FESTIVALS: Grecian Delights; Thessaloniki Doc Fest Carves Out Tasty Niche
by Sarah Keenlyside
(indieWIRE/ 03.20.01) — A totally unique setting for a film festival, Thessaloniki is one of the oldest cities in Europe and provides a romantic backdrop for the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival (March 5-11). When not taking in the festival's activities, I kept myself busy enjoying the shockingly delicious food, sightseeing and shopping (there are literally hundreds of shoe stores near the festival headquarters in Aristotle Square). And an unexpected surprise unveiled itself on day four of my visit, when the overcast weather broke, and the legendary Mount Olympus magically appeared across the Gulf of Thessaloniki.
2001 marked the third installment of the annual fest, dubbed "Images of the 21st Century," which has in its short life carved itself a significant niche in the European documentary event calendar. Backed by an enthusiastic local audience, the growing support of the Euro doc community, and led by a truly visionary festival director, the event offered a doc market, a pitching forum and an astonishing variety of films.
"I'm very eager to prove that documentary is attractive to normal filmgoers," said festival director Dimitri Eipides, of his programming strategy. "They don't have to be specially trained or particularly educated. Simple, ordinary people can gain from documentaries."
The majority of the festival's screenings were well attended, if not packed. Opening night was no exception, and crowds jammed into the magnificent Olympion theater to see Allan Miller's Toronto premiere "The Turandot Project" — a behind the scenes look at conductor Zubin Mehta's ambitious (and incredibly expensive) production of the Puccini opera "Turandot." The film, which depicts the events leading to the opera's dazzling opening at Beijing's historic Forbidden City, provided a colorful and uplifting jumpstart to the festival, and challenged the stereotype that all docs are heavy, dark and difficult to watch.
"The Turandot Project" was one of several films screened in the "Views of the World" section of the festival, which also included such varied titles as Alix Lambert's "The Mark of Cain," a grim but fascinating look at the art and secret meanings of Russian prison tattoos; "The Other Hollywood," Anders Dalgaard's probing investigation of the porn film industry; Mark Singer's Sundance 2000 hit "Dark Days," which takes viewers underground to visit a community of homeless people living in a train tunnel; and "Fatal Reaction: Moscow," Marijke Jongbloed's oddly hilarious film about the confused state of male and female relationships amidst the chaos of modern day Moscow.
Upon viewing all these films, one can only be shocked by the sheer diversity of films represented in this, and all six of the festival's thematic sections. This was made possible by the looseness of each section's title, such as: 'The Recording of Memory' and 'Portraits: Human Journeys.' "They're not categories," explains Eipides, adding that the secret ingredient binding the festival's many films is "the human experience."
In the 'Habitat' section for instance, a natural history film like "All They Need is Words," Alain D'Aix's charming film about human interaction with animals, mingled comfortably with social commentary such as Amirul Arham's "A Banker for the Poor," a remarkable portrait of a Bangladeshi economist who created a bank to service the world's poor.
Other exceptional films screened during the festival included Christopher Oligiati's "Child of the Death Camps: Truth and Lies," which literally turns the viewer upside down several times as it sheds light on the dubious story of Binjamin Wilkomirski, a self-declared child Holocaust survivor. Claude Ventura's darkly suspenseful "The Search for the Papin Sisters" also had audiences buzzing about the famous tale of two murderous sisters who savagely mutilate their employer. And taking the critics prize for best international documentary was Victor Kossakovsky's "I Loved You (Three Romances)," a tender and subtle film about the timeless nature of love, commitment and duty.
A personal favorite, which screened in the 'Stories to Tell' section, was Kaspar Kasics' artfully rendered but disturbing "Blue End." The Swiss film takes a fresh look at the highly publicized and controversial 'Visible Human' project, which was undertaken by American scientists in 1993 when a death row casualty was handed over to scientists minutes after his death, then frozen in blue gel and sliced into 2mm sections. The sections were then scanned to create a scientific miracle: an internal view of the human body in cross sections. The film elegantly contrasts the clinical and emotional dimensions of the project — drawing insights from the scientists who made it happen, to the judges and lawyers who tried Jernigan's case (some say unfairly), to the victim's own family, who still continue to suffer the effects of the ordeal.
A large number of Greek films were also sprinkled throughout the festival's sections, adding a local flavor to the festival. Tassos Psarras' "A Letter to the Motherland" takes a traditional but professional approach to the historical genre, combining archival footage and interviews to recreate the little known story of the persecution of Greeks living in the Soviet Union. Greek filmmaker Lefteris Xanthopoulos was given a special award honoring his documentary work spanning 25 years. A retrospective of his films was presented. And particularly moving was Marianna Economou's "The School," which won the critics prize for best Greek film. The documentary ventures into a school in Athens, where more than half of the students are Turkish-speaking Muslims and comments on the complex issues of poverty, racism and cultural identity.
A spotlight on Yugoslavian films drew large audiences with the promise of insight from within the war torn region. Most notably were three films by Goran Radovanovic: "Second Circle," "My Country (For Internal Use Only)," and "Model House," a deeply ironic and absurdly touching story about a refugee woman who wants to return to the life she once had — a woman with her own home.
By showing these films, the festival has become a valuable event for Greek filmmakers and for those from Greece's neighboring countries. Eipides feels that it is important for the festival to play a role in supporting Balkan filmmakers. "We are situated in a geographical location where there are no other such festivals. The Balkan countries in the area have been historically restricted because of the communist system; they have not been able to communicate with the world," he says. "Thessaloniki being so near to them offers the possibility for them to see others' films, bring their own films and participate in the pitching forum so they can possibly find the means of co-production with other countries. These people are not economically in the position to go to Cannes, but they can come here: the distance is short and it's not expensive."
The pitching forum, largely backed by the support of the European Documentary Network, proved to be a valuable resource. EDN manager Anita Reher explains, "We had a mixture of Greek projects and a few others from the other southern European countries — Italy and Portugal — and then we had nine projects from the Balkan region. We put a specific focus on the projects from the Balkans because we are really trying to help them get out of their isolation."
"[The forum] is an attempt to get the producers and filmmakers to work more internationally," Reher adds. "For many of them it's the first time that they actually try to pitch to a panel of broadcasters, so we do a three-day training course before that. It's also a way for them to get to know the different broadcasters to find out what their strands and slots are all about."
Another way to get to know the broadcasters (as well as a documentary legend or two) was to engage in the local nightlife. A most memorable night occurred during the two days filmmaker Albert Maysles was in town. Maysles made the long trip to Greece from New York to accept a lifetime achievement award honoring his and his brother David's pioneering work in documentary. Three of the Maysles Brother's classic works were screened during the festival — "Salesman," "Grey Gardens," and "Gimme Shelter" — and drew particularly enthusiastic interest from Greek audiences.
Late on his final night in the city, at a small, crowded bar, Maysles put his youthful companions to shame by not being the first to turn in, in spite of an early flight home the next morning. And when the Rolling Stones classic anthem "Brown Sugar" played in the bar — the first song in "Gimme Shelter" — it took on a particularly strong meaning for all of us.
[Sarah Keenlyside is a freelance writer living in Vancouver, B.C. During the festival she participated as a member of the critics jury and watched over 30 documentaries in the span of 5 days.]