"We're the kids who have stopped talking," a young woman mumbles in passing as she turns her back to me, declining an interview. "Write that down." A short moment later, a scrawny and disheveled man sporting a burning cigarette and black clothing taps me on the shoulder. "No filming. What the hell are you doing here? No cameras." I look up to find a set of eyes glaring at me from an apartment overhead. On the balcony, two red flags blow proudly in the wind, a symbol of socialism, communism, and left wing politics. I'm surrounded by a labyrinth of graffiti clad buildings, a never-ending art gallery reminiscent of a web forum. This discussion, albeit mostly made up of scribbled "anti-establishment" slogans sprayed illicitly on storefronts, is also home to some of the most stunning and detailed street art I have ever witnessed full of passion, wisdom, and intelligence concerning the current socioeconomic state of Greece. This is Exarcheia, a neighbourhood in downtown Athens known famously as a haven for self-proclaimed anarchists who are at war with the government, the police, and capitalism. It is also a breeding ground for brilliant artists, promising intellectuals, and philanthropists. Syntagma Square, home to the Old Royal Palace which has housed the Hellenic Parliament since 1934, is a short cab ride away.
I sit on a small ledge in front of a memorial for Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a fifteen year old Greek student who on December 6th, 2008 was shot in this very spot by Greek police in retaliation of a minor verbal clash with Alexandros and some of his friends. This tragedy triggered riots and protests for weeks which have since turned to yearly demonstrations. For some, the death of Alexandros Grigoropoulos was an outlet for many frustrated and angry youth to unify against corrupt establishments, to freely speak their mind in hopes of becoming the catalysts for real change. "I was eighteen years old and I felt so free," a young filmmaker tells me from her apartment, minutes from Alexandros' memorial. "Marching in those streets, I finally felt a part of something. We were going to change the country for Alexis!"
For others, sadly, this was an open call to wreak havoc in the streets, to burn and destroy the very country they call home. Businesses that belonged to someone's grandfather, vehicles that families depended on. Since 2008, all of this destruction has overshadowed the real issues and young intellectuals who I feel can make a significant difference in this country have been labeled radical, destructive, criminals. What's worse, and because of such alienation, many of them now refuse to speak at all. "Their heads are not screwed on right," a taxi driver tells me. "They are hooligans and extremists looking for reasons to throw Molotov cocktails." My heart sank.
For three days and three nights we walked the streets of Exarcheia. I hold a camera in my hand but it feels like a gun. Heavily armed police officers keep watch on the outskirts of the neighbourhood, never to step into the heart of Exarcheia unless provoked. In similar fashion, we were instructed by a credible source to never take our cameras into that very heart, Exarcheia Square, as it was likely we would be physically abused and our cameras smashed. Not by anarchist youth, so much, but instead by the drug dealers and petty thieves who use Exarcheia's lack of uniform presence as an opportunity to build a thriving business. Word spreads fast in Exarcheia and we receive a call from our credible source explaining that a group of ten have gathered and slung together twenty five Molotov cocktails with our names on them. It's time to go.
We successfully had interviewed a few students and some artists who, since their self-described days of "unfocused angst", have now dedicated their time to their schooling and have faith that they can fix a broken system from within through their strong, credible voices as highly educated leaders of their respective communities. These are the young Greeks I wanted to listen to and learn from because, in numbers, they will change this country. I hope in ten years they are the ones who make up the identity of Exarcheia because, at times, I feel the true nature of this neighbourhood becomes lost in the burning fires left behind by those who I feel do not represent this nation's best interests and instead contribute much more to Alexandros Grigoropoulos having died in vain.
It is true that law enforcement officials in Greece need a wake up call. The judicial system in Greece needs a wake up call. The government of Greece need to understand that their lack of meaningful action in a nation hungry for leadership is alienating and silencing the very people who could bring this country back into the light. This need for autonomy and separation from the "establishment" is understandable but please do not abandon your country. I plead and I beg for those who have something to say to lay down their weapons, take off their masks, and engage in a conversation free of senseless disorder because the fact is, you are being antagonized and your precious words rendered meaningless. As we make our exit from Exarcheia, I remember walking past a boarded up window with rusted nails. I then ask to film a young boy who is sitting on a parked motorcycle with his father, playing. The father smiles and invites me over but before anyone says a word a woman comes running out screaming at me, "Get out of here! What do you think you're doing? We don't want you here!" The father's smile fades and the young boy drops his head. I, nor the world, may ever know what they have to say. In an era when Greeks, by all means peaceful, productive, and diplomatic, must make public their opinions, our silence is our greatest tragedy.
Up until this point, this film has been a self-funded project. We are asking the public to donate to our cause through our GoFundMe campaign which will recoup our flight and equipment rental costs to date. Thank you so much for your support.