Journeys into Reality

in 5th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Anette Olsen

A decorated Thessalonica with lights in the streets ready for the “Mardi Gras” celebrations was for the fifth time the host of a documentary festival that this year had been extended with an extra two days.

With a slight overweight of American produced films: 16 out of 147 documentaries (not counting the American docs in the Spotlight sections), the program was expanded accordingly and the ten-days event presented an impressive selection of high-quality documentary films. Alongside the five main axes presented each year: Views of the World / Stories to Tell / Habitat / Portraits / and the Recording of Memory, the festival this year put a focus on Palestine, showcasing a number of recent films by directors of different backgrounds and nationalities. Moreover, an official competition section of Greek films was established this year to increase interest for Greek productions.

Focus on Palestine

The Dutch production Ford Transit by Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad received the FIPRESCI award for best international documentary. Structured as a “road movie”, we follow the daily life of Hajai, a young, Palestinian cab driver of a white Ford on his trips between Ramallah and Jerusalem. The passengers often waste many hours at roadblocks set up by the Israeli army, although Hajai uses imaginative tricks to pass quicker. Hajai’s hottest wish is to be able to drive for one hour without being interrupted by roadblocks. Ironically the white Fords now serving as taxis used to belong to the Israeli army. The passengers are ordinary Palestinians with different social backgrounds and during the trip, they discuss the present situation in the country with Hajai or to the camera revealing their opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Sometimes the discussions get heated, but most often people make their point with humorous remarks, like the Palestinian man who thinks every president should have an IQ test done, especially president Bush. More prominent people like Hannah Ashrawi, founder of MIFTAH, the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy, a human rights analyst, an orthodox priest and Israeli filmmaker, B.Z. Goldberg (who made Promises), are at one point passengers in the taxi and they too give their point of view of the situation.

Through all these people, the filmmaker succeeds in getting both a picture of what the “man in the street” thinks of the situation as well as a more analytical view of the conflict. And on top of that, the film is highly entertaining. Hajai, the taxi driver, has the drive and courage of a true hero, but at one point he wants to get out of the film, because being filmed is not good for the business, people start talking. The filmmaker, however, reasons with him, and Hajai is supposedly convinced to continue in the presence of the camera.


Another very entertaining film on a completely different subject was the American production Spellbound by Jeff Blitz. The film provoked spontaneous reactions of the otherwise very low-key Mediterranean audience that did not exceed in emotional outbursts.

The documentary follows eight driven young spellers from across the USA during their preparations for the “National Spelling Bee”; a spelling competition that is highly popular to Americans. We meet the children in their homes with their families who support them every way they can in their sometimes obsessive study schedules that does not leave much time for normal child activities. The parents of Neil, an Indian boy, are extremely focused on not wasting time for anything that hasn’t got to do with studying words. The mother goes so far as to laying out clothes for her son in order to save a few minutes that he can use on studying. Neil studies eight to nine hours a day and goes through more than thousands of words with his father. In another family the stress is somewhat less pronounced, although the daughter prefers studying to going to the mall with her friends.

From filming the family environment of the eight spelling candidates, the filmmaker shows us the patchwork of different cultures with different social and economic backgrounds that America is made of. Structured around the days of preparation the film then moves on to the actual competition, where more and more spellers are eliminated every day until only a handful remains. And this is where the documentary in some memorable moments turns the situation into a real cliffhanger, with the audience holding their breath when one of the spellers hesitates. Every time one of the kids made it, there was a sigh of relief from the Greek audience, and by the end of the film people applauded spontaneously.

Thessalonica is a festival that is worthwhile visiting for the excellent selection of documentaries, unless you’ve already seen them on other European festivals. There are repeats, but for a Greek audience who are not spoiled with creative documentaries on TV, and for non-Greeks who are not familiar with the Greek documentary scene, there is definitely lots to watch.