By Harry van Versendaal
”Indignados,” an activist docudrama by Tony Gatlif that is perfectly attuned to the national zeitgeist of popular frustration and resentment, is set to open Greece’s biggest documentary festival on Friday.
The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF14), an annual fete hosted at the northern port city, returns this year from March 9-18 with a remarkable crop of harrowing films that seem more relevant than ever in the event’s 14-year history as the chasm between factual cinema and the news bulletins defining the collective mood narrows.
“The role of documentary during a time of crisis is more than important; it is vital. Documentary is a dynamic, not a passive kind of cinema,” festival Director Dimitris Eipidis said in an e-mail exchange with Kathimerini English Edition.
“The images that arrive from all over the world in the form of moving pictures are not simply sources of information about people and places that we don’t know about.
“They open our eyes, they raise awareness and empathy, they propel people to take action and feel like they are a part of this world -- and they make us pay attention to what is going on not just in Greece but in the world, and what role we ourselves have played,” said Eipidis, who is also international programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival.
Stuck in its fourth year of recession, debt-wracked Greece depends on loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to stay afloat. But it has so far failed to contain the damage of rampant unemployment, poverty, homelessness and record suicide rates.
Festival organizers too are feeling the bite of Greece’s financial meltdown and this year’s event has been put together on a shoestring budget -- a great deal thanks to the European Union-backed National Strategic Reference Framework and Media funds that make for up to 70 percent of the costs.
“I think the crisis has forced us to be more imaginative, to constantly seek new methods and creative solutions to issues the festival faces, and this has brought us closer together as team,” Eipidis, who founded the festival in 1999, said. But he is keen to remind that, unlike the more ambitious Thessaloniki International Film Festival, the non-fiction offspring has always stood apart from mother’s fiestas and splashy red carpet attitude.
“The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival has always had a modest budget and a frugal philosophy. We never made unnecessary expenses -- rather, our budget has always centered on the films and the filmmakers, and this is how we are persevering against the crisis,” he said.
Despite the difficulties, organizers have managed to bring together some 185 films -- including 75 local productions -- from more than 40 countries.
Inspired by former French resistance fighter Stephane Hessel’s now-famous pamphlet “Indignez-vous!,” Gatlif’s opener follows the travails of Betty, a clandestine immigrant from Africa who is trying to set foot on western Europe, to tell the story of the continent’s immigration against the backdrop of indignant protests in Athens and Madrid. The Algeria-born director of “Exiles,” that won best director at Cannes in 2004, blurs the boundaries between documentary and fiction, which should raise some eyebrows among the purists of the genre.
Also related to developments in the host country, Bryan Carter’s “Dublin’s Trap,” a Belgian documentary that will make its world premier at Thessaloniki looks at the impact of the EU’s immigration policy on Greece through the eyes of an Afghan asylum seeker.
Among other treats, organizers have this year prepared a tribute to Danish documentaries -- which certainly seem to be in a groove at the moment.
In “1/2 Revolution,” Danish-Palestinian Omar Shargawi and Egyptian-American Karim El Hakim witness the first 11 days of Egypt’s revolution against its heavy-handed president Hosni Mubarak, while “Putin’s Kiss” by Lise Birk Pedersen follows Masha, a poster girl for Russia’s pro-government youth group Nashi, as she gradually loses faith in the heavy-handed establishment.
A must-see is Mads Brugger’s gonzo documentary “The Ambassador,” which shows the director going undercover with a diplomatic passport in a bid to expose corruption in the Central African Republic. The film ruffled some feathers in the Netherlands after a Dutch businessman who appears in the film helping Brugger aquire his fake passport tried to stop the movie from screening at IDFA, one of the world’s most prestigious festivals, in November.
Greece’s debt crisis has naturally become fodder for homegrown film-makers. The festival’s Greek section features a selection of movies that explore the politics, the mass protests and the social implications of the crisis, including “Children of the Riots” by Christos Georgiou, “Oligarchy” by journalist Stelios Kouloglou, and “Krisis” by Nikos Katsaounis and Nina Maria Pashalidou -- coproducers of “The Prism” multimedia project, a collective documentation of the Greek crisis.
“Having witnessed events first-hand, Greek doc makers offer different takes on political developments... Their own lives are at stake so they naturally get passionate about these issues,” Eipidis said.
Documentary films have been making waves in recent years, as a number of features have broken out and gained theatrical releases. People like Michael Moore, director of “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and Morgan Spurlock of “Super Size Me” fame, have wrenched the once-niche genre into the mainstream and all the way to Oscar’s spotlight (even if the rise of the trashy docu-soap format appears to be part of the collateral damage).
The Thessaloniki festival will once again do its own fair share of spreading the word, offering live streaming over the Internet, a project initiated with success last year. A number of movies and other events will be broadcast around the country as well as Cyprus -- including at several prisons. A record 44,000 people last year flocked to the TDF theaters, which include the central Olympion and Pavlos Zannas cinemas, and the red-brick seaside complex.
Approximately 460 films will be available in this year’s Doc Market, including all the films that are screened as part of the official program, while a pitching session will give local and foreign filmmakers an opportunity to argue the merits of their work to commissioning editors, distributors and producers.
Approximately 55 buyers will be attending from Europe, the USA and Canada.