Best of the Thessaloniki Doc Festival

in Thessaloniki Docs 2024

by Richard Lawson

Controversy surrounded the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival over its ten-day run, as Greece, like much of the rest of the world, finds itself in the lurches of progress and regression. Gay marriage was made legal in the nation last month, a major political achievement nicely complemented by the festival’s choice to showcase queer film this year. Protests happened, though not necessarily because of gay marriage—a far-right group gathered outside the festival’s premier screening venue to decry the striking film Stray Bodies, which surveys the many threats currently posed to women’s bodily autonomy, and features a pregnant crucified woman on its poster. 

The tensions high on the periphery of the festival were fascinatingly explored within. Tthis year’s lineup of films covered a vast array of topics, charting the personal and political dynamics defining Greece and the world beyond. 

The FIPRESCI jury awarded best Greek film to Tack, director Vania Turner’s bracing account of two athletes squaring off against an entrenched system of harassment and abuse. Greece was slower to embrace the #MeToo movement than some other Western countries, and Turner’s engrossing film is a galvanizing, intimate look at what spurred the nation to catch up. (You can read more about Tack here. [Link to Tasos’s review]) Best international film went to Farahnaz Sharifi’s My Stolen Planet, a haunting collage of home video and cell phone footage that, in aggregate, captures decades of joy and struggle in post-revolution Iran. (Read more about My Stolen Planet. [Link to Alessandro’s review]) One hopes both sterling films will continue to make the festival rounds on their way to audiences around the world.

Also notable in the international section was Matthäus Wörle’s Where We Used to Sleep, which, in telling one Romanian woman’s story, despondently addresses the recent history of an entire country. Shot in the desolate but strangely inviting Carpathian mountains, Wörle’s film captures the everyday process of a solitary life in slow collapse, much as the masterful Honeyland did in 2019. As we watch an elderly woman puttering about her ailing patch of land, Where We Used to Live builds its quiet argument against the environmental havoc wreaked by industrial and governmental greed. The film is damning and moving, compassionate and furious at once. 

On the more sentimental—though, no less heartsick—side of things is Unclaimed, Marianna Economou’s poignant inspection of a trove of letters and photographs left behind by people who died, over the course of decades, in a tuberculosis hospital in Athens. There is something of a mystery to be solved, a tracking down of relatives in order to connect static objects with real people. But mostly Unclaimed is a lilt back into a troubled past, giving dimension and personhood (and voice) to what initially seem like mere names on a list of the dead. 

This year’s festival took us on fascinating, frustrating journeys well past Europe. Enrique Sánchez Lansch’s Pol Pot Dancing reflects on the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and its leader through the lens of Cambodia’s dance traditions, an artform nearly lost during the genocide. Pol Pot himself was raised among dancers, a community he would later work to annihilate. We feel a similar sense of political irony, and the sickness of history tangling with the present, in And So It Begins, Ramona S. Diaz’s sprawling look at the most recent presidential election in the Philippines, in which progressive vice president Leni Robredo, long the punching bag of iron-fisted Rodgrigo Duterte, challenges political scion Bongbong Marcos, the son of a dictator who promises to carry on his family’s grim legacy. 

The results are depressing, as so many political stories are these days. Perhaps depressing enough to make a viewer want to shed the trappings of their life and disappear into a new one. The entrancing German-Japanese production Johatsu: Into Thin Air, from directors Andreas Hartmann and Arata Mori, depicts an underground industry that helps people do just that. Though, the deliberately lost souls introduced in the film are fleeing their lives for more concrete and immediate reasons than political malaise. They owe money to mobsters, or are trapped in abusive relationships. The filmmakers had boggling access in their investigation of this strange and elusive practice, and the film is all the richer and more captivating for it. 

Back on the homefront, How’s Claire?, from Chryssa Tzelepi, closely follows an elderly woman, slipping in and out of dementia, as she grasps at the ghosts floating through her mind and around her Athens apartment. How’s Claire? is, in its understated way, a true-life counterpart to films like Amour and Vortex; these films are bleak and yet still somehow soulful, nourishing dives into the abyss of memory loss. 

Decidedly more uplifting was Loxy, Dimitris Zahos and Thanasis Kafetzis’s graceful documentation of the first person with Downs syndrome to perform in a production at the National Theatre of Greece. The filmmakers resist the corny schmaltz that one might find in American film and instead allow its subject, twenty-something Loxandra, the complicated breadth of her humanity. 

Drag queens go strutting in Fil Ieropoulos’s Avant-Drag!, a profile of ten alt-performers who practice their craft in brave defiance of the social animus bearing down on them. The film felt of particular relevance in Thessaloniki, where an attack on two trans women at the hands of dozens of young men in Aristotelous Square made headlines on March 10. (There was a massive protest in response to the incident, an encouraging indicator that the heart of the city lies on the side of justice.) 

Perhaps the most evocative queer film I saw at the festival was Lesvia, Tzeli Hadjidimitriou’s summery-sad look at the history and future of a lesbian vacation community on the Greek island of the film’s title. The film invites the viewer into its cloistered world, letting us appreciate and revel in the freedoms this special, secluded place allows. Lesvia is a nice mirror to the recent SXSW documentary A House Is Not a Disco, a portrait of the men of Fire Island as they fight to keep a flame burning while rising seas encroach. How lovely it is to watch Lesvia and, yes, take a virtual vacation to a beautiful place. But also to glimpse what might be a better design for living. As unrest around the world demonstrates every day, humanity continues to reach for utopias like that.