Mapping Human Dignity, and Redefining Borders in Contemporary Filmography

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ConmarapGood Fences
Ai Weiwei’s Gilded Cage installation in Washington Square Park for the exhibition Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, 2017. Photo by Constantine Apostolou.

Currently, Ai Weiwei has put up works all around New York City in a multi-location and multi-disciplinary exhibition titled Good Fences Make Good Neighbors that he created by working with Public Art Fund. The interdisciplinary works the artist has made for this occasion aim to make viewers question populist notions on the necessity of barriers, and the sociopolitical prejudices that are born through them – prejudices that created and fueled the immigration-turned-humanitarian crisis as it is known today.

One of Ai Weiwei’s portraits. 19th Street between Broadway and 5th Avenue.

On occasion of this interactive public exhibition, I want to raise awareness around two works of filmography that can truly complement Ai Weiwei’s works, concerns, and efforts. The two short films balance between the status of sociopolitical artworks and the status of documentaries. They are particularly relevant to Weiwei’s Good Fences project in the sense that they are both produced by Greek filmographers who took to the camera to transliterate the point of view least promoted by the media — that of the ordinary people (and animals) actively working towards a positive social change, who fight against such barriers as the ones addressed in Good Fences. Most importantly, these two films can be further combined with Weiwei’s work and social media activity during his visit to refugee camps in Greece last year where he also participated as a volunteer.
The two films I am referring to are Border Souls and Dogs of Democracy. They were presented consecutively in a single screening at this year’s New York City Greek Film Festival last month creating a highly immersive experience with the ideal conditions for reconsidering all that is perceived as known.
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In Border Souls, producer and filmmaker Takis Bardakos presents the superhuman efforts of a local community and its neighboring monastery to help provide basic living necessities to the thousands of Syrian refugees that were forced to live right outside the borders between Greece and the rest of the Balkans after the borders were closed. They remained there, exposed to the harsh elements of winter in Northern Greece. It presents, not only the difficulties in simply collecting enough food and water to help people who have no other resort, but also the obstacles created by misinformation from the media and a severe lack in any sort of funding. The priest together with the nuns of the monastery managed to gather volunteers from the nearby villages, and create a system of collecting water, milk, and food donations, that allows them to be free of the handling of any monetary donations at all. This resulted in an honest and financially diaphanous process that brought additional volunteers to the site while also engaging local businesses in this humanitarian mission. In addition, this process utilized a loophole in the currently unbearable taxing system in Greece that would have reduced monetary donations to less than half. Bardakos gives the viewer a glimpse of the contrast between this community and those who chose not to partake in any efforts to help. The viewer, thus, is left questioning the concepts of humanity, borders, and the results of fear. It also presents a mere glimpse into the complications posed by a government that is far from highly functioning and definitely overspent in a myriad of other issues.
In Dogs of Democracy, Dr Maria Zournazi presents a brilliant metaphor for humanity and the human right to dignity by taking to the streets and following Athens’ numerous stray dogs. Strays in Greece hold a different presence than in other countries of the world in that they become one with the urban environment they choose to inhabit. Admittedly, I went into this screening with caution and left with my mind having opened in ways I did not anticipate. It is challenging to conceive how a documentary whose title and theme seem to be about animals could in any way truly approach the toils, fears, and the social treatment people received after the economic crisis hit and changed their lives so drastically and for good. Yet, stray dogs in cities as big as Athens are often recognized as presences with personalities. They have names that somehow, magically, most people end up knowing, and as the documentary shows, they often participate in the civilian activity on the streets and assimilate with the side they feel is threatened. Alongside following the dogs around the city, Zournazi follows the people who care for them. She interviews a wide range of people from a homeless man, and volunteer dog rescuers to politicians, from artists to activists. In doing so, she manages to present, in the most delicate way imaginable, how humans can re-learn from animals the core values of humanity, empathy, and acceptance while presenting a universal cry for the respect of human dignity which unfortunately has been severely reduced. As artist Shepard Fairey notes:
“Respecting human dignity is really punk rock right now.”
Both of these remarkable works in filmography will make you feel deeply, and rethink everything you thought you knew about immigration, and the economic and refugee crisis’ today that go far beyond the local boundaries of Greece, or even Europe to affect and involve all of us around the globe.
Further information:
Interactive map of Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.
Dogs of Democracy Trailer
Border Souls Trailer

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