Street Cleaning: Zoe Mavroudi Sifts Through ‘Ruins’ – Karen Herland

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In the spring of 2012, Greek authorities swept dozens of women off the streets of downtown Athens and onto the nightly news as threats to public health. Hoping to distract voters from a debt crisis, massive cutbacks and mounting unemployment (hovering near 25%), authorities charged those women who tested HIV+ with illegal prostitution and felony intent to cause grievous bodily harm. That week, political debates on the nightly news were eclipsed by a sensational parade of names, photos and personal information of dozens of women, whose lives were offered up as a convenient distraction from the imminent elections. Zoe Mavroudi watched the reports from her home in London, England. An award-winning playwright with no directorial experience, Mavroudi returned to Greece to document these women’s experiences on film. Ruins: Chronicle of an HIV Witch-Hunt had its Canadian premiere in Montreal in October, 2013. What follows are excerpts from Mavroudi’s comments at the premiere, and our conversation the next day.

Karen Herland: Let’s start with that beginning story, and we see this in the film, the Greek authorities start to round up women in Greece and systematically test them for HIV.

Zoe Mavroudi: So we have the arrest of one Russian woman on April 27. This girl, 22 years old, was found in an illegal brothel in a very central, sort of seedy part of Athens.

KH: Sex work is legal in Greece. So an illegal brothel would operate without a license?

ZM: And she would operate without a license. She was charged with illegal prostitution and the felony of intent to cause grievous bodily harm. And there were reports, that she knew that she had HIV and she had been having sex without protection. This was presented as de facto evidence of crime, without any investigation into whether she was having unprotected sex, no information about viral load or whether she actually had AIDS.

KH: And there was never any client coming forward to say one thing or another.

ZM: And there was nothing in the reports that said she was a trafficking victim. The [health] decree that opened the door for this case explicitly says that when there is suspicion of trafficking the authorities have to investigate, but there was nothing to indicate that that had happened.

So that case set the stage for what followed. If we just had that one case, I would still be here talking to you about a documentary, because that would have given us the same reason to be concerned about the rights of sex workers, migrants, drug users…  but that was just the beginning.

KH: So what was happening in Greece politically and socially at that moment?

ZM: We’re talking about the peak of the financial crisis. It reached a point where it was impossible to contain it politically. So our previous Prime Minister stepped down, replaced by a banker, Lucas Papademos, who started implementing all the austerity policies and demands of the Troika – the European Union, the ECB [European Central Bank] and the IMF [International Monetary Fund].

KH: When you say austerity policies – how did that impact someone living and working in Greece?

ZM: It impacted everything: cuts to salaries (not just public service but across the board), the way Greece could negotiate its debt in the future. Before Papademos, we already had voted in austerity measures, so we’d already seen the impact of steep budget cuts especially in the health sector.

This was about a year after the summer of 2011 when we had the Indignados movement in Athens, which followed the occupation of public places in Madrid that inspired the occupy movement. That was the first time there was a massive reaction to austerity. But by the spring of 2012, the public response to the measures had died down.

A month before the arrest of the Russian woman, [Greek Health Minister Andreas] Loverdos’s health decree was signed into law. The text revived a decree from 1940, which was about sanitation of restaurants and public places. In this decree, he included undocumented migrants, drug users and sex workers as potential hazards to public health. The decree lumped a lot of diseases, including HIV/AIDS, into a list that needed to be addressed by restricting these groups in the case of any emergency. It’s disgraceful because there is no attempt in it to include any sort of evidence of why these groups had to be restricted.

A month later, there was the arrest of this Russian woman. How the KEELPNO [Hellenic Centre for Disease Control and Prevention] found itself in this one brothel where this one girl happened to have HIV is one of the big questions of this case. Statistics tell us that HIV is not prevalent amongst either sex workers or migrants, but the main two groups who were being hit by new infections were men who have sex with men and injecting drug users. This girl was not an injecting drug user. It was a very suspicious operation. They just walked into one brothel and pointed the finger at one woman and said ‘You, get tested’?

KH: So, here we have this situation of one woman, and there is no investigation of what brought her to Greece.

ZM: She was arrested on April 27, and the elections were held on May 6. Early on May 1, we have the major sweep, where 96 women are rounded up. There was a total of four sweeps, in that short span of time.

Women were being rounded up in the streets and taken to police stations to be tested, and then we have a massive group prosecution of 30 women. I should note that 31 women were rounded up and diagnosed to be positive. One was a transgender woman who was found to be HIV positive. I don’t know the details of her case, but the person who conducted the questioning decided not to press charges. I think it’s interesting that the one person who wasn’t charged happened to be a transgender person. There was something very specific about this whole operation; they were just looking for women because they wanted to attach the prostitution charge. It plays into very old perceptions about the female body as a carrier of sin and temptation.

KH: And pollution.

ZM: And pollution. And it’s interesting to see the idea of HIV as a virus that originated in these bodies. There was no consideration that the woman has also been infected, has also received somebody else’s virus.

KH: This sort of short-term news spectacle is the woman on the TV screen – along with its potential impact on the family watching. And once that message has been heard, these women who need care and services in the long term are not of interest. This is where your film picks up their stories.

ZM: The fact that they were drug users was reported eventually, but it didn’t lead to any sort of revision of the initial reports… because a person at high risk of contracting HIV – not by having sex, but by sharing needles with other drug users – completely changes the story. That’s where the plot thickens. Obviously, we don’t want the plot to thicken, we want it to be very simple: they are women, they are prostitutes, and they have HIV.

KH: And they are not using condoms, even though there is no evidence…

ZM: As soon as this became public, there were reports that thousands of men were calling in to say that they had been with these women. How is it possible to know from anonymous phone calls that these thousands of men had been with these thirty women?

KH: Anything that complicates the story is set aside, like when the first woman says she didn’t know she was positive, that was ignored.

ZM: As soon as we see her quote saying she didn’t know her status, I edited in the doctor saying she told us she’d been diagnosed in Russia. So we have a doctor violating medical confidentiality, right there, on television. I’m kind of torn here, this is a clear-cut violation of confidentiality, but I don’t trust the doctor giving me this information. This doctor wasn’t there to be a doctor, he was there to represent a police state.

KH: Because the entire context of these arrests was not about health or service delivery, it was about prosecution. Those found guilty of being HIV+ were detained.

ZM: At the heart of this case is the criminalization of HIV+ people. The presumption is that people with HIV have a larger responsibility to disclose, should not have the benefit of the doubt about whether they were aware of their status, and are likely to have malice in the way they engage in sexual activity, whether it’s consensual or transactional.

KH: Also, in the context of austerity measures, there is a criminalization of being a burden on the state. The rhetoric was that these are people who are from away who have health issues and are going to create problems, yet that rhetoric was belied by the fact that they weren’t migrants.

ZM: So I don’t know if you remember the clip I use, showing the surprise of the journalist that only a small percentage of those arrested were non-Greeks. There was this assumption that they had arrested HIV+ prostitutes and since most women engaging in illegal prostitution in Athens must have been trafficked and migrants, the assumption is that they are not Greeks. And there are signs of their drug use evident in the photos. Even as the narrative falls apart, no attempt is made to challenge the narrative: if a person has HIV, she is dangerous.

KH: Let’s talk about the women themselves. One of the things that your film does is allow them to have the voice that they didn’t have in the news.

ZM: Shooting the documentary I had to act very quickly… I booked a flight Greece to see if I could reach out to them. The Solidarity Initiative Toward the Persecuted HIV-positive Women had stayed in touch with them in the prison and done amazing work with them. They had gotten in touch with some of the women who were in rehabilitation centres. Some said yes to being interviewed, and then they changed their minds, especially since I hadn’t directed anything and wasn’t a well-known journalist. Those who did agree were people who were in the moment; they didn’t give me a prepared statement. It was really like interviewing someone about their rape, they were reliving something extremely traumatic and difficult.

KH: When the women who are directly involved are speaking in the film, we see their hands, we see the city, or they are extremely blurry long shots. On the one hand it makes sense as a counterpoint to having them so publicly paraded, but it also made me think about shame because there’s an element of hiding them. Given the context, it also serves the very stigma that trapped them in the first place.

ZM: I made it a prerequisite that I wasn’t going to reveal their faces or include anything that would help anyone identify them. I felt that not showing the faces was not necessarily a restriction, it was something that could be very liberating. I would look for images that could serve as a stand-in for the women. I don’t feel that I excluded them, because I shot their hands and not their faces.

KH: Some of the shots of their hands are so beautiful. You learn so much about them just watching their hands.

ZM: Yes, their hands were very expressive, I also used images of Athens as part of looking for female images that could convey something about their story and their identity. I feel that by trying to find their images elsewhere I wasn’t just hiding their faces, I was taking a more positive, active, directorial approach. I see what you mean, but the thing about stigmatizing someone, I think it’s impossible to reverse stigma, it’s impossible to reverse prejudice. You can complicate the idea of the stigma, so that when someone returns to the image of the women, they now have more images that are not in agreement with their initial images of exposure.

KH: Is this the film you wanted to make?

ZM: The story is huge and chaotic and impossible to condense in a 50-minute documentary. I offered an alternative to the misinformation. I’m also happy that I may have given people the opportunity to listen to voices that we rarely get a chance to hear. Yeah, this is the story I wanted to tell.

One of my reactions when this first happened was, ‘Well, of course they did. Of course they rounded up innocent vulnerable people.’ It’s a failed state, a failed state either takes steps to regenerate itself, or it continues on the same track and looks for scapegoats.

I made the film because I was very angry at how the crisis was being handled, and I found there were more signs of – I don’t know if the term fascist-ization exists. That’s the best way to describe it, there is a precedent, we have the targeting of vulnerable groups, we have social cleansing, and we have a very distinct language that is used in our media.

Although briefly rescinded, the emergency health decree is again operational in Greece. To view Ruins: Chronicle of an HIV Witch-Hunt see: http://ruins-documentary.com/en/#

In addition to her current directorial debut, Zoe Mavroudi is an award-winning Greek actress, screenwriter, playwright and director, who writes and performs in the English language. She studied acting in Greece and New York under a Fulbright Scholarship. She is currently based in London.

Karen Herland is a Montreal-based author and educator. She is currently featured at the Centre d’Histoire de Montréal’s exhibition: Scandal: Vice, Crime and Morality in Montreal 1940-1960.