Popular perception of Greece teeters between two extremes. One is based on serene, mystic island landscapes and a carefree gusto for life. The other extreme, the most present, is a daunting and glaring depiction of a dire economic crisis rife with violent civil riots, political rancor and an unrelenting sense of despair.
A new generation of young food activists strives to portray a more balanced idea of Greece. Pavlos Georgiadis, a 29-year-old PhD student and farmer, is leading a charge to portray a Greece that honors her ancient land and rich agricultural traditions bearing thousands of years of experience.
This weekend, "Farming on Crisis?", a series of documentary shorts produced by Georgiadis and other Greek youth, will be among 20 films screening at Los Angeles' ArcLight Cinemas 2nd Annual Documentary Film Festival on Nov. 5-8. The videos depict a Greece you would only know if you see for yourself -- a countryside landscape rolling in olive groves, a scene set by the harmonious cacophony of the cicadas buzzing. Georgiadis travels throughout the country interviewing young farmers, small-scale and conventional, to answer the question of how the economic crisis affects food security issues, and whether sustainable agriculture is a viable solution.
In a very real sense, Georgiadis and his young team aim to reclaim their country's dignity.
"Greece is only now discovering the power of civil society," he says in an interview over coffee, narrowing his eyes intently before continuing. "There has been cheap money for too many people. And our cities aren't functional any more. There is obviously a new road for civil society and for farmers."
I met Georgiadis at Slow Food International's Terra Madre convening in October in Turin, Italy, where we both were accepted as delegates of our respective home countries. As a Greek-American, my exposure to my family's homeland, and the crisis, has been limited to summer vacations and less than hopeful online conversations with cousins in Athens. Aware of my narrow understanding, I sought out the Greek delegation at Terra Madre. There, I met farmers from the far northern region of Thrace, including Georgiadis and his parents.
I tasted their olive oil, Calypso, harvested last winter season but bottled just three days before Terra Madre, complete with a new official logo. The family cultivates an ancient olive grove, with at least one thousand trees that they say are hundreds of years old. The oil nourishes the taste buds with a full-bodied, velvety flavor. It tastes pure, of olives nurtured by the warm sun.
Georgidis plays an active role in Slow Food's international organization. He helped spark a conversation among youth to organize the global Slow Food Youth Network, as well as start the official regional chapter in Thrace.
"I know I have this privilege to grow such an exceptional product in one of the last traditional, indigenous olives groves of the Mediterranean," Georgiadis told me. "And I see people, out of necessity, growing food on their balconies in Athens. Our generation wants to go back to the land, and we can merge our deep traditions with our new knowledge to progress."
Georgia Arvanitidou studied to be a nutritionist. She currently waits for her license to officially practice as a dietitian in Greece, an expensive process she says typically delays at least six months. After realizing the structure of her curriculum included no focus on agriculture, she joined Georgiadis in his fight to document a younger generation through her lens as a health educator and because of her pride in a country that has lost its direction.
"We wave our flag, but is there a meaning?" she asked. "It is empty. Our patriotism is an illusion. We have nothing to present with substance within our borders. For me, this [project] is hope. The simple answer is to go abroad to find somewhere to work where I am worth my thoughts, because in Greece there are no opportunities for people with the mind and energy to do good work. But if we really want something, we have to try. We have to do it. I am optimistic. And I am not pretending I am. I really, really am."
"This has nothing to do with the government," she added. "We have to change the way we think. Many Greeks may not care about this topic of agriculture, but we can be a brilliant example for those people."
Georgiadis, Arvanitidou and the rest of the Greek delegation represent more than just a wide-eyed, youthful hope. They are educated -- Georgiadis himself with two master's degrees -- and they are applying their experience studying business, nutrition, agriculture, the environment, arts and social sciences to provide a backbone to their food activism. But the core of their efforts comes from an inherent, undeniable pride for their country, a resilient hope for their people, and the urgency of their generation.
Georgiadis spoke as an official member to several Terra Madre panels, including a memorable presentation discussing Europe's Common Agricultural Policy and the role of young people in sustaining a union, in which he screened his documentary series trailer.
"My people have to operate with zero, or even negative, economic growth," he told the audience and panel. "Europe, and particularly Greece, is learning to be more self-sufficient. As the debate shifts from food safety to food security, this is an opportunity for quality agriculture."
"Farming on Crisis?" will be screened Monday, November 5 at ArcLight Cinemas' 2nd Annual Documentary Film Festival. It can also be viewed, along with other video blogs by the team, at vimeo.com/foodpolitics.