Located in the second largest city of Greece, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival was founded 15 years ago by its current director Dimitri Eipides, with the aim of providing Greek audiences with an alternative source of information – one that is not controlled by mainstream media and commercial imperatives. This emphasis on content rather than form, on the social relevance and educational value of the films, explains in part why the festival does not have an official competition: in the festival director’s view, prioritising a topic of social relevance over another is not the job of a documentary festival.

Having started very modestly as an offshoot of the city’s main film festival (the Thessaloniki International Film Festival), the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival has been growing exponentially in the last few years. This year it reached a record number of over 53,000 tickets (over 7,000 more admissions than 2012), reflecting both the audience’s increasing interest in feature documentaries, as well as the escalating popularity of festivals as spatio-temporally defined events through which to experience films. But it is particularly encouraging to see the audience of a currently beleaguered country like Greece respond so positively to films whose aim is to illuminate different aspects of the “world out there”, to inform, to educate, sometimes to entertain, and – ideally – to do it in a form that also inspires awe.

Selected by the festival’s director, the ten-day long, six screen-wide program is both international and Greek in scope, consisting mainly of films that have not been shown before on Greek screens – with some having international premieres in Thessaloniki. Alongside these new films, the audience also had the chance to see a selection of acclaimed documentaries from the last 15 years, as well as, for the first time in Greece, nine key films by Patricio Guzmán that powerfully document the political and social upheavals in Chile since the early 1970s. The screenings of Guzmán’s films were mostly sold out, suggesting that the audience saw parallels between the situation in 1970s Chile and 2010s crisis-ridden Greece. The round table discussion with the director (on Skype) and a panel of academics and filmmakers highlighted such parallels, but also explored the political and historical conditions in Chile and Guzmán’s contribution in presenting a version of events much closer to popular memory than official history.

In a festival that showcases over 200 films in ten different thematic strands, and a number of parallel events such as masterclasses and the Just Talking daily encounters between filmmakers and audience, inevitably a critic’s experience is selective. It is to this relatively arbitrary corpus of films I watched that I will now turn, highlighting some of the key moments in my experience of the festival. Undoubtedly, the film with the most powerful and visceral impact was the already highly acclaimed The Act of Killing (directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and Anonymous). The film follows a group of perpetrators of mass killings in Indonesia in 1965, when the right wing, CIA-backed regime that overthrew the government exterminated with impunity over one million communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals. The filmmakers asked the perpetrators to re-enact their crimes in the style of their favourite American genres – musicals, westerns, gangster films – and the perpetrators happily obliged, eager to star in their own movie. The film’s main character is Anwar, the revered founder of a very influential right-wing organisation, who proudly boasts to have killed over one thousand people with his own hands, with methods largely copied from American movies. Aside from the pure horror of the crimes that are described and re-enacted – which is further exacerbated by the grotesque, B-movie-style of the mise-en-scene and the perpetrators’ performances – the film’s strongest impact lies in showing Anwar’s emerging inner conflict and its physical expression. The bodily spasms that he experiences in one of his boasting visits to the main location of the crimes (presented to us in the film’s penultimate scene) suggest the eruption of the real, in one of the most effective and disturbing scenes I have ever experienced on screen. However, denying any chance of catharsis, the film’s banal final scene underlines that the character’s self-realisation is not only incomplete, but ultimately annulled. In a society in which the perpetrators of such massacres are still ruling, catharsis and reconciliation are a long way from happening.

The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing uses performance and re-enactment as a means of evoking historical truth. By placing the perpetrators of genocidal crimes centre stage and encouraging them to use their memory and imagination in reconstructing their crimes, we do not only learn gruesome details of what they did, but we get an extremely troubling insight into the rationalisations used and the perverse pleasures that these acts caused.  The film offers no access to survivors’ stories – partly because of the increased risks this brought to the already endangered production team; the only glimpse into the survivors’ affect occurs from the responses of those who performed the victims in some of these re-enactments. The body of a woman in collapse, or the uncontrollable tears of children caught in these “pretend” attacks on their relatives and their property powerfully hints at the huge traumas suffered by those who experienced such aggression.

Sweet Dreams

Performance and healing are also at the centre of a different film that addresses issues around genocide – but in a very different way. Sweet Dreams (directed by Rob Fruchtman and Lisa Fruchtman) focuses on the first women’s drumming troupe in Rwanda – a group formed mainly in order to assist its members to overcome the traumas of the genocide. But this life-affirming and optimistic film changes direction by following the group’s ultimately successful attempts to open an ice-cream shop in their hometown. Shifting its emphasis from the healing powers of music performance, to the empowerment experienced by those members of the band who became involved in setting up the business, the film promotes a benevolent model of  (American) capitalism, modestly suggesting that (with the help of well-meaning Americans) it is possible for a largely self-sufficient economy to be built in Rwanda. If only. The dream, however, is sweet (just as the name of the ice cream shop), and there is something to be said about happy endings – especially in documentaries.

Hungry Minds

Similar in tone – if not directly in subject matter – is Beatrix Schwehm’s Hungry Minds, a film that parallels three different examples of mobile libraries in disadvantaged and remote parts of the world. Shot in Bengal, Mongolia and Kenya, the film invites admiration at these different attempts to overcome the restrictions of poverty and deprivation, and bring the pleasures of reading to young people. Western benevolence is indicated in the case of the Bengalese architect whose innovative floating library gets awarded money from the Bill Gates foundation.  The film’s optimistic tone suggests the potentially transformative power of reading for these societies, but leaves a number of questions unanswered.

Beyond Wriezen

A very different set of social issues about young offenders in Germany and their future after prison is addressed in Daniel Abma’s Beyond Wriezen. The film follows three young men from the day of their release and for three years, highlighting parallels and differences in their plight: All three men find girlfriends and have babies. One works in a pigsty; another continues to deal in drugs; the third remains unemployed. Two stay out of prison, but one returns. Two keep their babies, and one is taken for adoption. The film’s style is part observational, part interactive, as Abma, who initially worked as a social worker with the inmates, occasionally asks questions from behind the camera, but generally lets his subjects lead the action. The intervals between his meetings with the young men guarantee that there is news to catch up with, and the men are generally forthcoming. Occasionally, however, they censor the filmmaker, disallowing him to film, or refusing to talk, and Abma suggestively uses these moments to reveal the characters. The steely refusal of the ex-neo-Nazi who served prison for murder, for example, to show his baby daughter on camera for fear that some sex offender might attack her, comes across as irrational, eerily suggesting residues of a violent disposition. This is a subtle film that offers sensitive insights to these three troubled but also largely likeable characters, and opens a number of questions about the inadequacies of the social support system in an advanced Western economy.

Canned DreamsThe predominantly handheld camera and informally interactive quality of Beyond Wriezen contrasts strongly with the formal austerity and conceptual clarity of Katja Gauriloff’s Canned Dreams, a film that traces the origins of the contents of a can of ravioli in different parts of the world. The film consists of series of sequences that show, on the one hand, the process of production of raw material (aluminium, pork, wheat, tomatoes, wheat, eggs, olive oil) in different parts of the world (Brazil, Denmark, Romania, Ukraine, Portugal, France, Italy) and, on the other hand, profiles of one or two workers in each case who talk about their dreams and hopes. Untypically, Canned Dreams was shot on film, with Super-16 cameras, a technical choice whose imposed restrictions helps enhance the beauty of the carefully chosen and composed shots, most of which are static. The shots of the places focus as much on the production processes as on the aesthetic possibilities they offer, while the interviewees are all frontally framed, looking straight at the camera with their thoughts presented as a voice over. Despite its socially-aware topic which traces the processes of globalisation in the food industry, the film has predominantly lyrical qualities, underlined by the powerful and suggestive musical score, the aspirational content of the people’s dreams and the beautifully composed images.

However, while Canned Dreams’ formal austerity and compositional frontality inspire aesthetic admiration, they also act as distancing devices, which undermine empathy and invite detached observation and contemplation. Ricardo Iscar’s The Pit, on the other hand, a film about the musicians of the orchestra of Barcelona’s Gran Teatro del Liceo, which also profiles their lives, work, fears and dreams, invites a closer connection and engagement with the characters. Rather than using straight interviews, the film privileges exchanges among the members of the orchestra, or their families and friends, and shows them involved with their music or hobbies. Highlighting the diversity of their backgrounds and the multicultural character of the orchestra, the film travels to some of the places of their origin – Albania, China, Brazil. The aim is to show how all these different people work for a common purpose – to create the beautiful music that we hear. And, indeed, just like Canned Dreams, the overall effect of The Pit is predominantly lyrical; the film is, after all, about the production of music. The visual palette of the film is toned down with a predominance of dark colours, the composition of the shots is careful and controlled and the sound mixing effective. The film is a pleasure for the senses, while also offering subtle insights into its characters’ lives.

Where the Condors FlyA very different film about artistic production, focusing in this case on the individual creator and his vision, rather than the efforts of the group, is Carlos Klein’s Where the Condors Fly, a film about the making of Victor Kossakovsky’s ambitious poetic documentary ¡Vivan las antipodas! Far from being a conventional “making of” movie, Klein’s film is a diaristic account of his encounter with Kossakovsky, that reveals as much about this perfectionist, highly driven and intensely emotional director, as about the filmmaker’s own attempts at developing a distinct filmmaking identity. Shot often with a handheld camera and often foregrounding mistakes, awkward moments and failures, the film offers valuable and humorous advice about filmmaking.

Democracy: The way of the cross

A distinctive strand of the program consists of Greek films, reflecting the festival’s key role in encouraging and promoting Greek documentaries. It is not surprising that the ongoing financial, social and political crisis was the (direct or indirect) topic of a number of Greek films. Marco Gastine’s Democracy: The Way of the Cross documents in an observational style the elections of 6th May 2012, which followed the controversially appointed government of Lucas Papademos, whose main task had been to negotiate the very unpopular (but for many necessary) “bail-out” deal, known as “memorandum” with the so-called “troika” (IMF, EU, ECB). The film follows four candidates in their election campaign focusing not so much on their political speeches and ideological positions, but on the backstage encounters with their voters, aiming to reveal both their relationship with their political base, but also their personalities as representatives of their respective political parties. The outcome of the elections found the candidates of the two parties that had dominated Greece pre-crisis and supported the “memorandum” (the centre-left and centre-right) lose their seats, while the other two, the “anti-memorandum” candidates, one from the left, and, one, most worryingly, from the extreme right, entered parliament with comfortable majorities. The film raises questions about the electoral process in Greece, and documents these very tense elections – which did not lead to the formation of a government and had to be repeated a month later. While the film may not have taught anything new to those audiences that would be watching the events on television or participating in party meetings, the proximity of the camera to some of the candidates and their voters, and the emphasis placed on the relationship between the two, manages to open up further questions and complicate perceptions.

Hardships and Beauties

In contrast to the direct observational style of Gastine’s film, three other Greek films about the crisis focus on life outside the metropolis, and attempt to highlight reasons for optimism or possibilities of escape. Kimon Tsakiris’ Hardships and Beauties (Mitsigan) offers the portrait of an eccentric farm owner in the south of Greece, who fashions himself as an oversized Greek “cowboy”, using the slogan “Hardships and Beauties” as a name for his farm, but also as a supposed philosophy for survival. The film follows the so-called “Mitsigan” as he travels to meet old friends and discuss the financial crisis. While some of the encounters illuminate the effects of the crisis in rural areas, the repetition of the slogan to suggest the inevitable ups-and-downs of life displaces any more serious engagement with the issues.  Andreas Siadimas’ Music Village keeps up the upbeat tone by presenting the music festival that takes place every summer in a picturesque mountainous village as a sensuous counterpoint and release from the pressures of the crisis. Nikos Dayandas’ Little Land deals even more explicitly with the theme of “escape to the countryside”, by following a young couple from Athens in search of a new life on the island of Ikaria. The film reveals their difficulties in adjusting to rural life, as well as the local community and its social structures.

Food for LoveSet entirely indoors, on the other hand, Gerasimos Rigas’ Black Box is a minimalist film that focuses on a group of students from the State School of Dance in Athens. The film consists of interviews with the dancers, who talk about their feelings when they dance, and performances of their choreographies. Rigas’ long-term involvement with the dance company ensured familiarity with the dancers, who reveal themselves candidly in front of the camera, dispelling any potential prejudices that dancers are inarticulate. Last, but not least, in my experience of the festival was Marianna Economou’s tender and hilarious Food for Love, a portrait of three overprotective Greek mothers who express their love to their studying offspring by sending them parcels of home-made food abroad or in other Greek cities. The mothers’ compulsion to express their love in this way – a highly recognisable behaviour of Greek mothers among Greek audiences – is mixed with varying degrees of self-awareness that helps sympathise with the three women, despite what could be easily seen as the absurdity of their actions.

Aside from screenings for the audiences of Thessaloniki (and for a number of other Greek cities through its live streaming project), the festival plays a significant role in documentary distribution, predominantly for television, but also for cinema screens. Its Doc Market section featured over 520 films, of which only a fourth form part of the main festival. While initially being a Balkan-centered event, this is now a much more wide-reaching hub for documentary distribution.  Despite not having an official competition, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival hosts a number of other awards, including the audience and FIPRESCI awards, both of which consider Greek and international films separately. The broader culture of the festival, however, remains one of inclusivity and outreach: its aim is to reach and enthuse audiences about a form of filmmaking that is often marginalised. And that, it achieves – at least for the duration of the festival: the queues and record attendance numbers this year attest to it.

Thessaloniki Documentary Festival
15-24 March 2013
Festival website: http://tdf.filmfestival.gr/default.aspx?lang=en-US&loc=16&page=1110