Images of a Shattered Century

in 5th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Necati Sönmez

As a relatively young but established festival, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival has been offering clear pictures of contemporary documentary filmmaking from all over the world since the very beginning. In the festival’s own history, which is short but which coincides with a fruitful era of the documentary, you can see the indications of how – and why – this genre has finally managed to regain its importance in recent years.

Some years ago, Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club, Agnès Varda’s Gleaners and I, and now, last but not least, Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine have managed more then ever to bring docs into the spotlight. And during these years Thessaloniki had the privilege of reflecting not only this fact (i.e. a Michael Moore retrospective), but also the recent explosion in the field of documentary.

The 5th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (28th February – 9th March) had a wide selection of films dedicated to contemporary issues such as war, ethnic conflicts, immigration, women, etc. appropriate to its motto “Images of the 21st Century”. Besides, it also offered humorous/creative/inspiring works like the ones in the section Night Shadows, or Music Through the Lens.

Ford Transit by Hany Abu-Assad, which ended up being FIPRESCI’s choice, was only one of the wide selection of documentaries related to Palestine. Hany Abu-Assad, who was in the festival circuit last year with his fiction Rana’s Wedding, put his camera in a van running around Ramallah and Jerusalem, to see how the lasting conflict oppresses the atmosphere of this small cosmos. It is, as we discussed in the jury deliberation, an excellent road movie which goes nowhere: only from one border to another. And by the “way”, alongside its main character (the driver), the film introduces us to the passengers from various classes: oldies, youngsters, housewives, researchers, politicians and even filmmakers… What is marvelous about the film, though the camera rarely goes out of the van, is that it manages to reflect almost the whole reality of the Palestinian territory.

The other documentaries about Palestine like Jenin, Jenin, Gaza Strip, Letters from Palestine, Waiting for Peace approach to the same issue from several aspects in more conventional styles and they helped to complete the jigsaw-puzzle of this bleeding reality.

Women facing the cruel customs in all the corners of the world was another topic of the films we saw in Thessaloniki. Kim Longinotto discusses women’s circumcision in Kenya and surroundings in her The Day I Will Never Forget and makes the matter unforgettable for the viewers, while Ayfer Ergun’s Against My Will deals with the honour killings in Pakistan. In the latter, looking from the ‘windows’ of the women’s shelter founded by a civil organization, we see the horrific practices of a law which forces the women to live in a social position no better than the one in the former Taliban regime of Afghanistan. However, Our Times by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad from Iran, tells the story of women fighting for better conditions both for themselves and for the rest of the country.

On the other hand, the Greek winner of a FIPRESCI award, The Way to the West by Kyriakos Katzourakis, also focuses on women in an innovative docu-fiction style, putting one example at its center, a victim of slave trade from ex-Soviet countries. It’s worth noting that illegal refugees was a common issue within the films made in Greece, a country which plays a strategic role in terms of the immigration wave being a ‘waiting room’ on ‘the way to the west’. (Thinking about this topic, one can’t help but remember The Suspended Step of the Stork by Theo Angelopoulos.)

Well, beyond the hard reality, we had also funny films in the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival like Hush! (Tishe!) by Victor Kossakovsky, which can be considered a cynical masterpiece. Putting a camera against a window and starting to shoot the street doesn’t sound like a very brilliant idea for a film. But, being a patient filmmaker, Kossakovsky has proved that it is quite possible to end up with great story out of these random shootings. Hush! is an almost-silent film dedicated not only to the magnificence of filmmaking but also to the celebration of the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg’s foundation.

Cinema peeks at cinema: Fellini I’m A Born Liar by Damian Pettigrew and Kurosawa (2000) by Adam Low, were portraits of the two different legendary filmmakers in a similar way: Additional to their own words, interviews with their actors, fragments from their lives, archival scenes and clips from their works… While Fellini is pictured in a more comic and creative way, the latter film prefers to be more informative in order to help the viewers to get into Kurosawa’s aura.