Doc Director Opens Up: An Interview with Stavroula Toska

Stavroula Toska opens up about her new documentary on the Greek Civil War

We loved Beneath the Olive Tree, Greek-born/New York-based filmmaker Stavroula Toska's gripping documentary about women who survived the lesser-known Greek Civil War and kept detailed journals throughout atrocities such as internment, torture, and even straight up murder. And apparently, so did the folks at the Santa Fe Film Festival as the film took home the prize in the Best Documentary category this weekend.

The Greek Civil War is entirely under-acknowledged to this day, even by the Greek government, and our review stated that, "Must-see would be an understatement." We sat down with Toska to get a little extra information about the history, her process and why these women are all way more badass than you'll ever be.

SFR: Why don't we know about this chapter in history?

Toska: We need to be clear on that fact that Greece, at the end of World War 2, was America and England's guinea pig for new foreign policy. We come out of the war and the atrocities that took place in the concentration camps in Europe, and now you have the British building these other camps [in Greece] and torturing these people into being "good citizens." We're talking about people who wanted to put their own government in place and America and England saying, "No! We are going to turn this into a colony!" Every single government put in place in Greece following World War 2, the Greek Civil War and all the way up until now was pretty much decided by these powers that be, and Greece was given very direct orders that this part of history was never to see the light of day. Let's not forget that history is written by the winners, and that it's also written by the men.

How did you get learn about this and get involved then?

I was born and raised in Greece but I never knew anything about the civil war. I never even thought to ask. In school we are just taught that the government fought and arrested these communists and thank god for that! So at some point before this project, I decided I wanted to focus on my own work and making movies. I had written this story for a "based on a true story" movie, and I would up meeting Olympia Dukakis. We spoke about her maybe playing my mother in the movie, but eventually asked me why I was writing this movie, a romantic comedy, and 'What were the stories I really want to tell?' As a woman, as a filmmaker. I burst into tears right there because I didn't have a good answer for her. So as I was leaving her home, she gave me a book called Greek Women in Resistance which was a translation of two of the journals these women had written. She'd had this book for 30 years and had just put it aside. Whatever it was that brought it up, she handed me the book and I became obsessed with the stories of these women. I tried to find everything I could get my hands on. My original idea was to write a script based on true events. I knew I wanted to go to Greece and talk to these women. It was a little difficult at first, but before you knew it, the women started opening up to me one after the other. No one would have believed these things actually happened if it had been a "based on true events." These women were just so inspirational and strong and just badass that I had to tell the story as a documentary.

You say in the film that your mother didn't really want to talk about the war, but these other women were open to that?

At first, nobody wanted to talk because they'd told the stories in the past and their words were twisted. They felt betrayed by journalists, so they were very cautious of me. I was about building relationships, and in the end it was a matter of just one woman talking to me, then the rest saw she did this and would also talk to me. Some of them knew who Olympia Dukakis is. At a certain point I had to try and turn the tables on them and say like, "It's your fault you haven't talked about this or published a book, it's your fault you haven't spoken to your children or your grandchildren about this!" I was in tears. A lot of times it's easier, though, for people to talk to strangers. My mom didn't want to talk about it, but eventually she did. Eventually she called and asked if she could write stuff down, and she would write to me about it. My mom would sit down and write a little journal of her own. She was maybe a little ashamed of these things, I think. Like, almost maybe as if she had brought it upon herself. There is still the fear that at any given moment, anything can happen. Every single time I asked the women why their children didn't know anything about this, it's because they feel the need to protect their children. When I started talking to them five years ago, they were very worried. Even women who signed our release and did interviews with these great stories found us after and asked us in the end not to feature them because they wanted to protect their children. The least I could do was respect that.

This has brought you and your mother closer together?

Oh, absolutely. Sometimes you don't know…there were many things growing up that I didn't understand about my mother, like all kids, I guess. Everything has fallen into place, everything about my mother. The way she raised us, me and my brother; it was almost as if I had this big puzzle and I knew the corner pieces, but the main picture wasn't there. Now she keeps talking to me and giving me more stories. A lot of those are just for me, though.

In the film, it almost seems like there is a network of imprisoned women working together to write the journals like a program. How did they accomplish that?

Well, they'd see each other every single day and up in the monastery on the island of Trikeri for example, they had these small rooms…whenever a woman would get really sick or be beaten really badly, they'd be put in these small rooms and given care. They didn't want to deal with it if a woman died, so they would get some medical attention. So, a lot of the women would pretend they were sick or, if a guard came and beat them the night before, they would act like they were hurt much worse so they'd have an excuse to get into these little rooms and write. They would hide paper and pencils in their underwear, or another woman would pass them these things through a window. They became very inventive and creative.

What has the general reaction for the film been like at screenings?

I am amazed every single time. I’m always a little nervous going into a new screening with a new audience. I don’t want to assume everyone is going to love it. I’m beyond grateful to the story and to the power of these women and the people who go on the journey. A lot of the comments I get from Americans is that they realize for the first time what an important role Greece played in the way. 

Have you screened yet in Greece?

Not yet. We’re anxious about it, but also excited. I’ve submitted to the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival which happens in March. It would be great if they accept the film. All the women could come out, my mom could come…I’m intouch with the Prime Minister because I would love the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture to set up screenings all over the country. 

Is screening in Greece a scary prospect?

I'm honestly more concerned with the women and whether they like it. But look, when a civil war happens, it affects every single family. It's a very painful thing and there were a couple million people who were literally caught in the middle and didn't know what to do or who to support. I hope the new government can see this, they're very left, and learn from the mistakes of the past. We see these initiatives in Spain or Chile or Argentina and the government has initiated these healing groups for people to come together and help heal each other. I haven't spoken to them specifically yet, but this is something I want to discuss with them once I get to Greece.

Ultimately, are you happy with what your film is accomplishing?

Every time I go into a screening and the title card comes up, I have this tension headache because I just want people to like it, but I'm more than happy. More that anything, though, I want people to feel for these women and what they went through.

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