Humanising the spectacle of fascism: Golden Dawn Girls

P. Stuart Robinson (1958), is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.


TIFF 2018: In Golden Dawn Girls (2017) filmmaker Håvard Bustnes went looking for the soft underbelly of the Greek neo-Nazi party. He’s still looking. Sometimes, what you don’t find is the most startling discovery of all.

Hateful vitriol against anyone different and therefore not properly Greek, and physical intimidation to the point of outright violence, are the stock-in-trade of Golden Dawn. Astonishingly, they garnered enough votes in the last general election (in 2015) to become the third largest party in the country. Even more astonishingly, Norwegian Håvard Bustnes dared to take a film crew into this liberal-devouring lion’s den, and try to make sense of it all. As Rudyard Kipling would say: «You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!»

This is more than a Greek story. The often literally violent lurch rightwards is just about everywhere. So, like it or not – and Bustnes, for one, certainly doesn’t – you might as well try and understand it. All credit to the director for making the effort – and taking the chance! Bravely, he ventured into the inner sanctum of the organisation, even into the family homes of its leaders, and attempted to plumb its very soul. So what did he find? The Norwegian title is a real plot-spoiler in this regard: «Hatets vugge» or «The Cradle of Hatred.»

The ironical reference to Greek’s status as ‘the cradle of democracy’ is clever, I suppose, but, for my taste, the title is too leading, didactic and, above all, condemnatory. Then again, if the cap fits..? Hatred is pretty much all we see, in the harsh light of their public speeches, chants and gestures, and even behind the scenes, at home ‘with their hair down,’ where they live out their lives and raise their children. It really is hatred all the way down!

Arguably, the filmmaker himself was too leading, too judgemental. He chose to engage quite personally with his material. The danger of shaping the work in this way is that it becomes more about the director and his response than the matter at hand. The final scene convinced me that his approach was nevertheless the right one. Documentary as dialectic has a remarkable power to uncover the deeper truths – the latent, human realities sometimes hidden beneath the surface. At the moment of its dénouement, the work finally revealed its power in this sense, and all reservations or quibbles could reasonably be set aside.

The chosen focus is the women of Golden Dawn. At first blush, they don’t seem especially hating or hateful, at least not compared to the men, whose vitriol and machismo is on such prominent public display. The filmmaker obviously hoped to find a moderating influence here, a chink in the warriors’ armour, something a little softer, gentler (more feminine?) and, in the end, more liberal. Gender assumptions are always dangerous but the ‘Golden Dawn girls’ turn out to be a mixed bag at any rate.

Some may be more likeable than others, but what they all share, depressingly enough, is an unwavering adherence to the movement’s simplistic dogma. This is essentially a war cry, a call to arms against financiers and immigrants alike, as similarly heinous incarnations of the despised ‘Johnny Foreigner.’ Their shared crime has been to meddle in Greek affairs. The proper Greek response is to wage a righteous war, in which the heroes of Golden Dawn are thankfully already engaged, to free this once great nation from all the shackles and corruptions, which continue to hold it back. With strong links to the Greek Orthodox church, traditional gender roles are clearly a part of their combative vision, but gender tensions are never far below the surface.

Ourania, the relatively marginalised daughter of the movement’s glorious leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, comes very much to the fore as his effective substitute, when he and many more of the party faithful face criminal charges and are remanded in custody. Feminist overtones might even be detected in some of her statements. Her comment on her place as the leader’s daughter is revealing, «I am just a soldier for Golden Dawn like anyone else.» Herein lies a surprisingly egalitarian – albeit militaristic – ethos.

One of the achievements of the film is to lay bare the gender dynamics of the movement. We watch the women rise to prominence as stand-in spokespersons, blossoming, it must be said, like so many hideous flowers, after so many of the men have been jailed. Then we watch the women withdraw once more into the background, upon the happy moment of the menfolk’s heroic return. Here lies an opportunity to dig a little deeper, however.

If we are to tolerate the prominent narrative voice of the filmmaker, it behoves him to really put it to work. Sometimes I found myself waiting in vain for the next obvious question. In this context, I was dying to hear him ask something like, ‘How did you feel about your spell in the limelight? Was it hard to withdraw into the shadows and let the men take over, as they are so wont to do?’

This is not the only occasion on which Bustnes might have tightened the interrogatory screw a little, and taken us a little closer to the ‘heart of darkness.’ It’s normal to be exasperated by an encounter with the purveyors of extreme right-wing ideology, of course, at least for a typical ‘liberal lefty’ such as myself. Nevertheless, by upping the interrogative intensity a little, the filmmaker might just have taken the edge off that exasperation. It’s easy for me to say, of course. I wouldn’t have dared go in there in the first place, let alone stir up the pot with a lot of difficult questions! Well, never mind, let’s at least consider one rather obvious question I probably would have been afraid to ask…

Part of the frustration but also the fascination of Golden Dawn Girls is the litany of repetitions, as interviewees defuse difficult questions and regurgitate received party lines on cue. They seem especially well prepared when their movement’s obvious Nazi overtones are raised. The stock answer, heard repeatedly in the film, is a master-class in avoidance and deflection. It boils down to this: that was then, this is now; that was there, this is here; so what do German Nazis have to do with Greek nationalists?

It wouldn’t be that hard to ask a further question or two that would pressure them to unpack this pat deflection. If you transplant an ideology to a new country, some stuff will change, obviously, but an awful lot will be much the same. It is therefore possible to ask them if they don’t regard foreign races or ‘tribes’ (as party man and parliamentarian Panagiotis Iliopoulos tactically prefers to call them) as inferior, just as the Nazis did, and if the only real difference is who exactly is supposed to be superior? After all, Übermensch are Übermensch, whatever stupid country they happen to come from.

Whether our reference-point is history, or contemporary xenophobic tendencies of near global proportions, it does all sounds depressingly familiar, universal in a way, yet also mired in something very particular, even parochial. It’s just one more blinkered view of one more little plot of real estate, to be romanticised and proselytised as the site of collective and individual destiny. No historical stone is ever left unturned in these hubristic little projects (each in their own splendid isolation and blissful mutual ignorance) to make a mountain out of a molehill, and build a narrative of national exceptionality.

In this case, we can hear (on film) the crowds chanting: «We are the new Spartans!» As one of the women put it to Bustnes: «We prove in practice that we still have the DNA of the ancient Greeks.» The circle is thus completed, and national history – or rather mythology – becomes an epic tale of redemption. One wonders if a return to slavery and something close to it for all wives, in the style of those glorious ancient Athenian democrats, will be next on the agenda, and what these women would have to say about that.

For all its flaws, the film nonetheless represents a remarkable achievement, a work of courage and skill. It’s great virtue, I believe, is in humanising the spectacle of fascism. It strikes the perfect balance between two essential tasks, first, to expose and – yes – attack the vacuity and moral bankruptcy of the ideas, and, second, to attempt to connect with and understand – rather than attack – the people who embrace such ideas. The filmmaker’s laudable efforts in this regard are illustrated, most powerfully of all, by the very human encounter, which effectively concludes the film.

Ourania is the ultimate enigma. She is young, humorous and smart, but also a little strange. As such, she exemplifies the film’s dynamic tension. We want to like her but her values and politics get in the way. Early in the film, we watch as, with mock pride, she dresses her little pet dog in an absurd tunic. Near the end, she confesses, half joking, that she doesn’t really like people, only cats and dogs. (As an afterthought, she adds that she also likes other animals – and nature per se – and thus unravels the joke.) This means, at any rate, that she and Bustnes will not go somewhere more sociable to talk. Instead, they will linger in the carpark, in all its banal and dismal provisionality.

It’s a fitting scene for a confrontation, and it’s coming, because the filmmaker is pushing for a sort of confession. He makes it quite clear he’s been hoping for something more, something better from her, and then he asks her outright to say that she rejects the violence they both know her organisation has employed. It’s immediately clear there will be no confession, no recantation, and yet something else happens. It’s not much, perhaps, no more than a fleeting glance as she turns and withdraws, deeper into the crowded, lonely car-park, but it is something quintessentially cinematic. The look is both kind and sad, as she confesses only that she cannot give him what he wants, and goes on her way – or the way of her father, at any rate.

The look gives us no key to explain away Golden Dawn. It won’t answer that leading question posed in the opening scene, ‘What happened to Greece?’ ‘The look’ is only the enigmatic signature of a complex human reality, of all the suffering and confusion, which percolates through our trials and our conflicts. What happened to Greece (and the world, for that matter) is too complex and contradictory to distil into any simple answers. The biggest danger of this film is that, by focusing on the bogeyman of Golden Dawn, it oversimplifies that complexity. There’s so much more to Greece we are in danger of forgetting. It’s also the place where huge numbers make light of their own troubles and volunteer to help refugees, where some have even established their own DIY safe havens.

Difficult times bring out the best and the worst of people, and we certainly live in difficult times. The achievement of Golden Dawn Girls is never to lose sight of the people behind the dismal slogans. Even at their worst, the people are redeemable. Perhaps Håvard Bustnes felt defeated by meeting that metaphorical wall, the imperviousness of apparently sensitive and intelligent souls.

As the words of one of the chants went: «We are like steel, the harder you hit it, the harder it gets.» The steel never bowed but there were, all the same, many signs of the humanity we share. I choose to think of this as the light at the end of the tunnel. Onward then, towards the light!

Read next: