Pickpocket democracy

When the announcers on the Athens Metro say, “Please be careful with personal possessions,” they really mean it. Pickpocket gangs are numerous, well organised and brazen in their methods. Attempts were made on two of our production team during our time in the city. The economic incentives for these crimes are easy to understand, but that doesn’t lessen the sense of injustice and abuse on the part of their victims. However, there are greater injustices playing out in this cauldron of a city, in a country at the extreme end of the austerity spectrum. Ordinary people there are extraordinarily exposed by UK standards. Life is a high wire act, with no safety net whatsoever.

We went to Greece to film a story of democracy in three acts.

  • Act 1 : The origins of deliberative democracy in ancient Athens.

  • Act 2 : The crisis of today’s dysfunctional electoral democracy.

  • Act 3 : The potential for radical innovations in direct, truly representative democracy.

We did this over six days of shooting, amidst the fervour and the angst of the European Parliament elections.

Our people’s assembly on Areopagus Hill. They discuss the history of Athenian democracy, and the flaws of our electoral system, then deliberate on the rights and wrongs of voting in the European Election the following day.

Our people’s assembly on Areopagus Hill. They discuss the history of Athenian democracy, and the flaws of our electoral system, then deliberate on the rights and wrongs of voting in the European Election the following day.

We organised a people’s assembly on Areopagus hill, overlooking the Pnyx, where the ancients held their original assemblies. We immersed ourselves in the circus of contemporary electioneering. We politely but persistently doorstepped politicians. We interviewed direct democracy activists. We spoke to conflict resolution and deliberation experts. We took confession from a leading economist.

Painting a picture of democracy in crisis was not difficult. Athens was a super-saturated solution of subject matter. But where does one look for hope and inspiration? For this we walked away from the cacophony to seek democratic role models in some quieter corners. Guided by Tasos Sagris, our ‘fixer’, we picked a few pockets of democratic ingenuity and human dignity to point our cameras at.

Kastro. “When you live under a dictatorship you have no freedom of speech. When you come to an electoral democracy you can say what you want but no one listens.”

Kastro. “When you live under a dictatorship you have no freedom of speech. When you come to an electoral democracy you can say what you want but no one listens.”

For example, we were welcomed into an abandoned school in the Exarchia district that has been taken over as an immigrant and refugee squat community. There we spoke to Kastro, the community’s Syrian founder, about the extreme challenges of unauthorised life outside the system. But there we also witnessed a heartwarming demonstration of all-inclusive, deliberative democracy by which life in the community is governed. We observed displaced people from different countries and different cultures, speaking in different languages, naturally demonstrating the skills of direct democracy - respect, civility, deep listening and a willingness to alter one’s view as a result of deliberation. Under constant threat from the authorities, these people exude compassion, civility and not a little joy whilst, with light fingers, they pick radical democracy from the pockets of the establishment. The header image for this post features hand prints made by children in the community’s school.

Yanis Varoufakis on election night. He took time out from talking politics to talk to us about democracy.

Yanis Varoufakis on election night. He took time out from talking politics to talk to us about democracy.

This is just a small snapshot of our time in Athens. We are about to embark on an extended post-production process, starting with the time-coded translation of all the Greek language interviews into English, which will be the basis for a first pass at a paper edit. Post-production will be done in partnership with Paper Plane Productions from Belgium, with whom we have struck a deal for at least four episodes. Adrian, their joint CEO, was a pivotal member of the Athens team, providing production advice and operating the second camera. Thank you also to Tasos, to our director of photography, Mike Carling, and to our lovely sound engineer, Panagiotis Kyriakopolous.

Thank you, again, to Guerrilla Foundation, Fondation Pour Les Générations Futures and our individual donors for funding this production. And watch this space for post-production progress updates.