Zafiris Nikitas*

Theatre of Reality

Anestis Azas is an acclaimed Greek director working in Greece and other areas of Europe, especially Germany. He works alone but also as a duo with director and actor Prodromos Tsinikoris. These two directors have created a personal genre of documentary theatre that is called “the theatre of reality.” After they collaborated with Rimini Protokoll (on the performance Prometheus in Athens in 2010), they developed their own vein of theatre which explores side-narratives, perspectives that go beyond obvious story-telling. The performances they direct are connected with ongoing social and economic phenomena such as refugees, homelessness, and work ethics.

The documentary theatre performances directed by Anestis Azas allow for a variety of social experiences to be examined. Reality is considered from different viewpoints and the multiplicity of opinions creates a multi-layered narrative. While collaborating with actors and non-actors, his performances also bring on stage specialists that offer information and professional testimonials.

Photo credit: Thomas Daskalakis
(from left): Aris Laskos, Martha Bouziouri, Vasilis Kukhalani. Photo credit: Thomas Daskalakis

His latest performance, Case Farmakonisi or the Justice of the Water, was presented in Athens and the Epidaurus Festival in 2015 and is connected to a real event, a refugee shipwreck in Greece. The performance investigates the legal issues connected to this incident as well as aspects of the refugee experience. At the same time, it creates an invaluable source of video and sound recordings from people either connected to the incident or offering their outside perspective. The dramaturgy was a result of a long, elaborate field study, which was instigated by Martha Bouziouri, who is both an up-to-date academic researcher on the subject and also acted as a narrator on stage.

Bringing a Tragedy to the Stage

A refugee tragedy occurred on January 20, 2014, near the Farmakonisi island on the Aegean Sea, which is situated 5.5 kilometers off the coast of Turkey. A boat from Turkey, eight to nine meters long, approached the island carrying twenty-seven refugees coming from Afghanistan and Syria: four women, sixteen children and seven men. While the boat was intact, according to the refugees, and close to the Greek island (approximately two miles from the coast, according to the Greek Coast Guard), after being approached and towed by a Coast Guard vessel, it started overflowing with water and, finally, sinking. Eleven people drowned—among them eight children. The shipwreck was characterized as a “small-scale Lampedusa.”

There are many unclear facts concerning the incident. The only testimonies that exist come from the people directly involved and their own memory. There is no other objective information or electronic record concerning the position of the boat. Although both the refugees and the Coast Guard agree that their members started towing the refugee boat, they disagree on whether they were towing it slowly towards Farmakonisi (as the Coast Guard claims) or towing it fast and carelessly back towards Turkey (as the refugees claim). It is also unclear if life vests were offered to the people in danger.

Photo credit: Thomas Daskalakis
(from left): Aris Laskos, Martha Bouziouri, Vasilis Kukhalani, Theano Metaxa. Photo credit: Thomas Daskalakis

After the shipwreck, international organizations, members of the European Union and the European press asked the Greek government to look into the incident and investigate the conditions in which the shipwreck occurred. Lawyers from Greece were also involved in the judicial procedure, which led to the conviction of one young Syrian, who was on the boat as a smuggler. No members of the Coast Guard were convicted and the case also went to the European Court of Human Rights.

This shipwreck is the starting point of the inquiry that Case Farmakonisi brings on stage. The performance is divided into subsequent intertwining “chapters” that examine various aspects, such as the day and the specific events of the drowning, the judicial aspects and possible mishandlings, the life of the survivors, the routes of refugees in Europe and, lastly, the life of the young Syrian who was convicted as a smuggler and is imprisoned in Avlona.

So, the performance creates a performative and investigative ark that starts with the incident, but then follows the legal and personal ramifications of the drowning. Who is to blame for the incident? How do the members of the Coast Guard involved react to what happened? What are the legal parameters that come into play in such occurrences? How does Safi, a survivor of the incident, feel about the loss of his family? Was the young Syrian, who was convicted as a smuggler, a scapegoat, as his lawyer claims? What is his life in prison like? Are the memories of the people involved a liable source of information? Why are the performers on stage involved with such a performance and what is their interest? These are the complex questions posed and beautifully explored by the performance.

Case Farmakonisi is performed by four performers: Martha Bouziouri, Vassilis Koukalani, Aris Laskos and Theano Metaxa. They act on stage as narrators, but also present live interviews and perform three re-enactments of their meetings with the Coast Guard officials, a psychologist that came in contact with the survivors and the lawyer defending the young Syrian convict. They mostly talk directly to the audience and their acting parts are performed in a subtle and straightforward way.

Photo credit: Thomas Daskalakis
(from left): Aris Laskos, Martha Bouziouri, Vasilis Kukhalani, Theano Metaxa. Photo credit: Thomas Daskalakis

Early on in the performance a very important testimony is introduced via video. It is an interview conducted with one of the survivors of the shipwreck, the only one who was willing to talk about his experience and his emotions. His name is Ehsanullah Safi and he lost his wife and four children during the shipwreck. Safi is convinced that justice was not served. He claims that such kinds of incidents happen often and he does not want the truth to be buried. He is persistent in his fight for justice till the end.

After this video, one of the performers informs us that this interview was conducted on the July 12, 2015. Safi gave the interview via skype from Oslo, as he has been living in Norway for the past fifteen months. We are also informed about the whereabouts of the other survivors. No one is in Greece anymore. They have all left and two of them are in Hamburg under humanitarian asylum. Unfortunately, most of them left illegally. The performer lets the audience know about the method that allowed for the data of the dramaturgy to be collected: humanitarian organizations, lawyers and activists helped in the research, but information was also acquired after coming in contact with the Coast Guard.

Throughout the first re-enactment the audience watches the point of view of an official who is interviewed at his headquarters. The official, whose anonymity is respected and is portrayed by a female performer, seems to veer off the point. The interviewers ask the official pressing questions concerning the smuggling conviction. As they point out, smugglers often don’t board the boats; rather, they prefer to stay back in Turkey. The official defends the actions of the Coast Guard claiming that their order was to save lives.

Photo credit: Thomas Daskalakis
(from left): Aris Laskos, Giorgos Moutafis. Photo credit: Thomas Daskalakis

At that point, in order to exemplify the conditions of the boat with the refugees at sea, more than twenty people from the audience are called on stage. The stage itself is eight meters long, the same length as the boat. Standing up and sitting down, the people on stage demonstrate the visibility problems at night and the instability of the boat. At the same time, the performers on stage converse about the towing of the boat and the possibility of a push-back occurring. The people on stage return to their seats.

One of the most interesting aspects of the dramaturgy is that, beyond the facts, subjective or objective, it also touches on the inherent subjectivity of memory. It seems that, although the narrators present many viewpoints and specific information, there is always a margin of error which is not connected to truth and lies but to the nature of memory itself. As one of the narrators states early on in the performance, “memory is a construction.” In the same way, Case Farmakonisi is a construction of memories and data, opinions and inquiries.

The second re-enactment of the performance brings on stage, through the voice of a performer, an interview with the psychologist that met with the survivors of the shipwreck. The psychologist also stresses that memory is not a recollection but a construction. He clarifies that his interest is in the emotions of the refugees, such as anger, rather than the facts. Anger, according to the psychologist, can be easily attributed to someone else. In doing so, blaming can be redemptive. Approaching the shipwreck through the eyes of a psychologist enriches the performance with a professional testimonial on human emotions in the case of loss.

Besides the performers, two other people come on stage. These are specialists that offer professional but also personal information. The first one is Giorgos Moutafis, a Greek photo journalist that has been working for the last eight years on the immigration issue. After acquiring a formal permit, Mr. Moutafis boarded Coast Guard vessels and recorded incidents involving illegal migration. He shows a video where the Coast Guard faces refugee smugglers and shoots their engine to immobilize them. Furthermore, he explains to the audience what refoulement is and how it differs from deterrence. He states that refoulement, which is the illegal pushing back of refugees in the sea or on land so that their entrance into the country is averted, was a usual phenomenon, at least in the recent past.

Photo credit: Thomas Daskalakis
(from left): Vasilis Kukhalani, Ynus Mohammad. Photo credit: Thomas Daskalakis

The second person that comes on stage is Yonous Muhammadi, president of the Greek Forum for Refugees and Board member of the European Forum for Migration. Mr. Muhammadi mentions that the word “Farmakonisi” brings to his mind the phrase “Dawash Yunani,” which means “Greek medicine,” as Farmakonisi literally translates as the “island of medicine or poison.” Coming himself from Afghanistan, he mentions the street pharmacist vendors on the sidewalks of big cities, who are called “Dawash Yunani,” and the fact that he has studied medicine as well.

Mr. Muhammadi talks about the identification and the repatriation of dead bodies. It is a fact that Athens has no Muslim cemetery or mosque. Consequently, the dead cannot be buried there. Repatriation is very important for sentimental reasons but also very costly. Mr. Muhammadi also talks about his personal family status: he is in Greece, his mother and sister in Australia, another of his sisters in the USA, his father in Russia, his two other sisters in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Throughout his story, he elaborates on the refugee routes and the reality of smuggling. His route lasted four years, from 1997 to 2001. He went from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Turkey to Greece. The price refugees pay to the smugglers is often 3,000 Euros, without any guarantee of passing the border. Mr. Muhammadi stresses that Greece is a transit country. People that arrive to the Greek islands and to Athens, then move to Thessaloniki, Skopje, Serbia, Hungary and Austria.

Case Farmakonisi, as the title signifies, is very much concerned with the judicial aspects of the shipwreck at the Farmakonisi island. Through video recordings, the performance showcases the viewpoint and professional expertise of two well known Greek lawyers on the subject, as well as the way European legislation is applied in such cases. Ioanna Kourtovik, a lawyer participating in the Network for the Social Support of Refugees and Migrants, underlines that a refugee arriving at the coast of a foreign land is an unprotected person, outside the law. She points out that the institution that handles a refugee case is often the same institution that is involved in breaking the law. The only way to resolve the case in a just way, according to Mrs. Kourtovik, is to go to the European Court of Human Rights, which she did. Her aim there was not to condemn the members of the Coast Guard involved but rather to re-examine and condemn the policy applied and the procedure that was followed. Apart from the liability of those involved, there is also the liability of those who gave the orders.

Photo credit: Thomas Daskalakis
(from left): Aris Laskos, Martha Bouziouri. Photo credit: Thomas Daskalakis

Maria Papamina, a lawyer participating in the Greek Council for refugees, describes the preliminary hearing before the prosecutor of Piraeus Naval court and how the case was put to rest. She also stresses the possible flaws and unproved facts which the prosecutor used to issue a multi-page decision, and agrees on the need to resolve such cases at the European Court of Human Rights.

The last part of the performance focuses on the trial and imprisonment of the young Syrian who was on board and was convicted of smuggling the refugees. Through the third re-enactment we listen to the information the performers acquired from the lawyer of the Syrian, who lives in Athens. He claims that the liability of the members of the Coast Guard should have been investigated more thoroughly. Since the maritime attorney acquitted them of any liability, someone had to be blamed for the incident. The lawyer, who is portrayed by a performer that has studied law but not practiced it, explains that the defendant has the burden to prove that all prior procedures were erroneous. The lawyer claims that his defendant, the twenty-one-year-old Syrian, was the ideal scapegoat. He was the youngest adult on the boat and from a minority himself, a Syrian among Afghans.

Then, a reconstruction of the trial at the three-member Appeal Court of Dodecanese in Rhodes takes place on stage. Here, the scenography of the performance plays a major role. A pile of chairs that was standing still on the right of the stage is used by the performers to form a mise-en-scène that resembles a court. The lawyers’ line of defense, as the performer narrates in this performed trial, is that the defendant was not steering the boat. Moreover, the refugees’ testimonies at Piraeus even stated that the navigator was a young man who was not identified. It is unclear if the navigator was a Syrian or an Afghan.

Photo credit: Athanasios Stathopoulos
Photo credit: Athanasios Stathopoulos

The lawyer also points out that his defendant cannot be blamed for the sinking of the ship, which had nothing to do with him. However, during the trial, he was accused of this as well, while the refugees were accused of lying in their testimonies. After the witnesses for the prosecution and the young boy testified, the court’s decision was announced. The young Syrian was convicted for smuggling and sentenced to 145 years in prison, as well as a fine of 570,500 Euros, acknowledging the extenuating circumstances of early adulthood.

After the “trial” is concluded, one of the performers informs the audience about the procedure that was followed in order to visit the young Syrian in the prison of Avlona and record an interview. The name of the young Syrian seems to be Shran, but this could also be hearsay. The request to visit the prisoner is finally granted. Avlona hosts 189 underage prisoners and has a lot of trees, as we are informed. The interview takes place in the “investigation room.” Only an audio recording is allowed. Then, this audio recording is played in the theatre, with no lights whatsoever, just the sound of his voice with subtitles projected onto a wall.

Shran speaks in Greek but also in Arabic. He has been in prison for 18 months and he goes to school there. He talks about the war back in his country. He comes from the city of Aleppo in Syria. Shran was planning to go from Turkey to Greece and on to Great Britain. He worked as a barber in Istanbul and then paid a man in order to go to Greece. Shran talks about his life in prison and the difficulties he faces. He maintains his claim of innocence. He says he has faith in Greek justice.

After the recording, one performer informs us that Shran is waiting for the Court of Appeal to re-examine his sentence this fall. Furthermore, the survivors from the shipwreck at Farmakonisi have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. A conviction from Strasbourg, the performer says, would mean moral vindication for the victims and it might send a message to the authorities involved.

Following this, a very interesting action occurs on stage: one by one the performers take down all the paperwork and evidence they have been presenting during the performance and which they have placed on a big wall. These papers are then shredded, and all the evidence is thus destroyed. The truth seems unable to be recovered. The performance ends with the performers’ personal thoughts, not on the issue, but about their own life after this performance. On a touching, personal note, Martha Bouziouri mentions that she would like to visit the prison again and show to Shran the video-taped version of the performance.

Farmakonisi and Beyond: Expanding Narratives

The subtitle of Case Farmakonisi is the Justice of the Water. It is a performance that looks into the justice and injustice that takes place out in the open sea, in the liminal space of the borders between Turkey and Greece, where refugees live and die, depending on policies applied and the unstable weather conditions. Nowhere else is human life in such flux.

So, Case Farmakonisi by Anestis Azas functions as a multifaceted and well-centered performance that creates a vibrant discourse, a discourse publique, which examines the complicated legal aspects of the refugee reality, while pointing out something extremely important: that conflict aside, it is human life that matters. At the same time, the performance creates what Michel Foucault would call a “counter-discourse,” as it challenges the legitimacy of the legal procedure that was applied in the Farmakonisi shipwreck.

The performance was very well received both by the audience and by the critics. It was repeated at the Experimental Stage of the National theatre of Greece in 2015 and toured in Europe in the summer of 2016. Case Farmakonisi is an example of the “theatre of reality” that touches on social subjects. The last few years, there are more and more examples of such performances in the Greek theatre, creating a new wave of theatre awareness and social dialectics.

One such recent example is the performance In the Middle of the Street, directed by Prodromos Tsinikoris, which was presented at the Athens theatre Festival in 2015. This performance concerned the life of homeless people who are living in the streets of Athens. The audience, equipped with mp3 players and headphones, took a tour in the centre of the city and experienced up close the conditions and needs of these “invisible protagonists” of the city.

Another performance, directed by Anestis Azas and Prodromos Tsinikoris, was presented at the Onassis Cultural Center in 2016 and was called Clean City. The epicenter of the performance was the life of women that are cleaners in Athens and connected them with the reality of immigrants and homeless people as well. At the same time, Clean City looked into the historical, philosophical and political ramifications of what “clean” suggests as a normative concept. This is a question connected to the racist ideology implemented by the Nazis.

Photo credit: Athanasios Stathopoulos
Photo credit: Athanasios Stathopoulos

Additionally, in spring 2016, a larger scale project, called the DOME event took place in Athens. The event consisted of discussions, forums and performances that took place in five different locations in Athens and focused on stories and issues connected to refugees. Martha Bouziouri and Giolanda Markopoulou directed a performance called DOME experience “Traces” that looked into the collective refugee experience.

It is evident that Case Farmakonisi or the Justice of the Water by Anestis Azas, a performance that documents the refugee shipwreck at Farmakonisi, is an important performance that exemplifies the way in which the Greek theatre has become increasingly concerned with social issues. The aesthetics of such performances vary: documentary theatre within state institutions, performances in festivals, site-specific events and forums. Greek theatre appears more vibrant than ever within a world in constant transit.


*Zafiris Nikitas is a writer, theatre director and PhD Candidate. His latest performance, Immigrant Water (2016), was presented at the Experimental Stage of the National Theatre in Greece and the 17th Biennale for Young Artists in Milan. He has collaborated with the Thomas Bernhard Institute in Salzburg (Post Apocalyptic Blues, 2015) and participated in workshops at the Munich Kammerspiele (Relations Festival, 2013). His writings focus on post-dramatic theatre, humanism as practiced by contemporary theatre artists and Greek theatre of the late 19th century.

Copyright © 2016 Zafiris Nikitas
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Refugee Narratives: Case Farmakonisi or The Justice of the Water