UNSW Film Professor’s book examines the memory of migration through film and photography

3 Dec 2018

UNSW Film Professor George Kouvaros remembers his mother’s attachment to the 1951 Hollywood film A Place in the Sun.

The film tells the story of a young working-class man who is entangled with two women: one works in her wealthy uncle’s factory and the other is a beautiful socialite. Professor Kouvaros recalls how the movie helped to unlock memories and experiences that his mother could not speak about.

“When I was putting together the fragments of my mother’s history, it became clear that the film’s rendition of yearning and the feeling of being out of place offered a way for her to speak about her past,” says Professor Kouvaros.

His latest book The Old Greeks: Photography, Cinema, Migration is a timely portrayal of complex issues involving resettlement and cultural identity, told through his family’s experience of arriving in a new country.

Described as a fusion of autobiography, cultural history and criticism, the book was launched by prize-winning author John Hughes in Sydney on November 28.

Kouvaros and his family left Cyprus for Australia in 1966, a time of significant inter-communal violence following the island’s achievement of independence from Britain. They settled in the town of Newcastle north of Sydney.

“I remember that my mother and father worked tirelessly to provide my family with opportunities in Australia,” he says.

The photographs that his mother brought with her from Cyprus and the movies that they watched together enabled an engagement with memories and experiences that had to be pushed to one side.

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A photograph of Kouvaros’s mother’s 1957 Cypriot identity card

He says that dealing with things indirectly is a common experience within migrant families.

“That’s how the children of migrants often communicate with their parents — through processes of translation that are more than just linguistic,” he says.

“They require intermediaries, whether it’s a film, a photograph, or a book.”

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A visa application photograph of the Kouvaros family

Kouvaros, who is currently Professor of Film Studies in the School of the Arts and Media at UNSW, was inspired to pen the book by a desire to understand how this form of communication defines the experience of migration — for himself as well as other children of migrants.

He says the cinema opened up the world to his parents’ generation at the same time as they were dealing with the challenge of making their way in a new country

“For me the bigger issue is how migration is remembered — by those who initiated the journeys across the world as well as those who grew up in the wake of these journeys,” he says.

“It’s in the spaces between one generation and the next that migration and its legacies become meaningful.

“Within these spaces we encounter two things happening at once: the passing away of experiences and histories and the on-going impact of their afterlife.

“The Old Greeks is an attempt to understand the nature of this afterlife.”

UNSW Sydney aims to lead the debate and shape the public discourse on the greatest issues facing humanity including the previous Grand Challenge of Refugees & Migrants.