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Powerful Images of Modern Life: The Fifth Thessaloniki Documentary Festival

Wendy Mitchell

Festival headquarters at the Olympion Theatre at Aristotelous Square, which provided a grand view of Thessaloniki's Thermaic Gulf.
Wendy Mitchell/© 2003 indieWIRE

I learned one important lesson from my first international documentary film festival experience: forget melatonin for jetlag, next time I need to pack Kleenex for crying jags. I found myself weepy in most of the screenings at the 2003 Thessaloniki Documentary Festival -- Images of the 21st Century. That's not a complaint, it's a testament to how powerful these films were, and how effectively they chronicled the horrors of modern life. I wasn't alone; I heard some fellow audience members making audible sobs during Ayfer Ergun's "Against My Will," a heartbreaking documentary about honor killings in Pakistan.

Some films were even too shocking for tears: including Kim Longinotto's "The Day I Will Never Forget," about female genital mutilation in Kenya. Also in that category was Iranian director Maziar Bahari's "And Along Came a Spider," an utterly chilling look at a serial killer in Iran who sees no harm in killing prostitutes (look for it in May at the Tribeca Film Festival).

Dimitri Eipides, the fest director who founded the event five years ago, sees a renaissance in the documentary community spurred by new technologies. "There is new talent," he told indieWIRE. "Just about anyone can go out with a small digital camera and come back with a film." He said that while the programming is mostly consistent from year to year, there are some notable variations. "Last year there were a lot more films related to the Afghan events," he said. "This year, we saw more films on Palestine."

Indeed, the festival screened nearly a dozen films on Palestine, and also hosted a conference about the situation for Palestinian children. Among those selections, Hany Abu-Assad's "Ford Transit" was the most quietly enlightening film I saw (it also captured the FIPRESCI jury prize), a look at a Palestinian man who makes his living shuttling frustrated passengers from roadblock to roadblock in Ramallah and Jerusalem. His passengers' petty quibblings, political discussions, and more personal revelations (like one mother's lament over the loss of her daughter, a suicide bomber) were stunning. Watching the film was like being stuck in traffic with these people -- "Ford Transit" created a palpable sense of frustration at the Palestinian situation, without pointing blame at either side.

Of this festival's 165 films, 78 were from Greece, proving Eipides' theory that the Greek documentary community is "surprisingly becoming more and more active." Some of the Greek offerings that I saw included "The Way to the West" by Kyriakos Katzourakis (another fave of the FIPRESCI jury), which started with a strong premise about immigrants who come to Greece seeking a better life but find struggles instead. Unfortunately, these true-life stories were overshadowed by a melodramatic fictional storyline about a woman sold into the sex-slave trade.

This year's festival inaugurated a competition for Greek films, with two winners splitting the 12,000 Euro prize: Katerina Patroni's "Men at Sea," and Irina Boiko's "Are There Any Lions in Greece?" Theodoros Kalesis' "Freddy" took third place in the competition; I found this 31-minute film to be unexpectedly charming. It chronicles the life and friendship of two immigrants living in the fest's hometown of Thessaloniki, one of whom is a male stripper, one of whom works as a clown. Once again, truth is stranger than fiction.

American selections (including a Michael Moore retrospective) were well received, especially Sundance 2003 faves "Stevie" by Steve James, and "Love and Diane" from Jennifer Dworkin. More uplifting U.S. projects were also popular, including Jeff Blitz's Oscar-nominated spelling bee drama "Spellbound" and Alex Halpern's superb "Nine Good Teeth" (which captured Thessaloniki's Dewar's Audience Award and its 3,000 Euro prize). Halpern's film looks at the life of his extraordinary Italian-American "nana," wiseand spunky at age 102 (when was the last time YOUR grandmother talked about an orgasm?).

Two shorter American films that I saw tackled worldly topics: S. Smith Patrick's "The Children of Ibdaa: Creating Something Out of Nothing" shows a group of refugee kids in Palestine who formed a dance troupe; and Kimi Takesue's "Heaven's Crossroad" presents one traveler's fleeting impressions of Vietnam.

"The Smith Family" was American director Tasha Oldham's look at a Morman family struggling through crisis after the "perfect father" turns out to have cheated on his wife with male partners and contracted HIV in the process. His wife gets the virus from him, but still stands by him as he withers away from full-blown AIDS. She and his two sons demonstrate a kind of unconditional love rarely seen on screen (or in life, for that matter). There was nothing inventive about the filmmaking style, but with a story this riveting, Oldham didn't need any tricks.

I even tried to break away from death and destruction with two "lighter" films -- Nicolas Philibert's Cannes 2002 fave "Etre Et Avoir," about children and their amazingly wise teacher in a rural one-room schoolhouse in France; and also Brian Hill's rather compelling "Nobody Someday," about British pop star Robbie Williams. Nevertheless, my tear ducts were still active during these two as well: I was watery when the school term ended for the summer, and also when Robbie was scared witless after being pushed offstage by a deranged fan.

Another more uplifting film was Damian Pettigrew's "Fellini: I'm a Born Liar." Canadian-born, Paris-dwelling Pettigrew has crafted a marvelously entertaining portrait of the legendary director. I knew a few things to expect: great clips from Fellini's archives, unseen footage of the director at work, and an interview recorded before his death in 1993. Yet it was the unexpected elements that thrilled me: hilariously candid interviews with Donald Sutherland and Terence Stamp (actors who worked with him decades ago), plus some beautifully shot landscapes that were important to Fellini's life and films. This doc is a must see for any Fellini fan, and I even recommended who don't know Fellini from the Farrelly Brothers (the doc opens stateside through First Look in early April).

From other parts of the world, I caught the impressionistic and poetic "Jabaroot" by Iranian-born, Canadian filmmaker Shahin Parhami, about classical Iranian music (musician Kiya Tabassian was on hand for a short performance after the screening). "Kalasha" by Taj Khan Kalash Sharakat wasn't by any means a polished film (and it only clocked in at 24 minutes), but it was quite an interesting anthropological document about the Kalash, a group in Pakistan that still worships the 12 gods of Olympus. (Taj himself is a member of their clan).

Although I wasn't in Thessaloniki for the entire 10-day festival, I can vouch that during my stay it proved to be one of the best-run festivals I've encountered: highly organized with strong programs and convenient screenings. Plus there were the all-important chances to mingle with fellow film fans and filmmakers in the festival's bar area (the doc fest is a much more intimate event than the larger international film festival held here each November). Despite Carnival festivities going on outside and the inviting bars along the Thermaic Gulf, just feet from the theaters, 17,500 people chose to see documentary screenings instead.

The town of Thessaloniki (a Macedonian port city founded in 315 B.C.) was also quite inviting -- perhaps too much so, as I found myself socializing until the wee hours every night. One festival-sponsored party, featuring the German electronica duo Beefcake, was finally shut down by the cops sometime after 3 a.m. following a neighbor's noise complaint. No matter, I still found myself dancing at a hip-hop club even later that night with a New York film producer, a San Francisco filmmaker, a French journalist, and an Iranian filmmaker. So, despite the weighty nature of the films, most of the crowd was more than willing to seek out a little fun after the screenings.

The market here was also quite active -- one insider told me that during the market's first day, there had been 180 viewings of films (in total, the viewings reached 1,118). Eipides said it was "the fastest-growing part of this festival." The few buyers that I spoke with hadn't completed many deals at that point, but all said that they had seen projects they are interested in pursuing after the festival). Thessaloniki certainly presented a great opportunity for European buyers to relax a bit and concentrate on the films, unlike the more chaotic markets in Rotterdam and Cannes. (Plus, the timing is nicely spaced from November's doc market at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam.)

In a related move, Thessaloniki again played host to a pitching forum. Think of it as the documentary film version of "American Idol": impassioned young filmmakers spend a few days workshopping their next film ideas, and then they present it to a panel of European commissioning editors. During most of the pitches I sat in on, the panel members were matter of fact in dismissing most of the pitchers, but still gave some constructive advice even as they were shooting them down. A few lucky filmmakers did leave with encouragement, and maybe even commissions for their films. No doubt Eipides and his team will be hearing from them in a few years: "It starts with an idea, and then they find support, and we see them back with a film," he said. "That's so encouraging."