Stirred and Shaken Up – Thessaloniki at the Pulse of Time

in 19th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Bettina Hirsch

The selection of contemporary documentary films showcased at the renowned Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival (TIFF) inevitably faced high political expectations. Do General directors Elise Jalladeau and Orestis Andreadakis aim to inspire, disturb, or provoke the audience?

When reflecting on the purpose of the documentary film genre, two opposing art concepts come to mind: Pablo Picasso stipulated that “You have to galvanize people”, while Henri Matisse pursued “an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter.” At the 19 th TIFF both approaches were represented in the programme, which offered far more than simple entertainment and always challenged the audience’s comfort zone.

A total of 213 feature-and medium-length documentaries in the festival’s programme allowed the audience to pick and choose according to their individual taste and preferred subject matters.

Also a large range of new Greek productions were featured, covering important topics such as: people fleeing conflict; encounters with refugees; foreign customs; cultures and religions; hopes for a better future and fear of failure; unemployment; and the unequal distribution of wealth. So the Greek filmmakers have their finger on the pulse of today’s most talked-about global issues, experiencing them first-hand in their own country.

The main focus of the awarded films was the issue of who pays the price for our worldly comforts? With ruthless candour, documentary films bring to light how, in times of global turmoil and growing socio-economic imbalance, some people suffer while others benefit. The film Machines by Rahul Jain is this year’s winner of the FIPRESCI Best Documentary Award in the international competition. The film vividly illustrates how, despite the availability of modern production methods, human labour is still used as a cheaper option, mostly under unethical and inhumane conditions. We see children operating heavy machinery and carrying out monotonous tasks while dangerously weary. As viewers, we might feel like jumping at the screen and saving the exhausted child from being sucked into the never-ceasing machine. Only a documentary film can evoke such raw emotions. The images speak for themselves; there are no actors or enacted created scenes that tell the story. Machines fully immerses the viewer in the reality of an Indian textile factory and the relentless noise that the workers are exposed to twelve hours a day. It is hard to believe under which conditions textiles are manufactured: toxic fabric dyes are mixed and handled without any protection and individual workers are of little value within the wider international trade mechanisms. By confronting us with these truths, the film urges us to change our consumer behaviour.

Apart from films that uncover inconvenient truths and take the viewer out of their comfort zone, the festival also showcased documentaries that emphasised entertainment, such as the concert film The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé!: A Trip Across Latin America. Other films tackled serious matters in a humorous way. A stark example was Stelios Kouloglou’s Laughing to Death, which presented four stories on humour as a way for political action. These films also have their merit: we leave the cinema well entertained, perhaps enlightened and inspired. Though the programme of the 19th TIFF evoked a lot of laughter, the more thought-provoking films resonated.

Will the documentary film replace the increasingly less popular medium of the newspaper? How up-to-date are the issues captured by the camera? How relevant is the discussion about fake news and the lying press? Who is exploiting the so-called facts? One thing is certain: if documentary filmmakers decide to make a film about a topic close to their heart, their motivation is to make public this very issue. They want to shed light on and raise questions about a certain matter or trend which is of public interest.

The festival proves once more that the documentary film is more alive and relevant than ever. Often highly political, the genre challenges life and our socio-cultural patterns in all their facets in times of increasing global volatility and imbalance. The 19th TIFF makes these important topics accessible to a continuously growing festival audience. We return to our everyday lives stimulated, contemplative and, above all: Shaken Up!

Edited by Birgit Beumers