From classic films like Old Yeller through to obscure songs by The Fauves, the relationship between humans and dogs is universally touted as a uniquely strong one. Making her directorial debut with the documentary Dogs of Democracy, author and philosopher, Mary Zournazi dissects the human-canine bond to see what we can learn from our furry friends. It’s certainly a far cry from her original plan to look at French New Wave director, Agnes Varda.
“Her film essays are extraordinary,” Mary tells Filmink, ahead of a screening of Dogs of Democracy at the Greek Film Festival in Sydney. “I met Agnes in Paris, but, as you know from her work, she does her own autobiographical pictures. So, we didn’t pursue this idea of making a film about her.”
Leaving Paris, Mary ventured to Greece in search of her heritage; her family having been political refugees. It was in Athens that she saw firsthand the stray dogs that roam the streets of the capital city.
“When I arrived I totally fell in love with the stray dogs there, and their story,” Mary admits. “So I thought, if I can’t make a film about Agnes, I’ll make my own film essay. That was the trigger!”
Mary readily admits to having always wanted to be a filmmaker but never having the confidence to do so. However, 20 years putting together essay documentaries for ABC Radio National, as well as her friendship with German filmmaker Wim Wenders certainly helped (“He’s been a great inspiration for me.”) As too did Australia documentary filmmaker and producer, Tom Zubrycki, who trained Mary on how to use a camera. Armed with her new skills, Mary took to the streets of Athens in search of her subjects. And it’s probably no surprise that Mary’s pursuit attracted curious citizens wanting to know what she was up to.
“Because it’s a rather strange thing to do, to go around a city and filming the dogs,” Mary muses. “I often explained I was making a film about the stray dogs and people would say to me: ‘You must go and meet so and so’. That’s how I met most of my human characters.”
It’s the relationship between her human characters and Athens’s strays that provides the film its heart. Additionally, arriving in Athens around the time of the Greek Economic crisis, and despite hard ships faced by some of her subjects, Mary saw a resilience shining through the gloom.
“The film really is this journey of the people and the animals in this time of crisis, and in this sense, I feel a huge responsibility to convey how people experience their lives in difficult times,” Mary explains. “I think that often people assume that problems in different countries or parts of the world are so different and foreign than our own experiences, but the truth is, we all feel and experience love, and grief and friendship.”
One of Mary’s subjects will perhaps be familiar to readers of Time magazine. In 2011, the magazine gave their coveted cover to ‘The Protestor’, covering the numerous people who had rallied against authority in the pursuit of fairness. Of those protestors singled out for coverage was Loukanikos, a stray who was photographed at the austerity protests that surfaced in Athens.
“He would go to every single anti-austerity protest, and he would be waiting for the people and he would march with them,” Mary says. “I think people felt, at the time of the protests, that this stray dog symbolised something about their own condition and experience of poverty and difficulty. But also, his real courage and spirit was a sign of hope for them, and their resistance. He’s a beautiful animal.”
The film has already garnered praise across the festival circuit; particularly at this year’s Nevada Women’s Film Festival where the film won the Spirit of Activism award. An unexpected thrill for Mary, the award seemed to highlight something cinema audiences are missing.
“It’s a film about stray dogs but equally it is a film about living through social and economic crisis,” Mary explains. “And the recognition of this award really gave me a sense that audiences care, and that we shouldn’t just assume that people want ‘entertainment’; audiences can cope with important issues – personal and philosophical. The film does have a strong philosophical message.”
It certainly does, and that appears to be what Mary calls in the film ‘philoxenia’, a Greek word meaning ‘friend to the stranger’. Through our discussion, Mary talks of how the dogs of Athens are ‘a reminder of human vulnerability’ and she hopes her film can cultivate a ‘love and concern for others’.
During the course of making her film, Mary returned to Athens several times. Over the course of that time, what were the changes she saw not in her subjects, but in the environment that surrounded them?
“I saw the rise of SYRIZA, the small left wing party that came to power and tried to work against harsh austerity measures – they tried to bring hope and a sense of dignity in the political context,” Mary reminisces. “But this hope became overshadowed by the European Institutions and their demands, and during my filming I witnessed the famous ‘Oxi’ vote where Greek people were voting against the conditions of austerity. What I feel I witnessed is a loss of political hope, but my film is about another kind of hope, the hope that exists in our daily encounters with each other. The dogs are the best example of that hope.”