Istoria (story). We all have one, we were all born part of one.
What we do with it can differ greatly. Some of us will savour it, devour as much knowledge as we can, some of us will be indifferent and not find it relevant to dwell on the past in this ever changing, fast-paced world we live in. For Greek Australian Nicolaos Demourtzidis, istoria has played a pivotal part in his upbringing and in his connection to his Greek roots.
Some time, somehow, Nicolaos always knew he would make something out of his Pappou’s stories about life in the village, especially in the period of Greece’s Civil War in the 1940s. That childhood dream came to fruition with his internationally award-winning documentary Istoria.
Istoria sees Nicolaos make the trip to Florina, Greece with his Pappou and a film crew to capture the memories and emotions of his Pappou stepping back in time, and the search for more answers and closure that accompany it.
Nicolaos represents so many of us who have been able to grow up close to the grandparents who left behind their homeland to travel to the other side of the world in search of a better life and future. Like so many of us, Nicolaos was a willing audience to his Pappou’s tales, intoxicated by a heady blend of stories about a simpler life in the village, hardship, religious and cultural festivities, war and survival.
This istoria resonates with all of us and it is humbling seeing the passion and respect which Nicolaos bestows upon bringing his Pappou’s life experiences to the big screen. Critically acclaimed and tugging the heart strings of audiences worldwide it won the Hollywood International Independent Documentary Award and London Greek Film Festival Award for Best Documentary.
GCT recently chatted to Nicolaos about the special bond he shared with his Pappou, filming Istoria, and why it is important that we all strive to keep our istoria alive.
What was your relationship with your grandparents, especially your Pappou, like growing up? Did your Pappou tell you his stories back then, or did that come later?
My relationship with my Pappou really started to flourish when I was about 14 years old. He got into this story, which really amazed me. I can remember it to this day, sitting on the floor listening to the story for the first time and literally playing out a Hollywood movie in my mind of the adventure he was telling me. I couldn’t believe that it was real. That night I re-told the story to my Dad and he confirmed it was true. Since then I was hooked! Every weekend I would ride my bike to my Pappou’s house to listen to more of his stories. I couldn’t get enough of them and it was a great way to bond. Sometimes I would turn up to his house and he would be doing a typical ‘ethnic’ job like painting the trunk of the lemon tree white, so not only did I learn to paint a tree white, I got to hear more stories. It’s quite funny when I look back at it. These moments spending time with him are of greater value to me than the entire Istoria documentary, I will never be able to relive them but am so grateful I did.
How connected did you feel to your Greek heritage and to Greece as a child growing up in Australia?
I was very lucky growing up and being connected to Greece. Both my parents were born there and moved to Australia quite later on, first my father and then my mother when they married back in Greece, she moved here in the early 1980s. My parents didn’t want us to lose our Greek heritage so they worked really hard to keep us ‘Ellinopoula’. They spoke Greek to us, fed us Greek food, made us go to Greek school and we were blessed that we could go back to Greece evert 2-3 years growing up. We were even going to the local village school on our trips. My parents are from the state of Florina, my father’s village is Pelargos where my Pappou’s story is told and my mother’s village is Mesovouno, which is literally over the hill from my dad’s village.
I do have to say growing up I felt very connected to Greece and the village. We spent a lot of time in Mesovouno in my mother’s village as her parents are still in Greece, so that was our home in Greece. It wasn’t only the village and my experiences that made me feel connected, it was the unexplainable feeling of a sense of home or comfort when I was there. I can only explain this feeling today as the Hellenic flame we Greeks carry no matter how Greek you are or know of Greece. If you have Greek heritage the flame is in you, you just may not know it, and you cannot extinguish it!
Tell us about the moment you decided you needed to make this film, and your Pappou’s reaction?
David (the Director) and I studied acting for 4 years. He always wanted to be behind the camera and I had this passion for the performing arts. One day during class while the teacher was speaking I leant over and said the simple words, ‘David I want to tell a story one day about my grandfather.’ I then started to unravel his life in 30 seconds. He turned to me and gave me this look and simply said ‘I’m in’. So we left it at that. That was in 2005.
Six years later the opportunity came, with some luck and intense prayer. My Pappou was already into his third year of diagnosed Dementia, so just to get the all clear for him to travel was a miracle. I was also lucky that David was between projects and I literally had a window of 10 days of travel to take him with his crew to Greece and shoot the Greek part. What worked in our favour with Pappou’s condition is that he really didn’t fully understand what was going on, so he was happy just to go along with it. Of course my Yiayia had a big part to play in it, she was like his manager, stylist, cook, acting coach etc. She is such a champion.
What was the biggest highlight for you during the filming process?
The highlight for me was when we walked my Pappou into his old house in ruins, sat him down and turned the camera on. What we saw was something amazing, Dementia or no Dementia he told his story with all the pain that he has lived through. While we were conducting his interview I had one of those moments where time stood still and I was seeing the moment differently, I was living my dream. Here we were in his house, going back in time with a bunch of cameras to bring it all back to life in the present… it was mesmerising.
What was the most emotional moment during filming?
When my Pappou went to his old house for the last time during the shoot, we had uncovered so many emotions that were buried deep inside throughout the shoot and it came to a point he could no longer hold it all in. You can see this scene on the trailer where he is crying inside an old house and ripping down walls. He was wailing “mum where are you? dad where are you…? four children and they are no more!” He never ever got the chance to say goodbye and the reality of it all just hit him at once. My poor Pappou, what did we do to him? It was the hardest thing by far for him and us to watch and cry with him. Part of grieving is saying goodbye and he never got to do this, I hope this scene was his closure.
How did your Pappou feel after it was all over and he was returning to Australia? Do you think the trip was cathartic for him? Or is it always that bit harder having to leave the homeland all over again?
My Pappou had travelled many times back to Greece before the documentary, but of course this trip was just that little bit more special. We were not only filming but playing investigators in trying to retrace his steps in life. We actually found where his brother was buried when he was murdered, something Pappou never found in all his time going back to Greece. When we came back after the shoot, he did take some time to settle down and get back into the routine of life in Australia. The trip to Greece for the doco was like a distant memory some days and others it was like it was yesterday for him and to be honest some days he couldn’t even remember we ever went. That’s what hurt the most, the reality of me losing my Pappou day by day. I made it my mission to make sure he never forget who I was before he died, that would have broken my heart.
Was your Pappou aware that he had Alzheimers? How advanced was it at the time of filming?
He knew there was something up with him, for example he was constantly sick, but he didn’t really understand what this sickness was all about? He was literally as strong as a bear, even until the day he died, so he couldn’t understand why he was being treated differently when he had his physical health. There were moments of confusion throughout the shoot for sure. One particular day we had to dress him in the exact same clothes as the day before to continue a shoot and we couldn’t seem to match the right pants colour. The poor guy had to change his pants so many times and didn’t understand why he was doing it. They were difficult moments but sometimes provided comic relief during the stressful 10 days of shooting…. poor Pappouli.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from filming Istoria and from being with your Pappou and father in Greece?
The simple answer is ‘Istoria’. I learned so much about who I am through learning more about my Pappou’s story. It has made me who I am to this day. I keep saying to people when they ask me, “Why did you do this?” that other than for my own personal reasons, I say to them, “The world is one beautiful mosaic and it’s losing its colour. If we can each keep our tile of a story alive and bright the mosaic will keep its colour and flourish onto the ages.” We are all culturally in this together.
Why is it so important that the stories of our grandparents are not forgotten? Do you think young Greek-Australians today have become disconnected to the stories of the past?
Like the metaphor I gave of the mosaic this is why we need to keep our family stories alive. We cannot take for granted what our elders did for us yesterday so we can live today so well. They fought for love, peace, country, faith and worked so hard to establish a strong economic foundation for us. By forgetting this or not even honouring it, we are removing a part of who we are from ourselves and by removing this history then what legacy do we have to show for and present who we are? It’s more than a story and not only for Greek Australians, all youth need to know their Istoria! It’s unfortunate to see people my age do not even know what part of Greece they are from, let alone know the struggles their family went through for them. I encourage so many people, hold on to what makes you, you! Don’t be influenced to try be someone else or the latest fashion. Fashion is so quickly changed and forgotten, but a legacy lives on.
When did filming begin and wrap up? When was the film released?
Other than the many years of dreaming for this story to ever be published in one way or another since I was 14 years old, (I’m now 32 years old), the official start date was 2011 and completion was in 2015. It took so long due to my day to day work commitments and of course resources. Our first screening which was really meant to be a private one was in October 2015, but people found out about it and it turned into a 700 people premier night in Adelaide. It was crazy. Unfortunately my Pappou passed away in April 2014 and never got to see the documentary. But surprisingly I am not bothered by this, what is one hour of him watching a film compared to his life time that he lived? I am so grateful I had a Pappou that loved me so much and that we shared something far greater than any premier night.
How has the film been received by audiences? Is it what you expected?
This is the first time I have ever done something like this. Putting together a documentary with no experience was a quick learning curve but it’s the best way to learn. I look back on it and of course say I would have done things differently, but what we got is what we got. So I have been very interested in not only positive feedback but mostly negative because I want to get better at telling stories. The trouble is I have yet to come across anything negative, people just ask certain questions about certain aspects of the documentary and that’s it. I tend to think that maybe we have emotionally blackmailed them with all the crying and tough scenes and they don’t want to say anything further? Overall I am blown away by how much people love it and the effort they are going to seek a screening or a DVD. I had people from all over the world tell me how much they cried just watching the trailer, I quietly say to myself wait until you watch the film! I’m so humbled by it all, I thank God.
Tell us about winning your two awards? How did you feel? What did they mean to you?
The fact that we finished the project was my greatest award. You hear of so many people abandoning their dreams or because things get too hard and they really do. Film making is a seriously tough business. But when it was done, a weight was lifted off my shoulders and more importantly that little boy dream that was deep inside me was finally lived, that sense of accomplishment I can always go back to it when I need it.
With regards to the international awards I was so surprised. To be accepted into 10 film festivals is one thing, but to win two on a world stage is another. The shiny awards in film are not about the tangibility of what you have won, but more importantly the credibility. I didn’t want Istoria to come across as an expensive home family video, so winning these awards was something special in reaching those artistic goals. I owe so much to David Ockenden, the Director. The guy is a creative genius! He doesn’t speak a word of Greek, but he was so in tune with the people, the locations, the culture, the stories that he managed to capture it all through reading what he could see. I thank him greatly!
Do you have plans to branch out into more film making now that Istoria has been such a success?
I am part of a family business that sells hardware products. My day to day job is Business Manager Sales and Marketing. I love what I do, one because I work with my siblings and two, I service other family businesses. This country was built on families and I’m here to help them grow.
I am definitely at a crossroads now with Istoria coming to its film festival run end. The question is what’s next for me? My passion is still there for both story-telling and film making, but what story to choose is the challenge. I have been approached by so many people to work with them in doing new projects, of course I want to pick the right one as I will want to do it justice. So in short yes I do want to do more film making, the question is who will I partner with and what story?
What’s next following the success of Istoria?
My priority of course is my family and making sure I spend the time that is needed with them, I can’t go telling the world about Greek stories if I don’t start with telling my little one. I am definitely at a fork in the road in my life and will need to choose one option when the time is right of what I want to do next in pursuing my passions. It also depends on what opportunities come my way.
At the moment I am focused on making sure Istoria is given the best opportunity in being accepted in all the Greek Australian Film Festivals across every state, I am very hopeful that it will. If not I just need to keep moving forward.
After I looked back on the success of Istoria I really did ask myself what’s next? Or what do I do next? Or who am I? Am I a producer, am I a hardware person? Am I a Greek community person…. but then it struck me…Nico you are Greek, anything is possible!