Thessaloniki Doc Festival – movieScope
What is interesting is the number of Oscar-winning films that bear the tagline “based on a true story”, and yet these actual, true stories struggle to find an audience big enough to financially compensate the filmmakers to even cover their costs, never mind the time they’ve put in. And yet, here we have films that are filled with drama, mystery, intrigue and stunning cinematography. All they “lack” is big-name movie stars, but even they are known to show up on occasions as either producers, directors, presenters or subjects. For example, Casting By, a look at the role of casting directors in Hollywood, is a point in case. If you ever thought that screenwriters or cinematographers were overlooked, casting directors aren’t even recognised by The Academy for an Oscars’ category, and, as this film shows, it is the work of the casting directors that has contributed not only to the lengthy careers of Hollywood’s best-known actors, but also for so many films actually get those coveted Oscars. What is even more galling is the DGA insists that they cannot be credited as Casting Directors, because only directors can be called directors, and they very begrudgingly allow cinematographers to use the title of Director of Photography.
Coming to a documentary festival, as with any film festival, it is always about choices. There is a physical (and mental) limit to the number of films that can be seen per day. This means going through the programme of around 200 films and selecting the ones of interest, and then checking the scheduling. For press and industry attending the festival they do have the advantage of access to the film market’s digital library, which goes a long way to resolving programming clashes, although it does mean watching on a small screen in a partitioned booth. It also means access to an extra 300 films that weren’t included in the already packed schedule.
My main stipulation for what to see is, it has to free of misery and suffering, and given the nature of documentaries and the current state of the world, it doesn’t always leave a massive selection. As my main interests are music and the visual arts, with some politics and anthropology thrown in, I managed to find plenty to fill my days and evenings without being thrown into bouts of depression, and still have time to enjoy the great weather and general ambience of this Greek coastal city, with walks around the produce markets and along the seafront. And, as photographer and artist Saul Leiter said in the doc In No Great Hurry, “I believe there is such a thing as a search for beauty, a delight in the nice things in the world. I don’t think one should have to apologise for it”, which did go towards confirming my view of the world. I also got to learn new things about the world in which my varied interests lie, such as the work of the (until recently) completely unknown street photographer Vivian Maier, when tens of thousands of her negatives were bought in a job lot at an auction. Finding Vivian Maier is the story of finding out who this brilliant and prolific photographer was, and why her photos had remained hidden until after her death. Not only is it a fantastic mystery, but it is also accompanied by her stunning photography.
Equally reclusive, although better known, is the aforementioned Saul Leiter, whose colour street photography is reaching a newfound audience, as is revealed in In No Great Hurry. Far less modest, in many senses, was Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse Magazine. Also a painter and photographer, he went from struggling artist to multi-millionaire media mogul and back to poverty. Filthy Gorgeous examines his life, and his rise and fall. While it did not match the excesses of Caligula, his infamous excursion into the movie business, that movie certainly played a part in his financial downfall.
Also coming out of an equally flamboyant world of 1980s London fashion, the work of Australian photographer Robyn Beeche is explored in Life Exposed. From shooting the glam scene with the likes of Leigh Bowery, Divine and Vivienne Westwood, Robyn went to India, where she fell in love with the country and has remained, shooting its vibrant colours as well as documenting aspects of its ancient culture that are increasingly disappearing.
Anyone with even a passing interest in art history has to marvel at the almost photorealism of 17th century Dutch painter Vermeer, and pondered how it was done. Tim Jenison, a Texas inventor who created the highly regarded 3D CGI software Lightwave, certainly did. He was familiar with the Hockney/Falco theories of the use of optics and a camera obscura, but his own investigations revealed a far more ingenious solution, which he sets out to prove by not only completely reconstructing the setting of Vermeer’s The Music Room, but also reproducing the painting from that setting. What makes it all the more impressive is the fact that Jenison has never painted before. For anyone interested in art and art history Tim’s Vermeer is definitely a must see. Produced and directed by renowned magicians Penn and Teller, there is some smoke and mirrors involved.
In a lot of respects, the music industry has never really had the same air of respectability as the film industry, even if it has a more devoted fan base. Musicians certainly have more freedom of expression than Hollywood idols, and are definitely more outspoken on political and social issues, and none more so than those in the punk movement. Kathleen Hanna, lead singer with Bikini Kill, was at the forefront of the riot grrrl movement, not only as a musician but as a producer of fanzines and a spokeswoman for feminism. The Punk Singer looks at her “career” and finds out why she suddenly stopped being so vocal almost a decade ago.
Like punk, rap and hip hop are supposed to be the voice of the oppressed, and the sounds of the streets, and yet it is big business, with some of the world’s richest performers coming from that genre. The recording industry is always looking for the next big thing. Californian hip hop duo Silibil ‘n’ Brains were going to be the next Eminem. They had the rhymes and the beats, and were ahead of the curve in making their own video content of their outrageous behaviour. Record companies couldn’t wait to sign them and were throwing money at them, taking them to the biggest industry events. Except, they weren’t American, they were from a small town near Dundee in Scotland. While The Great Hip Hop Hoax, to a certain degree, tries to paint the duo as the perpetrators of the hoax, it is the superficiality of the industry that is under scrutiny because they could not accept two Scottish rappers, but when they presented the same music with American accents and attitudes they were instant star material.
However, when you are talking about unlikely lads from the north taking over the music world, then it is The Beatles that immediately spring to mind. While they were conquering the globe for a relatively short ten years, one of the few constants in their lives was their secretary Freda Kelly, who was still a teenager when she started working for them, when they were no more than a local Liverpool band. Good Ol’ Freda is a fascinating insight to the world of The Beatles, from someone who was there the whole time, and it is Freda’s modesty and discretion that makes this all the more charming because at no time does she dish any dirt, but treats them as close friends, even always referring to Ringo as Ritchie.
Speaking of 60s icons, there was none more universally loved than Muhammad Ali, except for certain factions within the US government and their redneck followers. The Trials of Muhammad Ali, investigates The Champ’s life after he first won the heavyweight world title and became part of the Nation of Islam and fell foul of the law when he (justifiably) refused to go to Vietnam. His charisma and eloquence shine outside the ring as much as his boxing skills did inside.
The 60s were also renowned for the birth of the hippy movement. It was the American pioneering spirit fuelled by LSD and an awakening collective consciousness that saw the rise of communes. An American Commune explores one such experiment that was surprisingly successful in retaining its ideals of creating a society that did not rely on money or very few trappings of the consumer world. The film was made by two sisters who grew up there as children and teenagers, and it was their first visit back to The Farm in decades, but like all ideals, human foibles caused it to not entirely fall apart but change its raison d’être. However, in the film Freakout, another group of middle-class idealists left their society, bought a piece of land on which they could lives of veganism and free love, except this was at the start of the 20th century in Switzerland. And, again, their idyll was spoilt by its success and human foibles (and a couple of World Wars).
A slightly more infamous character from the 60s was US President Richard Nixon, whose opinions on draft dodgers and hippies were quite well known, especially after the tapes of all his Oval Office conversations were revealed. In Our Nixon, Tricky Dicky’s term in office is revealed through some of these tapes being played over Super-8 footage shot by his closest members of staff, Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin, who all ended up in prison for their part in Watergate. Not only is it a fascinating look at what was happening at the time, it also shows how great celluloid is as an archival format. Even the tiny Super-8 format, when scanned with the latest equipment, looks amazing, especially when compared with the TV recordings of the era.
While Nixon’s recordings played a part in his eventual downfall, another politician, whose career began during Nixon’s time, wasn’t going to make the same mistake. Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known, looks at the career of the even shadier political mover and shaker Donald Rumsfeld through his millions of memos that he calls his snowflakes (and we know what Tyler Durdan had to say about snowflakes). Morris interviews Rumsfeld, who essentially uses the memos to prove that he has never done anything wrong while in power, which goes against what is generally perceived to be the truth (that he’s a greedy, self-serving, megalomaniac warmonger). It is a fascinating look at one of the most dangerous men on the planet as he conducts his own PR whitewash campaign that he hopes will leave us all snow-blind to the truth.
It’s common for similar themes to appear in documentary festivals, as many of the films are documenting what is happening in the world. For the last couple of years, films about the economic crisis featured heavily, especially from Greece. This year there seemed to be more films about affirmative action and the grassroots movements that sprang up to redress the imbalance. Undoubtedly the strongest of these was Occupy: The Movie by Corey Ogilvie, which not only investigates the growth of the movement, but also looks at why it started, and what happened after they were moved on from Zuccotti Park. Everyday Rebellion looks at the different movements around the world, such as the Ukrainian Femen group and the Spanish Indignados. Citizen K, took a different approach to civil disobedience by treating it as an art project, creating new Identity Cards by morphing two photos together and seeing how much scrutiny these cards were given when travelling, getting married and other activities.
Amongst all the films I saw there was one curio that defied categorisation. Belgian film When I Will be Dictator straddles the line between reality and fiction (science fiction at that). Made up of hundreds of reels of Super-8 and 8mm film found in flea markets and junk piles, it constructs a story about parallel worlds, while showing us vignettes of a world and people that have been recorded then those memories have been abandoned or forgotten. As with the Nixon film, it shows the importance of film as an archival format for documenting the most mundane as well as high adventure. Will all the millions of terabytes of digital still and moving images that are produced each year really stand the test of time? Or will all the ones and zeroes simply become zero and in the future will this era be seen as another dark ages?
Of course, film festivals aren’t just about bringing great films that would otherwise not be seen to the local population, who always turn up in their droves. Festivals are also a chance for filmmakers to meet their audience and, equally importantly, meet with their peers. TDF holds daily events such as Just Talking, where visiting filmmakers get to discuss their films with other professionals in an informal setting that always includes local wine and cheese. This was followed by a Happy Hour, with more wine and cheese, for an even more informal chance to talk. The market and pitching forums were busiest during the second half of the festival, giving filmmakers, funders and distributors the chance to meet and ensure exciting new productions are made and find an audience.
The festival may still be suffering slightly because of the local economic situation, but it is still one of the must-attend documentary festivals along with Sheffield, Hot Docs and IDFA. Did I mention the fantastic weather and hospitality?