Festival Director Dimitri Eipides

in 15th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Peter Wintonick

Greece is the country where the word “democracy” was invented. And, I venture, the root word for documentary. These days, Greece is experiencing what everyone refers to as a crisis. At least that’s what they were discussing at the 15th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival between films while sitting in innumerable cafes on Thessaloniki’s boardwalk, contemplating the Aegean Sea. The crisis is palpable everywhere. The nice festival volunteer who drove me from the airport to the Olympian Theatre was formerly a chartered accountant. I hope she gets to practice her preferred field soon. Fortunately, in the Chinese language, the pictographic symbol for crisis is also the word for opportunity. This FIPRESCI article is about a man who knows how to create opportunities: Dimitri Eipides, the artistic director and founder of the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival.

Let me say from the outset that I am one of the biggest believers in the Doc Fest and Dimitri Eipides. In my work and travels across the documentary world as one of the better-known documentary ambassadors, I have come to know Mr. Eipides as a colleague whose talent I have admired for decades. But I also call him a cinematic friend. It’s been a personal delight of mine to have attended the Documentary Festival since the very beginning and to witness how audiences, the festival and the Greek and foreign documentary industries have grown so strong since those very first days. Despite all the challenges over the years, and economies in flux, most of that can be attributed to Mr. Eipides and his extremely dedicated, beyond-the-call-of-duty team.

It is almost a universal truth throughout the film industry that Eipides is regarded as one of the top festival programmers in the world. This has manifested in his work: co-founding Montreal’s New Cinema Festival with Claude Chamberlan 41 years ago, co-programming since 1988 several of the international sections of the world-famous Toronto International Film Festival, co-founding in 2005 and curating as director of programming the Reykjavik International Film Festival, his lifelong dedication to working for, and now directing both the Thessaloniki International Festival (which was founded in 1960 and is more fiction-based in nature) and founding and directing what has become one of the more important non-fiction festivals in Europe, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. Perhaps it is because his astrological sign is Gemini, that he can do as much as two people can.

Eipides has long been a cinephile. Born in Greece more than 70 years ago, he studied literature at the University of San Francisco and theater at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He is a graduate of the London Film School and taught film at the University of Montreal. He organized, from 1992 to 2005, the “New Horizons” section at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival and established, in 1999, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, both of which he now directs. In 1999, he received a FIPRESCI Award for the quality of the programming at the Thessaloniki Festival. In 2005, he was honored by the Iranian Minister of Culture in Tehran for his contribution to the promotion of Iranian cinema internationally. In 2011, he won the EDN Award with the citation: “When times change from difficult to worse some people bend, whereas others, like Dimitri Eipides, decide to fight even harder by taking on more responsibilities and bigger challenges.”

Over the last 15 years he and his dedicated staff of men and women, who believe in the power of cinema, have gone to the ramparts, at extreme personal and economic sacrifice, to bring to Greece two of the most important festivals in the world. Eipides has nurtured, also at much personal lifelong sacrifice, the building of essential documentary and fiction platforms that the public, the industry and the critical community all need if they are to survive.

This year he had time to reflect on the past, for an anniversary catalogue, which I summarize here: “If someone had told me in 1999 that the documentary festival would still exist 15 years later, I would say it was a lie. Each time you start from scratch, like a tabula rasa, building a program out of creative restlessness, but also dominated by an anxiety about whether any film you have chosen will fit perfectly into the final mosaic. Last year, during the festival, I had a magical time. I was in my office when I saw my colleagues run to the window and snap Aristotle Square. I went and saw an endless queue of viewers forming lines and spirals, waiting to make it to the glass ticket booth in the centre of the plaza. Our audiences are hungry for more information. We started with 68 movies and today show more than 150 documentaries coming from all over the world. The dynamics of the market have now been established. We host over 500 films in the digital video library and more than 55 buyers and distributors come from abroad. Our efforts have been recognized all these years, both from the public’s point-of-view, and from the highly competitive network of international festivals, so that according to data from the European Union, it has been established that The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival is the third-best in the whole of Europe.”

In the first year of the Documentary Festival, I remember you would have been hard-pressed to gather a small table full of professional guests together at the local Agora Ouzo restaurant. Nowadays, the whole city buzzes with documentary people at festival time. So, I want to thank Dimitri Eipides, his crew and all the volunteers at this very special 15th edition of the Thessaloniki Doc Fest. I have been an eyewitness to how, despite the tribulations, the festival has grown to a great level of maturity since those very first days. Dimitri Eipides has always worked progressively for that common good — and for great cinematic, documentary and ethical values. These times demand this.

Edited by Carmen Gray