A short film that highlights the connection between the Greek notion of philoxenia (“friend of the stranger”) and Southern hospitality as expressed through Birmingham’s Greek-owned restaurants will premiere this weekend.
The documentary “Philoxenia,” by Birmingham-based filmmaker and UAB alumna Jessica Chriesman, features local favorites Ted’s Restaurant, Demetri’s BBQ, Johnny’s Restaurant, The Bright Star, The Fish Market and Gus’s Hot Dogs.
“I am so excited to highlight Birmingham’s hidden history of Greek restaurateurs in this film,” Chriesman said. “Birmingham’s Greek immigrants have shaped the hospitality industry in our city, and I am proud to share this legacy through the Southern Foodways Alliance’s platform.”
The Southern Foodways Alliance will premiere the film through its virtual 2021 Spring Symposium, March 13-14, focused on environments and transformation through the medium of film. Multidisciplinary artist Jon-Sesrie Goff is the symposium’s guest curator. Featured filmmakers include Chriesman, Roni Henderson Day, Madeleine Hunt Ehrlich, Tamika Galanis, Paavo Hanninen, Devon “Vonnie Quest” Smith and Colleen Thurston.
Traditionally hosted in Birmingham, this year’s symposium will be online, with opportunities to connect with presenters in live Q&A sessions. Visit southernfoodways.org for tickets and a full schedule.
Chriesman is a Homewood native and graduated from UAB in 2015 with a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and an individually designed Bachelor of Arts degree in film, mostly with classes from the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Theatre. She made her first film in Michele Forman’s ethnographic filmmaking class at UAB.
Her work has been screened in festivals across the country, including at the Green Mountain Film Festival in Montpelier, Vermont; ARTlightenment Art and Film Festival in Nashville; Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham; and George Lindsey UNA Film Festival in Florence.
In 2019, she was a finalist in Tribeca Film Institute’s IF/Then Pitch Competition, where she and a producing partner pitched a film about Birmingham entrepreneur A.G. Gaston to an audience of hundreds. She is a member of the national Indie Media Arts collective and is chair of the Alabama Humanities Alliance Young Professionals Board. Her work can be found online at jessicachriesman.com, and she is on Instagram and Twitter as @jctellsstories.
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To be included in the documentary is flattering, and it is always an honor to do work for the Southern Foodways Alliance, said Timothy Hontzas, chef and owner of Johnny’s Restaurant.
“This piece is especially important to me, as it correlates Southern and Greek cultures,” Hontzas said. “The two parrot one another on many fronts, but especially as it is titled ‘friends to strangers.’ It shows how food and family are intricately woven together. Everyone has a place at the table, in my restaurant and in my home – always.”
Sam Nakos, owner of Demetri’s BBQ, said as a son of a Greek family in Birmingham he was happy to pay tribute to the Greek culture that shaped and molded his life.
“Memories of my family and the Greek experience meant so much to me,” Nakos said. “As I was being interviewed, I was proud to mention other Greek restaurateurs who have overcome the difficulty of persevering in their family business.”
Lee Pantazis, owner of Gus’s Hot Dogs, said he is honored to be included with so many great and historic restaurants. Gus’s, the “downtown original,” was established in 1947.
“We wanted to continue the legacy of the Birmingham hot dog, and of Mr. George specifically, who was the person responsible for Gus’s from 1997 to 2017,” Pantazis said. “When we took over, our main goal was to continue his legacy and keep serving people the way they deserve to be served, with kindness and respect.”
The little hot dog stand means a lot to him and to Birmingham, he said.
“Taking care of folks has always been something meaningful to me, and I am grateful for the opportunity to do that, specifically with this hot dog stand. Given the history and significance of hot dogs in the city of Birmingham, being a part of that is something special,” Pantazis said. “We are the last one downtown. Letting that tradition die was not an option, and we are really proud to be able to continue it.”