Greek Documentaries Are (Not) Still in Crisis

in 16th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Frédéric Ponsard

The 16th edition of Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) reassured us on the quality of filmmaking in Greece. Festival-goers were able to discover a large variety of documentaries, even if at the opening of the festival, TDF director Dimitri Eipides warned us about the future of the sector, and in particular about the dramatic closure of the public channel ERT which is going to compromise in the short term the financing of a big part of film production.

Of TDF’s selection of Greek films, several report directly on the state of broadcasting, culture, and the politics (and policies) generally in a country struck quite hard by the crisis: its debts, and the pressure of the “troika” — European Commission, of the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to go further towards austerity.

The Lost Signal of Democracy by Yorgos Avgeropoulos raises one of the most recent and worrisome subjects. On June 11th, 2013, the Prime Minister Antonis Samaras decided one-sidedly to cut the signal of ERT, Greece’s public broadcaster, including channels of public television as well as radios. It is an unprecedented act in the world, and the documentary reports in detail upon this moment which reminded to Greek the darkest hours of the military dictatorship. In the course of the numerous testimonies and the recent archives, we understand that no democratic process was respected and that the political power chose to make of this public service the scapegoat of budgetary restrictions.

Overnight, more than 2500 people found themselves unemployed, with the feeling of a profound injustice. The journalist, author and anti-globalization activist Naomi Klein speaks of “a deliberated act on reduction of freedoms” and on “a profound crisis of democracy” in Greece. The movie is deliberately militant, the director himself having worked regularly for ERT. The Lost Signal of Democracy is a hot and essential testimony on the deep nonsense of this inept political decision and the public projection of the movie gave rise to long debates and protests, showing the mobilization of a population taken hostage by the power, and the major stake in the problem in Greece.

Another documentary shows vividly the absence of vision in policies concerning culture, and how in times of crisis solidarity and inventiveness can replace the lack of means. The Art of Crisis, Theatre Matters by Katerina Patroni alternates between testimonies of prominent cultural figures in Greece and a variety of extracts from plays or ballets. As many of the interviewees tell us in the film, the prevalence of culture in society indicates the extent of its democracy. The storytelling and editing of Patroni are of a big intelligence by offering numerous round trips between the general economic and political situation and personal initiatives from the world of the theatre. Informative, documented, multiplying tracks and questions, the film shows that the theatre in times of crisis is more than ever a reflection of the anxieties and questions of society and citizens who compose it.

The Godmother by Stelios Koulouglou is much less convincing in its will to highlight the current problems of Greece. The movie bases itself largely on the eponymous book, which explores the personality of Angela Merkel, but largely in a mocking and caricatured way. The German chancellor appears as an opportunistic Machiavelli, doubled by an entomologist for whom the populations of the South -in the front row, the Greek- would be to observe and to treat on purpose.

Last but not the least, a comedian appears several times in the film as a kind of a transgender Merkel, making a fool of her, accommodatingly and pointlessly. Some elements float, as the sale of arms by Greece to France and Germany in exchange for loans, but they are drowned out by this constant demagogic approach.

Finally, Hope on the Line by Alexander Papanikolaou and Emily Yannoukou immerses us in the last election in June 2012, following step by step the candidate of the coalition of the radical Left (SYRIZA), Alexis Tsipras. For a non-Greek, the film is a little confusing by multiplying references to parties present on the domestic political scene. The countdown that leads us to the election is still well controlled by showing the scenes of a protest party and residual (less than 5% of voting intentions a year before the elections) becomes through its charismatic leader the primary left force in the country, narrowly missing out on an election win. Last drawback, directors seem apparently fascinated by the personality of Tsipras, whose appearances present him systematically in a positive light.

In any case, this 16th edition of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival shows that Greek documentary-makers are coming to grips with the catastrophic economic situation and policies of their country, by seizing burning issues which are, like news headlines, fascinating moments of cinema.

Edited by Michael Pattison