The red curtain at the Olympion Theater overshadowed the red carpet on the opening night of the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival; a fitting reflection of the type of destination Thessaloniki has become for documentary filmmakers as a venue where the films take center stage. Now in its 13th edition, the documentary event functions as an independent arm of the 51 year-old Thessaloniki International Film Festival. By giving documentaries their own space, Thessaloniki has put the Mediterranean on the map in the European circuit, joining festivals like Rotterdam, IDFA and Sheffield Doc Fest in a growing documentary festival scene.
This year’s edition boasts 220 films in 15 different categories and a Doc Market that includes over 520 titles for the more than 60 industry representatives in attendance. Despite its international focus, the festival also gives Greek filmmakers a forum to screen and discuss their work.
A capacity crowd gathered for the Opening Night screening of Roy Sher’s “My Sweet Canary,” a bio-doc of Rosa Eskenazi, the Greek rebetiko diva of the 1930s. The screening was preceded by a thrilling performance by a local rebetiko group, prompting the director to suggest that his own work would be a hard act to follow as he introduced the film. “My Sweet Canary” was a wise choice by the programmers; a lively and engaging musical journey into Greece’s traditional music, the film received a roaring standing ovation from the public.
With 30 films, the ‘How I Am: Challenging Perceptions’ section is proving to be one of the festival’s most vibrant programs, dedicated to spotlighting documentaries that focus on subjects who have struggled and overcome the challenges of living with disabilities. It is a timely topic in Greece, which is hosting the Summer Special Olympics this June. Highlights include the 2010 SXSW Audience Award winner “For Once in my Life” from directors Jim Bigham and Mark Moorman. The inspiring doc doesn’t focus on its subjects’ hardships but instead centers around their musical talent, as a group of singers and musicians express themselves through the freedom of music. A number of the films in the section date back several years in the festival circuit, as is the case with Jennifer Venditti’s “Billy the Kid,” named as the Best Documentary in the 2007 edition of SXSW, and Sandrine Bonnaire’s profile on her autistic sister, “Her Name is Sabine,” a FIRPRESCI recipient in Cannes back in 2007.
The festival is candid in preferring to offer viewers a diverse slate of films rather than concerning itself too much on a competition . The Audience Award might be the most outstanding “honor” the festival awards, but the retrospectives on filmmakers Sergei Loznitsa, Helena Trestikova and Kyriaki Malama are drawing more attention. The trio of tributes celebrate the filmmakers’ extensive filmographies and each offer insight to three different modes of documentary filmmaking. Loznitsa, whose latest narrative film, “My Joy,” has been gathering strong accolades, is a visually-oriented craftsman who doesn’t shy away from incorporating found footage and archival material in his work. The tribute to Kyriaki Malama gives a central place to the work of a female Greek filmmaker, a concern that will be explored this Friday in a panel discussion featuring Malama and a trio of other Greek women directors active in the documentary field. Finally, Czech-native Helena Trestikova’s work employs a distinctly human element. Trestikova’s documentaries often follow its subjects throughout an extended period of time, tracking the development and paths in peoples’ lives. Perhaps the best example of this type of work is present in her “Marriage Stories” series, where she documents two different newlywed couples for five years –returning to the project twenty years later to see how much the couples’ lives have changed over time.
The festival is also making active efforts to engage a more family-friendly atmosphere with the Docs for Kids section. The program runs through the middle of the ten day festival, from March 14-18, and offers a slate of 13 short documentaries tailored for kids and early teens. The screenings are free and serve as a way to foster interest in the documentary genre for younger viewers. Saturday morning’s inaugural screening, Jean-Pierre Pozzi and Pierre Barougier’s “Just a Beginning,” fittingly coincided with World Francophone Day. The French documentary takes a look inside a classroom where a group of toddlers receive a (very) introductory class on philosophy. The young audience was surprisingly well behaved throughout the screening and was rewarded with a toy as they left the theater.
For older audiences, the true gift of this year’s edition seems to reside in the wide variety of viewing options. The programmers have spared no effort in providing attendees an eclectic slate of documentaries that span an increasingly populated spectrum of topics. As the festival moves on to its closing half, it will be interesting to see which of these 220 films truly stand out amongst the rest.