The 7 Year Old Thessaloniki Doc Fest: Making Non Fiction More Popular But Also Stimulating Discussion
by Lily Oei
As clearly evident at this year's Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, it's not just American audiences that are bewitched by documentaries.
Now in its seventh year, the festival has expanded from seven to 10 days, filling slots with a solid schedule of films and sidebar events revolving around themes of human rights and social interest. As an American attendee, especially one more familiar with E! than the IMF, there's something humbling about participating in a festival with such an international perspective. There's also something incredibly heady about watching films in the cradle of Western civilization.
On my first afternoon, I was greeted by the stinging air of tear gas, which had been used that morning to quell rioting volleyball fans at the airport. Let the record show that the fans were rioting because they weren't allowed to meet their returning champions — clearly this was a city brimming with passion. A foreign tongue makes it hard to eavesdrop on fellow filmgoers — or at least, understand — but one can still learn a few things: namely, American customs don't translate. Leaving personal items on a chair to hold a seat means nothing, but instead of an Anthony Kaufman style Sundance throw down, the burly thief got off of my stuff and apologetically helped me find a nearby seat.
This year the festival received nearly 800 submissions, culled down to 130 films. "We're not doing so badly," said festival director Dmitri Eipides, "Seven years is still new. My main mission is to make it known outside, so we have larger participation from filmmakers."
"Small budget, big goals" summed up native filmmaker Stelios Kouloglou ("Whistleblower") about the festival.
The 10 day docket included "Darwin's Nightmare" which went on to take the top audience prize. The film is a harrowing look at the situation in Tanzania, a country on the shores of Lake Victoria with an economy dependent on the fishing and processing of Nile perch– possibly to ruinous end. Tons of fish are pulled out of the waters and processed each day for export. Meanwhile, sub-economies of prostitution and arms smuggling flourish while the natives go hungry. A whole thesis could be written about this film and social injustices, but for me, the most chilling scene is when a fish factory owner turns on his wall-mounted bass, which begins crooning Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy."
Kouloglou's flashy "Whistleblower" is a look at five heroes who spoke out, including Daniel Ellsberg, responsible for the Pentagon Papers, and the FBI's Sibel Edmonds and Colleen Rowley. Homegrown "Cho Oyu" about an attempt by Greek mountain climbers to climb that Himalayan mountain was a sentimental favorite, picking up an audience award. "Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgystan," which sounds like a New York Post headline, was a well-handled debut effort by Canadian filmmaker Petr Lom and a look at a tradition that continues in Central Asia. "Access was surprisingly easy," said Lom, "Witnessing one is really hard." American selections included Nathaniel Kahn's "My Architect," Joe Berlinger's "Gray Matter" and youthful crowd pleasers: "Inside Deep Throat" and "The Devil and Daniel Johnston." Both docs packed in full houses despite their late night screening times.
By far the most charming film was "Georgi and the Butterflies" from Bulgarian filmmaker, Andrew Paunov. In an underfunded psychiatric hospital, head doctor Georgi Lulchev, is part mental health practitioner, part entrepreneur. In the interest of raising money and providing therapy for his patients, the unfailingly optimistic Lulchev embarks on a series of money raising schemes including pheasant hunting, ostrich raising, snail farming, and that international fail safe — purchasing mass quantities of lottery tickets. Special tributes honored Canadian filmmaker Pierre Perrault and Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo whose "The 3 Rooms of Melancholia" won the Fipresci award in the international category. (Greek honors went to "Elias Petropoulos – A World Underground" by Kalliopi Legaki.)
Besides screenings, there were discussions on human rights, immigration, and political cinema. To discuss immigration, the festival convened a panel of nine experts to discuss the situation, which has particular resonance in Greece. "There's been — I wouldn't say hostility — but a displeasure," said fest director Eipides. "I am an immigrant myself [in Canada], and know it can be a very cruel experience. I wanted to elaborate."
Among the panelists was Karen Farkas of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees who astutely noted, "Art and documentary can rehumanize the dehumanized. For at least an hour, you can understand how they fell, and why they left their country to come to yours."
The location and manageable size of the festival yielded friendly interaction with attendees. "It's very social and everyone is very socially involved," said producer Jeanette Gagne ("Roger Toupin") pointing out that documentarians are not the sort to preen on a croisette. A growing market takes place at the nearby City Hotel and by week's end negotiations had begun on some sales. This year, there continued to be lots of Balkan participation, but buyers came from as far as Dubai. And luckily, because there is just too much to choose from on any given day, open access to the market's tape library made it easy to catch up on screenings missed. Also returning this year was the pitch forum where aspiring filmmakers plead for financing and a possible slot on European TV. Pitch props ranged from the high tech (custom-made trailers) to low (a dry erase board with hand-drawn illustrations) but several hit their mark and received instant funding commitments.
Both pitchers and local students flocked to the screenings. "You can see them pushing to get into a film," marveled producer Stefano Tealdi ("Citizen Berlusconi"). During post-screening Q&As, neither students nor would-be documentarians spared the directors from their constructive criticism. "Had you considered making this in a different style" asked one of Tealdi. "Not as current events, say, from the perspective of a single journalist? I'm just thinking out loud here."
"The Beauty Academy of Kabul" stirred up a lot of discussion. One unconvinced viewer dismissed it as American propaganda and remarked that the subjects seemed more like actors. Director Liz Mermin deftly handled the questions, "It's interesting to see different reactions in different countries."
The hubub seemed to fall in line with Eipides' goals for the festival. "We're not only trying to make documentaries popular to the public, but also to stimulate discussion in other topics," he said. "The Greeks, we are on the periphery of Europe, we are not really in the center of things. I want the audience to communicate, to come in contact with creative filmmakers."
In all, the ten days were an effective rumination on the power of responsible filmmaking. Even the local guide leading excursions to nearby ruins got in on the act, encouraging his charges to incur change as only they could. Summed up Eipides, "I don't think making a documentary as a revolutionary act, but information is important. You get a different kind of film viewer, a thinker. Instead of being entertained for a couple of hours, get challenged."