Screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, Mary Zournazi’s Dogs of Democracy is a powerful look at the human impact of the Greek economic crisis. Zournazi eschews the normal approach to this kind of material, uses the plight of Athen’s stray dog population as a metaphor for the struggles and hopes of the Greek people. Through the peoples’ treatment of these dogs, the film also functions as a hopeful study of the human potential for kindness, even under great economic strain. It’s no surprise that Dogs of Democracy counts Nobel Prize-winning author JM Coetzee among its fans.
This is philosopher Mary Zournazi’s first venture into film making, but I was fascinated to learn that Mary co-authored a book with Wim Wenders four years ago, entitled Inventing Peace: A Dialogue on Perception. Ahead of its screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival this weekend, I was lucky enough to chat with Mary Zournazi about Dogs of Democracy.
I recently saw Dogs of Democracy – it’s a wonderful film! But before we start talking about it, I’d love to hear about your background, and also about the book that you co-authored with Wim Wenders.
Thanks! I worked for a long time as a freelance radio documentary maker for the ABC, ABC Radio National. I’m familiar with the documentary form, but I think my passion has always been for film. I’m also a philosopher, by training. So, there’s that combination, and I’ve always been interested in social justice issues too, and wanting to convey stuff to a broad audience.
But working with Wim was one of those accidental pleasures of life. I was listening to him on the radio actually, when he was here in 2003. And he was talking about his photographic exhibition that he had on at the time. And he just, off the cuff, talked a little bit about this notion of peace. I had just published a book on hope, and we were on the eve of the Second Gulf War. I’d been thinking about how to think about peace, because everybody was talking about war, there was no other discourse. I thought it would be interesting to interview him. That’s as far as it went.
A friend of mine worked at the ABC, and I called him afterwards about hearing Wim on the radio. And he said, “Oh, I’ll go around and tell him about you,” because I had mentioned it would be good to interview him. And that’s how it started. My friend told him about me and about my book and then I emailed him a few weeks later. We started a conversation, which then warranted more writing, and it became a book over a period of 11 or 12 years.
He’s been a fundamental influence on me, as have others from his era. I’ve been on a couple of his sets. I’ve really been observant of the actual film making process. And I guess, in the future, we both would like to do a film essay based on our book, but that’s still a long way off.
And how did you come to decide that your first film would be Dogs of Democracy?
I wanted to make a documentary about Agnes Varda. She’s such an amazing filmmaker. They call her the grandmother of the French New Wave. She’s underrated, her work, at the same time as Goddard, was just so incredible.
But anyway, I met with her in Paris, and she really wasn’t interested in a bio-doc about herself because she does it herself in her own films. So, I ended up going to Greece for a holiday, where I fell in love with the dogs and thought, “I’ll make a film essay now about the stray dogs rather than a film essay about her.”
Can you explain in your own words what the Dogs of Democracy is really about?
It’s about the stray dogs of Athens, and it tells the story about the people who take care of them. But it’s also about how people take care of each other, set within the conditions of the Greek economic crisis. To tell the story through the dogs, for me, was a way to connect people because most people like dogs. I thought it would be a good way to scrutinise the experience.
It’s a film that’s equally about the economic crisis, but I’ve tried to make it a story that people can understand and connect with. At the same time, I think it’s just a love story. It’s my love letter to Greece.
How did you come to the analogy between the stray dogs of Athens, and Greece and its position in Europe? Is that something that happened organically, or was that an idea that you had in your mind from the start?
I think it was more organic, actually. When I initially went to Greece, from the first day I arrived I was just struck by the tension on the streets – this was 2014 – and seeing it I could understand how civil wars happen. It just felt so incredibly tense.
Then I discovered the dogs and immediately fell in love with them. And when I told my friends they said there was this famous dog, Loukanikos, who was part of the anti-austerity rallies. So, that organic way of finding out about Loukanikos, who is the main character in the film, allowed me to really investigate the two things that had struck me so much about Athens, which were the crisis and the dogs. It allowed me to bring the story together, in a way.
It sounds like the experience of seeking out people to interview, and who you ended up speaking to, was largely organic as well? How planned was the film?
It was completely organic. When went back to Greece a second time, once I had fallen in love with the dogs, I took my camera. I spent months just following dogs with my camera around the streets, and people would come up to me and say, “What are you doing?” And then I would explain, and then they would tell me about somebody that I should speak to. And that’s how that street stuff happened.
But the interview with Yanis Varoufakis was more planned. I had met him before he became Greek Finance Minister, and when I realised I wanted the connection between the dogs and the crisis it made sense to seek out an interview with him.
I note that J.M. Coetzee, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, had some very nice things to say about Dogs of Democracy. That’s incredible!
I don’t know him really, but I had had some correspondence with him a few years before. Because I know he is an animal activist, I thought I would ask him whether he would be interested in reviewing the film. I didn’t expect him to say yes. But he did, and within a few days he gave me his feedback, and he was very, very supportive. I was just thrilled that he really understood the film and liked it.
What response have you had to Dogs of Democracy thus far?
It’s been really good. Everybody that has seen it has really been touched by it in some way. I did do a small screening in Athens. It wasn’t a public screening, but it was with one of my main characters, Gina, and people from the local Syriza party. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go down, but everybody really felt that the film spoke truthfully about their experience. They were asking me a lot about how the rest of the world was responding. I said that they were responding well.
A journalist told me that it was the film that everybody should see about Greece, so people could understand the situation. It won the Spirit of Activism Award at the Nevada Women’s Film Festival, which was quite nice. It’s been shortlisted for two awards, one in Canada and one in Manchester.
If there’s one thing that you want people to be able to take away from Dogs of Democracy, what would that be?
Recognition of the need to care for ourselves, and for animals. I mean, really the starting point was when I saw these dogs in Athens. And I thought, “You know, if people really can care for animals and care for each other, then we’re in a much better position to live and to respond to situations where you’ve been treated poorly or the economy is stuffed up.” Really, I guess, the short answer is the need for love, care and community.
Are there any other film projects on the horizon for you?
Yes, there are two. There’s a documentary that comes from this film in a way. It’s more about the migrant crisis, but I don’t want to reveal too much about it. And then there’s another one that I’m working on with Christos Tsiolkas. We are working on a film treatment, which would be a fiction film.