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It's All Greek To Me: Championing Regional Filmmaking at the 15th Anniversary Thessaloniki Doc Fest

By Basil Tsiokos | Indiewire March 25, 2013 at 12:39PM

Greece's second largest city celebrated the conclusion of its documentary festival's 15th anniversary this past weekend. The sister fest of November's long-running narrative-only Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which turns 54 later this year, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival is overseen by the tireless Dimitri Eipides, who, beyond his duties at both Thessaloniki fests, continues to program Central Asian, Eastern European and Central European films for Toronto. For the doc fest, Eipides and his team assembled an extra-sized edition this year, showcasing nearly 200 features and shorts, including a retrospective of favorites from the event's past fifteen years, a tribute to Chilean doc auteur Patricio Guzmán, and a healthy selection of new and recent international selections and Greek productions.
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"The Grocer"
"The Grocer"
Greece's second largest city celebrated the conclusion of its documentary festival's 15th anniversary this past weekend. The sister fest of November's long-running narrative-only Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which turns 54 later this year, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival is overseen by the tireless Dimitri Eipides, who, beyond his duties at both Thessaloniki fests, continues to program Central Asian, Eastern European and Central European films for Toronto. For the doc fest, Eipides and his team assembled an extra-sized edition this year, showcasing nearly 200 features and shorts, including a retrospective of favorites from the event's past fifteen years, a tribute to Chilean doc auteur Patricio Guzmán, and a healthy selection of new and recent international selections and Greek productions.

Saturday night saw the presentation of several awards, including nods to a few familiar recent titles, such as Sundance multi-award winner "Blood Brother" (Audience Award, International), Berlin and Hot Docs winner "Call Me Kuchu" (Amnesty International Award), "Parts of a Family" (FIPRESCI, International) and "Winter Nomads" (ERT3 Broadcasting Award) -- as well as some new films - Dimitris Koutsiabasakos' "The Grocer" (Audience Award, Greek), Panayotis Evangelidis' "They Glow in the Dark" (FIPRESCI Award), and two prizes to Nikos Dayandas' "Little Land" (World Wildlife Fund and ERT3 Broadcasting Awards). A full list of winners is included at the end of this article.

Docs in Progress

At last year's festival, I attended the inaugural program of Docs in Progress, an addition to the event's concurrent Thessaloniki Doc Market which regularly draws hundreds of industry attendees to watch more than 500 available titles and participate in scores of panels and conversations. Docs in Progress saw twelve teams of filmmakers introduce extended clips of new projects on which they were then in production or post. Focused on filmmaking from the Mediterranean, Balkans, and Central Europe, I was intrigued by a number of the projects presented, as noted in my dispatch last year. Since then, four of these have been completed and were selected for this year's festival -- they are included below in my roundup of some of the local filmmaking in the 2013 lineup. Docs in Progress returned for a second year, presenting sneak previews of another dozen projects to buyers, co-producers, and other attending industry. A welcome sign showing the growing support of this initiative was the introduction of an award in the form of €15,000 in services from Greek post-house Authorwave, decided by an international jury consisting of Al Jazeera commissioning editor Flora Gregory, Jan Rofekamp from sales company Films Transit, and Greek public television station ERT's Ariana Meindana, head of co-productions. Among the in the works projects that showed the most promise:

"Call Me Kuchu"
"Call Me Kuchu"

"Aunty"
Directors: Salva Muñoz, Manu Gerosa
Producer: Manu Gerosa
Country: Italy/Spain
Production Company: Oneworld Documakers
Budget: €80,000

Synopsis: "Aunty" Teresa has lived a full life, but, in her old age, has become a needy, possessive person who feels entitled to the love and care of her younger sister, Ornella. Teresa hints at something that deeply hurt her a lifetime ago, but while the town whispers about her secret, Teresa refuses to discuss it with Ornella.

Muñoz and Gerosa's project took home the new award, impressing with intimacy, humor, and an intriguing premise about a family with a major open secret. If there's one criticism to be leveled against the project, it's that the original synopsis and the selects shown reveal too much, or at least very strongly suggest the critical revelation at the core of the film. While that may be fine for presentations to industry, the filmmakers might be better off showing more restraint when it comes time to attract a public audience's attention.

"Affection to the People"
Director: Vassilis Douvlis
Producers: Panos Kouanis, Aris Fatouros
Country: Greece
Production Company: Hellenic Parliament Television Station
Budget: none provided

Synopsis: A documentary about cinema censorship during the period of the dictatorship in Greece (1967-1974), based on unpublicized state archives of the era and including interviews with Greek film directors, secret documents that come to light for the first time, and short clips from 75 films, both Greek and foreign, which were either banned or censored during the time.

While the project is very culturally and historically Greek-specific, this has a chance to garner international attention as well. The unearthing of the censorship office records, and even, in some cases, physical film cuttings of the material deemed objectionable, provides insight into a repressive regime and how it manipulated cultural works to bolster its own view of not only how Greece should be represented to its people, but also what Greeks should be exposed to from other nations.

"A Family Affair"
Director: Angeliki Aristomenopoulou
Producers: Rea Apostolides, Yuri Averof
Country: Greece/Australia
Production Company: Anemon Productions
Budget: €120,000

Synopsis: The Xylouris family is Greece's most famous musical clan, its three generations upholding the vibrant tradition of Cretan music across the world. But with economic problems facing fifty-year-old Giorgis, the family is at a crossroads. He must perform non-stop to make ends meet while his Australian wife and manager, Shelagh, struggles to keep the family together. An intimate portrait of a contemporary Greek-Australian family brought together and torn apart by their love of music.

Aristomenopoulou's doc smartly focuses on one of Greece's most recognizable exports - its music - and on performers with an existing fanbase. Beyond that, it brings a human dimension and family dynamics that should engage those viewers who might not necessarily be interested in this specific musical genre, or even those who may not be drawn to strictly music docs.

"Teaching Ignorance"
Director: Tamada Erde
Producer: Tatiana Bouchain
Country: France/Israel
Production Company: Iliade &Films
Budget: €220,000

Synopsis: Tracing the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it is presented and taught in different forms of both Israeli and Palestinian systems. Through portraits of several history teachers and educators interviewed and filmed in their classes, the film reveals the different narrations and approaches for teaching the complex and charged history of the conflict.

Erde's clips only presented half of her subjects, and some were more engaging than others, but what was shown was promising as a whole. Her premise offers a new framework from which to view the seemingly neverending story of the region, and, perhaps, one which may open eyes among viewers who share some of the perspectives to be featured.

"Time for Heroes"
Directors: Angelos Kovotsos, Kalliopi Legaki
Producer: Maria Gentekou
Country: USA/France/Greece
Production Company: Portolanos Films
Budget: €110,000

Synopsis: Robert Manthoulis, a Greek filmmaker who lived in exile in Paris during the military junta, meets with 83-year-old Elias Demetracopoulos, a Washington DC-based reporter whose commitment to the struggle against the junta brought him in contact with Greek and American secret services and corrupt governments in the 1970s, revealing unknown aspects of modern history.

Watergate, in particular, plays a singular role in Demetracopoulous' background, with interviewees in the clips weighing in that he was instrumental to the fall of Nixon's administration and never got his just deserts. While this proves to be a hook, I'm curious about the larger story here, and hopeful that the film doesn't just hang on what might otherwise be a Greek-specific footnote to the Watergate scandal.

"Aegean Odyssey"
Director/Producer: Omiros Evangelinos
Country: Greece/USA
Production Company: Aegean Odyssey Films
Budget: €150,000

Synopsis: The historic island communities of the Cyclades are facing the danger of extinction due to the degradation of their natural and cultural environment. Fishing communities are barely surviving because of the transformation of their industry away from long-term sustainable artisan fisheries to short-term industrial overfishing, environmental pollution, and sometimes the islanders' own illegal practices. At the same time, farming is all but extinct, a victim of the monoculture of tourism. As tradition gives way to economic incentives, what can be done before it's too late?

I'm less interested in the overfishing angle here -- there have already been a number of other docs looking at that particular environmental issue -- but I am drawn to the idea of exploring its impact on the traditional culture of these islands and its people. The consideration of the further consequences of a tourism-focused economy serves as an additional layer, and, again, suggests a way to broaden the scope of the film beyond Greece to other nations affected by climate change, environmental recklessness, or rampant industrialization.

Go to page two to learn about the Greek films that played at the festival and for the full list of awards winners...

This article is related to: Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival, Festival Dispatch