The 14th edition of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, held in the second largest city in Greece, wrapped this Sunday after ten days of non-fiction programming. Boasting a staggering line up of 185 films selected from 1700 submissions and divided among eight permanent sections and six special programs, the event also features the increasingly important Doc Market, which exposes the work of local and international filmmakers to industry, helping expand the often limited reach Greek and other Balkan documentaries often face. Local doc filmmakers also receive the opportunity for crucial professional development, including master classes with visiting guests, and information about navigating the international festival circuit and broadcast sales.
At the head of the festival is Dimitri Eipides, whose long and respected career includes programming duties at major festivals in Toronto, Reykjavik, and Montreal, as well as sister fest, November's Thessaloniki International Film Festival. In speaking with Indiewire, Eipides noted that running both of Thessaloniki's fests might be too much, but he clearly does the job out of a love for championing independent cinema. Having spent a considerable amount of time abroad, he credits exposure to underground and international films – he remembers attending the premiere of Bertolucci's "Before the Revolution" at the second New York Film Festival in 1964 – with fostering this passion. "We need documentary and independent films in this country, more than any other, to provide an alternative to the mainstream." Speaking specifically about TDF, Eipides notes: "The festival helps these documentaries reach the public – before it, the only real options were Greek TV. While the audiences were small and often subdued in the first years, they have grown from year to year and are more vocal and engaged now, asking questions and offering opinions."
This desire to engage with the audience and expand the reach of its programming is central to Eipides' concerns: "It would be silly to do all this work and confine it to just the audience that attends the screening, then wait one year to perhaps see the films on TV. You don't want to lose the momentum of the festival to help expose the films." To this end, for the past couple of years, TDF livestreams select screenings to a number of universities across Greece, allowing those campuses to also participate in Q&As with the filmmakers. Eipides wants to expand further, even across national borders, noting that more and more schools have expressed interest, in Greece as well as Bulgaria and Turkey.
Along the same lines, after the fest, TDF tours a selection of programming to 15 or 16 smaller towns as well as prisons. "These are neglected audiences, and they should also have access." The prison program has been well-received, encouraging its expansion with plans to involve filmmakers, who have indicated enthusiasm over the idea of showing their work and discussing it with a new audience hungry for stimulation and information.
Access to information is central to the main program's Greek Panorama section, which Eipides indicated is largely geared to local audiences, though international attendees certainly responded to the insider perspective that these films provide. Not surprisingly, many of this year's offerings dealt directly with Greece's ongoing economic crisis that has led to numerous angry protests and outbreaks of violence. "Greeks feel that they were not properly informed, and these docs help people make sense of the situation and try to find the truth," said Eipides about films like Nikos Katsaounis and Nina Maria Paschalidou's "Krisis," Christos Georgiou's "Children of the Riots," Stelios Kouloglou's "Oligarchy," and Yiorgos Panteleakis' "155 Sold." While some of these channel the anger felt by many into raw, immediate records of protests and other actions, the most accomplished, "Krisis," provides a more nuanced, multiperspectival approach to the complex issues involved, and brings a level of technical craft that should give the film more of a chance outside the confines of Greece.
Non-crisis themed Greek films screened included Anthi Daoundaki's "Gavdos. Southwards.," an intriguing exploration of the island at the southernmost tip of Europe, capturing a sense of the isolation of the location and of the widespread issue of more-or-less dying villages, inhabited largely by pensioners, most of the youth having left long ago for better job opportunities; Elisavet Laloudaki and Massimo Pizzocaro's "Perah Istar," an unusual but interesting investigation into the changing relationship and history between man and pigeon; and Fofo Terzidou's "By-Standing and Standing-By," an attempt to confront Greece's revisionist WWII history of Greeks as Jewish rescuers with the reality that many Greeks did, in fact, collaborate with the Nazis during the Occupation, leading to the extermination of 87% of Greece's Jewish population. Despite a fairly conventional approach, the doc provides fascinating information, and addresses complex issues related to national narrative and historiography.
The two most impressive Greek films, however, were two shorter docs, both included in TDF's Portraits: Human Journeys section: Myrna Tsapa's "Katinoula" and Nikos Dayandas' "Sayome." A bittersweet, funny portrait of old age, "Katinoula" had the audience laughing frequently, following the daily perambulations of an ancient Greek maid serving her Greek employer in Cairo, making coffee, haggling in the market, and remembering the past. "Sayome" addressed the hot-button issue of immigration and foreign cultures in Greece in a subtle manner, focusing not on a recent transplant but instead on a Japanese woman who has called Crete her home for more than 30 years.
Dayandas' film was awarded by the FIPRESCI jury in the Greek category, while Mexico's Jose Alvarez's "Canícula" was recognized in the international category by the same jury. The beautifully lensed "Canícula" focuses on the Totonac people of Zapotal Santa Cruz, Verzcruz, chiefly spotlighting the women's expert pottery-making and the men's "flying," a religious practice in which men ascend a tall pole, tie themselves to length of rope, and descend, hanging upside-down, as part of the structure turns. The Totanac allow the activities to play out in front of Alvarez's camera, for the most part without dialogue – the filmmaker eschews explanation, simply appreciating their customs and talents without attempting to impose an outsider's perspective, but yet creating something more than an ethnographic study.
TDF's feature Audience Awards went to Angelos Kovotsos' "Encardia, the Dancing Stone," celebrating an Italian inspired Greek band and their exploration of their music's roots; and Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi's "Italy, Love It or Leave It," following the sometimes bickering partners as they journey throughout their homeland to decide whether they should leave for the more hospitable Berlin, or remain despite its many challenges. A full list of winners may be found below.
Despite operating on a barebones budget, given the crippling economic situation in the country – Eipides notes the staff largely draws no salaries – the TDF succeeds in bringing a wide range of recent international non-fiction to eager, young local audiences, while also providing an important and necessary platform for local filmmakers to gain international attention and access to the larger film industry. Thessaloniki's amenities add to the festival's draw – a beautiful backdrop, friendly people, and delicious food. While still relatively young at 14 – its esteemed companion, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, will turn 53 this fall – the TDF serves a crucial role in cultivating documentary literacy and advocacy in the region.
14th Thessasloniki Documentary Festival winners:
"Sayome" – Nikos Dayandas, Greece
"Canícula" – Jose Alvarez, Mexico
"Encardia, the Dancing Stone" – Angelos Kovotsos, Greece (feature)
"The Blind Fisherman" – Stratis Vogiatzis and Thekla Malamou, Greece (short)
"Italy, Love It or Leave It" – Gustav Hofer & Luca Ragazzi, Italy/Germany (feature)
"Ora" – Philippe Baylaucq, Canada (short)
Amnesty International Award (Human Rights section):
"This is Not A Film" – Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran
World Wildlife Fund Award (Habitat section):
"¡Vivan las Antipodas!" – Victor Kossakovsky, Germany/Netherlands/Argentina/ Chile
ERT3 (Greek Public Television) Broadcasting Award (Habitat section, €1500 prizes):
"Expropriation" – Manos Papadakis, Greece and "A Few Brave People" – Ruya Arzu Koksal, Turkey
ERT (Greek Public Television) Doc on Air Award (EDN Pitching Forum projects, €7000 prize):
"My Journey to Meet You" – Marco Simon Puccioni, Italy.
EDN Award, presented to an institution, group or person for outstanding contribution to the development of documentary culture:
Diana El Jeiroudi and Orwa Nyrabia, DOX BOX: Syrian Documentary Festival
ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance and a consultant to documentary filmmakers and festivals. Follow him on Twitter (@1basil1) and visit his blog (what (not) to doc).