October 15, 2020

Argyro Nicolaou

Argyro Nicolaou #2

History Lesson

 

Class #2: Sources for an alternative history of Cyprus

For our first class, we will go through a handful of foreign films shot on the island of Cyprus before 1974. These include A Mediterranean Island (1932); Exodus (1960); The Wastrel (1961); Bloodsuckers (1971); Sin (1971); and Ghost in the Noonday Sun (1973).  While not an exhaustive list of films shot on the island before 1974, the films in question demonstrate the breadth of images generated on the island by foreign gazes before its division, and are the basis of our new history lesson; the primary sources of this class’s curriculum.

We know from Andre Bazin’s film theory that the cinema as apparatus is inherently realistic—the French theorist argued that the ontology of the camera, and the way the moving image is produced, gave cinema an advantage in duplicating reality (more so than, say, painting). We take him at his word, and take his word a step further: in an era dominated by fake news, deep fakes and computer-generated imagery, we turn to films before the digital revolution as repositories of a reality long lost.

In the case of Cyprus, the value of such films is double. In the context of a drawn-out ethnic conflict, films shot on the island before 1974 preserve an image of the island pre-division, and as such cannot only introduce us to places on our island we may have never been to; but they can also help us un-look the prejudices that have physically altered the island’s landscape, and have distorted the islanders’ vision these past four decades. This is an especially important tool at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has seriously limited mobility between the north and south sides of the island.

The foreignness of the selected films is critical. If we are to reset our vision, and lose the filters that decades of nationalism and fanaticism have imposed, we must return to the originary landscape of Cyprus (and we define originary not as a monolithic ‘original’, but as the physical state of the island before divisions and nationalisms ravaged its map, its image, and its people). One way to do this is to turn to the first photographic documents of the island—which include the 1859 photographs of antiquities by Frenchman Louis De Clerq and the 1878 photo book by Brit John Thomson—and by extension the first films shot on the island—British instructional movies—in order to build on their legacy, which holds images of Cyprus as a whole.

This island has been so enamored with every other nationality except its own, that we have decided—as a conscious pedagogical tool—that turning to other people’s gaze may be the only way for us to reaffirm some sort of unitary Cypriot history. After all, our education system has tried the alternative approach—nationalist, bigoted, religion-loaded education—for close to half a century, and we are still a divided island. We acknowledge that these foreign images carry the stain and legacy of colonialism (including the well-rehearsed tropes of Orientalism) but we are adamant that they are also invaluable sources and tools, bearing in mind how little we know, and how little we have at our disposal. Why should we not re-appropriate these images, re-claim them, use them against their original intentions of painting a false picture of the island, and instead put them to use in crafting a history lesson that seeks truth in art and distances itself from the facts of ethnonationalism?

Below you will find a handout with a short summary of each film listed above. For next week, please watch the films in question, paying special attention to geographical landmarks and shooting locations, and prepare for a short quiz on the films’ content.

HYPERLINKS TO ALL FILMS:

A Mediterranean Island  (1932)
Exodus (1960) 
Bloodsuckers (1971) 
Sin (1971) 
Ghost in the Noonday Sun (1973)