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by Basil Tsiokos
March 25, 2013 12:39 PM
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It's All Greek To Me: Championing Regional Filmmaking at the 15th Anniversary Thessaloniki Doc Fest

"Little Land"

Greek Films

This tightrope between local and international accessibility is something the festival contends with in their expansive presentation of completed Greek films as well. Thessaloniki champions Greece's national cinema, including Greek productions in each of the thematic programming sections, as well as a standalone Greek Panorama. It's clear that, at least in the case of some of the selections, that these docs - many of them television productions - are really offered as an an opportunity for locals to access information about a number of pressing social issues facing the country as it endures during the economic crisis, as well as a more diverse body of work that reflects Greece's culture and history or in some cases explores non-Greek subjects. The festival's commitment to serving local filmmakers and audiences, and the latter's enthusiastic receptiveness, is demonstrated further by the increasing popularity of Thessaloniki's expanded live-streaming project, which offers select screenings to six universities around Greece and in Cyprus; its touring program, which brings films to dozens of smaller regional towns over the next couple of weeks; and an initiative that presents docs in prisons.

Beyond this homegrown focus, other Greek work presented simultaneously serves international viewers with universally accessible portraits or insider views of socioeconomic issues that are sadly factors in far too many other nations. The following titles represent just a taste of these, focusing on award winners and now completed projects that made an impression in last year's Docs in Progress section.

At the top of the list is Dimitris Koutsiabasakos' Audience Award winning "The Grocer," which follows Nikos, his wife Sophia, and their grown sons over five seasons as they sell fresh produce out of a truck to the aging population of dying mountain villages. Delivering on the promise shown in last year's Docs in Progress, this accomplished observational doc thrives on the interactions between these otherwise forgotten people, whose sons, daughters, and grandchildren have long ago left for better economic opportunities in the cities, and Nikos and his family, who provide not only a service, but a sense of connection to the world outside the village. Often humorous, with a selection of truly memorable characters, Koutsiabasakos' film also serves as a poignant portrait of another, slowly fading, way of life.

Another award winner, Nikos Dayandas' "Little Land," which picked up two prizes out of the Habitat programming strand, follows Theodoris as he relocates from the economic challenges of Athens to the remote island of Ikaria to become a farmer. Profiled in the New York Times magazine for its people's longevity, Ikaria has drawn other unemployed Greeks to its shores to search for a better way of life. Dayandas, whose last film, "Sayome," also won at last year's Doc Fest, occasionally overnarrates here, but ultimately crafts an engaging exploration of the different rhythms and expectations of island life, and an accessible "back to the land" profile that should resonate beyond Greece.

Also universal in its central premise is Marianna Economou's "Food for Love," which was another project that caught my eye at last year's Docs in Progress. The film's three main subjects are Greek mothers whose children are attending university some distance away, including out of the country. Beyond Skype calls and occasional visits over school breaks, these doting moms express their love by regularly preparing veritable feasts that are delivered to their beloved, sometimes smothered kids via a specialized transport service that links the three stories. As someone whose Greek mother loves to weigh me down with containers of all manners of home cooked goods every time a visit ends, I can absolutely relate on a cultural level, but despite its Hellenic specificity, Economou's film will assuredly connect with all manners of audiences.

Absent Greek characters or themes, Panayiotis Evangelidis' FIPRESCI jury winner "They Glow in the Dark" instead looks at a pair of poor HIV+ gay men trying to make a living in post-Katrina New Orleans. Employing a dark, rough-hewn look that's fitting for subjects Michael and Jim's environment and existence, Evangelidis' quiet film offers a glimpse at two men who are both familiar types yet too infrequently the focus of documentary portraits. Loose interviews reveal their backgrounds, regrets, and what brought them to New Orleans, where they make and sell small figurines in an open-air market stall in often stifling heat. It's a low-key film, but one that poignantly explores loneliness, friendship, intimacy, and, most hopefully, survival.

Yiorgos Moustakis and Nikos Labot's "The Immortals at the Southern Point of Europe" also profiles outsiders looking for a different way of life in a new place. Presented at last year's Docs in Progress, I was intrigued by the premise - the remote island of Gavdos has been the home of a small group of self-exiled Russian scientists, who, in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, have attempted to live according to Pythagorean philosophical principles. My concerns were that their quest for immortality, as presented in sample footage, sounded far too esoteric, and, unfortunately, the finished film bears that fear out. Most interesting here are the reactions of local villagers and the religious community to their Russian neighbors, including the sometimes far-fetched theories that developed around their activities. What doesn't come off quite so successfully are the interviews and footage of the very detached philosophers, who fail to engage the viewer in a concrete manner, making the film uneven at best.

Finally, the last of the previous year's Docs in Progress projects, "Music Village" by Andreas Siadimas, also reflects on the relationship between local Greeks and newcomers who, in some ways, disrupt their usual routines. Siadimas' film is set in Agios Lavrendios, a mountain village that has been the host to a yearly convocation of international musicians, drawn to the location to collaborate and perform over a number of weeks. A sort of adult band camp, the participants open themselves up to new ideas, innovative combinations of genres, and the freedom of expressing their music outside the norm. They also enjoy the festive atmosphere, which typically culminates in all-night revelry in the village square - and which draws the ire of some of the local residents. While those who make money off these visitors welcome their presence, villagers not involved in the tourism industry are not quite so happy. Siadimas attempts to balance this uneasy coexistence with an appreciation for the music produced at the camp, but it doesn't entirely work - as a whole, there's too much performance and not enough of the larger clash. While this might be welcome by music doc fans, it's not altogether successful for a broader audience who may be less interested in the music in and of itself.

15th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival Awards

FIPRESCI Awards:

Greek Selection:
"They Glow in the Dark" -  Panayotis Evangelidis, Greece

International Selection:
"Parts of a Family" - Diego Gutiérrez, Mexico 

Audience Awards:

Greek Selection:
"The Grocer" - Dimitris Koutsiabasakos, Greece (feature)
"A Heritage in Deep Agony" - Kyriaki Malama, Greece (short)

International Selection:
"Blood Brother" - Steve Hoover, USA (feature)
"The High Price of Gold" - Ross Domoney, Democratic Republic of Congo (short)

Amnesty International Award (Human Rights section): "Call Me Kuchu" - Katherine Fairfax Wright & Malika Zouhali-Worrall, USA

World Wildlife Fund Award (Habitat section): "Little Land" - Nikos Dayandas, Greece/France

ERT3 (Greek Public Television) Broadcasting Award (Habitat section, €1500 prizes): "Little Land" - Nikos Dayandas, Greece/France; "Winter Nomads" - Manuel von Stürler, Switzerland

Docs in Progress Award (€15,000 in-kind services): "Aunty" - Manu Gerosa and Salva Muñoz, Italy/Spain

ERT (Greek Public Television) Doc on Air Award (EDN Pitching Forum projects, €7000 prize): "Playing With Fire" - Anneta Papathanassiou and Photini Economopoulou, Greece

EDN Award, presented to an institution, group or person for outstanding contribution to the development of documentary culture: Stefano Tealdi and Joan Gonzáles - Documentary in Europe and DocsBarcelona

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