Greece’s national electricity grid? Well, I’ve imagined some said they wouldn’t survive their first winter and yet here I am in a yurt they built, over a half-decade later, toasty warm.