An Anniversary and a Home-made Quarrel By Caroline M. Buck

in 10th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival

by Caroline M. Buck

Images of the 21st century, the documentary branch of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, celebrated its 10th anniversary edition this year amid fears that a threatened nationwide blackout would hit local cinemas and disrupt the festival’s screening schedule. On the opening day, festival hotels were sporadically without light or water, and a notoriously traffic-clogged inner city was thrown into relative chaos by partial power-cuts that left traffic lights inoperative. Luckily, that turned out to be the worse it got, and by the end of the festival, a new record in audience numbers proved that it takes more than even an unseasonal outbreak of bright summery weather for local audiences to spurn their very own documentary film festival.

The real storm cloud on the festival’s horizon turned out to be a furious row between the festival’s selection committee under founding director Dimitri Eipides, and members of the Greek film industry who felt their films where underrepresented in the festival — in the face of a statutory quota that demands a whopping 30 percent of the festival’s showing should come from indigenous filmmakers. Since previous years had seen a tacit upending of that rule and a consequent upscaling of the percentage of Greek product on show to something in the region of 34 to 35 percent of the total number of titles, this year’s return to the festival’s rule book ruffled feathers to the point where a counter-festival of films left out of the Thessaloniki fest’s selection was staged, pre-festival, in Athens.

A two-hour anniversary round table about perspectives for the upcoming second decade of the Thessaloniki festival got consequently highjacked by a debate that had already made the headlines in Greek papers, with the essential problem turning out to be that only documentary films selected by Eipides and his team for the programme of their festival are eligible for the national Greek Film Awards later in the year. A gateway situation that Eipides seemed the first to regret, though when asked to put himself and his team at the head of an industry movement in favour of promoting a change in the pertinent laws, he seemed equally unwilling to become involved in any kind of power tactics, stressing his interest in the aesthetic quality of films in the selection of his programme over questions of their mere provenance instead.

Inter-Greek squabbles apart, what started out in March 1999 as a two-screen sidebar to the Thessaloniki International Film Festival proper (and modestly does not even bear the word “international” in its title), has since evolved into a truly international filmfest with a thriving market section plus European Documentary Network-organized pitching sessions that proudly counts itself third among European documentary film festivals, right after Amsterdam’s towering IDFA and the contemporaneously run Cinéma du Réel in Paris. English subtitles and simultaneous translation on a high professional level are provided for all films and side events, round tables, opening and closing ceremonies included — all the more noteworthy this since the local population’s familiarity with the language seems to be skimpy at best (the polyglot festival staff mostly transfer to Thessaloniki from Athens for the duration).

Approximately 160 films, varying in length from short films via TV-compatible 53 to 56 minute formats to full feature length documentaries, vied for a grand total of 16 awards many of which came with statues and prize money attached, the four Greek Red Cross-sponsored audience awards among them — a fairly impressive number, considering the festival’s organisation into a series of loosely overlapping thematic sections and tributes with no officially designated competitive core at all. In accordance with the international trends in mid- to low-budget filmmaking, most films were digitally shot and screened in DigiBeta or even Betacam SP formats, with technical quality of projection and support varying from film to film and screen to screen (though the local audience’s taste for cell phone conversations and message-typing during screenings proved rather more off-putting in the run of a ten-day-festival than any occasional flaw in projection technique).

Alongside the festival’s main sections “Views of the World” and “Greek Panorama”, the many and variegated thematic sections included an ecologically minded programme Habitat and a series of films under the header Human Rights that ranged from Andrés Rubio’s appreciative view of gay marriage tourism to a small Spanish village in the heart-warming Campillo Yes, I Do (Campillo sí, quiero) to a story of Pakistani female self-empowerment against very heavy odds in Dishonored by Norwegian TV-directors Gard Aleksander Andreassen and Sigrun Norderval or the eye-catching cinematography of Polish directors’ Jacek Naglowski and Andrzej Dybczak’s ethnographical study of an alcohol-bound ethnic minority of erstwhile reindeer herders in Siberia in Gugara, a film whose production was facilitated by the previous year’s Thessaloniki pitching sessions.

Canada provided this year’s fest less with a regional accent than with a look at the world as seen from the truly multicultural eyes of its often second-generation immigrant filmmakers, with subject matters and geographical spotlights ranging from a sympathetic look at the upheaval among the local populace caused by the construction of China’s Three Gorges Dam in Yung Chang’s emotion-building Up the Yangtze, to the ferociously US-critical Under the Hood: A Voyage into the World of Torture by Chilean-born Patricio Henríquez, or New York-based Tanaz Eshaghian’s uncovering of the astounding sexual mores under the moral guidance of the guardians of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in her FIPRESCI-Award winning Be Like Others.

Tributes ranged from a homage to and workshops with Finnish filmmaker and festival founder Arto Halonen and American docu-masters Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) to a series of TV-reportages plus a photo exhibition from the hot-spots of the world by Greek star-TV-reporter Sotiris Danezis under his TV-series’ title of War Zones. There were music documentaries and portrait films, a flourishing interest in the country’s own recent experience of exile, banishment and resistance to occupation and military Junta-regime among the Greek filmmakers and a sheaf of films about the various forms of fascism in Faces of Fascism, from the Holocaust to the building of walls to the creation of second-rate citizens in modern-day Israel.

The only thing one could have wished for was to have more time to sit over a Greek coffee in-between screenings, gazing at the city’s impressive curved pier with snow-capped Mount Olympus on the other side of the Gulf and the odd half dozen container ships busily chugging southwards in-between. But the films were many, and interesting, and ten days all too short.