Documentary Screening "Athens and the Great Idea, 1896-1922"

Maria Iliou’s new documentary, being screened at the Benaki Museum, examines life in the Greek capital in 1896-1922
Maria Iliou’s new documentary, being screened at the Benaki Museum, examines life in the Greek capital in 1896-1922

A historical documentary by Maria Iliou and a photographic exhibition.

What was Athens like after the first Olympic Games of the modern era in 1896, and until 1922? Why did Athenians go to the front for so many wars, like the war of 1897, the Balkan wars of 1912-1913, World War I in 1917 and the Asia Minor campaign from 1919 to 1922? How was Athens transformed from the era of the Belle Epoque to the Athens of the Great Idea and the National Schism, and how was the city transformed, in September 1922?

Through widely unknown archival visual material from three continents, photographs and film footage discovered and preserved in America, Australia and Europe, director Maria Iliou, historical consultant Alexandros Kitroef and their collaborators once again weave a fascinating story, told in a documentary film and an accompanying photographic exhibition at the Benaki Museum of Hellenic Culture, at 1 Koumbari Street.

The year 1896, following the first modern Olympic Games, was defined by a widespread sense of optimism in Athens, a rather insignificant city of just 130,000. It was a time when “little Greece” began cultivating aspirations of victory, reaching out to realize the Great Idea by reclaiming the territories of the Byzantine Empire – including Constantinople, the center of Hellenism. The overwhelming majority of Greeks believed the plan to be feasible, with hundreds of volunteers going off to fight in the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, explains Roderick Beaton, Emeritus Koraes Professor of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature at King’s College London, pre-eminent authority on Greek history and philhellene, in the opening scene of a new documentary by Maria Iliou.

Lasting just one month and ending in Greece’s defeat, the campaign also became known as “Black 97” and the “Unfortunate War.”

In “Athens and the Great Idea 1896-1922,”  the renowned filmmaker, her historical adviser Alexander Kitroeff, professor of history at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, and the rest of her team pick up the thread of the narrative at the revival of the Olympic Games and the newfound confidence of the Greeks, who became increasingly convinced that the ancient Greek spirit and the Byzantine tradition would be key to unlocking the vision of “Greater Greece.”

Iliou spent 20 years gathering the material for this project.

“The majority of the films and photographs are very rare indeed and quite intoxicating; they don’t just transmit information, but stir all sorts of thoughts and emotions,” says Iliou, whose previous work includes the critically acclaimed “The Journey: The Greek American Dream” (2007), “Smyrna, the Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City – 1900-1922” (2012) and “From Both Sides of the Aegean, 1922-1924” (2012).

With Roderick Beaton (Professor Emeritus at the Korais Chair at King's College and Chairman of the Board of the British School of Athens), Katherine Fleming (New York University), Nikos Vatopoulos (Kathimerini Newspaper), Christina Koulouri (Panteion University), Alexandros Kitroef (Haverford College), Jim Wright (American School of Classical Studies), Marina Lambraki Plaka (former Director of the National Gallery), Sir Michael Llewellyn Smith (King's College, London), while Despina Geroulanou and Philip Mazarakis-Ainian tell family stories from the National Schism.

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