There was something about the awards at the 13th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival that made them somewhat anticlimactic. The ceremony held on Saturday night at the Olympian Theater felt as an afterthought to the ten days of screenings, panels and events that preceded it. In many ways, the festival feels more like a showcase for documentary film than a film festival; its eclectic reach and diversity of titles gives it a more flexible function than a traditional festival would. The primary focus is in its programming, an asset best reflected in this year’s theme: Images of the 21st Century. The films that made up the festival’s impressive slate weren’t limited to new or recent releases, with a number of titles outside the retrospective sections dating as far back to 2007.
The ample selection of films gives Thessaloniki’s programming a dynamic edge, with specialty sections that explore a multitude of themes dealing with identity, global perspectives, memory, music, human rights, and environmental issues. Also of note was the extensive offering of Greek films, providing local filmmakers a chance to screen their work in a domestic film industry where distribution can be an uphill battle. The business end of the festival isn’t only limited to providing opportunities for Greek filmmakers. With a strong and growing presence in its Doc Market, the festival presents a good opportunity for American filmmakers looking for European distribution.
As the 13 year-old younger sibling of the older and more established Thessaloniki International Film Festival, the event has gradually built a place for itself in the European documentary circuit. For festival director Dimitris Eipides, the festival has been able to turn Greece’s second largest city into the premiere destination in the Mediterranean for documentary film. “We started very modestly with 8, 000 spectators and a small program in our first year,” said Mr. Eipides. “We grew very quickly, reaching 44, 000 spectators in last year’s edition -a considerable number in the European context.”
The economic crisis that Greece is currently experiencing was taken into account by this year’s festival organizers. Tickets for individual screenings were available for a relatively low €4, with a number of free daily screenings available for university students and the unemployed. This is a strategy that Eipides considers central to the festival’s success. “I like [the festival] because it’s a popular event. I don’t see film in an intellectual way,” he said, “I think it’s a popular art that should be directly accessible to people walking on the street who want to see a movie.”
Embracing local audiences has proved to be vital for the festival, which has found important support from its local government despite the financial crisis. “I am a cinema freak, not just a cinema lover,” said Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris in an event for selected press and filmmakers. “I see everything from ‘Harry Potter’ to Almodóvar,” confessed the Mayor, reflecting the sort of film culture that both Thessaloniki film festivals have fostered.
The Audience Awards for feature-length films were given to Vikebe Lokkeberg’s “Tears of Gaza” in the international section and to the Greek film “Alma Bonita” from directors Vivi Zografou and Alexis Ponce. FIRPESCI awards were given to Greece’s “Only the Words Continue” by Kalliopi Legaki and Sophia Tzavella’s “Paradise Hotel.” Tzavella’s doc about a Roma housing compound in Bulgaria was produced by HBO Bulgaria. The American cable network had a strong presence in the festival with screenings of Alexander Nanau’s “The World According to Ion B.” from HBO Romania and Jennifer Arnold’s “A Small Act,” a top ten audience favorite at Hot Docs last year.
A number of independent organizations also awarded prizes at this year’s festival. ERT3, a Greek public television channel, awarded a prize of €3, 000 along with a broadcast of the winning film, Laetitia Moreau’s “A Future Without Oil.” The World Wildlife Foundation named Titus Faschina’s “Close to Heaven” as the best documentary in the Habitat section and Amnesty International did the same for David Andre’s “Everlasting Sorrow, Life After the Death Penalty” in the Human Rights category. Andre’s look into the lasting effects of the death penalty also served as the festival’s closing night film.
All in all, the 13th edition of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival stood apart by the informative angle from most of the documentaries it featured. The majority of films all seemed to raise viewers’ awareness on a myriad of different issues in one way or another, making it a sort of in-depth forum for current events. Mr. Eipidis insists that this is one of the festival’s principal traits, “We’re on the edge of Europe so sometimes information is not as accessible here as one would expect, which is precisely why having a documentary festival here is so important for us.”