11st Thessaloniki Documentary

Greece, March 13 - March 22 2009

The jury

László Kriston (Hungary), Dubravka Lakic (Serbia), José Miguel Gaspar (), Michael Pekler (), Dimitris Haritos (Greece)

Awarded films

Now in its eleventh year, the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival is held in the capital of Greece’s Macedonian region where thousands of students reside and who literally flock to the movie theaters to see the highlights of this doc fest. A late night screening (starting at 11 pm) presented Festival Honoree Peter Wintonick’s three-hour film on Noam Chomsky and played to a full house, largely consisting of young people.

This year Africa was chosen as the topic of a thematic sidebar. It offered films which, in tackling the so-called Black Continent’s political, societal, cultural and financial issues, went far beyond the banal, well-known, sorrowful imagery of poverty. A fascinating panel discussion was held about the role of documentary festivals in politics, particularly since so many documentaries inform the people about hidden agendas and unreported events that, in effect, they influence politics on a national or international scale.

Wisely enough, the organizers launched a documentary market a few years ago to gather buyers, commissioning editors from public broadcasters and filmmakers. The positive effect has been in creating camaraderie as well as a pitching forum. All the guests, talents, jurors, producers and buyers thus mingle with each other on a daily basis.

Veteran cinematographer, 79-year-old Vilmos Zsigmond was in town to present Laszlo and Vilmos: No Subtitles Necessary, a portrait of the two Hungarian-born directors of photography who escaped their home country in the wake of the Soviet terror following the 1956 uprising in Hungary, and both of whom went on to photograph some of the most memorable movies of the Nouvelle Vagues-influenced young Hollywood directors in the 70s, ranging from Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and Paper Moon to The Deer Hunter and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The title must have jinxed the screening for the subtitling machine indeed went kaput. Zsigmond also gave an exceptionally good masterclass (a rare thing, I know, after having sat through a lot of those boring public interviews disguised as masterclasses). The electrified audience was not short of questions — time run out, and many of them didn’t get the chance to ask the Oscar winner maestro.

The line-up is varied enough to cater all sorts of interests. However, documentaries presented here mainly deal with the misery of the world — therefore exhilarating or hilarious pieces should be in bigger supply in the upcoming editions. To get away from all the documented hardship, a half-a-day trip was organized to the nearby Vergina to visit the tombstones of Philip, father of Alexander the Great, and of Alexander’s alleged son.

Even the snowy mountain on top of the Olympos, once believed to be the home of ancient Greek gods and other lesser deities on the opposite side of the bay, can be seen during the sunny days of this March festival — a sight Thessaloniki Festival regulars in cloudy November can rarely glimpse at. Architecturally speaking, the city sucks big time (one would very objectively call it a jungle of concrete — save for the famous Aristotelous Square with Moorish motives). The fact that most hotels and screening venues are in walking distance eases the festival guests to bear with the city’s low aesthetic quotient — and proximity is a welcome relief for attendees who are used to walking the whole length of the Croisette or taking the subway in Berlin to get to the Potsdamer Platz. (Laszlo Kriston)