By Frances Miller
When filmmaker Vasia Markides emigrated to the US from Cyprus with her family at the tender age of eight, she had no idea that the place her mother Emily called home – the district of Varosha enclosed with barbed wire – would take such a hold on her imagination.
Thirteen years later, she would start the journey that involved switching her intended career, drawing other Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriots into the idea of a sustainable Famagusta first envisioned by Emily, and devoting years to rekindling interest in the ghost city through a forthcoming documentary film, ‘The Famagusta Ecocity Project’ (working title).
“The Famagusta Ecocity Project is not about creating a masterplan,” Markides emphasises. “It is about inspiring Famagustians from both communities to work together to revive this whole area as a beacon of sustainability and peace in a troubled region.”
In 2014, the Famagusta Ecocity Project brought together nine panels of 63 Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot specialists and stakeholders in nine very different fields, ranging from architecture to permaculture and cultural heritage.
With some Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot Famagustians meeting for the first time in over 40 years, their design studio ideas provided inspiration for a group of visiting University of South Florida students under the tutelage of MIT ecocity veteran architect, Professor Jan Wampler.
By documenting this process, as well as the history of Famagusta, Markides hopes to inspire a global audience.
“What the film and project are trying to do is to excite not only Cypriots, but the whole international community in what is possible: drawing together different ideas and people for how to revive dilapidated communities, buildings and neighbourhoods, and make cities more hospitable, pleasant places to live in,” says Markides.
The Famagusta Ecocity Project has attracted a lot of attention, not only from global media such as the BBC, which had 2 million hits from its coverage of the design studio, but also from the young.
“The film and project have both aimed at being a voice not only for Famagustians, but also women and youth. That’s what makes us stand out, I think,” said Markides.
“So many young people contact us regularly from all over the world wanting to get involved. They see that we offer an alternative to the reckless development that is wreaking havoc on our natural environment, on our life source.”
A personal story
Having got the ‘Famagusta bug’ from her mother, Markides says the film is also a personal story.
“It is about how ideas are passed on across the generations, how parents can influence their children,” says Markides, whose young daughter just celebrated her first birthday.
“Are we receiving a legacy of a destitute planet or are parents passing on knowledge and big ideas that can help us shape a better future for ourselves?”
The evocative teaser opens with the words of Vasia’s mother.
“A city connects you to your identity, with your ancestors, with your history, with your tradition. So once you lose the city, you become a disinherited child. You become an uprooted tree,” says Emily Markides.
Vasia Markides first saw Varosha – the home her newly-married parents abandoned so fast as the Turkish army advanced in 1974 that they had to leave unopened presents in the attic – when the crossing points opened in 2003.
“I bought my first cheap video camera and started filming the first day I crossed,” says Markides.
Having gone to graduate school for Fine Arts, she switched to film, making her first short documentary on Famagusta, Hidden in the Sand, as part of her Master’s thesis.
But it wasn’t her mother’s stories that compelled her to make her first film, it was seeing Varosha in person for the first time.
“It has such a strong presence. I couldn’t believe there was this crumbling seaside resort town that was closed to the world, which no one knew about it. I wanted to expose it to the world,” she said.
“Then I met Turkish Cypriots for the first time. Hearing their side of the story was an eye-opener for me, because, until I was eight years old, I had a traditional one-sided Greek Cypriot public school education that portrayed us as the only victims, when the reality is much more complex.”
The full-length film hears from a Turkish Cypriot who grew up overlooking the ghost town, relating her shock as a young child when she found photographs of another family in the house and was told the place she knew as home belonged to someone else.
Going the whole mile
Now that the teaser is finished, Markides is concentrating on finishing the end-product with a view to launching it at one of the major film festivals such as Sundance or Tribeca.
But finishing a documentary costs money.
“Successful independent documentaries are created with anything from $100,000 to $2 million, depending on how they are made,” says Markides.
So far, the project has attracted $50,000 in crowdfunding from Kickstarter, as well as private donations.
“What we really need is a producer and an additional editor to come in. It’s always good to have an editor with a fresh eye on your film, someone who isn’t as close to the material.”
Markides is hoping that the teaser will attract some new sponsors who will help her take the 70-minute documentary over the finishing line and also generate wider interest in Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriots working together to create a sustainable city.
“Since the first moment I saw it, I have felt more than anything motivated, driven to see this place revived because you could see its potential. The entire place is breathing, regardless of its status as ‘ghost town’,” says Markides.
As a Turkish Cypriot voice in the film says: “It is not a ghost city. There is life in there, and we need to find it again.”