“Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City” has to be commended for its attempt to bring to the foreground a historical reality that has for decades been either unspoken of or relegated to the bottom of the page footnote in the annals of history. It uses carefully gleaned black and white archival photos and footage from places as diverse as the Red Cross in Geneva to a private collector in Los Angeles whose short film of the city in August of 1922 would have sunk into obscurity had he not told his grandson of its existence on his deathbed. The film touting itself as a documentary traces the city’s glory from its heyday at the turn of the century, to the onset of WWI, and then its demise in 1922 and the after-effects. It provides an evocative and moving account of the events that transpired by including interviews not only by academics and historians but living witnesses of Smyrniots, including an elderly Armenian who was a boy during the destruction and the grandchildren of some of the Greek families of the city from that time. It provided a very visual history lesson, especially in its overview of the cultural makeup of the city with its Greek, Turkish, Armenian, and Jewish quarters. It carefully balanced the story of the city against the larger historical backdrop of nationalist forces and the global players of It tried to be objective in its recounting the controversies of the affair. For one, it included the Turkish point of view by using the testimony of a Turkish anthropologist. It did not gloss over fact that the Greek army when it was retreating from the hinterland of Anatolia burned villages as a war tactic. It presented the various theories as to which party started the fire in the Armenian quarter that led to the razing of the city. By stating “just the facts, Ma’m” it allowed the viewer to piece together his or her own conclusions as to who was to blame; certainly the Greek state did not come off clean as its lack of intervention in the humanitarian disaster and its failure to evacuate the Greek citizens in a timely manner was a point that was not missed by those watching.
Certainly it made its points, however nuanced. That diversity is superior to a stubborn insistence on nationalism. That the foreboding of disaster is lost on many who are in denial or too busy dancing to pay attention to the signs. That a society harboring resentment against the privileged foreign minority in its midst can explode into ruthless ethnic cleansing.
A lot of care and research went into creating this film. However, it falls short on a few counts. Firstly, its documentation and sourcing. It relied too often on the same sources, even pictorial sources, so that by the end of the film, you felt as if you had a myopic view of what had happened. In the question and answer segment following the film I attended, a Turkish gentlemen in the audience made the comment that more Turkish historians should have been consulted as sources as the voice for the Turkish side, an anthropologist, is not adequate. On the same count, not enough historical documents were presented during the film with the exception of the narrative voice that pieced the facts together. A documentary that overly relies on anecdotal evidence is not reliable. It is one thing to include personal memories to round out events and another thing to pass memories as history. Personal memories are powerful when creating a memoir such as the one by Thea Halo that recounts the Pontian genocide, but there is a danger when passing personal memory to stand for history with a capital “H.”
The archival photographs and footage seemed not to be enough either an hour and a half film as many were looped again and again throughout the film. The sound effects needed some upgrading as well. At one point in the film, I found myself wondering what the connection between the annoying cries of crows in the background and a close-up of some poor Turkish peasants was. Somehow there needed to be a more cinematic synthesis of the elements to make the film more appealing as a film per se. No wonder my date for the night I caught snoozing halfway into the film.
Overall, it was a valiant attempt to document a little-known genocide. The producer/director Maria Iliou is already in gear for the sequel to this one which will document the ethnic cleansing of the other Greeks of Asia Minor, the change of populations, and will trace the flight of the cultural minorities of Smyrna. She informed us that the follow-up to this documentary would present a more pronounced two-sided view of the events.