I know things will go well in my interview with Stavroula Toska when I know how to properly pronounce her first name. Few Americans know to stress the second syllable in a Green name, but my maternal grandmother was a Greek immigrant, and I’ve heard Hellenic names in casual conversation my entire life. So Toska and myself both know from the outset we share some interest in the birthplace of democracy.
But pretty soon, she surprises me with a history lesson about Greece. Toska’s new documentary, Beneath The Olive Tree, explores a period of history I know nothing about, the three-year period after the end of World War II when the nation was torn by a civil war. My grandmother left her homeland for the United States before that ever happened, but I’m stunned to here of concentration camps set up by Western-friendly Greek leaders with the help of communist-hating U.S. support. What’s more amazing, though, is that Toska, born and raised in Greece, also never heard about this until she was an adult. “It was never talked about in my family,” she said. The war doesn’t deem serious mention in history books, even though many people who lived through the ordeal are still alive today.
But Toska is telling the story now. Beneath The Olive Tree, narrated and executive produced by Olympia Dukakis, will make its world premiere today at the Sarasota Film Festival.
It was actually Dukakis that turned Toska on to the documentary subject. Toska, who had come to America to be an actress and then turned her attention to writing and directing scripted features, was meeting with Dukakis to convince her to take a role in a romantic comedy, and two made a personal connection over their interest in Greek heritage. One evening, Dukakis gave Toska a copy of the book detailing the stories of women who survive political exile during the wars.
Soon, Toska was obsessed. “All of the sudden I had forgotten about romantic comedies and scripts,” she recalls. “All I wanted to do was read about these stories of survival.” She ended up trying to track survivors down herself, and found some still living who had been teenagers in the days of concentration camps and were in their 80s now. Toska determined she had to do a documentary while there will still people alive to offer first-hand accounts.
But along the way, it remained a nagging question in her head why she hadn’t heard any of this before. She asked her own mother, a child at the time of the wars, whether nay of it impacted the family, and her mother for a long period shut those queries down. Only after persistence did Toska learn her own grandmother been imprisoned in the war for three and a half years.
“So part of the film is me going home and interviewing my mother, hearing the story of this big family secret,” Toska says.
These days, Toska lives in the United States and still remains involved in the world of scripted film. She still in interested in scripted work, but also in anxious to share this story to Greek and American audiences. She notes the implementation of the Truman Doctrine post-World War II helped rebuild Greece, but also funded concentration camps on the Greek islands at a time when concentration camps should have seemed an unreal prospect in Europe.
I wonder a bit how my own grandmother never told the story to me in her lifetime, just as Toska wonders the same about her own. But it immediately strikes me how much less attention is paid in United States history to the isolation camps holding Japanese Americans as compared to concentration camps holding and abusing European Jews. Toska’s explanation is cliche, but rings true: “Remember history is written by the winners.”
Beneath The Olive Tree, part of the Sarasota Film Festival documentary competition, premieres today, April 17, at 2:15pm and screens again Sunday, April 19, at 5:15pm at the Regal Hollywood 20.