Lesvia film still by Tzeli Hatjidimitriou

Review for the LGBT Greek documentary 'Lesvia' by Tzeli Hatjidimitriou.

Where do lesbians come from? In her feature-length documentary 'Lesvia' (2024), acclaimed Greek photographer and cinematographer Tzeli Hatjidimitriou attempts her cinematic dive-in into her experiences as both an inhabitant of the Greek island of Lesvos (and birthplace of the lesbian Sappho) and a lesbian.

The title itself in this sweeping but intensely lyrical 77-minute documentary playfully cites both the place (Lesvos) and the Greek pronunciation of 'lesbian'; and this co-occurrence still makes some of the Lesvos inhabitants less than happy, as some of the interviewees reveal.

Yet, 'Lesvia' is more of a three-act chronicle of a story of lesbian tourism in Eressos, Lesbos -the equivalent of New York's gay Fire Island (but without the macho bodily attitude). Starting from the late 70s and Hatjidimitriou's first, almost coincidental trip to the Skala of Eressos (which felt like a 'lost paradise'), the director, cinematographer, and narrator encounters the unbridled, yet deeply natural, hedonism and co-habitation of the international lesbian community. Archival footage and photos give us the film's NSFW content ("ditto ditto orgasmo garantitto" is the Italian slogan coined) and also a sense of community in unison.

From the late 70s and the 'beach occupation' phase (the first seaside lodgings were made of bamboo huts) to the 90s commodification and gentrification phase (the first women-only hotels and bars appeared) to a quite different stage in the early 2010s (new generations into the more isolated digital phase), the film navigates painstakingly (even if sometimes too languishingly) the route the Lesbos' lesbian community had to navigate in more than one incarnation.

Visibility is not what is here at stake; instead, the film propagates that a sense and a community of belonging is a priority. From casual sex to lesbian festivals, 'Lesvia' describes a lesbian-evolving community that needs the absence of the male gaze to survive and evolve (one of the film's strongest points and statements). This international community, still varied individually (from policewomen to artists) makes its presence as a women-only space felt; its need to exist as such (even in an ever-evolving form) also proves potent.

Within its 77-minute running time, the interview segments are as many as the women that have visited Eressos and Lesvos island. Hatjidimitriou and her personal story are mostly pushed into the background (and we lose some of her pains in the process) to accommodate the community voice -which has a lot to say about how a group can be tolerated, but not necessarily accepted.

'Lesvia' has the usual homophobic voices included, yet couched in the modern terms of 'be who you are, just don't make us feel bothered'. Still, there is a subtle co-habitation between the Lesvos villagers and the lesbian community, which has progressed from tourists to 'pervert customers' to land buyers in the early 21st century. Hatjidimitriou sufficiently presents these discordant voices (which historically have ranged from visible aggression and sex harassment to fears of a "lesbian invasion"). Her rich tapestry of voices makes the film more inclusive and less judgmental; her use of both archival (personal videos and photos taken) and present-day photography settles the field between the analog and the digital era.

'Lesvia' works like a dedicated testament to a lesbian presence and history hidden (and unacknowledged) for a long time. It is vibrant in its memories and recollections, at ease with the natural environment, both the flora and the fauna of the Greek Lesvos island. The film feels as if the lesbian community could somehow connect more (like Sappho did) with the island's beauty than the local inhabitants. Sometimes, its linear, chronological editing limits the film to another 'Paradise Lost' story (failing to reflect the film's more liberating idea of the community as a living organism); while its frequent deep dives into the Aegean Sea look more part of a love affair with the place than the film's essential element. 'Lesvia' poses the right questions, including the issue of how an LGBT+ community needs to stand and face (and primarily tell) its history. And it does that admirably well.

Vassilis Kroustallis