Saturday, 29 December 2018

90 Years of PAOK: Nostalgia for the Future (film review)

This was mostly written in a stop-start fashion over several weeks during the 2017 off-season while my brain was melted from reading too many scholarly journal articles. It's being posted here now in order to clean out some of my draft posts.

It hasn't all been thesis writing and boredom during the off-season for South of the Border. A couple of months or so ago I decided to go to the Como (a cinema I almost never go to, as I really don't like Chapel Street) for a screening of a documentary about PAOK, as part of the 2017 Greek Film Festival (it was also my first time ever at the Greek Film Festival, don't know why, probably some sort of internalised self-loathing or cultural cringe). Being the last film of Greek director and PAOK fan Nicholas Triandafyllidis (whose life and career I know next to nothing about, and thus do not wish to sully with any ignorant observations) I was expecting little more than a hagiography. 

Not that there's anything wrong with that. There are ways to write love-letters about the people and things we love, while still revealing truths about them that move not only those who are already convinced of a subject's worthiness, but also those of outsiders as well. I had my doubts though, because football documentaries like this are innately prone to over-egging the custard. When your documentary is about a club like PAOK though, which (perhaps in part because of its lack of trophies) has a profound amount of self-regard, this audience member's wariness levels are already on high alert. There are also so many football clubs out there, and the people who support them all think they're special. Mathematics suggests that most clubs are, in fact, incredibly ordinary. Luckily for this documentary then that PAOK does have a major point of difference from most clubs, and the documentary is at pains - at least initially - to talk about this. 

PAOK's point of difference lies in its origins as a refugee club, born of the Greek 'Great Catastrophe', which saw the Greek populations of the crumbling Ottoman Empire subject to genocide and expulsion from their ancient homelands. The documentary does not shy away from these origins; early scenes include Turkish soldiers storming towns, refugees fleeing their homes, and confronting footage of anonymous victims of genocide strung up in trees. It is incredibly emotive stuff, and your correspondent being the descendant of Greek refugees from Thrace and Asia Minor on both sides of his family, there is no chance of providing objective analysis of this footage.

This is followed by commentary on the dire poverty many of these refugees were forced to endure in Thessaloníki and in Greece more generally, to which is added the bitter reminiscence that the non-refugee Greeks and the Greek state itself did not help as much as they could or should have. In a bit of a provocative gesture, Triandafyllidis links that experience to the present day Syrian refugee crisis, gently reminding his Greek audience that the current situation is not very far removed from experiences which for Greeks exist only just outside the reach of living human memory. Less successful is his attempt to show PAOK's efforts to do something more for the refugee cause than hold a clinic or two for asylum seeker children; these scenes come across more like the charity PR fluff that all major sport clubs do these days.

Nevertheless, this first act is the film's strongest part, showing the hardships of the club, the supporters and the nature of the club as being caught between two cultures on several fronts - as refugees in a not entirely sympathetic 'native' Greek state; as people representing Constantinople in perennial second city Thessaloniki; as a club representing the marginalised Thessaloníki against voracious and dominant Athens. The stories of the club's earliest grounds, of balls flying into the nearby Jewish cemetery, and of a club running on the smell of an oily rag and the love of its desperate supporters give PAOK's early days an incredible amount of emotional heft. Thus the phrase "ΠΑΟΚ και ξερο ψωμι" (PAOK and stale bread) and "Bizim PAOK" ("Our PAOK") getting into the vernacular of PAOK 's supporters; although the latter phrase, with its Turkish origins, has apparently slipped from usage.

The film's middle section charts the period from the late 1950s until the verge of the professional era. Here is when PAOK moves into its Toumba stadium which provides it with both a permanent home and a firmer identity as a Thessaloniki club, and where there is an optimism and joy in attending PAOK games, even if there are more than overt references made to Athenian and referee corruption. When PAOK finally breaks through for its first national league title in 1976, hopes are high that this will lead to more frequent success. This does not prove to be the case, as mismanagement of the club hinders the prospect of more championships. Even a second league title, in 1985, doesn't lead to sustained success, as the club lurches from one crisis to another, many of those financial and self-inflicted.

The film's focus then in its closing third, is on the last 25 years of constant changes in ownership and appalling management, year after year of no success, and the club on the verge of being broke. These are the staples of so many clubs in football's late capitalist era; that if you are not one of the big players, your existence is made up of a perpetual kicking of all your problems down the road for the next person to fix. Even worse when you come from a footballing and economic backwater like Greece, and worse again if you come from its very much second city and not its gigantic, monopolistic first. PAOK as it is depicted in the third and final act of this documentary comes across as entirely ordinary. Surprisingly little is made of PAOK's Europa League match in 2010 against Fenerbahce in Istanbul, let alone PAOK's fleeting moments of success in European competition.

The film gets itself stuck in a narrative cul de sac. It wants to give equal weight to social and cultural history, on field history, and the charting of PAOK's (and Greek football's) journey from amateurism to professionalism. But the courage it displays in its first act, and the warmth and nobility of its second, gives way to a cold-blooded final act, where it's all business and politics - who sacked who, who fought with who, who mismanaged what. 

Triandafyllidis is willing to acknowledge PAOK's own self-destructive tendencies to a point, but 90 Years of PAOK: Nostalgia for the Future is a missed opportunity. Its best moments are early on, when the narrative is informed by an open-hearted sorrow, and an emphasis of its on and off field experiences of hardship. When the film moves into the professional era, that sorrow is replaced by a sort of internalised rage. While the club was born from violence, the film tends to gloss over the violence of the now; just one moment from the early 1990s is highlighted as an example of the violence which erupts all too frequently not just at PAOK, but at other major Greek clubs. Worse, the film's final act becomes fixated by the internal politics of the club, things which are of limited interest to everyone except the most hardcore PAOK fan.

Considering PAOK's origins as a refugee club, and the great migrations out of Greece during the 20th century (and even now), the documentary's neglect of PAOK's diasporic following is also strange. This is especially the case in situations where the club's followers in the diaspora are the descendants of not only the original migration out of Constantinople and Anatolia, but also the economic migrations to western Europe and the New World. Speaking only of Melbourne, there is a strong local PAOK fan club in Melbourne (whose supporters were out in numbers for this screening); Australia has provided players to PAOK, most notably John Anastasiadis (who was in attendance at the screening); PAOK has toured here in the past; South Melbourne Hellas even played PAOK in Greece in 1991!

But that neglect serves to reinforce the probably accidental concurrents of both the film and PAOK itself, that the club is not so much now the avatar of a portion of the displaced in Greece, but rather simply Thessaloníki's biggest and most important football team. The film's discussions of PAOK's rivalries are instructive in this way. Its city rivalries are discussed entirely in the past sense, and with a certain kind of fondness; Iraklis as a sort of respected elder statesman, Aris as the club of the city's petit-bourgeois. To be fair, it is difficult to talk of those rivalries in the present tense, with those two clubs having declined substantially over the past decade, but even so, PAOK's rivalry with Aris is depicted as an exclusively friendly one, and not the hostile one of today. 


  1. ΠΑΟΚ και ας μην γαμησο ποτε2 January 2019 at 15:36

    Altona East has never had a rivalry with south springvale. You sure you watched the right movie ?


    PAOK v Ellada Melvournis with Olver in goals

    1. Yes, I have seen that footage before. Apart from the PAOK game, it was a very crowded itinerary for South on that tour/post-championship holiday. More or less five games within about 10 days.

      - Lost 1-2 to Kozani
      - Beat Makedonikos Siatistos 6-0
      - Drew 1-1 with PAOK
      - Lost 0-1 to Veria
      -Lost 1-5 to Panathinaikos

      Our lineup for the PAOK game was: Olver, Postecoglou, Wright, Durakovic, Blair, Tasios, Petersen, Hasler, Tsolakis, Trimboli (Michalokopoulos 75'), Taliadoros (Palatsides 46')


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