It's a difficult thing for an international guest to head to the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival and keep one's mind on the movies. Not that the programming isn't outstanding. It is. 153 films appear in this noncompetitive fest (though lots of auxiliary prizes are awarded), and they represent, for the most part, the cream of the recent international crop of docs, plus about fifty standouts from Greece. But the hospitality that Thessaloniki extends to its guests is as good as any fest in the world. Since much of the staff also works for the annual International Film fest in November (which shows more movies and attracts nearly 1000 guests from around the world), they seem to take the comparatively small docfest in stride.
Travel and lodging are dealt with efficiently and, if you're a filmmaker, you can look forward to the ocean views and well-appointed rooms of the Elektra Palace, conveniently located about 50 yards from the main theater, the Olympion. Combine that with an active social scene, field trips to historic wonders, a rotating banquet that bears more and a plethora of great bars and one might wonder what drives guests into theaters.
What fuels the fest ten years in, despite the distractions, are the films. Artistic director Dimitri Eipides brings a wealth of international programming experience and a clear and refined sense of what he does and does not like in nonfiction filmmaking to the table. This vision, played out across a broad spectrum of programming, is truly impressive. And though Eipides sees himself as a man with simple tastes, it's his skill as a programmer that brings him to combine those simple flavors into a varied and flavorful dish.
In recent years, Eipides and his staff, have, seemingly through sheer willpower, convinced the Greek public that these movies are worthy of their attention. As if a light switch had been thrown, festival attendance doubled back in 2006 and the fest hasn't looked back since. Screenings are full but not packed, audiences are lively and engaged, and it's the rare Q&A that doesn't see the discussion spill over into a heated off-mic exchange amongst the filmgoers.
Newly improved for 2008 was the doc market, which featured 30 cubicles for attending buyers, programmers and press to bury themselves in a steady stream of nonfiction. This year's festival brought buyers from dozens of countries, representing some of the major television outlets of France, Spain, Germany, Portugal and the United Kingdom. Though it's horrific for filmmakers to imagine their work playing out at 2x speed on a 25" monitor, markets like these enable industry pros to sort through a tremendous volume of films and aids them in deciding which to view in their entirety at a later date. It's no place for a faint of heart filmmaker to lurk, though…
Classes and other talks and discussions spread around the week are among the standout qualities of this festival. Well-attended by the city's large student population, and translated via headset into English or Greek as necessary, Thessaloniki's panels and classes dig a little deeper than most fests and often tackle "big" issues with serious intent. Such was the "Faces of Fascism" strand of programming this year, that culminated in a three hour discussion of the political and economic situations that permit fascism to rear its head. Asked if this programming was in direct response to current world situations, Eipides commented, "After 1945, one would hope that this would disappear, but of course it doesn't. The general populace needs to be reminded that fascism can rear its head anywhere, such as in the case of prisoners detained at Guantanamo."
Shifting gears from Thessaloniki's more serious bent, another non-film highlight was a performance by the Concretes, a Swedish pop group somewhat in the mold of the Cardigans, with a tall blonde singer doing her best to channel Nico. They played to an appreciative crowd of locals and festival attendees. Afterwards, festival staffers took over on the DJ tables and got the people dancing.
Saturday night brought the closing ceremony, complete with a theater packed with well-known Greek politicians and personalities. Though the fest doesn't have an official competition section, a number of organizations sponsor awards, including the Hellenic Red Cross, who were a constant presence at the fest running the audience polling, FIPRESCI, Greek Puble Television, The Greek Film Center, Amnesty International and the World Wildlife Fund.
Bill Haney's "The Price of Sugar" continued its strong festival run by locking up the Amnesty International Award for the best film in the Human Rights section. The World Wildlife Fund sponsored a section of the fest called "Habitat" and gave its award to Austrian director Udo Maurer for his film "About Water: People And Yellow Cans." This film takes a strong, cinematic look at how different third world populations deal with a resource that is taken for granted by most in developed nations.
Other standout international titles included the second international screening of "Wild Combination," Matt Wolf's film about avant-disco musician Arthur Russell, which has yet to premiere in the U.S. Gwen Haworth brought "She's a Boy I Knew," her funny and playful account of her own gender transformation. "Stranded" followed its successful IDFA & Sundance screenings with an appearance and audiences packed the house for screenings of Yung Chang's "Up The Yangtze," which also screened in Park City. Swiss helmer Peter Entell made the return trip from a U.S. visit to appear with "Shake the Devil Off" about a beleaguered Catholic church in New Orleans and Astrid Bussink brought "The Lost Colony," her bizarre tale of an abandoned monkey research lab in the former Soviet republic of Abkhazia, fresh from its debut at Rotterdam.
"Be Like Others" was awarded the FIPRESCI prize for best international feature. The film looks at gender reassignment surgery in Iran, where it's a capital crime to be gay, but legal to have a sex change. The director Tanaz Eshaghian shows a deft touch in telling these intimate stories and finds in the country's most famous gender-reassignment surgeon, a man who is able to speak to both his patients and their families with conviction. Among the additional notable titles were Steven Sebring's "Patti Smith: Dream of Life," Wolfgang Held and Pola Rapaport's "Hair: Let the Sun Shine In," Kim Longinotto's "Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go," "A Jihad for Love" by Parvez Sharma and "Heavy Metal in Baghdad" by Suroosh Alvi and Eddy Moretti.
As noted, the Greek program was especially strong in 2008 and showed signs that the country's nonfiction community is starting to catch up to its better-funded European counterparts. Among notable Greek titles making their debuts were "The Lovers From Axos" (which picked up three awards, including the FIPRESCI critics award for Best Greek Feature), a charming tale of an elderly couple and their longstanding devotion to each other. "My First Time" offered an intimate look at a diverse group of women, all experiencing the joys and pains of their first pregnancy. And "Birds in the Mire" tells some of the amazing stories of the women of the Greek resistance.
Finally, though the fest doesn't include a great many shorts in its programming, notable selections included the sublime visual/audio poetry of "City of Cranes" (winner of the FIPRESCI award for best international short film), the much-lauded "A Son's Sacrifice," 2007 IDFA Silver Cub winner "The Tailor" and Greek audience award winner "The Archelon Bubble."
As the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival looks towards its second decade, it can truly claim its status as one of the top documentary festivals in Europe, and as worthy a destination as any for filmmakers looking for exposure plus a quality festival experience. One hopes that the Greek government and larger festival organization continue to support this visionary effort to bring important films to the people of Greece as well as the international documentary community.