It could be the name of a seniors-only a capella group, but the chummy, sunny title is misleading. If “Golden Dawn Girls,” which premiered in the main competition at the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA), represents any celestial event, it might well be an eclipse. The film follows a brief moment in recent Greek political life during which, with the (almost exclusively male) leaders of the movement all imprisoned, the womenfolk of the nation’s far-right party, Golden Dawn, literally stepped up to the mic.
Hewing close to his three extraordinary subjects — a wife, a mother and a daughter — Norwegian filmmaker Håvard Bustnes, in his off-camera interlocutions and voiceover narration at times sounds overwhelmed, helpless to steer the rickety craft of his tenuous project through these treacherous, shark-infested waters. But ultimately the portrait he creates is equal parts illuminating, engrossing and, though pocked with moments of spiked humor, profoundly depressing, as it tracks the previously unthinkable rise and seemingly unstoppable spread of a toxic ideology through the land that first coined the term “democracy.”
The wife is called Eugenia — Jenny, for short. She is a telegenic blonde with the snappish savoir faire and hard eyes of a shrewd PR agent or a no-nonsense realtor. Her husband, Giorgos Germenis is an ex-black metal bassist and baker who was one of the 18 party members elected to Parliament in Golden Dawn’s popularity surge during the past five years. Through Jenny, Bustnes also gets access to Dafni, the striking, white-haired mother of Germenis’ fellow MP and Golden Dawn leading light Panagiotis Iliopoulos, and most crucially to Ourania, the animal-loving, Disney-fan daughter of the movement’s founder and leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, who has a kind of tinpot-Hitler personality cult built up around himself.
When the men, along with other Golden Dawn luminaries, are detained on charges of illegal firearms possession, incitement to violence, race baiting and so on, these three women come to the forefront of the party, giving interviews, leading rallies, canvassing, all of which unfolds in eerily familiar iconography and rhetoric (torchlit marches, fake news etc). Different as they are, and operating at various levels of suspicion towards Bustnes and his team, they share an icily mistrustful media savviness, most notably an ability to deflect the director’s increasingly frazzled questioning, no matter how directly he tries to pin them down.
Their bluffs and evasions around the labels “Nazi” or “neo-Nazi” are a case in point: Dafni insists with asinine stubbornness that since Nazism was an historical German phenomenon, it cannot apply to modern Greece; psychology student Ourania examines a years-old photo of her father giving the Nazi salute in front of a swastika flag and still refuses to be drawn on whether the term applies (“He’s adorable!” she coos at the picture, dimpling with fondness); and Jenny accounts for her husband’s “Sieg Heil” tattoo by implying he knew nothing of its connotations beyond “hail victory” and that he’d had it written in German rather than Greek “because he liked the font.”
In many ways, the obfuscations the women use when directly confronted (sometimes in a rather oddly lit interview set-up against a backdrop draped in flags and sinister shadows) are just as enlightening as the trickier moments Bustnes captures as he leaves his camera running after a take ends. While they occasionally drop their guard enough to let bald-faced fascist sentiments slip off-camera, the women give themselves plenty of rope in their on-camera segments too — Dafni, perhaps most of all. Once a socialist who believed in democracy and “all those beautiful things I later found were lies” she seems quite happy to be photographed coaching her grandchildren in racist ideology and the use of firearms, twists a philosophy of hate into a platitude about love and freely offers up a logic-defying rationale for her belief that, to resurrect an old Nazi favorite, the powerful governments of the world are all actually controlled by an international Jewish conspiracy.
For all three, the diplomatic doublespeak seems like a game they’re only half invested in, because, it gradually becomes clear, the bigotry, violence and ugliness of the party’s MO (a favorite chant: “Blood! Honor! Golden Dawn!”) is not a source of shame. They’re proud of it, and the necessity of making these cursory attempts to cover that up is really just kind of tiresome for them.
Dafni, Jenny and Ourania are so adept at walking those lines, though, that there does come a juncture when a perverse sort of hope flares — not that these women would be any sort of moral bulwark against the excesses of their men, but simply that, having sniffed the heady air of personal power, they might refuse to relinquish it once the prisoners are back out, and the resulting tug-of-war could destabilize the party. But Bustnes, himself sounding weary with defeat, quashes any such suggestion:”As soon as the men were released I saw the women start to retreat” he says in voiceover.
The film ends much as it began, with one of the women, this time Ourania, refusing to be drawn on the subject of Nazism. “Why should I explain myself because you feel uncomfortable?” she asks Bustnes with an unreadable expression caught somewhere between scorn and pity. It’s that expression, impenetrable, unruffled and totally certain, on her youthful, 26-year-old face, that leaves us with little option but to despair, as it points to an absolutely unbridgeable chasm between the center and the far right that is only going to become more entrenched as the first generation of this movement (and others like it around the world) gives way to the second. So maybe an eclipse is the wrong comparison. The gripping but doleful “Golden Dawn Girls” reminds us that, depending on where you stand, a dawn can look like a sunset, and this one looks to be ushering in a very long night. [B+]