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

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

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:

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…

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


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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