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March 23, 2006 7:59 AM
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At a Film Fest in Greece, Encountering World Events and Cultures Through Docs

A scene from "Smiling In A Warzone -- And the Art of Flying in Kabul," which opened the 8th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in Greece.

Thessaloniki is a city with a fluid history - one that dates back to the time of Alexander the Great and encompasses shifting political allegiances from the Roman and Byzantine empires up to Turkey and modern Greece. The architecture in the town center is mostly '50s modern, but with jarring appearances of centuries-old buildings, sprinkled like gumdrops throughout the cityscape. And its status as a city built on the sea, with an active port is also significant to its history. All of these details also play out in the formulation of the Thessaloniki International Documentary Film Festival, which started as an adjunct to the larger fest of narrative film, but is quickly taking its place on the world stage.

As befitting the city's history, the fest catalog is like a primer of world events and cultures. Most of the international titles are high-quality (if unsurprising) selections from this year's festival faves, but surprises crop up like Byzantine churches amidst the skyscrapers. And, in this thriving port city, international visitors are everywhere, lured by the strong and clear vision of founder, Dimitri Eipides, whose enduring presence on the international festival scene has made him a familiar face to many of these guests.

With a strong guiding hand (and help from assistant programmers like Katerina Kakiamani and Konstantinos Kontovrakis) Eipides has built this fest into one of international import, finding films that offer strong political arguments and bold visual styles, while demanding that audiences enter into a dialogue with the subject. Some of the bolder choices included the intimate "My Grandmother's House," the fantastic "Someday My Prince Will Come" and Jon Bang Carlsen's "It's Now or Never", a film that claims documentary status despite having a script, storyboards and a dream sequence.

Structured over ten days, Thessaloniki creates a more relaxed pace than many other fests that move breathlessly from opening night to closing. This pace, with its late morning first screenings and plenty of time between shows leaves audiences free to linger, to discuss and to take in the various high-quality panels and forums.

The opening night film was "Smiling in a Warzone" from Danish filmmaking couple Simone Aaberg Kaern and Magnus Bejmar. The fairy tale film, which saw its international bow at IDFA in November and will have its official US premiere at Full Frame, is a smart and well-crafted crowd-pleaser that gains strength from the Julie Andrews-like charisma of its director/star. Hundreds of people filled the main theater at the Olympion complex for what was clearly a much-anticipated social event for Thessaloniki's movers and shakers. Though there was copious chatting and cell phone usage throughout the screening, the film received a long and rousing ovation over the end credits.

What's really impressive, though, is that as the week progressed, the high-rolling crowd of opening night was replaced with a cross-section of the local population. With inexpensive tickets, and screenings late into the night, the fest feel as if it is not only IN the town, but OF the town. This reporter was stopped at a chip shop by a worker on his lunch break who noticed my festival badge. In broken English (my Greek is nonexistent) we spoke about "Metal: A Headbanger's Journey", which we'd both seen and enjoyed, and "Grizzly Man", which was high on his list. Encounters like this happened throughout the week and the screenings were consistently full.

At the same time, documentary film in Greece is looked upon as being solely the province of television. The festival works to expand this view, screening international theatrical standouts like "Unknown White Male" alongside almost 100 Greek titles throughout the week, and offering opportunities for Greek filmmakers to meet with international buyers, programmers and filmmakers.

This strong support for Greek filmmaking is clear in the programming, which gives about half of the total slots in the fest to Greek work. Some of these are mixed in with international films in the program. Others fill out the Greek Panorama and Open Screen sections. Many of these titles focused on Greek life or history. However, some Greek filmmakers expressed their desire to have the artistic (or, more accurately, financial) freedom to seek out subjects outside of their own borders. Others sought to find stories within Greece that could speak to international audiences, including the popular "Sugar Town - The Bridegrooms" (dir. Kimon Tsakiris) and "Supplicants" (dir. Stavros Ioannou).

Three master classes were offered throughout the week, and were all well-attended by a crowd that was largely made up of students, but included other festival-goers as well. Kim Longinotto received a special tribute from the fest and attended with seven of her films, including the much-lauded Sisters in Law, which opens theatrically in the US on April 14th. Showing clips from her films, Kim led a low-key discussion of her techniques, strategies and love of documentaries. She said " Docs are always better stories than anything you can imagine. I would never have written a six year old runaway for 'Sisters in Law', I would have made her eleven or twelve."

Kim would reappear later in the week as a guest of Peter Wintonick, whose freewheeling, connect-the-docs workshop walked students through a circuitious path of pre-production, production and post-production, replete with manifestos. Danish filmmaker Jon Bang Carlsen also led a masterclass entitled "How to Invent Reality."

Other non-film highlights of the week included lengthy panels on globalization and Africa, with experts from outside the filmmaking field (including Indian firebrand activist Vandana Shiva). Artistic Director Eipides cites these panels as one of the most important parts of the festival. Globalization activist and author Susan George offered her own take on the juxtaposition of heavy-duty political thought with documentary film, saying "The films at this fest expand our vision of what is possible."

An afternoon discussion series for filmmakers called Just Talking was also popular, and helped build connections between the Greeks and their international counterparts.

Both Greek and international filmmakers should have been happy to see a lot of action around the Doc Market. With 442 films available for sale, many were calling Thessaloniki one of the most important markets in Europe. Coupled with this was the pitching forum (sponsored by the European Documentary Network), which gave 22 filmmakers two days of practice pitch sessions and coaching before setting them loose in front of a group of commissioning editors (representing ten European nations). Of special note for U.S. filmmakers should be Thessaloniki's relatively relaxed funding guidelines for these projects. Unlike IDFA, Thessaloniki does not require a commissioning editor to be on board with a project already, nor do they need to have funding in place. This should be a boon for Americans looking to float a project in the European market.

Thessaloniki offers a unique festival, one that takes maximum advantage of its locale. The food (and drink) are plentiful, the fest organizers incredibly friendly and available. Screenings ran smoothly, and there was at all times a clear curatorial vision in the programming and events. Eight years in, this is a fest that is at the cutting edge of current documentary filmmaking theory and practice. And Eipides shows few signs of slowing down as he dreams up new developments (a film fund for African filmmakers?) for 2007.

ABOUT THE WRITER: David Wilson is a filmmaker and co-founder of the Ragtag Cinema and the <a href="a%20href=" _cke_saved_href="a href=" http:="" www.ragtagfilm.com"="" target="_blank">True/False Film Festival</a>. He lives in Columbia, Missouri.</i></p><p></p>

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