Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"An elegant tribute to lives that would otherwise have been forgotten." | Photo: Courtesy of Thessaloniki International Documentary Film Festival

Marianna Economou’s examination of an Athenian TB hospital and its residents may be geographically specific but it has an emotional resonance that is universal. Her film begins as a dive into an archive before opening out into a sort of variation on Who Do You Think You Are? Her knack for winning over the audience is evidenced by the audience award her film picked up at Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival.

The starting point is a pile of suitcases that were thrown into a skip at Sotiria hospital after being found laying in a forgotten room. When women a couple of floors up spotted it happening they became curious and, on opening the cases, found them to be full of bundles of belongings that were once owned by patients who had died there when it was a post-Second World War tuberculosis clinic.

The contents are the starting point for Economou’s film. They contain troves of letters and photos of patients spanning decades from the Forties to the Seventies. As the documentarian presents snippets of the letters in voice-over - often exchanges with loved ones who lived many miles away and whom the patients would never see again - she also offers archive context about TB and begins to hunt for surviving family members.

The fear of contagion was intense around TB. One doctor notes, “It was the entrance to hell, the entrance to death, even in the Seventies”. Even when a cure had been found the stigma remained, so one woman receives a letter to say she can’t go home, even if she recovers, as it might prevent her brother from finding a wife once he returns from war.

The film begins to zero in on specific cases, including a man whose only contact with his son, born after he was sent to the hospital, is via photographs sent from back home. Economou’s decision to include children’s voices as they read letters sent to parents also brings home the poignancy of the situation for those left at home as well as those in the hospital. “This is the first time I wrote a letter,” says one young girl, while elsewhere instructions to get well soon blend with tales from back home and inquiries like, “Shall I send you some powdered milk?”.

Meanwhile, the hunt for surviving family members isn’t easy, the social stigma adding to the fact that records are sparse. Finally, though Economou’s persistence pays off and her film gains additional emotional weight as some of the patients’ descendants finally learn their hidden histories. Deftly edited by Dimitris Peponis and Evgenia Papageorgiou and accompanied by a suitably elegiac string and piano score from Vaggelis Fambas, this is an elegant tribute to lives that would otherwise have been forgotten.

Reviewed on: 22 Apr 2024
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An accidental find at a Greek hospital sparks a dive into the hidden histories of patients at a TB clinic.

Director: Marianna Economou

Year: 2024

Runtime: 75 minutes

Country: Greece


TIDF 2024

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