FESTIVALS: Docs Advance in Greece, Fest Screens Latest Work from Marker, Forgacs, Wintonick and International Auteurs
by Jesse Moss
(indieWIRE/4.11.2000) — In only its second year, the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival (March 24-31) seems well positioned to muscle its way into the crowded international festival circuit.
Although impending national elections forced Festival Director Dimitri Eipides to juggle the festival dates, Eipides made the impossible look effortless. The festival offered audiences a tightly packed and incredibly diverse international program, which included eighty films from Europe, Canada and the United States.
The festival kicked off on Friday evening with a premiere of "I Like Hearts Like Mine," George Zervas' engrossing portrait of legendary Greek musician Markos Vamvakaris, a pioneer of the "rebetiko" song, a folk tradition that emerged from the taverns of the Greek underworld.
Just off the plane from London, I rushed to the Olympion Theatre — the festival's state-of-the-art screening complex — only to discover that Zervas' film was presented without English subtitles. Although mildly disoriented, I found the images and music intriguing enough to justify a visit, later that week, to the video library where I caught a subtitled version. (Note the opening premiere was one of only a handful of festival screenings projected without English subtitles.)
Thessaloniki — the second largest city in Greece — is a cosmopolitan, cinema-friendly town. The main theatre complex and festival offices are located around the city's majestic central square, steps away from the (occasionally foul smelling) harbor and a string of vibrant outdoor cafes crowded with cell-phone wielding, fashionably dressed university students.
Eipides has set out to create a festival that draws in this university crowd by smartly programming works with youth appeal, including the alluring Night Times sidebar — centering on issues of sexual identity. The highlight was Canadian Mark Achbar's accomplished and artful documentary about Canada's first legally married lesbian couple, one of who undergoes a male-to-female sex-change operation shortly after the wedding. Achbar (co-director of "Manufacturing Consent") happened to live upstairs from the couple and suggested they record a video diary of their tumultuous lives. The results — intimate, poignant, occasionally shocking, and surprisingly well shot — reflect an unusual collaboration between the subjects, Achbar, and editor Jennifer Abbot.
Festival Director Eipides has deep ties to the Canadian filmmaking community. For many years he organized the International Festival of New Cinema and Video in Montreal, and in recent years has programmed for the Toronto InternationalFilm Festival. At Eipides invitation, and with the support of the Canadian Embassy, a contingent of Canadian filmmakers traveled to this year's festival to present their new works.
The screening of Peter Wintonick's "Cinema Vérité: Defining the Moment," a lively survey about this revolutionary approach to the non-fiction filmmaking, was another highlight. Wintonick (co-director of "Manufacturing Consent") and his crew trace the evolution of vérité through interviews with groundbreaking filmmakers like Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, Jean Rouch, Al Maysles, Fred Wiseman, and others. With narration by Wintonick, well-chosen film clips, and an occasional humorous aside, the film succeeds in presenting a fresh look at a decisive and influential development in film history.
Wintonick's DP, fellow Canadian Francis Miquet, was on hand with "Life Without Death," a film he produced and co-photographed. Winner of the Festival's Foreign Press Award, "Life Without Death" documents director Frank Cole's epic, life-threatening and ultimately life-affirming solo trans-continental journey on camel across the Sahara desert.
"Deep Inside Clint Star," directed by Clint Alberta, a young Canadian of mixed Native/Anglo decent provided yet another variation on the personal film diary form. In the guise of his alter ego, Clint Star, Alberta sets out to interview his friends, family and lovers about sex, relationships and ethnicity. Alberta/Star charms everybody along the way with his off-hand humor and flamboyant personae. Also on hand was editor Jennifer Abbot with her own film, "A Cow at My Table," a harrowing look at abuses in the livestock and slaughterhouse industries.
The festival office graciously set up a series of "parallel events" to enliven the festival and introduce visiting guests to Greek nightlife. Events included an impromptu late-night gathering at a local internet cafe to watch a live (4:00 am local time) broadcast of the Academy Awards, a concert featuring "The Rounder Girls," an Austrian jazz and gospel group, an art exhibit featuring the works of Greek Cypriot painter Lefteris Olympios, and a marathon performance from a traditional Greek folk band, featuring many "rebetiko" favorites.
As festival screenings were never scheduled before 1:00 p.m., invited guests were free to sleep off ouzo-induced hangovers or explore Thessaloniki, a city whose own rich history was explored in native-born filmmaker Tasos Psarras' minutely detailed "20th Century Thessaloniki," which attracted an overflow crowd on Tuesday night. Prior to the screening, Psarras was honored by the festival for his recent work.
Also featured in the festival's Views of the World section were two Sundance entries: Tod Lending's "Legacy," a moving portrait of one inner-city family's struggle, and Michael J. Moore's study of California's misguided three-strikes law, "The Legacy: Murder & Media, Politics & Prisons." Both films — particularly Lending's five-year effort — found favor with Greek audiences.
One of the festival's strongest vérité films fell under the Views of the World banner. In "Howling for God," Belgian director Dan Alexe documents the disturbing but transfixing self-mutilation rituals practiced by a secretive dervish Muslim religious sect in Skopje, Macedonia. Also in the section was "Mediterranean Stories," directed by Stelios Haralambopoulos, a mouth-watering look at the eastern Mediterranean's culinary holy trinity: bread, wine and olives, which played to a full house.
A highlight of the festival's strong Portraits: Human Journeys section was the elusive Chris Marker's "One Day in the Life of Andre Arsenevitch," which examines the work of Russian director and cinematic stylist Andre Tarkovsky. As Tarkovsky edits his last film from his deathbed in Paris, Marker finds the occasion to look back and examine the themes and styles in Tarkovsky's extraordinary oeuvre. Marker's language and analysis were absorbing, more so as he presented mesmerizing scenes from Tarkovsky's films and footage of the perfectionist Tarkovsky on-set.
The festival's Stories to Tell category featured standout Mirjam Boelsums and Lony Scharenborg's "The Pool," a kind-of day-in-the-life observation of a public swimming pool in Amsterdam. The film, shot entirely within the four walls of the pool complex, reveals this most unique of public spaces to be both a microcosm and metaphor for life. Producer Jan Heijs traveled from Amsterdam to represent "The Pool" as well as the diametrically different "Making of a New Empire," about Chechen mobster/warlord cum global capitalist Khozh-Ahmed Noukhaev. The feared and revered Noukhaev hop scotches across Europe and the Caucuses, from his retreat in battle-scarred Grozny, to oil-boomtown Baku, the seat of his new empire, and then improbably to London, where he transforms himself into a legitimate businessman on the London stock-exchange. Director Jos De Putter gained the trust of his elusive subject, purchased a hefty life-insurance policy, hired a Polish crew (after his Dutch crew backed out), and came away with an extraordinary story.
Dutch Producer Heijs wasn't the only guest with two films at the festival. Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated screening was "Angelos' Film," from Hungarian director Peter Forgacs. Forgacs' auteur effort brilliantly combines found footage of historical significance with diary entries to create a new kind of personal historical narrative. "Angelos' Film" refers to the filmed record of the brutal Nazi occupation of Athens. Forgacs restored the film and contextualized it to create a powerful and exciting new form — a frightening poetic history. His earlier and possibly superior work, "Danube Exodus," which also screened, was based on the amateur film recordings of a riverboat captain who meticulously documented the dramatic exodus of his human cargo — both Slovak Jews and German settlers in Bessarabia — during the Second World War.
Festival Director Eipides had smartly programmed the latter film along with several other festival standouts that explored individual and collective memory, including Barbara Sonneborn's powerful Academy Award nominated "Regret to Inform."
Yet another festival mini-program was organized around Roma (Gypsy) culture and experience. Notable works included Mira Erdevicki-Charap's Czech entry, "Black and White in Colour," about the Romany singer Vera Bila, an outsized diva on the cusp of stardom. Jasmine Dellal has found an equally charismatic subject in "American Gypsy: A Stranger in Everybody's Land," which recounts the efforts of Spokane used-car salesman and local Gypsy leader Jimmy Marks to clear his name after he's wrongfully arrested for fencing stolen property.
The restless and forward-thinking Eipides had also organized a concurrent international documentary market, allowing Greek and Balkan independent producers, as well as Greek Public Television and the Greek Film Centre to shop their wares to prospective buyers and explore co-production possibilities.
More exciting was a five-day Pitching Workshop and Forum. The Forum offered Greek and Balkan filmmakers the opportunity to pitch their projects to an international panel of programmers, buyers and producers, including the major Greek TV networks, Arte, National Geographic and the Soros Documentary Fund. EDN Director Tue Steen Muller was on hand to offer blunt advice and encouragement to participants, and noted a growing interest in creating a documentary culture in the "South Eastern Europe Region."
Both the Market and Pitching Forum were part of Festival Director Eipides' strategy to provide continuity and "velocity" to the Festival by propelling new, exciting projects forward. "People are more informed and educated," Eipides told me. "They're demanding a better approach to reality."
Behind his decision to organize the festival, he said, was a desire to "prove that documentary can be as popular and entertaining as dramatic cinema." "Hollywood had its era," he declared boldly. "This can't go on for ever."
Without question, the festival had presented an extraordinarily diverse and entertaining slate of films. But possibly due to the late scheduling of the festival, attendance had, by some accounts, fallen off last year's turnout, though Eipides may even be ahead of the curve in his mission of drawing out younger audiences.
Although expertly organized, there was still room for improvement. While visiting filmmakers were given an opportunity to introduce films, the tight schedule left no room for post-screening Q&A, which is often one of the most enjoyable aspects of festival screenings. In addition, the Greek custom of leaving cell-phones on during screenings proved mildly distracting.
Although the festival bills itself as non-competitive and has no jury award, some prizes were handed out. A festival award was presented to Dutch photographer and noted documentarian Johan van der Keuken, whose new film, "The Long Holiday," was warmly received. George Zervas' deserving "I Like Hearts Like Mine" (which was pitched at last year's festival) received the Greek Press Award, Stelios Haralambopoulos' "Mediterranean Stories" took home the Audience Award, and Frank Cole's "Life Without Death" walked away with Foreign Press honors. Award winners were presented with the 1,000,000 drachma ($3,000) prize at the Festival's closing night ceremony.
[Jesse Moss is currently directing a documentary for HBO about a notorious con artist.]