In her International Competition title The Unknown Athenians, Angeliki Antoniou roams the streets of Athens in the company of the city’s stray dogs.
Before making her feature-length doc The Unknown Athenians, which took seven years to complete, director Angeliki Antoniou was, she says, more of a dog liker than lover. This was a conscious decision. She had previously given her heart to a pooch when she lived in Thessaloniki, but it died after a vet prescribed the wrong medication for a skin complaint and she vowed never to invest such high degrees of affection again.
Her decision to make her canine documentary came after broadcast funding was pulled for a fiction feature she was looking to make. So later that day, she decided to walk off her disappointment on the streets of Athens and came across a strange scene. She had always subliminally been aware of the city’s stray dog situation, something that most other European cities don’t tolerate in the same way, but when she saw a man pull up on a motorbike, only to be surrounded by a pack of friendly mutts, her curiosity was piqued. He fed them all from a bagful of carefully prepared cooked meats, before leaving on his bike.
That man was named Achilles and when she saw him again she asked if she could follow him and record what he did, but in an unobtrusive way.
The film follows Achilles and others, such as the kindly Nicos and the homeless Spiros, as well as a jolly pharmacist and the generous owner of a stylish city centre restaurant, all of whom maintain caring and active relationships with the stray dogs.
And then there are the legions of dogs themselves, such as Betty who is always threatening to get run over, the flirtatious Fotoula, the ancient Legend who is described as “140 in human years”, the magnificent and muscular Constantine, the docile Aris who is impounded after an owner accused him of biting her own dog, and lazy Sweetie who lies all day long outside the lavish Grande Bretagne hotel, doted on by guests and staff alike. (The doorman explains how one day Sweetie simply chose the hotel steps as her residence, and that was that.)
“The dogs. They have habits, they have rules, they have friendships,” explains director Antoniou of their appeal as subjects, and whose camera records events from their lowdown perspective. “There are people they prefer and people they don’t like. There are situations they prefer and situations they hate. For me they are inhabitants of Athens, citizens of Athens.”
She quotes Confucius, claiming how humankind does not differ so much from animals, but that, for most people, this small area of difference takes on a greater, and considerably more negative, significance than it should.
Antoniou also points how the numbers of strays on the streets of the Greek capital increased vastly after the financial crisis when people couldn’t afford to keep them anymore. There followed a municipal policy of tagging the stray dogs, and they are both vaccinated and sterilized. (Which explains why during Covid-19 lockdown, it isn’t so much dogs who are reclaiming the streets as the millions of cats who operate with fully functioning reproductive organs.) That said, Antoniou fears that the inevitable economic downturn during and after coronavirus will mean many more dogs will be put on the streets again.
After seven years of following the canine tribe through Athens, it was inevitable that Antoniou’s resistance would be worn down. “I go and feed them myself now and I have developed a love for them again. I think of them as people that don’t have a home, and are dependent on others.
“And now I walk the streets of Athens with newly opened eyes. In the past I was walking mechanically… Now every corner of Athens has a significance for me. Now I see the city from the point of view of the dogs.”