FESTIVAL: Thessaloniki's Two Worlds: Nightlife Throbs Outside, But Documentaries Offer Sobering Realities
by Amy Goodman
(indieWIRE/ 03.13.02) — As I take my seat in the center of the grand Olympian Theater in Thessaloniki, a small crowd of paparazzi swarms towards the front row. Cameras flash and pan across the stage, where speakers are beginning ceremonious welcome speeches entirely in Greek. Along with an auditorium full of chic-ly dressed, amply perfumed artsy types, I am checking everyone out, waiting for the lights to dim. Thus begins the fourth annual Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, also called “Images of the 21st Century,” which ran March 4-10. Thessaloniki is one of the most fun, best-run documentary fests in the world, even though its films highlighted the fact that we are living in one of the most dangerous times in world history.
Festival founder and director Dimitri Eipides programmed some 91 films for this year’s Festival, laudably diverse in subject matter, style, and country of origin. The Festival also included a five-day Pitching Forum and Workshop, sponsored by the European Documentary Network, which let 20 emerging filmmakers pitch their ideas to a panel of European programmers, buyers, and producers. Also ongoing during the Festival was the annual International Doc Market, which provided a slate of 257 films to prospective buyers from 23 countries.
Festival attendance was up this year, reaching somewhere between 15-20,000 people — mostly from Thessaloniki’s general population — and the consensus on the scene was that this Festival has an important future. Festival maven Peter Wintonick returned to Thessaloniki this year with Katerina Cizek and their film “Seeing Is Believing,” about the impact of handicams on journalism and society at large. “After Amsterdam,” Wintonick said, “I don’t know of another documentary festival that draws as many people as this one. That’s why we’re here.”
There is probably no better place in Greece than Thessaloniki for a documentary film festival. This coastal city is the country’s second largest, full of urban sophisticates who actually pay to see documentaries. It’s also a university town, which means that its landscape is drizzled with 80,000 young, cosmopolitan students, all smoking furiously, wielding cell phones, and voraciously consuming films day and night.
The Festival is well-organized; it boasts a large, friendly staff, classy-looking schedules and catalogues, and two good-sized theaters in the Olympian Theater building. Home base for the Festival, the Olympian faces the city’s majestic Aristotle Square, a bustling piazza that stretches to the Aegan Sea. One of the reasons why the Festival is so well put together is that it is an offshoot of the much larger, 42-year-old Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which takes place each November. The staff, facilities and infrastructure (and funding sources) are the same for both events.
While Thessaloniki nightlife throbbed outside, festival films screening in the Olympian theaters offered a sobering look at the state of the world. A special program of 12 films, called “Focus On: Children of a Harsh Reality,” became the dominant focus of this year’s Festival. To accompany these films about the plight of children around the world, Festival officials planned a day-long international conference on the subject of children’s human rights, and a telethon to benefit Afghani children in an Iranian refugee camp. This telethon was directly inspired by Iranian filmmaker Moshem Makhmalbaf‘s candid, provocative documentary, “Afghan Alphabet,” for which he received an Honorary Award. And for the second time in four years, the Festival included a videoconference with Noam Chomsky, who spoke to the Thessaloniki audience from his office in Boston, with his usual acute powers of observation and metaphor, about media coverage of the current war.
The diverse program has famed curator Eipides’s flavor and integrity. Opening night film, “The Lovers of San Fernando” by Swedish director Peter Torbiornsson, follows more than 20 years of the love affair of a man and woman living in the Nicaraguan mountains. Although the film is edited strangely