Professional Staff, Stunning Setting

in 17th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Massimo Lechi

The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival – Images of the 21st Century is certanly one of the most important cinematic events in Greece and in the entire Balkan Region. It takes place in March, approximetely four months after the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. Both festivals are currently directed by Dimitri Eipides and share the same staff, as well as the stunning setting of Aristotelous Square.

Founded more than fifty years ago by Pavlos Zannas, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival has by now established itself as one of the leading fiction festivals within the Mediterranean. Admired filmmakers such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Aleksei German have won the Golden Alexander over the years, while celebrated maestri like Werner Herzog and Aki Kaurismäki have been honored with retrospectives and tributes. The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, with its 17 editions, is much younger in comparison, but already highly renowned. Eipides built it brick by brick and tenaciously turned it into one of Greece’s major cultural appointments. Every year documentarians from all over the world try to have the international premières of their new works in this prestigious showcase dedicated to emerging documentary filmmaking. But what attracts film professionals is not only the reputation of the festival; what makes the difference in Thessaloniki is the ambience: warm, and at the same time fizzy, with young viewers crowding cinemas between the Olympion Theater and the Port where the Cinématèque is located. It is a young festival: not because it lacks history or cultural weight, but because its audience is young and hungry for new points of view and new ways of looking at our ever-changing world.

Despite the ongoing economical crisis that is weakening Greek society, this part of the country is far from a wasteland. With more than a million citizens, its famous university and the almost legendary concentration of clubs and restaurants, Thessaloniki looks more alive than ever. In March, with spring approaching and a delicate breeze caressing the sea, daily screenings of Greek and foreign documentaries are very often sold out, and there is always a long line of girls and boys waiting to buy their tickets outside the box-offices. After midnight, people gather in bars and it is not unusual for film critics, directors and mere viewers to end up together in a street party. Here the seventh art, with all its social and political implications, really seems to continue to be regarded as important. For all these reasons, it is not surprising that Thessaloniki Doc has managed to survive the hardships so well and maintain its independence and high standards. The second-born festival of this beautiful city still has a social purpose.

This year’s edition had a program with more than 185 titles divided into eight official sections (Views of The World; Stories to Tell; Recordings of Memory; Portraits: Human Journeys; Habitat; Human Rights; Society; Music & Dance), as well as the Greek Panorama. There were also special screenings, an interesting focus on German documentarists, a selection of documentaries for kids and, of course, the Agora, the doc market for distributors and directors eager to find bigger audiences. In addition to all this, the festival organized complete retrospectives of the works of Austrian documentarist Hubert Sauper and of Romanian filmmaker Alexandru Solomon. It has been a perfect occasion for young cinephiles and critics to discover two fascinating cinematic worlds. Sauper’s political documentaries showed us the present sufferings of contemporary Africa, torn between the horrors of old and new colonialisms. Solomon’s films were meanwhile a journey through the history of Romania, a country that still has to come to terms with the darkest moments of its past and with the big social and political contradictions of its present.

Thessaloniki Doc is a non-competitive festival but, nonetheless, it hosts four Audience Awards (for Greek and foreign films over and under 45 minutes in length) and two FIPRESCI Prizes. This year’s most popular feature-length foreign movie has been Virunga, by Orlando von Einsiedel, a powerful documentary set in the Congolese Virunga National Park. The film, shown in the Habitat section, met with considerable critical and public acclaim.

The FIPRESCI Prizes have been chosen from among international premières and Greek films shown in the official sections. The FIPRESCI Prize for Best Greek Film went to Hail Arcadia by Filippos Koutsaftis, a poetic intimate journey through the past and present of the Greek region in the heart of the Peloponnese peninsula. The FIPRESCI Prize for Best International Film went to Every Face Has a Name, by Swedish director Magnus Gertten, a touching documentary about the German concentration camps survivors who arrived by ship at the harbor of Malmö, Sweden, right after the end of WWII.

Edited by José Teodoro