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Century Man: The Father Salamis Story

Director's Diary - Stavros Stavrides

When I was approached by Scattering of Seeds to offer an installment to its series, I was thrilled with two prospects. First, the license to fashion a piece of my own choice - a documentarian's dream, and second, the prospect of drawing from stories and insights that have been revolving around my brain since growing up in my home city of Montreal.

On the first prospect, it got me back into making a documentary program, a genre I haven't played with in some years. Having been involved in the feature film world, where much of the business is driven by committee, which in turn is driven by money, it was a pleasure to once again ‘strap on' a two-person crew and begin inventing in real time again, writing and re-writing as I shared my discoveries and insight with the public.

I examined the series' mandate - History; Culture; and in my case, Greeks. There are thousands of little stories to tell as the son of immigrant parents. Thankfully, I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in suburban Montreal, where I felt as an outsider at times, particularly at that awkward adolescent stage. My family's Greek community involvement occurred on the weekends, when we'd pack into the ‘61 Mercury and head off into another world, a world of post-war Greek immigrants. There, too, I was a bit of an outsider, an observer. In the evenings at home, and on Sunday mornings, I was one of them, and during the school week and at play in the neighborhood, I belonged to another sect. In both cases, I was a bit of an outsider. I guess that's what built up observational skills.

In seeking to fulfill another mandate of the program, I was to examine the life of a historical figure in the community, preferably a pre-war figure, who made an impact on the development of the community. The first person I could think of was Father Salamis. What more perfect a way is there to wrap up a hundred years of history than to talk to a guy who is 103 years old? "A shoo-in", I figured. Fun to do and fun to show. So I thought. It wasn't easy getting to him, the guy I grew up with in the church, who I've know since I could first see.

For a while I thought that it's because Father Salamis is 103, and that at that age you get fickle and difficult, and maybe he misunderstood my quest. So after several visits, with the involvement of his immediate family who were as excited about this project as I was, we though we had his blessing and started preparations. So I began shooting, neighborhoods, other interview participants, and the like. But when the day came to film with the centre of the story, he refused. At first, I thought, its because of his age. In true documentary form, I continued to shoot, and began looking at my own life and examining my position. In interviews with the pre-war generation of Greek immigrants, I began discovering a world I knew little about. I discovered things about my parent's generations, which formed part of the vast onslaught of a post-war immigration wave that upset the tiny pre-war community that had so patiently built itself a comfortable, exclusive existence. I came to realize that post-war Greeks, war-torn and with few skills, were in fact different from the pre-war Greeks who had in fact assimilated as mainstream Canadians. I began to record my own history, and that of the pre-war generation, structuring a delicate story line around the man I couldn't interview, having faith that someday soon he will understand what I am doing and agree to appear.

I slowly began losing faith and began to desperately create a story about myself and my quest for this man, interviewing friends, associates, his family and mine. His family persisted though, but to know avail. He wasn't interested. This is where my more charitable thoughts turned to "Crotchety old man" thoughts, even though I was aware that he still read the newspaper daily and watched CNN. I resigned myself to believing that if I lived to 103, I'd not only be that way, but I'd have the right to be that way.

In my final appeal, I let the family know that if I make this show without him, it will appear as if he's already dead, and we're dealing with him post mortem. Nothing. So I packed my bags, panicking over how to structure all these bits of material together, and headed back to Toronto. The call came. "I'm ready and I want to do this". "Thank God", I muttered". "But you have to do it now", he commanded.

We were separated by 500 kilometers. Thankfully, though, I had been working through all of this with Anna Asimakopulos, Father Salamis' granddaughter, who had by this point understood my vision. Bashfully, I asked, if she could shoot the installment with the cameraman. Fortunately, she's a news reporter and had the presence of mind and comfort level with a camera crew. The granddaughter Anna shot the whole central part of the story, where father Salamis appears. A very interesting dynamic - Granddaughter interviews grandfather.

After seeing the footage, the realization hit me that he was not a crotchety old man in his earlier refusal to appear on camera. His refusal had to do with a common characteristic of all great men - humility. All of his achievements as a spiritual leader, all of the love and adoration of his flock, all of the remarkable stories of his stamina and survival in the face of adversity, did not come from a desire to steal the limelight. It came from his passion and commitment to his work, which he still carries today. To appear in front of a camera would have compromised all of that. I understand that greatness and respect comes from humility and commitment, and allowing others to do your bidding. I believe that once he understood that all of those around him spoke their piece, and had their say, he agreed to step in with his contribution. To my surprise however, when the cameras rolled, he didn't want to stop.

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