Discussion with Stathis Kalyvas: History In Images - Potential and Exceedance

Within the framework of the 25th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, the event titled History in Images: Potential and Exceedance took place on Sunday, March 5th, at Pavlos Zannas theater, with Gladstone Professor of Government at Oxford University, Mr. Stathis Kalyvas, as the main speaker. In the context of the event, the audience had the opportunity to discuss with Mr. Kalyvas the issues that combine the scientific aspect of history and the art of documentary, drawing from the adaptation of his book Disasters and Triumphs into a documentary series for television. The discussion was moderated by Eleftheria Thanouli, Professor in Film Theory at the School of Film of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and President of the Board of Directors of the Thessaloniki Film Festival.

Ms. Thanouli prefaced the speech by Mr. Kalyvas: “Welcome Stathis, we are very happy to have you here. I don’t think an introduction is needed; however, I will mention some points from our speaker’s bio. He is a Gladstone Professor of Government at Oxford University. He is also a fellow of All Souls College. Until 2018, he was a Professor of Political Science at Yale, in 2008 he was elected in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 2020 in the British branch. The idea for this discussion was inspired by the adaptation of his book Disasters and Triumphs, published in 2015, into a 7-part documentary series, which was broadcasted in the beginning of 2022 on SKAI channel. The theme of the documentary is the modern history of Greece''.  

After the introduction, Ms. Thanouli asked Mr. Kalyvas about the reasons that led him to choose this book and not one of the books that focus on the issue of civil conflicts, a topic he is deeply familiar with. “This book was the outcome of a series of conjunctions. My strictly academic research has two key aspects. The first is that it focuses mainly on issues of political violence and the second is that it is comparative, meaning that Greece is not my exclusive point of interest. In other words, Greece comes into the framework of a broader comparative piece. At the beginning of the crisis, I thought as a political scientist that that was a chance for me to consider what has happened in Greece, how we got where we were, applying some of the tools and elements from social sciences. There were two challenges regarding the book. The first was about how we can interpret in a simple, popularized speech, concepts deriving from social sciences, since I was not interested in producing an academic achievement. Also, I wrote it in English, trying to explain the situation in Greece to an international audience. The second challenge was for this to be conveyed to the Greek audience. So, the book was translated and, as it usually happens in these cases, when I saw the translation, I freaked out and decided to re-write the book, adapting it for the Greek audience. So, the two books share common elements but are not exactly identical. This book stems from a question that seemed existential at the time. The result was reaching conclusions different from the ones I thought I would come to in the beginning, as it usually happens during the creative process of research and writing”. 

Mr. Kalyvas then discussed the distinction between a historical and a political scientist, since as Μs. Thanouli explained, the distinction between these two roles is not always evident. “This is a long conversation. Many times they have introduced me to Greek audiences as a historian. Usually when they try to criticize me, they wonder how it is possible for someone to be so engaged in the study of History without being a historian. In reality, the past is a subject with which all humanities are preoccupied with. Social sciences - including History when written in a comparative manner - Sociology, Anthropology, Political Sciences and even Economics, deal with the past on a regular basis. The study of the past is our only way to draw information so that we understand the present and see what the future holds. As social scientists, we try to interpret things holistically, to see the regularities, the similarities between countries, between experiences. While historians, although they too interpret, are more interested in documenting the facts. I would say that social scientists cannot really deal with history unless they read the works of the historians. But we do not stop there, we try to generalize it, analyze it, work with it in different ways. And this is the main difference”, he mentioned. 

Afterwards, Μr. Kalyvas was asked to explain how he shifted from academic research to documentary. “It came from the attempt of popularization. Popularization is, however, a term I don’t like. I believe that serious scientific work has to be simple and understandable, even when it’s strictly technical. Writing the book, initially for a foreign audience and then for the Greek one, what I aimed at was writing in a way that is not only easy to understand, but also has a charm about it. This requires a connection with storytelling. This doesn’t mean having a story with a beginning and an end, but what it means is that there is a coherent logic that develops in such a way that it triggers the reader’s curiosity. The idea for the documentary came up because the book was way more successful than we had hoped. The book was published amidst the referendum of 2015, and I thought that due the unrest of the time no one would pay attention to it. That summer however, essentially in a word-of-mouth kind of way, it did really well. I started meeting people who told me that the book offered them a different reading of the Greek experience. Then, I started considering it. Since an average reader can find it interesting, why not try addressing an audience that does not read books? The idea of the image was certainly very alluring. A big challenge, however, was the process of transferring theoretical concepts, abstract by nature, into visual images. It was something I thought could not be easily achieved”, he mentioned. 

Then, Mr. Kalyvas responded to a question by Ms. Thanouli about the documentary genre: to what extent was he already a fan, and whether he believes it is superior to the book, while also whether there were specific documentaries as sources of inspiration for him: “Image and the audiovisual experience has a tremendous power that the book lacks, especially the academic book, which puts the reader in a tough spot. When you read academic books, you have to stop at each phrase and question it. Here, we get into a different process, in which the artistic element is strong. I would say that the collective element is also very interesting. The writing room, for instance, of modern TV shows. Scripts are never written by one person alone. There is a general direction for the show and a group of writers that work together daily, so that the show is made. As far as the documentary that affected my view, it has to be The Last Dance, on Netflix, the story of the Chicago Bulls. One may wonder, what does this have to do with the history of a country? It was its narrative structure that blew me away. I believe, however, that feature films have the best format for themes that touch upon sensitive issues because they allow for a better depiction of emotions, the idea behind the events, something extremely hard for anyone to achieve through documentary. In my classes I have always used fiction films'', he stressed. 

Mr. Kalyvas discussed the theory around the circular course of history, but also the possible ideological difference between books and documentaries, as well as whether his position should be adjusted during the making of the documentary, to attract a larger audience. “The same principles and logic behind the writing of my book, also guided me during the documentary. The main element of the book is that amidst the crisis, I offer a positive reading of history. This is due to two factors. The first is personal or psychological. I am a positive person and an optimist. The second is that I always worked comparatively. Meaning I never saw Greece as a singular case. Every time I tried to understand what was happening in Greece, I integrated the issue within a broader context of approach. I would also say that the shape of circles is a narrative tool that helps describe a much more complex story. Ideology means believing that the world is heading towards disaster, and in a way, it really is heading towards disaster. We don’t know when or how, but we know it will be destroyed. As we know that we will all die one day. But the fight for understanding is the same as the fight for survival, which is to distance ourselves from the idea of death. To consider the idea of the country’s evolution as a process with a positive connotation is indeed an ideological choice, but not in the strict sense”, he explained. 

Mr. Kalyvas was later asked by Ms. Thanouli whether he followed the modern trend in documentary filmmaking that introduces the element of fiction and if he felt he had to invent things. “I would say that the key-word is not invention but the word “interpretation”. What we do is an interpretation and there may be plenty of interpretations for the same things, which can be equally valid and interesting. I don’t believe in the concept of objectivity. In the same way though, I don’t believe that everything is a mush that fits it all in. It’s good to not cross this line, which is not just fiction, but the construction of a false reality. I think that the sense and idea that there is an interpretive freedom and a creative assessment of reality should not reach the extreme, we should not reach the point of believing everything is true. Not everything is true”, he distinctly said.

Following, in response to a relevant question by Ms. Thanouli, he spoke of the distinction between public history, which the documentaries serve, and academic history. “Public history refers to the diffusion of scientific research into a broader audience, but at the same time it includes history as a political stake. These things are hard to discern. It’s a utopia to believe we can separate them completely. However, it is equally wrong to believe we can’t escape the tight political restrictions that history in the public space entails. We must try to be serious and accurate, even when we have very specific views and preferences. We must do so in a way that is open, transparent, serious and accurate. I do not think history has to do with objectivity, it is always an interpretation of reality, but we can aim for accuracy. Besides, public history is a battlefield. You speak of issues that many people think they know much about and believe that every different opinion is an attack on their solid existential core. In the world of science, the idea is to try and be heretic, to discover things that others took for granted till then. The idea of scientific revolutions by Koun is a basic element of the way scientific research works. You build on the work of others, but at the same time your goal is to see something the others haven’t seen. On the other hand, in public history, and especially in the field of national history, when you stray from the norm you are in danger of being targeted. Of course, I have been targeted in the past, so I have overcome this fear. It was like a vaccine!”, he explained. 

Mr. Kalyvas responded however, on the tendency of audiovisual history to overshadow academic research. As Ms. Thanouli distinctively mentioned, the new edition of Stathis Kalyvas’ book includes pictures from the documentary and a note that the specific book is the one on which the same-titled TV show was based. “Always, when it comes to popularization, there are two sides. One says that a serious scientist never descends into the social sphere, they remain isolated in the office or the lab where they do serious work. I distinctly remember, in the US, a case of coworkers who faced difficulties with production because they had published in magazines such as New York Review of Books. It was considered a betrayal. The other side says that there is nothing that escapes dealing with the public arena, whether it is about an intense form of politicalization or an intense form of commercialization. Between these two poles, however, there is an immense field and anyone can serve both simultaneously, equally well and at a high level”, Mr. Kalyvas stressed.  

Mr. Kalyvas also discussed the challenges related to the endeavor of creating a docu-series adapted from a book, as well as the dilemmas he faced during the making of the show. “I would say I had never before familiarized with the subject, with this form, only as a viewer. So, it was not possible for me to imagine the difficulties I would face. But I was very lucky because of the collaboration with Anemon Productions, a group of producers with experience in the field, and of the chemistry between us. The main decision taken was that this documentary would not adapt the authoritative style, where a voice is coming from afar and presents the facts in a solemn manner, but that it would be something more personal, a personal search. The idea was to convey this search through the screen. The biggest issue, however, was how to take abstract ideas, such as the national constitution, which takes a lot of effort and description to explain on paper, to then convey them in 2-3 phrases and with the respective pictures. A solution we found was to put emphasis on the structured environment of Greece, the buildings. Meaning that for each topic, we tried to choose buildings which echo the narrative and the argument we presented each time. For instance, when we discussed the national constitution, the one coming from the outside, the interview took place at the National Library, which we filmed in a rather creative way, so that certain angles would be captured, ones that underscore this combination of huge public buildings with the classic elements. So, we captured the idea of creating a nation, which is modern, but at the same time inspired by ancient presence. A similar choice was, also, the idea to begin the series with a shot of Imaret, which was built by Mehmet Ali, a man who almost buried the Greek Revolution. Also, the series was based on many interviews, forty if I recall correctly, which we made sure were short, not too long. Greek historical documentaries move generally across two poles. One is the strictly academic one, where you have people speaking in a boring manner for a long time, and the other is the dramatized story, which cheapens the genre. Between these two extremes, however, there is space and this is where we tried to stand. Of course, I could not have done all this alone. There is a big group of people, experts and assessors. And the fact that I collaborated creatively with people from various fields was alone a challenge and a true revelation. These kinds of collaborations are so enriching, they take you out of the comfort zone and force you to rethink stuff you took for granted. Because you have to explain complex concepts to people who are not familiar with the subject. So, I believe it’s hard for me to return to the strictly academic style. Now, as for the dilemmas, there were many. Because a broad - in terms of content and time - narrative has to fit in a restrictive form. You wonder what will make it in, what will be left out, which angles to show, which parts of the interviews to include. There were, also, practical difficulties that had to do with the lockdown. For instance, we went to Kavala for the first episode about the Greek Revolution, for the episode about the refugee site, and for the part dealing with the rise of the workers’ movement and the communist movement. So, it covered three different things. Perhaps, were it not for the lockdown conditions, these could be separated and we would have chosen different ways”, he explained. 

Responding to a relevant question by Ms. Thanouli, Mr. Kalyvas referred to the episode he found the hardest to shoot. “The issue of closure was really hard. The whole scheme is based on the succession of disasters and triumphs. It followed then, a non-linear line. We start with the disaster and move to a flashback. The disaster came about as a result of a process that was ambitious, that had a good purpose, but something went wrong along the way. We have this flashback; in the third part we show the course leading to disaster and in the fourth we present the exaltation. In the last episode there isn’t this catharsis, so the question is how the whole series would end, because the whole point was to leave a positive mark. This took a lot of thought on how to deal with everything. Also, we wanted to offer something visually modern, without footage photography. So, we had to use art, which gives you a great advantage. We used, for instance, for the Battle of Navarino, a specific chart that conveyed in a vibrant way an event we all know of, without knowing much about it. Sometimes, when the image is ready, you get carried away by the ease of it. If I had to choose, I would say more art and less image”, he mentioned. 

Then, Mr. Kalyvas discussed the possible difficulties one may face when trying to describe historical events in relation to how distanced they are in terms of time: “The lack of distancing applies to all periods of time, especially when we are discussing national history. If I had to choose episodes that caused a stir I’d say the first two, because they deal with the story of the birth of modern Greece as a nation. The experience, bibliography and research of social sciences refer to an analysis that differs from the classic history we are taught in school. The fact that history is taught in school means that it is a part of people’s identity. So, you ask yourself how you deconstruct specific aspects, without deconstructing the existence of people. It’s not easy. It has to be done smoothly. Because the goal is not to shock people by telling them that what they know about who they are is false. The national narrative is a narrative of personal existence. In a world that consists of nations-states we are all national subjects. A delicate approach is therefore needed. To say something scientifically accurate, without, however, compromising the idea of their existence. Within this context, one realizes that the older an event is, the more important it probably is and the harder to be dealt with than one that is more recent”, he explained. 

Then, Mr. Kalyvas discussed the narrative structure the documentary followed. “We connected an ending that often in public narrative stands by itself, taking one step further. What happens with refugees after, where do they settle. This is a whole story that is less known. While it has become a subject of historical research, it has not become further known. We take the topic of the tragedy and examine how it is shaped into something novel. How one thing defines another. We go from Thessaloniki, as an element that defines the Great Idea, to Kavala, which symbolizes the tragic aftermath of the end of the Great Idea”, he stated.  

Mr. Kalyvas did not forget to speak about his partners and the role each one of them played in the making of the documentary. “I collaborated with Anemon Productions. We worked creatively and collectively. I presented the book and wrote the first draft of the script. The person who was head of directing, edited the series and was in charge of the soundtrack was Yuri Averof. Rea Apostolidi was the collaborator who dealt with administrative and bureaucratic tasks, but also participated in the whole process of the discussion. With Andreas Apostolidis, who is very experienced, we collaborated on the interviews. This part was very complicated, since the interviews lasted for about one hour, from which only two-three minutes had to be chosen. Finally, of great importance was also the participation of Alexandros Merkouris, who was the director during shooting and had a clear vision and aesthetic image of how the camera should move. So, there is a cohesive aesthetic approach that runs through the show. Of course, we talk about each line for endless hours and try out different versions. There were a series of parameters that affected the way this story was told. The collaboration was nonetheless extremely creative”, he stressed. 

Then, responding to a relevant question, he assessed the audience’s response to the documentary, while he also spoke about his future plans, but also about the possibility of creating more documentaries on other areas of interest. “The audience’s response was quite positive, as far as I can assess. Even now, after a long time, they tell me they saw it, they liked it and that it offered them a different view. This is the biggest compliment for me. For someone to tell you that you made them think of something they had not imagined. I generally focus on topics such as conflict and political violence, from war to organized crime. I believe, let’s say, that it is worth it to reread the modern History of humanity from the aspect of political violence. It is something I am very interested in as an issue and it sometimes leads to unexpected conclusions. I am also very interested in the Greek Civil War. I am intrigued by how one would transfer that to the screen, given that the archival footage is quite limited. And the whole production process of this form is something I generally find very appealing and I would love to see how I can work with it or be a part of an attempt to push the limits of the medium towards new directions. Also, I would like to create a website that will include the interviews from the documentary in their whole original form, because only tiny parts were included. And I would like for an English version to become available, for anyone interested in learning about Greek history”, he mentioned. 

As he explained, however, he would not attempt making a documentary based on another writer’s material. “I don’t know if I could take someone else’s ideas. It has to do with the concept of the craft, you begin from conceiving the idea until the final outcome, and you work on it yourself. I would say that I probably wouldn't produce for someone else. I’d rather it is something I have worked on and thought of myself from the beginning”, he explained. At this point, the audience had the chance to ask Mr. Kalyvas their own questions. Initially, he was asked about the secret to his book’s, and the documentary’s, success and about the calmness with which the information is transmitted in his documentary. “The secret for me is to not underestimate the audience. The issue is to give something of good quality, without trivializing it. The people of TV think that anything that diverges from a cheap norm will have no effect. I think this is wrong. It is not necessarily anti-commercial to try and raise the bar. I also think you can narrate a traumatic story with peace. Both in TV and in public speech, we are often defined by an overall emotional tension. This is expressed via cliches or by raising one’s voice. I believe someone can intercept this approach”, he said. 

Then, he explained his choice to be the central person in the documentary and the extent to which this choice jeopardized or not the documentary’s objectivity. “It was a solution suggested by the creative team. From the start, the risk with this choice was that it could be received as a narcissistic move. But that was not the intention. We just did not want to convey a voice of authority, we did not want this voice coming from another space. Had it been done like this, many people would argue that I sell my own opinion as objective history”, he said. Lastly, when asked about the intention or lack thereof of presenting alternative views in the documentary, he stated: “The idea was to tell the story from our view. When somebody focuses on more specific time periods, they may go deeper into everything. It was a challenge, for sure, however, to avoid boring objectivity”.