When Artistic Director Dimitri Eipides started the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival 11 years ago as an offshoot of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival (which takes place annually in November), the audiences were small and, to hear him tell it, more than a bit passive. "Greece is European geographically, but really it's on the periphery of Europe. News, information, and awareness come a bit late here if they ever come," says Eipides. "I felt that things were happening outside of this country and we didn't know about them." These days, the audiences are anything but disengaged. Seven year-olds burst with energy during the early morning Docs for Kids program, Midnight screenings sell out the large ornate Olympion Theater, and artistic performers like the Greek flash mob SFINA make surprise appearances. Conversations between festival attendees and filmmakers continue throughout the ten days during countless panels, Masterclasses, and the inaugural EDN Congress in Thessaloniki.
Opening this year's festival was Chao Gan's stunning "The Red Race," a portrait of 6 year-old gymnasts, raised in a strict training regimen at a Shanghai athletic school, where they are groomed for Olympic glory. The film is made up of a series of impeccably composed tableaux; opening with a single static shot of boys trying to complete an acrobatic move while an off-screen coach barks orders at them, and climaxing with a harrowing scene where two girls are dangling from a high bar, squirming with pain rather than letting go. The camera moves amongst the children, their parents, and coaches with such intimacy that one questions whether the subjects even noted its presence.
One of this year's honored guests the jovial Canadian documentary filmmaker Peter Wintonick ("Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media") was ubiquitous, mentoring filmmakers, moderating the Pitching Forum, and on Wednesday night receiving the festival Lifetime Achievement Award. Wintonick joked that while he was extremely grateful for the recognition, he hoped he still had a few years left in him. "Documentary is a transpersonal and a transnational art form," said Wintonick, accepting the award. "It allows us as filmmakers to enjoy, contemplate, and be educated about the joys and the suffering that occur all over the world." Wintonick also presented his latest film, an autobiographical spiritual quest/exploration of cinema, "pilgrIMAGE," co-directed by his daughter Mira, who participated in the Q&A via cell phone (she opted not to fly to Greece, as to reduce her carbon footprint). Both father and daughter encouraged the audience to get out there and make new media.
On Thursday, legendary Greek director Theo Angelopoulos ("The Dust of Time," "Eternity and a Day") presented a tribute to prolific Greek filmmaker Fotos Lamprinos, a historical documentarian whose career has spanned over 40 years. To commemorate this year's 11th anniversary, Thessaloniki screened 11 of Lamprinos' films, including his latest, "Captain Kemal, a Comrade." Lamprinos was pleasantly surprised by the interest from the Thessaloniki audiences. "When I went to the first screening of one of my films, I thought I'd be alone in the theater. I saw a friend, and said 'let's go in together, so there will be 2 people,' but then I was surprised to see the theater full."
Also filling the theaters were standout selections exploring modern African issues. "Zeru Zeru, the Ghosts," was screened in the festival's Views of the World section, but should have been in a horror sidebar – the film is a nightmarish account of albinos in Tanzania who are being attacked, maimed, and murdered for their limbs. Since 2007, bounty hunters have mutilated dozens of albinos ("zeru zeru" translates to "nobodies" or "ghosts") after witch doctors had spread the superstition that possessing albino bones brings quick wealth. The filmmaker's hidden camera captures a harrowing transaction with a bone vendor, where an albino bone is sold for about 580 euros. The founder of the Tanzania Albino Society, a support organization, is interviewed briefly, but the viewer is left wondering what else is being done to protect albinos or to put a stop to these horrific assaults.
French filmmakers Jean Crousillac and Jean-Marc Sainclair tell an inspirational story of survival in their documentary "Umoja, the Village Where Men are Forbidden," about a town settled by women who had been banished by their families – often because they had been raped by British soldiers. Banding together to avoid total isolation, the town began to flourish, despite the threats of neighboring villages. The hero of the film is Umoja matriarch Rebecca Lolosoli, who goes beyond the village to teach the ideals of human rights to people in other towns, draws up a petition to the British government to bring the accused soldiers to trial, and attends a Gender Equality Summit in Nairobi to fight for women's rights.
The world's oldest profession, as always, makes for some of the world's most engaging films. The brilliantly titled "Lady Mercedes – Getting Old as a Car Prostitute," is a simple, touching portrait of Sylvia Leiser, who has been working for 35 years as a prostitute in Bern, Switzerland. Wearing an orange "God's busy, can I help you?" T-shirt and working out of her Mercedes, Leiser seems every bit the aging Cabiria, trying to save enough money to retire from a fading sector of the sex industry where the working girls are 50-74 years old. If her clients complain about her age or appearance, she simply says, "Listen…Sophia Loren won't be coming tonight."
Janus Metz's film "Love on Delivery" focuses on the inhabitants of Thy, Denmark, a small fishing community where over 500 Thai women are married to Danish men. Sommai, formerly a prostitute in Thailand, is instrumental in arranging these marriages, and the cameras follow her as she attempts to find a husband for her niece Kae. During a Q&A following the screening, Metz commented that he had wanted to tell the story like a fairytale, while at the same time exploring globalization through an intimate encounter between two individuals. "The desires, and the needs on behalf of the woman and on behalf of the man are very different, and of course this is a fragile type of relationship."
Saturday night's awards ceremony found Thessaloniki politicians and Greek film patrons mingling with Hellenic Red Cross workers and members of the flash mob SFINA at the Olympion Theater. Two highlights of the evening were "Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country" taking home both the International Audience Award and also the Amnesty International Award, and Kimberly Reed's incredibly moving personal documentary, "Prodigal Sons," receiving the FIPRESCI award for an international film.
Sunday saw the end of festivities in Thessaloniki, but the festival is not completely over. During the next few weeks, select films continue on to a handful of cities in northern Greece, and for the first time ever, TDF is holding a week of screenings in Athens, as Dimitri Eipides does all he can to share these docs with as large an audience as possible. "I want the public to really understand what documentaries are and to like them… Sometimes I go inside the theater in the dark and I look into their faces, and I see people smiling or with tears in their eyes, that's it – it's cinema and they're looking at real people and real situations. You see perhaps a vision of the world."
[Cameron Yates is the Documentary Programmer for NewFest: The New York LGBT Film Festival, and a filmmaker currently working on a documentary about a New Orleans madam and her family.]
The 2009 Thessaloniki Documentary Film Awards
The Hellenic Red Cross Audience Award for a film over 45' in the International Selection (4,000 euros):
"Burma VJ – Reporting from a Closed Country," by Anders Hosbro Ostergaard, Denmark, 2008
The Hellenic Red Cross Audience Award for a film under 45' in the International Selection, (2,000 euros):
"Flowers of Rawanda" by David Munoz, Spain, 2008
The Hellenic Red Cross Audience Award for a Greek film over 45' ($30,000 euros):
"National Garden" (Ethnikos Kipos) by Apostolos Karakasis
The Hellenic Red Cross Audience Award for a Greek film under 45' (20,000 euros)
"The World Naked Pike Ride Project in Thessaloniki" (Vgikame Apo Ta Rouha Mas) by Elli Zerbini
"Bathers" by Eva Stefani (Greek selection prize)
"Prodigal Sons" by Kimberly Reed, USA / UK, 2008 (International selection prize)
Amnesty International Award (award for best film in the field of human rights)
"Burma VJ – Reporting from a Closed Country" by Anders Hosbro Ostergaard, Denmark, 2008
WWF Award ( honors the best film in the Habitat section)
"Crude" by Joe Berlinger, USA / Ecuador/ UK, 2009
ERT3 (Greek Public Television) Broadcasting Award also honoring a film in the Habitat section
"Another Planet: Masik Bolygo by Ferenc Moldovanyi, Hungary, 2008
ERT (Greek Public Television) Doc on Air Award
The ERT Greek Public Television inaugurates this year the new Doc on Air Award, given to the best Pitching Forum 2009 project, by tutors who have participated in the 2009 Pitching Forum – Docs In Thessaloniki, running in collaboration with the European Documentary Network. The award is equivalent to the sum of 7,000 euros
"Rush for Life," by Kate McNaughton, producer Tomas Tamosaitis, Takas Films, UK