By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 5/15/22 – Running May 9 through May 15 is the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival, which includes a range of films from Greece at theatre venues as well as virtual screenings and virtual webinars online through May 29. The Greek Film Festival opened on May 9 at UCLA James Bridges Auditorium with a screening of Smyrna, My Beloved (2021), directed by Grigoris Karantinakis. The Los Angeles Greek Film Festival has a significant number of films being screened virtually and one of the more interesting ones is Nefin Dinç’s documentary Antoine the Fortunate (Turkey, 2022). Based on Antoine Köpe’s private memoirs and unseen archive collection of unprecedented scope and beauty, Antoine the Fortunate tells the story of survival of a man and his family during the most turbulent times of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of modern Turkey. Told in the first person, Antoine the Fortunate is a story about the radical transformations brought about by the end of the age of empires with World War I and one man’s struggle to survive and find his place in a changing world.
Antoine Köpe was an Austro-Hungarian citizen of the Ottoman Empire who witnessed the Balkan Wars, fought in Palestine during WW1, experienced the occupation of Constantinople by the Allied forces and the turmoil which led to the Kemal Ataturk’s Revolution and the declaration of the Turkish Republic. His story is told through his memoirs and personal archive, which he started as a child in the early 20th century and continued throughout his life, including hundreds of never-before-seen home movies, photographs, sketches, comic strips, newspaper clippings, audio recordings and letters. Today, Turkey and the Middle East carry many contradictions that were playing during Antoine’s life: ambiguity towards religion, repression of minorities, nationalism, emergence of populist leaders and never-ending conflicts. The film helps us to make sense of these transformations, which continue to define our world today.
Antoine Köpe was born in Istanbul in 1897 to French and Hungarian parents. French was his mother tongue, but he grew up in the cosmopolitan Ottoman capital, where Turkish, Greek, Armenian and many other European languages were routinely spoken. Antoine’s father worked for the Ottoman Bank and the family was based in Istanbul when the war broke out. Antoine Köpe witnessed the Ottoman declaration of Holy War in 1914. He enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian army in 1916 and was later sent to Palestine. There he witnessed the battles against the British and the Arab revolt engineered by British agent Lawrence of Arabia.
After the defeat of the Axis Powers, Antoine Köpe came back to Istanbul via Damascus and experienced firsthand the post-war ethnic upheavals of the times during which it was almost impossible for a “Kraut,” as the occupation forces called him, to find work in Istanbul. Nevertheless, he built a career in the Black Sea mining industry and later in the banking industry. He married a Greek woman from Istanbul, Emilie, and they had three children, Karoly, Sandor and Elizabeth.
He witnessed the establishment of the Turkish Republic while working in Anatolia. He lived a prosperous life in Turkey but in his sixties decided to immigrate to the United States, where his children had since already emigrated. Antoine Köpe’s life story relates paradigmatic experiences of ordinary people whose lives were upended by the Great War. In his memoirs we see how a war veteran’s personal fate was dictated by shifting geopolitical events and alliances.
The soldier, Antoine Köpe, has left behind a memoir and a remarkable collection of letters, photographs, drawings, sound recordings and home movies that have never before been published. Given that his brother Taib was the official photographer at the Imperial Palace of the Sultan, the memoirs contain hundreds of never-before-seen photographs of early 20th Century Istanbul, including the first aerial photographs of the city.
Antoine’s memoirs were handed down to his grandson and translated from French into English. The memoirs give the reader the feeling that Antoine Köpe wrote them with the hope of conveying his feelings and his adventures to a larger audience. One hundred years after the Great War, this documentary film will allow him to do exactly that. The documentary film Antoine the Fortunate draws from a carefully blended balance of contemporary footage of historical sites in Turkey and the Middle East, archival photographs and moving images, home videos, newsreels, and images of important artifacts. Animation and graphic effects will be deployed thoughtfully to enhance narrative impact and to help maintain a sense of intimacy in relation to Köpe’s life experience. Antoine Köpe was never a prominent politician or public figure, but he was witness to extraordinary events.
The Western Front is too often the focus of World War I-related discussion and depiction in films. It is nevertheless essential that WWI and the last years of the Ottoman Empire be told from a different perspective, as they still impact contemporary politics. Antoine’s war narrative is humanistic, personal, and far from any heroic discourse or official statement. Through his vivid and sometimes humoristic descriptions of many key historical events, Antoine gives us a nuanced portrait of life in the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East during the War. Telling the complex history of the War in the Middle East, and its enormous impact on the lives of ordinary civilians will simplify and enrich an otherwise unexplored subject while simultaneously engaging and enthralling the audience.
Nefin Dinç has produced seven documentary films. She is currently the Project Director of Youth Filmmaking Project, teaching young Turkish students how to make short films but she has also studied and taught in the United States in Texas and New York. What makes her latest film Antoine the Fortunate so poignant is its fresh perspective on the multiculturalism of the Ottoman Empire, which was also the signature trait of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, before the demise of both at the end of World War I. Too often stories about South East Europe and the Middle East are told through the lens of nationalism, as it redefined much of the 20th century history amidst huge wars. Perhaps the early 20th Century was more civilized in some regards than we realize.
A more typical narrative about the same era and focused on the Greek-dominated city of Smyrna (Izmir) in Anatolia is Smyrna, My Beloved (2021), directed by Grigoris Karantinakis. This moving historical saga which opened the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival on May 9 follows a prominent Greek family, the Baltatzis, who were forced to endure the burning of the vibrant cosmopolitan city of Smyrna (now Izmir) in 1922 by the Turks and the killing of many Greek and Armenian residents. A young Greek-American woman, visiting Greece with her grandmother Filio Baltatzi to support the Syrian refugees on the island of Lesbos, discovers that the Smyrna tragedy destroyed her own family 100 years earlier. The film straddles the problematic fate of Smyrna in the early 20th century, with uncovering the story of Filio Baltatzi, Smyrna’s grandmother, who was once found on the island of Lesbos, tortured and a refugee. Based on the book of the same name and a successful theatrical work by Mimi Dennisi, director Grigoris Karantinakis has made a blockbuster film with a glamorous international cast including Rupert Graves, Susan Hampshire, and Jane Lapolaire.
There have been many films made over the years about what happened at Smyrna during the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) which occurred at the time dissolution and partitioning of the Ottoman Empire and resulted with the disturbing Exchange of Populations between Greece and the new Turkish Republic in 1923. Smyrna was a major seaport city in the Ottoman Empire with a sizable Greek population as well as large Armenian and Jewish populations. At the end of World War I, the Western Allies promised Greece territorial gains and encouraged Greek forces to land in Smyrna (now Izmir) on 15 May 1919 and advance toward Bursa and Aydin. Their advance was checked by Turkish forces at the Battle of Sakarya in 1921.
The Greek front collapsed with the Turkish counterattack in August 1922, and the war effectively ended with the recapture of Smyrna by Turkish forces under Mustapha Kemal Ataturk and after the Great Fire of Smyrna, which both sides claim was caused by the other. Many Greeks and Armenians lost their lives and large numbers lost their homes and possessions to the Great Fire of Smyrna. After the Greek government accepted the demands of the Turkish National Movement, Western Anatolia remained in Turkish hands and Eastern Thrace remained under Greek control. With the massive Exchange of Populations, Greeks in Anatolia were forced to board ships to return to mainland Greece; the large Turkish population of Eastern Thrace and Thessaloniki were forced to abandon their homes and move to Anatolia. Thessaloniki was a major seaport city in the former Ottoman Empire and a sophisticated, multi-ethnic metropolis, second only in status to Istanbul. It was in Thessaloniki that the Turkish military leader and future president Mustapha Kemal Ataturk was born and grew up. What is most relevant and disturbing even today is the continued displacement of peoples in the former Ottoman Empire we call the “Middle East” and the never-ending conflicts that destroy lives and homes and futures.