Independent director Richard Ledes’ documentary Golden Dawn, NYC was released two days before the start of this year’s World Cup games. As football fans donned regalia representing their favorite country, Ledes’ latest project offers a more ambivalent perspective toward displays of nationalistic identification. An early scene of the film takes viewers back to a windy day in March 2013, to the Greek Parade along Fifth Avenue. A faint tune plays in the background while the white noise of standing crowds leaks into the foreground. On this grey day Ledes interviews parade-goers about Golden Dawn, a far-right, neo-Nazi political party in Greece who are known for their vehement opposition to the presence of immigrants in the country. The group has grown steadily since the financial collapse of 2008 and its ultra nationalist rhetoric has gained traction in Greece. The organization is currently represented in the Greek parliament. There were even rumors in 2012 that the group was establishing an official presence in Astoria, Queens, extending the group’s xenophobic and racist imperatives into one of the largest centers of Greek immigrants. Golden Dawn, NYC is part of Ledes’ ongoing interest in how financial insecurity informs racial identity. When viewed within the context of Ledes’ previous work, Golden Dawn, NYC is an iteration of how past forms of prejudice return and haunt the politics of the present.
But to return to the parade: as a young man sympathizes with Golden Dawn, Ledes’ camera shifts its focus to a standing float. It has a two-dimensional painting of Greek columns, surrounded by flags wildly fluttering in the March wind. A large US flag is present among multiple Greek flags. The flat, tranquil blue and white of the painting gestures at a bucolic past that is recirculated as a badge of nationalistic pride. Ledes’ camera lingers on this float, drawing attention to the parade’s expression of ethnic belonging that is at once imagined and palpable. The parade’s atmosphere is of course celebratory but anxious as well: Greece’s debt crisis dances on the minds of Ledes’ interviewees at the parade.
The parade segment exemplifies the documentary’s style of bricolage and it reminded me of a conversation I had with Ledes four years ago, prior to my brief stint as his assistant. I interviewed Ledes because I was interested in a short Youtube video he made in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The video, which pays homage to Haiti and its influence on US cinema, was conceived while Ledes was working on Foreclosure (2012), a horror film about a family who move into a haunted house that contains within its structure memories of an unsavory moment in US history. The earthquake in Haiti occurred while Ledes was shooting Foreclosure and the event sent Ledes’ back to thinking about the historical contexts for horror. Our conversation began with Hollywood representations of zombies and Haitian Vodou, which then moved into a discussion about the ways that financial crisis reawakens and interpolates myths of racial purity. As I asked him about the global connections between ghost stories and race relations, Ledes thought aloud about “whether [it’s] Germany in the 30s, or Yugoslavia in the 90s, or Iraq after the US invasion… a kind of splintering can happen in a culture, and people begin to feel these ghosts [prejudices] rise up.”
In this latest project, Ledes takes horror into the realms of overt political critique and documentary filmmaking. In Golden Dawn, NYC, fantasies of racial purity inspire real horror. Ledes uses a clip from another documentary about the group, Konstantinos Georgousis’ The Cleaners (2012), which follows its members in the run up to the 2012 general election in Greece. The use of this clip stresses Ledes’ point about the violence underpinning fantasies of racial purity. The clip shows a Golden Dawn member, sitting with his fellows. The member asserts his xenophobic position on immigration and labor in Greece, which quickly boils into sadistic laughter: “We will turn [immigrants] into soap but we may get a rash....We will make lamps from their skin...[and] beads from their teeth.” As Ledes weaves this clip and the various voices from the Greek-American community into his own meditations on Greek immigration in the US, the documentary broadly asks: what does the presence of Nazism in Greece, a place historically associated with democracy, mean and how is it received by those who identify as Greek-Americans? While Golden Dawn, NYC grapples with the historical truths and the horror behind this presence, it is worth reflecting, too, on other immigrant communities in the US and how the politics of national belonging play out along US borders.
Kristina Huang is a PhD student of the English Program at The Graduate Center, CUNY. She writes and teaches in New York City.
Image via The New York Post.