Silent Witness

Koutsiabasakos Dimitris

Greece, 2016



Drama, history



The Characters

The following excerpt relates to the Activity 1 (1. General Questionnaire and 2. Characters).

The individuals that were expected to speak in the Silent Witness were: the political prisoner and fighter of the resistance against the Nazis, Alkiviadis Zabakas; the criminal inmate Kostas Samaras; the political prisoner during the dictatorship in the country Thanassis Antoniou; the retired prison officer Yannis Agoumis; the last prison’s director Vassilis Dafos; the teacher Effie Chatzimanou; and the historical researcher Maroula Kliafa. All those people have been called to guide the audience inside the internal space of the prison, and to revive its microcosm by lighting up at the same time one bigger world, because through the different layers of the rich palimpsest of the history of the prison in the city of Trikala the history of modern Greece is reflected. (Yannis Zoumpoulakis, To Vima,

Personal narratives, recollections, life experiences. Through their narration they introduce the prison itself, while at the same time the country’s recent history unfolds before the spectator’s eyes. For a while we ourselves enter the prison cells by their side, with humor, honesty, authenticity, and respect, and converses with prison and whatever it represents for the society. The political prisoners, one fighter of the resistance against the Nazis and one fighter during the period of the dictatorship, full of emotion, they describe their confinement and their ways for survival. The prison evolves into an informal school, where the “best pupil” helps the weaker one. The criminal inmate portrays the space, he recalls his past, he descibes with a bitter taste an unsuccessful prison break attempt. He guides us inside the prison in his own way. Beds, wall paintings, images, meaningful phrases written on the walls, forgotten objects, improvised patents.

The prison officer shares with the audience his experience of prison breaks, suicides, everyday incidents in the prison life, from the point of view of a man who returns to his home every night, even though he “carries” the prison with him all the time. The former prison’s director recalls his own service in the establishment, and one could easily notice the way he moves some objects with his umbrella, perhaps showing his higher position in the hierarchy. The teacher comments on her role as a female teacher in a male detention center humor, and she takes us on a journey inside the prison classrooms. At the end, the researcher tries to convince the archaeologists, as well as, the municipal authorities of the city of Trikala to show some respect to the history of the prison and to include it in the new museum. (Myrto Hatzina, Crime Times,

  1. The Relationships

 The following excerpt can be used in the implementation of the first activity (2. The Characters).

“At that time, we were like canned sardines. One over the other, one’s personal space was only 50 centimeters. If one wanted to turn to the other side while sleeping, the person next to them had to do the same,” former political prisoner Alkiviadis Zabakas remembers. “In 1948 they brought a young lawyer from Grizano of Trikala region, but he was just a kid. His brothers in law turned him in because they didn’t want him for their sister anymore. They were the family of Sakades, well known down here. They claimed that he was thinking to join the guerillas. One night, at 3 am the guard came in and told him, ‘Dimitris, wake up.’ They took him with them, nearly pulled him away from my bosom, and executed him”. Official data on the number of the political prisoners inside the detention center of Trikala don’t exist, however they’re talking about 10,000 prisoners.

Thanassis Antoniou, a political prisoner who had also served time in prison during the military Junta, remembers: “There has been a tradition among the Leftist parties to create self-educational groups and organize cultural events. Personally, I turned my nights into days because I was studying and writing all night long.” Reading and writing courses, music, handicraft, even cooking lessons used to bring prisoners and teachers closer to each other. (Melina Sidiropoulou, Inside Story,


The following extract is complementary to the third activity.

The detention center of the city of Trikala was built in 1895, as one of the first projects that were funded by the Greek state in the prefecture of Thessaly, after its annexation from the Ottoman Empire in the year of 1881. It was built by the banks of the river Litheos, next to one of the bigger Muslim mosques in Greece, the Osman Sah Mosque, and right across the Orthodox church of Saint Konstantinos. Very soon, it acquired notoriety, since only seven years after its construction it got serious damages by the prisoners who were trying to dig tunnels, destroy the floors, and smash the internal gate with iron bars. Konstantinos Topalis, the Minister of Justice at that time, described the prison as “the state’s most miserable and deplorable jailhouse” and he promised to provide an amount of 20,000 drachmas for its restoration. People from all social classes and professions were held at that prison, and in particular the “good fellas” from the port, in an unfortunate circumstance for them that nevertheless helped the culture of rebetiko to evolve in the broader region of the city of Trikala.

The prison operated until the year 2006, when new buildings were constructed on the outskirts of the city […]. In 2011, there has been a great overturn: the 19th Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities brought to light that the building was built on top of an Ottoman bathhouse of the 16th century, which was part of the Koursoum Mosque. The bathhouse had stopped operating after the year 1881 with the annexation of the Trikala region to Greece, since the Muslims left the city, thus, the detention center was constructed at that area by the Greek state.

(Emy Dourou, Documento,

In the same year the Central Archeological Council opted against the characterization of the prison building as a newest monument, without even posing any legal term to the municipal authorities concerning the preservation of the historical memory of the prison. In the summer of 2014, the municipality of the city of Trikala ensured funding by the EU for the modification of the old prison into the “Research Center – Tsitsanis Museum.” The home of the folk composer Vassilis Tsitsanis is only 500 meters away from the prison, a factor that acted as a catalyst on his life and his later musical work as well. (Melina Sidiropoulou, Inside Story,

Historical Memory vs. Historical Oblivion

The following extract can be used as complement to the first activity (4. Historical and Social Context) and the fourth activity.

During the seasonal exhibition of the “Research Center – Tsitsanis Museum” there’s been a reference to this prison, since letters, a minimum number of personal belongings, and tools from the prison’s carpentry used for the training programs for the prisoners are introduced to the public. There are also two phones that the prisoners were using to speak with their families during the visiting hours. During the exhibition in those two phones one could listen to Vassilis Tsitsanis’ songs “Two Alleys of Trikala” and “The Son of the Hawk Mother.” The lyrics of the second song were written by Kostas Virdos, who was also from the city of Trikala, and both songs are related to the topic of imprisonment, but from different angles. Does this indicate that someday a place of memory for the city will actually exist? “Our aim is the history of the prison to be included in the museum,” answers the mayor of Trikala Dimitris Papastergiou. “This will happen in two ways: the museum will feature historical material and the former administration building of the detention center will feature audiovisual material. Currently the material is being examined by museologists to be further specified as an exhibit.”

[…] The shots of the film present the deserted scenery of the prison. We can observe scattered records on the floor – some of which are saved by Maroula Kliafa, who is a defender of the opinion that all material with the voices of the people should find a place in the new museum. “Above all, these records have cultural value. It’s part of the system’s documentation and of the prison’s everyday life that was kept for decades. It should be protected and part of it should be exhibited in a certain wing of the Vassilis Tsitsanis Research Center. The rest of it should be kept in a place accessible to all researchers and PhD candidates”, the director states. That’s why it is so important not only to create a wing dedicated to the history of the prison, but also to organize meetings and public conversations dealing with the issue of our correctional system. The things a society chooses to remember or forget don’t only show its values, but could also put society into a dangerous orbit towards oblivion.


The English Example

[…] December 2016 was the last month of an exhibition under the title“Inside,” which was set in the prison of Reading – a Victorian era style building, which was used until lately as a male reform school. London organization “Artangel” organized an exhibition along with parallel events with the participation of 30 renowned artists – among them, Patti Smith and Ai Weiwei – dealing with the themes of imprisonment and separation.

Works of art by significant visual artists and photographers were hosted in the tiny cells. During the exhibition, artists, writers and poets payed tribute to the most famous inmate of the prison, the author Oscar Wilde, by reading aloud extracts from his work titled De Profundis and a letter to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (in any case, the reason of his imprisonment was his homosexuality). The readings were taking part inside the small chapel of the prison every Sunday. Writers from all over the world were called to write letters based either on private experience or fictional ones, on the theme of the compelled separation from the beloved ones with the decision of the state. Among those letters there was one written by the female author Gillian Slovo to her mother, Ruth First, an activist from South Africa who tried to commit suicide in the solitary confinement ward.

This certain kind of an exhibition might be extremely innovative for the standards of Greek reality. The less that could be done would be to ensure the access of the citizens and the visitors to the documentation of the prison, especially during an age when recent records in Greece are being destroyed instead of being kept. Furthermore, a research could be done concerning the relation of the prison with the Rebetiko music, whereas exhibitions and readings on the theme of imprisonment can be organized in order to preserve the memory of the prison, along with the prosecutions and executions of the citizens by the state due to their political beliefs. (Melina Sidiropoulou, Inside Story


The Technique

The following excerpt can be supportive to the first (3. Cinematic Language) and the fourth activity.

Letting the camera free to record unmade beds, dusty books between fallen plasters, or song lyrics, newspaper cuttings and erotic photos of women watering the walls with memories, he introduces his “protagonists.” (Tatiana Kapodistria, To Spirto,

“The narrative of the documentary is based on the experience of seven individuals who either worked, or put in custody in this prison during different times, between 1947 and 2006. Using a comparative narrative technique, we followed every single individual’s route inside the prison, recording their spontaneous reactions by the memories every single corner of the building woke up to them. Actually, we treated the prison itself as a separate individual. We took shots of the interiors in different times of the day and night, with the light, the shadows and the forms to narrate their own story in different eras, to be bathed by the sunlight, the raindrops and the snow. Concerning the finale… the prison had the last word. The unexpected discovery of the Ottoman bathhouse hiding for a century beneath the prison’s walls created a plot twist in the narrative of the film and enriched its topics. The camera was present in all the stages of the archeological project, recording the dramatic change of the appearance of the prison, giving to it a voice before it kept forever quite.” (Excerpts from an interview of the director Dimitris Koutsiabasakos to Eleni Lintzaropoulou, Fractal,



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