Interview of the researcher – historian and co-founder of the Hellenic Foundation for Historical Studies (HHF), Ms Irini Sarioglou to Lilian Psyla
Every year something happens in Kastelorizo that attracts the attention of the whole world. Thirty historical documentaries from around the world compete, the island’s children learn and visitors are entertained. Behind all this, the Hellenic Foundation for Historical Studies (H.H.I.S.ME) and its co-founder, the historian Mrs. Irini Sarioglou. We met her at the Foundation’s offices in Pallini where she took us on a journey through her life, history and Greece, giving us a taste of the originality of this year’s festival.
Mrs Sarioglou, tell us a little bit about your own journey. The journey of your life. Let’s start with Istanbul. Your childhood in Istanbul and what experiences led you to where you are today?
Look, I’m very, very lucky. I was born and raised in Istanbul, I was born in ’72 in Tatayla with a mother who was a philologist and a father who was a technician. My father was a technician but I think the city where I was born and my mother played a decisive role in my path. Now why the city played a decisive role because Istanbul was the capital of all Hellenism for 17 consecutive centuries. A capital in the broadest sense, a cradle, Arveler says. She is right. The term capital was invented in the 19th – 20th century with the nations – states when the empires were dissolved. The most important city of all Hellenism for 17 consecutive centuries, i.e. from 333 AD to 1922, is Constantinople. And what does the most important city mean. You want to trade, to make money, you go to Istanbul. You are looking for the best education, you go to Polis. For any social, personal, commercial reason you would go to Polis.
I always tell my students that the bakeries in Constantinople have always been owned by the Epirotes. The leathers, the tanneries, Chians. To this day in Constantinople there is a mahalas called Andromachalas, a district where residents of Andros went and settled. Very recently we completed a documentary about Seferis’ homeland, Vourla in Smyrna, and we learned thanks to it that the first inhabitants of Vourla were Maniates in the 18th century. I want to say this, I think it’s invalid that Greece belongs to the West. Greece also belongs to the West. Greece also belongs to the East, at least since the time of Homer. You cannot take a pair of scissors and cut this relationship in half. Populations have always come and gone, so to speak, between Asia Minor and Greece. They’ve been coming back and forth forever. Of course the term “refugee” is invalid in 22. It was invented pejoratively. I can understand it a hundred years ago. But I can’t understand it today. It is the Hellenism of the East with the capital city of Istanbul. That’s it. Well, I feel like a city girl. Deep in my soul I carry this heritage. I don’t mean that in a nationalistic way at all. Exactly the same things I teach my Turkish students every Thursday and Friday when I am in Istanbul and teach Greek history, in Greek. There is a history, a wealth. Today you can buy everything, wherever you are on the planet. But what you can’t buy is the story. They created a huge civilization, it’s a millennia-long empire, the Byzantine Empire, it’s Greek medieval history, even if it’s not taught in Greek schools today in Greece or it’s taught in a very bad way, a very hypothetical way. I have been living in Athens for the last 23 years, previously I was in France and England where I studied.
So, over the last 23 years, if you were to tell me what the biggest problem in my country, Greece, is, I would tell you how deliberately, badly written the textbooks are. All of them, but especially the histories. I have a godchild in November. He was in fifth grade last year. He did Byzantine history, 6th grade this year, modern Greek history. We sit down to study together, and I tell him I don’t understand. He says no way, godmother, no way. You’re a professor at the university, you’re an assistant professor, how can you not understand. So when I don’t understand, I am fifty years old, how can a ten-year-old child understand these textbooks. Obscure texts, too long. So I asked our friends in England and France to send me the corresponding textbooks for the fifth and sixth grades. They have nothing to do with it. No relation. They have two sentences, inexperienced, huge colorful maps, references to web pages, and the book draws you in to read it. Listen because this is very important. Because if by elementary school I’ve lost that particular kid and he hates history, and he does hate history – kids aren’t just indifferent, they hate history – by middle school or high school I’ve lost it. Anyway, we didn’t choose to be born Greek. We will agree on that. But since we were born Greek, we have a responsibility. The father of history is Greek and he is from the East. He is Herodotus from Halicarnassus. The language has at least 5,000 years of history. We owe it to ourselves to know the basics of history out of debt. It is not up for debate and has nothing to do with your profession. Absolutely, not at all. And being a street sweeper and a plumber and an electrician, you should know the basics of history because you are Greek. I always say, “I remember, therefore I exist,” said Anagnostakis. That is, without memory there is no tomorrow. Without memory there is no civilization. That’s what the Foundation for Historical Studies deals with, but my inspiration is always the City, that’s where I always return. I have loved history since my childhood. That is, I remember being an elementary school kid and pretending to be, for good measure, a journalist and interviewing my grandmothers and grandfathers. And they would tell me old stories about the City, they would tell me, they would tell me, and I was fascinated by the whole thing. Of course, in Istanbul we had an amazing, overwhelming education. It’s no accident. Let me remind you that two-thirds of the Greek population in 1832 was not liberated, they remained enslaved. Listen to a shocking thing that happens right next to the East. While these people, 2/3 of the Greek population is enslaved, they are performing a miracle, taking advantage of a historical circumstance called “tanzimat”, reform means in Ottoman. The Sultan has run out of money, he needs money and the Great Powers of his time say we will lend you money if you finally make a constitution, where in the 19th century your Muslim inhabitants will be considered equal to non-Muslims, at least on paper. So we Greeks, the enslaved, the rayads, are taking advantage of this situation, since the papers say that we are equal citizens and we are doing something shocking that I believe has always defined Hellenism and the Greek, we are investing in letters. Suddenly, just as we have ATMs in Greece today, we are establishing schools for boys, boys’ schools, girls’ schools, parthenagogues, trade schools and language schools. Not only Greeks go to these schools, not even just Orthodox from Serbia, from Russia, from Bulgaria, from all over the world. The most important thing is that Turkish women or Turkish bourgeois/urbanites go there as well, that is, just as today you have no problem sending your children to the German college, the American college, the French college, in the 19th century the best education was provided by the Greek schools. As a result, before we entered the 20th century we had penetrated entirely into the bureaucracy of the Ottoman Empire, i.e. the Sultan wants an ambassador, he is Greek. He wants a doctor, he’s Greek. The founder of the Turkish crescent in the 19th century is Marco Pasha, he is Greek. Let me tell you that in my school, just for the music lesson we had seven pianos with a tailpiece. I ask you, which school today, in the year 2023, in the world, for the simple music lesson in high school, has seven pianos with tails. None. And these buildings, like the Zappeion, which still exists in the city and is still in operation, were the size and appearance of the Greek Parliament. You walk in and it’s awe-inspiring and you say in here I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen but something very big is going to happen. I don’t know what it is. It’s not like the schools today in Greece that are Guantanamo, they’re concrete, colorless, in the dirt, abandoned. So how I ask you are we going to inspire the little child, even if it’s not my little child, your little child, to get involved to be introduced to the value of cultivation, the key is this. If he is initiated into the value of cultivation, he will always want to learn more and more and more. You know what is shocking, that when all this is happening in Asia Minor, in Pontus, in Cappadocia, in Bithynia, in Polis, there is not a Ministry of Education that coordinates, that pays salaries. There is no ministry of health that builds hospitals, there is no ministry of culture that produces hundreds of books, magazines, newspapers, theatre, cinema. In 1917 in Vourla there is a cinema. I mean, I want to tell you that all this development, it stops abruptly in 1922, and for me the fallacy, if you like, that this history from 1800 to 1922, this terrible heyday of Hellenism, is not taught. It should be taught by example. The way now that the state was structured in 1832 by order of the Bavarians was to erase anything that had anything to do with Greek medieval history. They didn’t like it. These people said you are descendants of Pericles, 5th century BC and then we’ll go to 1832. And it’s no accident, it’s no accident that we have two Nobel Prize-winning poets, neither of them are members of the Academy of Athens. Because they have two very serious offences. The misdemeanour is that Elytis was born in Heraklion, Crete, and Seferis was born in Vourla. They were not born in Athens, which the Bavarians admired. That is, all the countries of the world, all the countries have an academy named after the country. It is, say, an American academy, a French academy. Only Greece continues to have the Academy of Athens, but this, of course, if you examine it a little further, and I can document it with mathematical precision, indicates a dissatisfaction and a negative attitude towards Hellenism in the East.
We don’t know that the Hellenism of the East is what we are, Epirus, Thracians, Peloponnesians, islanders. It is one and the same. It is not another race that suddenly fell from the sky. If you step back a little and look. It’s such a close relationship. Greece is the crossroads, as C.T. Dimaras says. It is neither East nor West. It is the transition point. The Aegean always defines both the left side and the right side.
Next stop Kastelorizo. For the eighth year, your route is linked to the International Documentary Festival “Beyond Borders”. How did Kastelorizo come your way and what was the reason for the organisation of the International Festival?
Little things come randomly in my life. The Hellenic Foundation for Historical Studies was founded in 2008 when the institution we were working for, me and my colleagues, was transferred, merged into the National Bank of Greece. I am referring to the H.L.I.A. So out of necessity, on the day and hour that the H.L.I.A. was sold to the National Bank, the Historical Studies Foundation was established here in Pallini. We have been going on and doing two things since 2008. We make publications that have an objective reason for being and each publication is accompanied by its own historical documentary. One such publication in ’15 was on Kastelorizo. A book and a documentary. This has also won the award for best historical documentary in London. In ’16 we wanted to present these works in the region as well. When we put out a new work, we present it to our 50,000,000 members. To become a member no financial contribution is required. We just want Greece 2023 to have people with common concerns and common visions. Well, we did a presentation of 3,000 people in November 15 in Athens and in ’16 I say to the president of IDISME, Panagiotis Poulakos, let’s go and present it at our own expense and in Kastelorizo, he says “no”. And a conflict begins within IDISME, we will go, we will not go. He says to me “who will understand, what? For a mere projection it is of no value, only you will be happy, you will satisfy your ego and nothing more constructive will happen”. I said, “What’s more constructive than that?” I don’t know”, he says, “think about it and come back in ten days with another proposal”. I actually sat down and thought to myself and I said, “how about we establish an international festival of historical documentaries, which will be held every year in the last week of August under the auspices of the President of the Republic and we will have the opportunity to show not only Kastelorizo, but all our works out of competition”. He says, “Let’s try it.” In the first year, in August ’16 we got 65 films from 10 countries. This year, we received 835 films from 93 countries. Last year we got 790 films from 100 countries. But here at IDISME, with my colleagues, you have to have vision and passion and believe in all this. That is, if you don’t believe in it a little bit, you can’t serve it, because the amount of work is so much that if you don’t believe in it, you can’t sacrifice yourself. It takes a lot of sacrifice but I have very, very worthy partners. There is this great Greece, which we don’t see on the TV, which is not heard, not shown, but it is children with passion, with philanthropy. I have great partners. I owe everything to them, and we should say so publicly and thank them publicly. With their loyalty we have managed to go from 65 documentaries and 10 countries to 835 films from 93 countries. Of course, there’s a selection committee that looks at these films for four months as we receive them and we’ll announce the official results on June 12 at the Goethe Institute, which ones have qualified to compete. Around 30 feature-length documentary films are competing. We have another separate section for short films, the micro section, which is sponsored by ZDF, the German broadcaster, and over the course of these 8 years we have had many great foreign friends of ours, in very important positions. They have believed in our vision, they have shared our vision and they are really helping us.
Every year we see something new being introduced at the Festival. What will it be this year?
This year there are many new things happening at the Castellorizo Documentary Festival. I will confide a few of them to you. This year there will be a prize FIPRESCI, The FIPRESCI is the International Federation of Film Critics. It’s a very, very serious and strict body that only gives awards to the very big festivals, like the Cannes Festival, like in Berlin. At very, very big festivals. Three years ago the head came to Kastelorizo, Klaus Ender, three years ago. By his own admission, he was left with his mouth hanging open. He’s a gentleman with a tremendous amount of experience, over fifty years. He suggested that we should give this festival awards, give awards for one reason: it’s a boutique festival. Kastelorizo is too small. What defines us is size so we can only aim for very high quality. Το FIPRESCI wants in a few years to receive 3,000 films so that we can select even more of the cream of the world’s documentary filmmaking crop. But we have managed to make very big steps. Again the FIPRESCI, this year the Festival will also have a section called critical corners (critics corner) i.e. film critics who will come from all over the world to publicly discuss the films shown last night. Another innovation is the second competition stage, the micro section, created for short films with the support of ZDF. There will be a separate jury for this section. The central jury is different. There will also be a jury for the FIPRESCI. I must also tell you that since 2017, if we find ten euros from the sponsorships to do what we aim to do, five euros go to the educational programs we organize for the children of Kastelorizo. Parallel actions, that is. We do filming courses, scriptwriting courses, photography courses, free diving courses, dance courses. Everything you can imagine. Of course, we also have book presentations, we have concerts, there are so many things going on. We do everything with love and passion. In recent years we have started a collaboration with the University of Geneva. We presented in 2021 a book that we prepared together with the Department of Modern Greek Studies of the University of Geneva about a very important Greek intellectual, who wrote articles in the European press to awaken the European public opinion to assist the Greek Struggle in the 21st century. The University of Geneva was very pleased, he came back this year and we are preparing a sensational volume together – it will be ready in a month or so, the Asia Minor question from Western sources, exclusively from Western sources. The archives of America, England, Italy. And this will be presented for the first time again in Kastelorizo. We are trying to do original things.
Tell us about the details of the festival, when it will be held this year, and how can viewers get their tickets?
August 20 to 27 is this year. There are no tickets. All are free of charge.
Which places in Greece take you back in history?
All of Greece. You can’t imagine I want to make historical documentaries for every place, for every city, for every region. It’s my burning desire but I can’t find people. Because we always need the financial support. I’m not going to make a historical documentary on my own. It’s a whole staff from the sound engineer to the cinematographer, to the editor, to the original music, to the studios.
Which destination would you choose to take you on a journey of relaxation and carefree living?
Kastelorizo or Istanbul. It’s the two extremes.
What is Greece for you?
Greece is a memory. Greece is history, mythology. Today Homer is taught in all countries of the world. They even learn it in the original and the Iliad and the Odyssey. My Turkish students are learning it. So we owe it to ourselves to remember this a little and to serve it as a duty. We’re not doing anyone any favors. We ought to do them. We owe it to ourselves to do them. Have you ever realized that all of Athens is built by national benefactors? How many of us know their lives, their advice. They are all Epirus. Evangelismos, the hospital, the Academy of Athens, the Zappeion Hall, the Kallimarmaro. What can I tell you? Whatever stone you raise in the centre of Athens is a national benefactor, it is a private initiative. Don’t we owe them? Shouldn’t we make a documentary about the national benefactors and send it to all the schools in Greece? We owe them. I owe them personally. Four generations of women have graduated from the Zappeion School. I, my late mother, my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, because some people were generous, put up the money to build it.
What does tomorrow’s Greece have in store for us and how does it merge with the Greece of yesterday?
The big advantage I have is that I didn’t grow up here. If I had grown up here, I would most likely not have loved my homeland so much. The fact that I was in Istanbul until I was 18, we were imbued, nurtured, with this endless love for Greece. We will continue to serve what we believe in. Just one person can make a difference. But there are many people – I can see it in many young people, who want to change the reality in Greece. The value of knowledge is ultimately that we become better people, wiser.
Find more information about IDISME and the Castellorizo International Documentary Festival here: