Greece (OpenDemocracy) – Why would women connected to leaders of the extreme nationalist party invite documentary cameras into their homes, around their dinner tables, and inside party headquarters?
When I first heard about the documentary Golden Dawn Girls, I was more than a little sceptical. Why would three women of the Greek far-right party’s elite invite cameras into their homes, around their dinner tables and inside the party headquarters, for a feature-length film? What was their agenda?
Norwegian documentary maker, Håvard Bustnes, presents the film as a quest to discover “what happened to Greece?” How did a country known for its beaches and sunny hospitality, come to vote members of a far-right political party into parliament? In 2015, Golden Dawn became the third largest party.
Golden Dawn Girls takes us through their rise to power – using archive news footage of their rallies, clashes with police, and vicious attacks on immigrants – but when I talked to Bustnes he admitted that making the film became a “tug of war” between his vision and the story the women wanted to tell.
Far from impeding the film – which premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, November 2017 – this struggle produces a fascinating dynamic on screen.
Far-right women have historically been objects of morbid fascination, particularly the female relatives of male leaders, partly because they so often seem voiceless. ‘Golden Dawn Girls’ takes a different approach by training the spotlight on three women: a wife, a mother and a daughter.
Ourania is the only child of Nikolaos Michaloliakos, the chief of the party, sometimes referred to as ‘the Führer’ of the movement. She is the main focus of the film, but it’s ‘Jenny’ (Evgenia Christou) who defends bringing in the crew, reassuring wary party members that the documentary will show that “we are normal people with families.”
Jenny’s husband is Giorgos Germenis, a prominent Golden Dawn MP, who was previously a black metal guitarist. The documentary producer, Christian Falch, previously worked on a film about black metal music.
In the 90 minutes of Golden Dawn Girls, we see the women struggling to justify Golden Dawn’s ideology, denying its violent criminality while being presented with YouTube footage of members attacking migrants’ stalls in the streets, or assaulting women on news programmes.
Ourania was just 26 years old when Bustnes started shooting the doc. She’s a smiley, bespectacled ‘girl next door.’ She shows off her Disney movie collection, and her clearly-adored fluffy white dog. She has a psychology degree, and wants to continue her education.
“We’re not killing people and drinking their blood,” she says at one point, with a cheeky look. Yet later, we see her using those exact same words when making a video meant for consumption by Golden Dawn members and supporters. “We will drink their blood with a straw,” she says of the party’s political opponents, with the same innocent, rosy-cheeked smile.
It’s in these contradictions, slippages and cracks that the documentary works its magic – often when the cameras continue to roll after the women think that shooting is over.
They’re keen, of course, to show us their best side. Jenny is blonde, sharply dressed, with a masters degree in international relations and politics. When she refuses the ‘Nazi’ label, talking cogently about her sympathies with the left, that they “don’t interpret Lenin and Marx correctly,” the film tempts us to believe she might possess a softer outlook than her husband.
Yet Germenis himself has spoken at length about his family’s communist heritage, aligning himself rhetorically with guerrillas who fought Nazis in the second world war. At the same time, he has been accused by the Greek government of directing a “Neo-Nazi criminal gang,” alongside the party’s Panagiotis Iliopoulos.
Iliopoulos’ mother, Daphne, is the third woman in ‘Golden Dawn Girls’. She is also keen to talk about her socialist youth and her work as a submarine engineer and hospital director. Yet she staunchly defends her notoriously-violent son, who has a ‘Seig Heil’ swastika tattoo on his arm.
It would be a mistake to think that, because these women are educated and seemingly open to views outside their own, they are not fully-committed fascists.
Like many far-right movements, Golden Dawn thrives on slippery populist appeal – particularly since the 2008 financial crisis, when it began successfully reaching out to a diverse base of left-wing, right-wing and a-political Greeks disgruntled with their lives and the status quo.
So how do we know what these women believe? And how implicated are they in Golden Dawn’s crimes? One of the documentary’s most evocative moments is reminiscent of a scene from the 1990 mob movie Goodfellas.
All three women are sitting outside, under a typical azure Greek sky, eating calamari and chips. Bustnes asks about the day that anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas was stabbed to death by a Golden Dawn member, in 2013. They are clearly upset by the question and claim that they only heard about the murder “like everybody else,” on TV news.
The Fyssas case is central to the government’s ongoing trial against the party, in which Golden Dawn are accused of operating as a criminal organisation. Prosecutors are trying to prove that, given the party’s strict military-style hierarchy, its leaders must have approved the murder.
Would the wives, mothers and daughters of prominent party figures have been kept totally in the dark about this crime? What about the many other acts of violence that Golden Dawn has been involved or implicated in?
Such questions come into sharp focus after more than a dozen Golden Dawn MPs are arrested, including Michaloliakos (Ourania’s father), Iliopoulos (Daphne’s son) and Germenis (Jenny’s husband) are arrested. Suddenly, the women have to fill the men’s shoes, fighting for seats for the party in the 2015 elections.
When I talked to Bustnes, he said he believes that the women didn’t enjoy this spotlight. Ourania wanted to go to Britain to continue her studies, for example, while Jenny missed her ‘normal life.’
Yet, it’s hard to untangle the film’s election narrative – with its supposedly dutiful women, desperate to free their family members – from the obvious satisfaction and pride they express at their success with the public. Golden Dawn came third in the elections, winning 7% of the vote.
When their men are released from jail (although they are still on trial) the women ‘happily’ return to their homes. But I notice that talking about the elections is the only time when Jenny cracks what looks like a genuine smile.
Women’s roles in far-right and neo-Nazi groups have in the past been underestimated – right back to the German Nazi regime itself, as documented in Wendy Lower’s ground-breaking book ‘Hitler’s Furies’.
This lack of understanding takes multiple forms, including the emphasis in official or historical accounts on parliamentary politics, official roles and front-line acts of violence, while underplaying the importance of social work as well as emotional and reproductive labour.
When Daphne tells her grandchildren “to go play with guns,” taking obvious delight in the sight of them doing so, she is performing a key role for the party.
Women have been written out of history for their shocking contributions, as well as for their positive roles. This is an erasure that is often compounded by the contemporary, sexist ideologies of the communities within which they live and act.
Bustnes seems to take a deliberately naïve approach in order to get close to the women he features in his film – much like the style of English documentary maker and broadcaster Louis Theroux. Yet he tells me he was genuinely sad not to have had a breakthrough with Ourania.
The final scene that they shot together is bleak. In a rainy carpark, he shows Ourania photos of her father performing the Sieg Heil in front of a swastika flag. He tries, for the last time, to get her to denounce him. “You can love him but you can say ‘I don’t support you,’” he says.
She responds: “I support everything about my father.”
Bustnes seems to hope that the politics of these women might spring from familial circumstance and devotion, rather than from deeply-held, personal beliefs. Yet perhaps this aligns with Jenny’s hope that the film will show them as “normal people with families.”
In fact, our take away from Golden Dawn Girls should be that these women are not normal at all. There have been rumours that Ourania will eventually succeed her father as leader. We’ll see what happens if she becomes the new ‘Führer’. She may have no trouble at all watching Disney films while “drinking the blood,” as she’d put it, of her enemies.