Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

A story for the end of the world

CAPITALISM / The tragedy of an awarded winemaker who envisioned, since 1885, Arcadia as «Champagne d’ Orient».
Arcadia, Champagne d’ Orient
Country: Greece

This is a historical documentary about the times of Great World Exhibitions when the end was not an option, and the future was shiny and bright even on the margins of the Global North. Yet it narrates about one of those many visions that did not succeed, and for this reason, we seldom have the opportunity to hear about it. Together with its bleached colours and the gloomy atmosphere, this makes it just the right story for our times when the failings of capitalism and the imminent climate disaster make the end of the world tangibly close.

Arcadia, Champagne d’ Orient, a film by Kostas Spiropoulos

Too much of a good thing

The famous line of the Greek fabulist and storyteller Aesop says, «It is possible to have too much of a good thing». Arcadia, Champagne d’Orient seems an excellent example of this. According to Greek mythology, Arcadia, a region in the central and eastern part of the Peloponnese peninsula, was a virgin wilderness home to the god of the forest, Pan. As an unspoiled, secluded area with its inhabitants, proverbial herdsmen leading simple pastoral unsophisticated yet happy lives, it was immortalised by Virgil’s Eclogues and by Jacopo Sannazaro in his Arcadia (1504). Today, Arcadia is another word for a bountiful natural splendour and harmony. So why would one try to turn this into another – lesser – kind of paradise, a wine region, Champagne of the Orient? The Champagne wine region is a region within the province of Champagne in the northeast of France, about 160 kilometres from Paris. It developed a reputation for quality wine production in the early Middle Ages. With the advent of the great champagne houses in the 17th and 18th centuries, it started the production of the sparkling white wine that made the region famous all over the world. The laws of most countries of the world reserve the term «champagne» exclusively for wines from this region, while others can use the name «champanoise wine». So did the protagonists of this film, the members of the Papanikolaou family, the owners of a successful winery and vineyards lying in Arcadia on the Peloponnese, founded as early as 1885. The wines they produced have won prizes at all major world fairs, Chicago, Paris, San Francisco. But they wanted more. They wanted to eliminate the «champanoise» label and remake Arcadia into the Champagne of the East.

«It is possible to have too much of a good thing».

The progress

The film is made in an expository way. The first-person narration, representing the voice of Vassilios Papanikolaou, is complemented by dramatised dialogues of other persons that are featured in the reenacted scenes. As an omnipresent voice, it narrates the family’s outstanding efforts to expand the winery’s business. It is supported by black and white archival footage of historical events, local customs, and grapevine cultivation and wine production methods. This voice is determined and convinced, but the other persons’ eagerly supportive voices bring a touch of irony into play. The reenacted scenes are of pale, greyish colours. In this way, they do not differ much from the archival footage. This facilitates the technical process of integrating the actors who represent the historical persons into the documents of the past. But sometimes, these, too, raise doubts in a linear narrative. These subtle obstacles to identifying the protagonists are the most precious part of this film. They introduce a contemporary perspective, critical of the capitalist version of progress at all costs and of excessive accumulation of wealth that reached immense proportions nowadays, but its’ traces are well mirrored in the vision of Arcadia as Champagne d’Orient.

Arcadia, Champagne d’ Orient, a film by Kostas Spiropoulos
Arcadia, Champagne d’ Orient, a film by Kostas Spiropoulos

Love for life and earthly pleasures

In southern Europe, the family business was a prevalent form of entrepreneurship during the early periods of capitalism. The story about the Papanikolau family is a rather typical story about the risks and hardships a family, running such a company business, had to confront. The film shows very well how it is not all roses, even if it brings along a precious possibility of combining agriculture and food processing with love for life and earthy pleasures. The latter became particularly popular during the last decades, when many successful professionals found their new careers in viticulture, while others simply retired and went to grow grapes to produce wine somewhere warm, where people live at a slow pace, keep contact with each other, and with the nature. Watching Arcadia, Champagne d’Orient, one becomes aware of how consumption of local products and production in small quantities, the key values of these new winemakers, are very different from the capitalist values from one hundred years ago. Sending children to study abroad, knowledge transfer and innovation are activities that any family company would do today. Still, some other endeavours of the Papanikolau family are not easy to accept today. Social and political aspects of the Papanikolau family story are completely left out from this film. Still, it is undeniable today that the expansion at all costs was not so much a personal choice as it was part of the growth as the structural necessity of capitalism.

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Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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