While most of the UK and Europe was suffering a freezing Easter, Thessaloniki was enjoying sunshine (and some much-needed rain) for its annual documentary festival and market, now in its 15th year. Greece’s economy may be struggling, but the country’s second largest city still enjoys its cinema, hosting two major festivals as well as a short film festival.
Thessaloniki Documentary Festival: Images of the 21st Century was founded by the indomitable Dimitri Eipides, as a sister event to the Thessaloniki International Film Festival – of which Eipides is now also director – to promote non-fiction films, particularly those produced in the region.. For many years this included successfully supporting and developing works in progress, although this has been significantly reduced for obvious financial reasons. It is a credit to the organisers that the festival is still able to offer so much to documentary filmmakers given the budget restrictions, which has hit the industry side of the festival the hardest.
The public face of the festival appears to be going from strength to strength. Despite the crisis, screenings and ancillary events are always hugely popular, even the late night ones. The programme itself is divided into several strands: Views of the World looks at contemporary issues of social and historical import, while Stories to Tell covers more personal stories, often with a focus on families; some strange, such as the incredible The Imposter, and many heartbreaking, such as The Invisible War (above), about the epidemic of rape within the US military, or Wrong Time, Wrong Place about survivors of the 2011 massacre in Oslo. There are also lighthearted films like Hippie-Hippie Matala! Matala! reminiscing about a more innocent, halcyon era of Greece’s recent history.
Elsewhere, the Recordings of Memory strand looks at contemporary historical events, and Portraits: Human Journeys examines extraordinary individuals such as the Mayor of Thessaloniki (One Step Ahead).
Habitat features films that explore our relationship with our environment, including the extraordinary The Expedition to the End of the World, about a group of scientists and artists who sail into the rapidly melting massifs of North East Greenland, and whose discoveries and opinions about climate change fly in the face of current accepted views of the state of the planet. In contrast, Fuck for Forest follows a group of hippie eco activists that use porn and live sex shows to raise funds to save forests; misguided and delusional would best describe their mostly altruistic goals. Little Land, about the Greek island of Ikaria, one of the world’s ‘blue zones’ where inhabitants enjoy extraordinary longevity, went on to win two awards at the festival.
The Human Rights strand provided a much needed look at the atrocities happening around the world – never an easy watch – while Music and Dance provides a more upbeat break from all the desolation of many of the other segments. An Affair of the Heart, about ageing, yet ageless, heartthrob rocker Rick Springfield, proved to be surprisingly moving in the way he interacts with his fervent fans. The Punk Syndrome follows Finnish punk band Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät, whose members are handicapped and play with both enthusiasm and justifiable, unabashed anger.
The biggest strand of the festival, however, was Greek Panorama, dedicated to local documentarians, which often looked beyond their home’s borders. Others focused on the Greek crisis, such as Living in Interesting Times which actually took a more positive, personal view.
Retrospectives are an important part of TDF and this year one was dedicated to the festival itself, with a film from each of the festival’s 15 years. Many, such as The Corporation, are undoubtedly still as relevant today as they were when they first screened. The other retrospective was dedicated to renowned Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, who was supposed to be in attendance but unfortunately was unable to travel. The planned roundtable discussion of his work was conducted over Skype, but was no less interesting for the man not being there in person.
For industry delegates, the festival is a different affair. While it was a lot quieter than in previous years, there was still no shortage of films on offer; in the market’s video library there was nearly 800 films available to view. Not only does the market offer those filmmakers who didn’t make the festival’s official programme an opportunity to show their docs to buyers, but it is also a chance to see a much broader range of films than the already excellent ones on offer. For example, there was a superb selection of docs on filmmaking, including Side by Side, showcasing the film vs digital debate; Dreamers, with well-known writers and directors discussing the creative process; Show me the Magic, about award-winning Australian cinematographer Don McAlpine; and Despite the Gods, which delved behind the scenes of Hisss, Jennifer Lynch’s ill-fated foray into shooting the horror feature in India.
Of course, the main aim of the market is to promote films and match filmmakers with distributors, as well as run workshops to help filmmakers get their films finished and in front of audiences. EDN (European Documentary Network) and MEDIA ran workshops about funding and distribution, along with pitching forums. First time UK filmmaker Chester Yang was at the festival seeking distribution for his feature War Matters, which looks at 10 years of anti-war protest in London. TDF was Yang’s first market screening and he said he chose the festival because it is considered to be one of the top 10 documentary film festivals and markets in the world. As a market novice Yang came away with a positive impression and even found interest from several distributors and sales agents. “I had a great experience with the whole program,” he says. “Since it was my first market, I was open to learn and network, and acquired a great deal of knowledge about documentary financing. I would definitely recommend this festival to all documentary filmmakers. If you get selected, make sure you attend as there is so much you can learn from attending talks, pitching forums, and talking to other filmmakers with a similar passion.”
Indeed, another daily ritual of the festival was Just Talking, an intimate get together of selected filmmakers to discuss their films and share stories, experiences and knowledge. It also resulted in more films being added to viewing schedules as the filmmakers were able to generate more interest in their films than a couple of paragraphs in the festival catalogue and programme.
All in all, it was another great edition of this festival and it is definitely one that documentary makers should attend, not only for the marketing opportunities but for the sun, the food and the great hospitality that is at the heart of Greek culture – no matter how difficult the economic situation is.
For more information on the festival, including details of this year’s award winners, visit the official website