“The Story of Three Journeys” showcases Tassos Boulmetis’ childhood in Istanbul

Boulmetis holds a seminar on his culture, identity, and tumultuous history

This is a photo of the outside of the SFU Burnaby campus. There is a reflection pond with a water fountain surrounded by trees and other buildings.
PHOTO: Kriti Monga / The Peak

By: Olivia Sherman, News Writer

Content warning: mentions of genocide and forced displacement. 

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic studies at SFU is hosting a series of seminars this fall, where Greek scholars and artists will present stories and lived experiences. Tassos Boulmetis, a Greek director, presented at the most recent seminar. The presentation was titled, “On Sublimation of Displacement: The Story of Three Journeys.” 

The journeys in question spanned over several decades of Boulmetis’ life. He described them as, “One, geographical, that created the trauma. Another, esoteric: an inner journey which helped me overcome the denial of my childhood homeland. And another, [a] hidden journey that led to the creation of my film.” Boulmetis said it was that hidden journey that “helped [him] to reconcile with [his] past.”

Boulmetis was born Greek in Constantinople, now Istanbul, at a turning point in both Greek and Turkish history. “I remember my mother telling me not to speak Greek loudly in the streets,” he recalled, noting this was unusual for him because he was previously comfortable speaking his native language in Istanbul.

Boulmetis describes the political strife he faced throughout his childhood: “If we consider the Greek-Turkey relationship, metaphorically, as a film production, the screenplay for this film was written back in 1908,” during the Ottoman Revolution. The first act took place in 1915, during the Armenian Genocide. The second was in 1922, during the mass exodus of Greeks after the burning of Smyrna. In 1964, over 45,000 Greeks were deported from Turkey, including the young Boulmetis and his family. He and his family relocated to Athens, Greece. 

Despite being friends with both Turks and Greeks in Istanbul, Boulmetis found himself ostracised in Athens. In order to assimilate with his peers, he learned Greek and attempted to hide his Turkish identity. “It was a bad word to say to a Greek that he’s a Turk,” and vice versa for Turkish people. This was the beginning of Boulmetis’ trauma with his cultural identity. “I became a displaced Constantinoplian of Greek origin.” 

Later, Boulmetis enrolled as a physics student at the University of Athens but felt a calling toward film and directing. Throughout university, he directed short films. These were ripe with artistic and political themes, which reflected the ongoing political strife in Greece and Turkey throughout the 1970s when Boulmetis was a student. “We were very active and very thirsty to be involved in the arts and politics and demonstrations.”

After moving to California and graduating from UCLA, Boulmetis began directing commercials. To date, he has directed over 500 commercials, some of which have been broadcast worldwide. However, despite his success, Boulmetis said “there was something missing.” He broke the contract he had made with his producing company, in order to become a filmmaker rather than a commercial director. At the recommendation of a friend, he travelled back to Istanbul, the place he was forced to flee decades ago. “I realized, the last 30 years, I had been almost all over the world, but I never went to my homeland, which was only 50 minutes by plane.”

Boulmetis describes walking around his childhood neighbourhood with an “emotional GPS,” and was able to find his old home, his grandfather’s grocery store, the old playground, and the schoolhouse. “I recorded almost every single step that I did for three continuous days.” He documented his travels with photographs and videos taken at waist-length, about the height of a seven-year-old, the age he was forced to leave his home. 

He was inspired after returning to his homeland. Throughout the next several years, Boulmetis directed films about reconnecting with his heritage. The most famous, gaining worldwide attention, is “A Touch of Spice,” inspired by Boulmetis’ own life and history with being expelled from his home country and finding his lost identity. 

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