Chris Silver has watched A FAMILY AFFAIR, our latest addition to the MOVING DOCS Home Cinema.
“In order to find yourself you need to get lost. But if you lose yourself you need to find your way back.”
These words of wisdom are spoken by Cretan musical legend George Xylouris, to his son Nick, as they practice together in a cramped apartment while on tour in northern Europe during a scene in the Greek/Australian documentary A Family Affair.
The words are, no doubt, one of countless lessons that have formed part of the young man’s lifelong apprenticeship as a member Greece’s most renowned musical clan. Indeed, the wild, largely improvised traditional music of Crete of which they are exponents, is itself like a great rambling exploration of the wilderness – a journey that is never quite the same – but always finally returns to the village having learned something.
This key fragment of fatherly advice also speaks to a searing question that the film asks – what does it mean to carry traditions into the future in a time of often troubling change?
For Cretans, like all Greeks, troubles are not in short supply. No other country in Europe has witnessed social turbulence on the scale inflicted on the people of Greece since the Greek government-debt crisis began in late 2009.
The economic depression now enveloping Greece is without precedent since the end of the Second World War. GDP per capita fell from €22,500 in 2007 to €17,000 in 2014 – a hitherto unimaginable 24% decline. The unemployment rate rose from under 10% between 2005–2009 to around 25% in 2014–2015. An estimated 44% of Greeks lived below the poverty line in 2014. Today, youth unemployment sits at around 53%.
Yet still the country has not fallen apart. Perhaps this film offer clues as to why it is still intact.
A Family Affair is squarely focused on the power of music. But in foregrounding the passions and conflicts within this single family - a family that lives between a land of rural hardship in Crete and one of cosmopolitan wealth in Australia - the film strikes a note that resonates beyond an exploration of biography and musical heritage.
However, it is also a rallying cry for the resilience of family and culture. Strong Hellenic traditions of family responsibility have come to the fore during the years of crisis. Many young Greeks have been forced to move back in with their parents due to poverty, and often rely on more financially secure older relatives to make ends meet.
As we see the younger members of the Xylouris clan shipped off to Australia and their mother’s family, in order to make the most of opportunities that could not be had at home and leaving their parents in the mountains of Crete, the impact on the family is clear.
Though often overlooked – with over 378,270 Australians of Greek descent, Greek migration to Australia has been one of the most significant influxes in the latter country’s history. The flow of people was originally spurred by the Greek Civil War (1946-49) but the desire amongst many young Greeks for a fresh start in a country like Australia, that has weathered most of the global economic storms since 2008, is once again intensifying.
So while A Family Affair is about the triumph of musical craft and connection across the generations, it also riffs on the universal tension between tradition, family, and place in a global economic situation that demands movement, uprooting and ceaseless change.
As the film wins praise around the world for its intimate portrayal of intergenerational connection – exemplified by the 72-year-old lyra player Psarantonis sharing the stage with his grandchildren at a world music festival – it stands tall precisely because it does not dwell on the backdrop of crisis.
Instead, it shows us that Cretan and Greek society are not defined by the woes of the present: but rather by the the positive life-affirming forces of music, community and family; forces that carry on, as they have done for countless generations, despite numerous struggles.
As one local says of the place the Xylouris family calls home: “The village of Anogeia cannot exist without music, without it we will die. Music is our water, our food, our coffee, it’s our life.”
This theme – of music as a kind of sustenance – is writ large throughout the film. This traditional culture, though boisterous and freewheeling, is not some accompaniment to a larger feast – it is what keeps the family, the village and the island running.
Just as importantly – it is also the strand in the lives of this renowned musical clan that allows them to find themselves on the other side of the world, while still knowing that they will ultimately find their way back home in good time, enriched by their wandering.
Photos provided by Anemon Productions