Reviewed by Mischa Geracoulis
In The Promise of Tomorrow, the second part in a film trilogy about Greek settlement in Southern California, Father John Bakas, priest of Los Angeles' St. Sophia's Greek Orthodox Church, explains why we study the history of a group of people: "An examination of the totality of our past illuminates the way to the future." His statement encapsulates the intention of this documentary series narrated by Olympia Dukakis.
Dukakis' educative narration is woven throughout the film, which is comprised of rare footage, touching interviews with Greek Americans past and present, and compelling stories of strength and triumph over struggles. At times, The Promise of Tomorrow has a "home movies" feel, yet manages to intelligently examine oft-visited Levantine themes—that of immigration, plurality, and acculturation. As the title elucidates, many Greek immigrants—like other nationalities of the Levant—have found a home in California. With a climate and landscape similar to the "Old Country" (Greece, Lebanon, take your pick), Los Angeles continues to hold a familiar appeal.
While Part I of the series focused on the first wave of Greek immigration to the United States, Part II highlights the adversities and achievements of the assimilation process of the first and second generations into American culture. The film opens with World War II and the Greeks who fought on behalf of the United States with a twofold aim in mind, to serve with the Allies, and to liberate occupied Greece. A special U.S. battalion of Greeks and Greek-Americans formed specifically to go into Greece. Old black and white footage shows these soldiers behind Greek guerilla lines, upholding the resistance movement, and aligning themselves with the Greek citizens and Orthodox clergy who protected the lives of their Jewish compatriots. Illuminating the ravages of war and threadbare survival, the film also brings to light the great number of Greeks displaced and dispossessed by war. This makes for the next great wave of Greek immigration to America.
Pan-Hellenic organizations began forming as a way to educate and assimilate the new arrivals, who were mostly destitute and spoke no English. Up until this point, the community had relied solely upon its churches as an anchor in their new, unstable environment. (Still, Greek Orthodoxy remains at the crux of Greek life—whether in Greece, the United States or elsewhere.) These immigrants were not always well received or welcomed into the greater community. In fact, the film's examples of this include signage in public areas that read, "No dogs and no Greeks allowed." Lacking the skills to communicate and integrate successfully into American culture, these early Greek Americans led a fairly segregated life.
Things changed, however, in the 1950s and ‘60s. The immigrants that came next were largely of the student class, many of them arriving on Fulbright scholarships, and landing in America's prestigious universities. And so the image depiction of the dark, ethnic, blue-collar worker changed. Instead of working only in restaurants, bakeries and produce markets, Greek Americans found their way into politics, engineering, academia, the arts and beyond. These newly nationalized Americans began marrying outside of their own ethnic circle—something previously unheard of. The film goes on to detail the countless ways in which the people and culture of Greece have become a part of the overall fabric of California and America at large.
This cinematic chronicle of Greek American immigration and assimilation into California society winds up being a 'feel good' movie experience. Focusing mainly on the Greeks of Southern California, The Promise of Tomorrow holds an obvious local nostalgia, perhaps, insinuating a limited viewership. (Incidentally, this was the number one reason why the producers' every grant request for funding was consistently rejected. The film was made strictly through community donations.) The overarching themes, nonetheless, pertain to just about any immigrated peoples, and in that sense the film offers a wider draw.
Notably, The Promise of Tomorrow will be screened in the prestigious Boston International Film Festival, running April 16-25. For more information on The Promise of Tomorrow trilogy, visit the Greek Heritage Society Web site. DVD copies can be ordered by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mischa Geracoulis is an LA-based writer and Associate Editor of Levantine Review.