Bringing the World To Greece; Engrossing Docs & Discussions at the Sixth Thessaloniki Documentary Festival
by Claiborne Smith
The jetlag that an American experiences after arriving in Thessaloniki, on the eastern edge of Europe, can feel particularly strange: the hours and the alphabet have changed, of course, but so has the expectation, taken for granted by an American, of being in one distinct culture. Thessaloniki seems to have been occupied at some point by everyone (it has been part of the kingdom of Macedonia and a crucial city in the Eastern Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires). Its history has given Greece’s second largest city a vibrant multiculturalism, but the residents of Thessaloniki don’t call attention to it. That would sully their cosmopolitan aplomb. In mid-March, when the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival takes place, many people who live in Thessaloniki, or at least many of the young people who live there, can be found lounging around one of the many downtown cafes, squinting through the hazy, salty heat that wafts in from the Aegean Sea.
The organizers of the sixth Thessaloniki Documentary Festival: Images of the 21st Century want their week-long fest to bolster the already bustling international mindset of the city. “We’re far too dependent on media that are a bit conservative and suspect, in my views,” Dimitri Eipides, the festival’s director, told indieWIRE from his office in the Olympion cinema building in downtown Thessaloniki. “I have a romantic view on the subject — I think that by providing this service we will have more demanding audiences.” From a total of 650 submissions, festival organizers selected 155 films from 22 countries.
The festival’s Doc Market, which logged more than 1,000 viewings over five days, attracts buyers from European and American television, and there are many opportunities at the festival to see docs that will probably never make it to America, but for Eipides, the festival’s main purpose is to engage audiences and to give local residents “alternative sources” for deciphering the world.
Eipides points out that the Documentary Festival is “a very poor event” compared to the more established and crowded feature film festival that takes place in the city every November, which Eipides also organizes. The first full day of screenings, however, seemed to bring the world to Thessaloniki. A showcase of three films that day about women in Iran — a sobering jag of violence and bitterness — served as a wake-up call to any audience members still under the delusion that documentaries are staid, scientific affairs. “Maryam’s Sin,” by veteran doc maker Paris Shahandeh, examines a religious father who beheads his seven-year-old daughter because he believed his brother had forced her to have sex with him. He was actually just hearing voices, he later confessed, but the cultural climate in Iran doesn’t exactly foster a mechanism of just retribution upon him. “Crystal” is the story of Ayshe, a young woman from a Kurdish village whose body produces clear, rock-like calcifications that Ayshe and her family refer to as crystals. The first-time filmmaker, Mania Akbari, manages to delve into the ways Ayshe’s condition affects her status in her town (because sex is painful for her, she has a good excuse for staying far away from her husband, whom she despises). Both docs offer much-needed glimpses into closed societies, but there’s a trade-off: “Crystal” is detrimentally muddled and “Maryam’s Sin” is melodramatic (it ends with a campy scream of horror, as if the viewer needed to be reminded that fathers who behead their daughters are the very definition of horror). “The Ladies,” by Mahnaz Afzali, depicts the community of addicts, runaways, and prostitutes who gather in a ladies’ bathroom in the center of Tehran under the supportive gaze of an elderly woman who takes them all in and introduces them to one another. But rather than pound the viewer over the head with the obvious — that these women might have an easier time of things under a less despotic government — Afzali focuses on the women as they gossip, chat, and try to understand one another’s problems. A jury of three international film critics gave the festival’s FIPRESCI Award to another Iranian filmmaker, Majid Majidi, for his “Barefoot to Herat,” which follows Afghan refugees trying to escape war.
Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir‘s “Checkpoint” — like several other hard-hitting and investigative docs at Thessaloniki — became one of the hits of the festival. Shamir logged 70 hours of footage at checkpoints in the occupied territories between Israel and Palestine, filming the laborious and painful interactions between young, burned-out, and sometimes power-hungry Israeli soldiers and the baffled, angered Palestinians who have to obtain their permission to cross the border. “The whole situation is chaotic,” Shamir said during the Q&A — although there is supposed to be a uniform border policy, the soldiers are left to decide on their own who and who does not get across the border. Shot in a verite style, “Checkpoint” focuses so intently on the interactions between Israelis and Palestinians that the Israeli army now uses the documentary as a training tool for new soldiers. That’s a credit to the army, actually, because although Shamir takes the fly-on-the-wall approach, “Checkpoint” is far from an endorsement of the Israeli presence in the occupied territories.
For the past several years, festival curators at Thessaloniki have chosen a theme of political relevance and sought out films about the subject. Perhaps spurred on by this year’s theme of terrorism (there was a section of 13 docs about terrorism as well as a three-hour conference on the subject), audiences flocked to films that had anything to do with the topic. David Ofek‘s “No. 17” is a gripping investigation of a terrorist attack on an Israeli bus, the number 17 referring to the one unidentified Israeli victim on the bus. Ofek, who is Israeli, ends up doing the work of the police and eventually discovers the identity of number 17, a small-time crook who frequently disappeared and thus didn’t really raise his family’s suspicions when he didn’t come home. “After a bombing in Israel, we only see the drama but never what is behind the drama,” Ofek said in one of the cafes next to the theater after one of his screenings. So to move beyond sensationalism, he includes strangely compelling scenes — of a hospital’s forensic workers, for example, eating dinner together early in the day because they’ve recently received a call about an attack and know they’ll be up all night processing bodies. The four-part British series from 2002, “The Age of Terror,” also attracted big crowds, as did Jehaine Noujaim‘s “Control Room,” not strictly a film about terrorism but one which shows what life was like for the producers and reporters of Arab news channel Al Jazeera during the war against Iraq. “I wanted people to know a little bit more about how terrorism starts, how it’s motivated, and the different kinds of terrorism,” festival director Eipides said. “We’re hosting the Olympics this summer; this issue is on everyone’s mind.”
For all the heady political edification that was going on at the festival — “The Corporation,” the engrossing doc from Canada that indicts capitalism, won the audience award — there were also as many opportunities to catch docs invested in portraying a very particular world, not the entire world in crisis. Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni‘s “The Story of the Weeping Camel,” a highly narrative and affecting movie about a family of nomadic shepherds and their camels in the Gobi Desert, became another festival hit. Dutch filmmaker Jiska Rickels‘ beautiful and powerful “Days Under” (“Untertage”) follows German miners descending to work and then coming back up. Rickels chucks out narrative convention in favor of a collage of scenes (the conveyor belt that delivers the workers to their positions, the monstrous boring drill, the sooty faces of the miners) that indelibly evoke their subject in 24 minutes. “Days Under” should be required viewing in documentary production courses. Spanish filmmaker Fernando Perez‘s “Suite Havana” follows 10 residents of the city as they go about their day attending school, dancing in a production of “The Nutcracker,” selling peanuts on the street: all kinds of daily routines in “Suite Havana” become incantatory and tinged with poetry. Perez’s accomplishment in “Suite Havana” — he stamps the city with his own vision but brings it to life on its own terms without using any dialogue — doesn’t seem at all diminished by the fact that the film is an homage to the great city documentaries of the 20’s and 30’s, Walter Ruttmann‘s “Berlin: Symphony of a Great City” (1927) in particular.
Fifteen percent of the films at this year’s festival were by Greek filmmakers, and the competitions in the festival are for Greek productions (the audience award and the FIPRESCI critics’ award involve all the films). Nicos Ligouris‘ elegiac and charming “Summer Lightning: Scenes from the Life of an Innkeeper and His Family” won first prize (and a whopping 12,000 Euros) in the category of docs longer than 45 minutes. “Summer Lightning” is about the quixotic pursuit of a man who owns a small inn in southern Crete as he tries to capture on camera a bolt of summer lightning. After 5,000 attempts, he still hasn’t done it, but the doc is fascinating nonetheless. “Greeks don’t have a big history of documentaries,” Eipides said. “But the Greek films in the festival are still honest attempts to create better films. I want the festival to help, to play a cooperative role in this.”
The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival programs imaginative, vital, and eclectic films, but why would filmmakers want to attend Thessaloniki (besides the obvious opportunity to present their films to the estimated 16,000 attendees)? This year, 67 Greek filmmakers (either directors or producers) and 25 foreign ones attended the festival. Baltimore filmmaker Ramona Diaz, who brought “Imelda,” her doc about the former first lady of the Phillipines, had five packed screenings of “Imelda” at Sundance and less crowded ones at Thessaloniki. (In fact, several filmmakers, who asked that their names not be used, said the only disappointing element of the festival was the size of the crowds at certain screenings.) Unlike other festivals, “I feel like I can watch other films at this festival,” Diaz said. She liked the fact that there weren’t many Americans at Thessaloniki. “At foreign festivals where there are a lot of Americans, we all tend to stick together and not meet a lot of people from other countries,” she said. At Thessaloniki, she ended up talking to foreign filmmakers; they would inevitably begin talking about the thorny issue of financing. “You hear stories about financing and for non-Americans it’s usually the government,” she said. “You get jealous.”
As Artistic License distributor Sande Zeig pointed out one day during the festival, it’s the docs that seem unusual for an American to make that end up at Thessaloniki. “Parallel Lines” is Nina Davenport‘s cross-country exploration of the emotional after-shocks Americans felt in the months immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Davenport is a New Yorker whose apartment overlooked the World Trade Center. She was in San Diego on September 11th but instead of catching a plane to New York, she rented a car and drove home, interviewing people along the way. That may not seem like a very unusual topic for an American to pursue, but “Parallel Lines” isn’t exactly a 9/11 film. Davenport is more interested in the revelations that happen around the subject of 9/11, not about 9/11 itself. She approached her subjects by asking them what they think about the terrorist attacks, and they almost immediately begin to talk about ancillary subjects, like the cowboy in Bandera, Texas who tries to explain why his mother shot his father all those years ago, or the clearly racist, poor white Alabama farmer talking about his black friends who live nearby. “Parallel Lines” also played at Amsterdam, but it hasn’t taken off in America, probably because it’s been unfairly tagged as a “9/11 film.” It is also funny, unabashedly entertaining, and personal, none of which are approaches that seem overly popular among doc makers right now. “Parallel Lines” is an eclectic little movie, and it fit right in at Thessaloniki.