Grief: Little Tales Of Unemployment

Giorgio Zervas

Greece, 2009.

A contemplative “portrait” of the grief felt by the unemployed in Greece today. How do they feel now? What do they think about the future? About the past? About others who have jobs? What is their relationship to their family? To their friends? To people around them? Does the future seem hopeful? Textile mills and garment factories, tobacco factories and warehouses, shipyards… Desolate spaces falling to ruin, machines now stand lifeless. And the jobless: at a loss, confessing, reminiscing, struggling, despairing. A journey into a painful landscape of today’s reality.

Giorgio Zervas’s, highly topical documentary, Grief: Little Tales of Unemployment offers a unique insight into the psychologically fraught world of the unemployed in Greece. Against the backdrop of Greek economic instability, the film astutely documents the emotional costs of financial insecurity for individuals and families. Structured around interviews with workers who have become unemployed, some after twenty-five years of service to their employer, the film delves into the philosophical significance of ‘employment’ for an individual, in addition to its monetary importance. Eschewing political and economic frameworks of discourse, Zervas comprehensively portrays the emotional costs being borne by the ever-increasing numbers of the jobless as the economy shifts course.

Greece has seen major changes in its economy since joining the European Monetary Union in1990. Restructuring of the Greek economy to meet the criteria for participation in the EMU resulted in a rapid rise in unemployment within the agriculture and industry sectors of the economy. Unemployment in 2009 reached nearly 10 percent, the brunt being borne by women and young, male workers. Youth unemployment and unemployment among women remain amongst the highest in the European Union. A study published by the University of Bath indicates that education does not seem to improve chances of employment; in fact the incidence of unemployment for men with only primary school education is half that of men with doctorates and post graduate degrees. Recent economic austerity measures have meant that expansion of public sector employment has also been curtailed. While Greece recorded economic growth in the last five years, prior to the global financial crisis, this was not accompanied by the creation of jobs. Several critics also allude to the flight of Greek industry and investment to lower cost regions in the Balkans adding to the jobless within Greece.

Zervas, criticised the situation by portraying the psychological effects of the economic situation on individuals. He draw his characters from both blue-collar and middleclass workers, presenting voices that range from factory workers and teachers to architects and academics. The distress of losing one’s job is similar amongst them all. The productive employees, whilst not extravagant, have lived comfortable lives, supported their families and planned their future anticipating steady employment. Now unemployed, the blow to pride and self-confidence, articulated by all as feelings of worthlessness, makes an impact. Work provides a means of reinforcing one’s value to society as a contributing and useful member. In young people, recent graduates from university, there is already a sense of hopelessness as they are unable to find employment.

An environmental architect voices her despair, helplessly unable to contribute her expertise to society after several years acquiring an education. Educated and qualified youth are usually an asset to nation building but youth in Greece find themselves rejected and devalued when jobs are not available to them. A worker hints that jobs are available only to those with the right connections. It is obvious though that jobs are few and far between; competition for scarce jobs has forced unfair means of selection to occur. This further reinforces the feeling of worthlessness as the qualified are rejected in favour of the unqualified. The anguish turns into feelings of self-reproach and guilt, articulated by a young teacher who now feels her unemployed state is due to her own shortcomings.

Zervas expertly exposes the sequential decline of a young person from a youthful optimist to a disappointed, insecure person dependant on their parents for their very survival.

The effects of unemployment ripple through individuals and families. Workers reveal the effects on their health as their savings dwindle and fi nancial pressures rise. Th e negative reactions of friends and neighbours become extremely signifi cant and to some extent magnifi ed. It becomes a matter of pride to hide the distress and continue as normal to avoid pity. Th e stresses of fi nancial insecurity and social censure have lead to severe health problems such as depression and thoughts of suicide amongst the unemployed.

On a practical level, lifestyles suff er and families used to basic comforts now give up on their dreams for the future. Children who had university to look forward to, no longer have that avenue and essentials like medicines, pencils and schooling are sacrifi ced.  A middle-aged mother is distraught that her unemployed son would be unable to support a family and is therefore unlikely to marry and she herself has lost her job. Zervas’ characters talk to the cameras with compelling honesty, revealing a vulnerability that has been hidden from their closest family members. Th e trust between the characters and the director makes this candour possible enabling the audience a glimpse into the anguished world of the unexpectedly jobless.

Zervas methodically debunks the myths that seem to prevail around unemployment: fi rstly that it is only the older, less productive workers that are unemployed. While several older workers are rejected and age cited as an obstacle to alternative employment, Zervas includes the voices of several young participants who are equally pessimistic about their jobless state. Secondly, the myth that unemployment is a consequence of insuffi  cient expertise for the job is also shattered by Zervas. Employers reject several candidates on the basis of their appearance and ethnicity in spite of standard qualifi cations. Employers do not need to be accountable for any decisions made about the hiring or fi ring of workers.

While the voices of the workers form the major part of the fi lm, Zervas uses visuals to great eff ect – almost as a metaphor for the unemployed worker. Shots of factory fl oors that appear to have been abandoned overnight, boxes waiting to be shipped, machines stopped halfway – all indicate the unused potential of idle resources. Zervas also presents the contemporary urban face of Greece: boarded up plants, overgrown yards, derelict buildings, smashed windows and graffi  ti – all signs of social decline.

An unemployed political philosopher terms the current phenomenon, “a form of social violence”. Perhaps he means that the operation of society itself and the economic direction Greece is taking are infl icting a kind of trauma on society. What is certain is that large-scale emotional violence is being committed in ways that are hidden and therefore ignored by the international community. Zervas has revealed this violence and laid it bare for all to see.

Modern Times Review