Sitting in a smoky cafe outside the John Cassavetes theater, filmmaker (and fest honoree) Steven Bognar is holding forth on the differences between Greek and North American audiences. "Greeks are not afraid to ask confrontational questions. This gives a Q&A a sense of uncertainty that's really healthy. You get the same few questions at every fest and then suddenly . . . something new!"
This inquisitiveness about the form and content of documentaries, and a willingness to thoughtfully engage with serious and provocative issues are at the heart of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. In its 9th year, the fest is a prominent destination on the international documentary circuit, falling on the calendar just after SXSW and before Hot Docs and Full Frame, Thessaloniki is emerging as a viable venue for European premieres of U.S. docs, combining a core of smart and compelling programming with a filmmaker-friendly ambience.
Under the thoughtful and often inspired leadership of Dimitri Eipides, a 30-year veteran programmer with fests around the world, Thessaloniki has grown to 236 films over 10 days, in addition to an international pitching-forum and market. The fest draws a wide audience, with students, locals, over 500 guests from around Greece, and another 175 international visitors filling many screenings.
According to Eipides, "25% of the films in the last year's market sold. This exposure is vital for documentary filmmakers. They need their work to be circulated and seen more than anyone."
While the fest was programmed around themes like memory, music, human rights and games, strife and struggle were also dominant themes.
Student strikes over proposed private universities led to many of the city's 60,000+ student population being out of town. Unlike a Sundance or Cannes, this is a big deal for a fest that attracts an audience made up predominantly of locals. Happily for them, early reports showed that total attendance over the ten days (and 250+ screenings) had climbed over last year's high-water mark of 35,000.
Conflict also bubbled beneath the surface of the fest, as many of the year-round staff found themselves facing contract termination in the months following the fest. With their jobs at risk, the staff soldiered on, presenting the same high level of support and service that has come to be a hallmark of this fest. Though the situation is not resolved as of this writing, the week saw many speak up in support of these workers, including honored guests Barbara Kopple and Julia Reichert. In an unusual coincidence (or eerily prescient programming move), Kopple's "Harlan County USA" and "American Dream," and Reichert's "Union Maids" were all shown as part of their career retrospectives.
The fest itself played out smoothly, presenting the program of 236 films to an audience hungry for powerful and socially conscious documentary filmmaking.
Long stuck in the shadow of their November fest of international fiction film, the documentary fest continues a strong effort to establish themselves as a major destination on the European doc circuit. Some US filmmakers, like Todd and Benita Sills ("Red Without Blue"), brought their films to Thessaloniki for a European premiere. They were rewarded with an appreciative and engaged audience, nightly feasts with other filmmakers, and an incredibly friendly staff.
Among the highlights of the international films were 2006 Tribeca audience sward winner "The Cats of Mirikitani," Halil Efrat and Shahar Cohen's "Souvenirs," which took home the FIPRESCI prize for best international documentary, and "Tierney Gearon: The Mother Project," a fascinating look at a controversial photographer and her troubled mother. [Set to air May 13th, Mother's Day, on Sundance Channel] Other notable visitors included director Lucy Walker, on hand to present her latest, "Blindsight," (in one of the film's few festival appearances) and Mark Verkerk, appearing with Buddha's Lost Children.
One unique feature of the fest was a number of longform documentaries presented in their entirety. Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar's "A Lion In The House," David Sutherland's "Country Boys," Ric Burns' "Andy Warhol: A documentary film" and Jennifer Fox's "Flying – Confessions of a Free Woman" all clock in over 3 1/2 hours. This often presents a challenge for programmers looking to maximize space in their schedule. It is to Thessaloniki's credit that they are willing to make time for these grand-scale documentaries. Credit is due also to the audiences who turned out for these true-life epics.
A centerpiece of this fest is its selection of a theme around which a number of films are programmed, and a midweek panel discussion featuring a wide variety of experts. This year's theme, "Troubled Innocence", gave audiences a look at what it means to be a child in the 21st century from a number of different vantage points. Screening as part of this program was 2007 short-form Oscar winner "The Blood of Yingzhou District," as well as feature Oscar nominee "Jesus Camp" and IDFA standout "We Are Together" (Thina Simunye), (which will have its US premiere at Tribeca this April). Representing filmmakers on the panel discussion was Julia Reichert, who talked passionately about racial prejudices in American healthcare and the gaps that exist in both treatment and preventative care.
Another program grouping focused on "music" films, offering 8 new films that find creative approaches to documenting a musician, a band or a musical culture. Highpoints included AJ Schnack's gorgeous "Kurt Cobain About a Son," which played to a packed house of enthusiastic young Greeks. Stephen Kijak's "Scott Walker: 30th Century Man," appeared fresh from its U.S. premiere at SXSW; and Raul de la Fuente's "Noemadak Tx," which showcases a pair of globetrotting Basque musicians, thrilled Greek audiences prior to its U.S. bow at Full Frame.
Barbara Kopple was a strong presence at the fest, appearing at various screenings of her films. She also took part in a lengthy "conversation" in which she discussed her filmmaking career, complete with a seemingly endless supply of perfect anecdotes – tales of the seedy motel she stayed in before winning her first Oscar and the Bruce Springsteen check that saved American Dream. Deftly fielding questions from belligerent students (was "Shut Up And Sing" just a promotional vehicle for The Dixie Chicks?) as well as her contemporaries (Jim Klein of New Day Films took the mic briefly to elaborate on their mission), Kopple was charming and gracious, while always reminding the audience of the grit and determination it takes to make documentary films.
Among the challenges presented during the fest was trying to parse the number of Greek docs that offered a varied body of work. More than one festival insider confirmed a reluctance to screen too many Greek films. On one hand, the festival affords a unique opportunity for international guests to see what the country is producing. On the other hand, an overabundance of unremarkable work makes finding the gems that much more difficult. Luckily, there are a few treasures to be found, including: the highly entertaining short "Que Bona to Vada Your Ecaf" about a Greek drag performer, the verite charmer "What Time Is It?" by the talented Eva Stefani, and the journalistically powerful "War Zone: Red World," which looks at the gold mines and surrounding communities in the Congo. These are films that can and should find a place on the international scene.
Julia Reichert had this to say about the fest: "We've been to a million fests, and only some are really conscious about what we are as a community. This is an outstanding example of a fest that builds community." It's the appreciation of such filmmakers for what Eipides and his staff have built, and the increasing devotion of local audiences that is turning the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival into a major destination.
ABOUT THE WRITER: David Wilson is a filmmaker and co-founder of the Ragtag Cinema and the <a href="a%20href=" _cke_saved_href="a href=" http:="" www.ragtagfilm.com"="" target="_blank">True/False Film Festival</a>. He lives in Columbia, Missouri.</i></p><p></p>