river of cloudy water

I didn’t take any of these photos, as I’ve never been to Chios.  They are all by Giannis Misetzis, local politician in Chios and photographer.

Today I thought I’d share something special with you – by way of a film review.  The film is not new:  it came out in 1999 and played in a few theaters in Athens for a few weeks.  It received awards but soon disappeared from theaters; it never played much outside Greece as far as I know.  It became my favorite film as soon as I saw it nine years ago, and remains so to this day.  The English title is The Spring Gathering of the Field Guards (in Greek, I earini synaksis ton agrofylakon / Η εαρινή σύναξις των αγροφυλάκων), directed by the actor (and sometimes director) Dimos Avdeliodis, a Chian.

The film is set in 1960, in the countryside of the large Greek island of Chios.  The village of Tholopotami (which means ‘river of cloudy water’ in Greek) is a small, anarchic village gathered in a clump on a hillside, surrounded by fields of olive trees, wheat, and small gardens.

The village of Tholopotami. Photograph by Giannis Misetzis.

By today’s standards, the village is desperately poor, but it’s not particularly unique for the Greek countryside at that time.  The village belongs, administratively, to the larger town of Keramoti.  Keramoti has an Agrofylaki, a type of police force which, instead of protecting citizens and property, protects the fields and animals of farmers from theft.  The Agrofylaki is staffed by agrofylakes, or field guards.  These field guards are state employees charged with providing a sense of security, arresting thieves, and discouraging lawlessness among the villagers.  (The Agrofylaki Field Guard Service disappeared from Greece many years ago, but was brought back under prime minister Kostas Karamanlis in 2007; but as of December, 2010, the Agrofylaki has again been entirely disbanded and shut down.)

As the film opens, Kolokithias, the field guard assigned to Tholopotami, keels over dead from a heart attack while chasing Elisso, a young orphaned girl who lives with her aged grandmother, Kyra Vasiliko.  Although they have an old crumbling stone house and a horse, they have no field or garden of their own, and no income; they survive by digging up a few potatoes on the sly, or plucking a few fruits from a tree along the road.  Although Kyra Vasiliko tries to limit Elisso’s stealing to the food they need to survive, a field carpeted with bright red tulips catches her eye and she stops to pick a few.  Kolokithias, who has been following them in order to catch them at their thieving ways, chases after her, but a heart attack strikes him down and he dies in the tulip field.

The field of the tulips at Tholopotami. Photograph by Giannis Misetzis.

The death of Kolokithias at the height of spring, 1960, ushers in a year of upheaval as the village council requests a field guard be sent from Keramoti, but no one is willing to go; Tholopotami offers to pay half again the regular salary, and four men are found from among the agrofylakes who are willing to go.  The first one is sent at the beginning of summer.  He is undone by his gullibility:  the villagers crash his motorbike and ‘save’ him, but he thinks it was an accident; as a result, he finds himself guarding only one small garden of 53 watermelons for the man who ‘saved’ him.  When the Agrofylaki finds out, he is told to make an arrest or lose his job; desperate to arrest someone, he follows Elisso as she goes swimming in the sea.  When he falls from the tree where he’s spying on her and lands on a beehive, he’s driven into the sea by the bees, and Tholopotami is again left without a field guard.

The remains of the Catholic church of Agios Ioannis (St. John) in Tholopotami, a central point of the action in the film. Photograph by Giannis Mesitzis.

The second man is sent as autumn comes to Tholopotami with torrential rains.  Aware of the fate of the last two field guards, he decides to frighten the villagers, figuring that if they’re afraid of him, he will be able to control them; but his own aggressiveness is his downfall, as he marches the boys of the village, whom he has caught stealing oranges on their way to school, all the way to Keramoti to the Agrofylaki.  After a dressing down by the head of the Agrofylaki, where he’s told that “these boys walk 8 kilometers to school every morning just to learn to read and write, and you drag them here for stealing an orange?” – and just like that, he loses his job.

The third man is sent to the village in the winter.  Careful not to fall into the trap of the previous field guard, he treats the locals as friends, and quickly worms his way into a group of men who play cards together.  Betting with money was illegal so they did it secretly.  The field guard is a terrible player and manages to gamble away all his money and possessions and even a borrowed donkey.  Finally he is caught by the regular police and hauled off to jail, and thus ends the service of the third field guard.

The fourth and final man is sent to Tholopotami just as spring comes again to the village.  Unlike the others, he is young, fresh from the army; his playfulness and spirit put him at odds with the Agrofylaki, but he tries his best to catch Elisso as well.  As he chases her through the fields, she slips on a cliff and loses her shoe; although he has to abandon the chase, he catches her shoe and keeps it.  When his conscience works on him, he returns the shoe, ignores some of the excessive duties placed on him by the Agrofylaki, happily gives up his position, and chases Elisso off into the tulips where, this time, she lets herself be caught.

Disused Catholic church of Tholopotami. Photograph by Giannis Misetzis.

Is this series of guards – the first useless due to taking bribes in a clientilist system; the second a harsh dictator; the third a toady who throws away public money; and the fourth, a populist who throws his lot in with the people – supposed to represent four periods of recent Greek history?  Or perhaps they are the three great human failings:  fear, violence, greed; overcome by love.

The film’s music is roughly split between the Four Seasons of Verdi and the natural sounds of the Chian countryside, with a little local music.  The Four Seasons play perfectly with the changing nature of the village and countryside, and the varying natures of each of the field guards.  The film avoids oversentimentality – the death of Kyra Vasiliko doesn’t feature at all; we see her in bed; Elisso is simply alone thereafter.  Even the loneliness and desperation of the winter guard is shown without excess.  The only overt emotion we see is when Elisso falls to the ground sobbing after losing her irreplaceable shoe – a reminder of what life was like in Greece not long ago, and may be again; growing up, my father in law never wore shoes except on special occasions, and all boys wore shorts year round as fabric was too expensive.

The magic of the countryside is such that the appearance of the ghost of Kolokithias – while terrifying or unsettling – doesn’t seem particularly hard to believe.

When I first saw the film in 2003, I was taken by the nobility of destitute Elisso, who silently demands respect and whose ethic doesn’t require an apology for stealing a few potatoes from a landowner.  When I saw it again in 2009, I was taken by the cyclical nature of the film:  the seasons, the Four Seasons, the death of Kyra Vasiliko and the blossoming of Elisso – I had spent enough time on the islands to understand that life there is entirely cyclical.  When I saw it again last night, I was taken by the severity and hopelessness of life for the public servants who were sent to perform an impossible job with no resources in a place utterly empty of family, friendly faces, a newspaper, a radio – a place which tried to thwart them and even threatened their lives.  The summer guard tried to fill the void with his beloved dog; the autumn guard by being overzealous in his job; the winter guard with the friends to whom he gambled away everything he owned and eventually his freedom; and the spring guard with love – only the last was successful, or so one hopes.

With each of those viewings, I was affected by a different aspect of the film because of my own life at the time:  in 2003, I identified with lonely Elisso; in 2009, I identified with the island itself; and now I identify with the struggling public servant thrown into a bizarre and hopeless situation, and then held responsible when it inevitably fails.  Every time, the cinematography and music held me spellbound for the entire three hours of the film.

Α still shot from the film.

If you’ve seen it, or have a chance to watch the film, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  I bought my DVD of it at the Mastiha Shop, a chain of stores in Greece (including the Athens Airport) that sells products from Chios.  The DVD has English subtitles.  You can also watch it online here, although there are no subtitles.

3 thoughts on “river of cloudy water

  1. That movie sounds so Greek! What a fantastic plot and I love how each time you’ve noticed a different aspect of the movie that relates to your life somehow. In my opinion that is great art at work. Thanks for the review.

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