By Harry van Versendaal
Nastia Tarasova's “Linar,” a documentary about a Russian boy who travels to Italy to receive a heart transplant, will be the curtain raiser at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) which gets under way on March 14.
In her first full-length film, the Moscow-based director observes 5-year-old Linar as he spends his time at a Moscow clinic, his small body connected to a big machine on wheels that pumps blood into his failing heart. Tarasova follows the boy as bureaucratic obstacles mean that he has to travel to a small Italian town to receive a heart transplant.
Now in its 16th year, the festival has gone from strength to strength. Last year, a record 45,000 viewers flocked to the TDF theaters, which include the Olympion and Pavlos Zannas cinemas on central Aristotelous Square and the redbrick port complex. Notwithstanding budget woes, with the help of European Union funds organizers have managed to bring together about 112 films, including 60 homemade productions for this year's event.
Alongside “Linar,” festival highlights include Rithy Panh's “The Missing Picture,” a haunting documentary about the crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime that received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, a first for a Cambodian feature. An adaptation of Panh's memoir “The Elimination,” the film uses dozens of impressive clay figurines and powerful archival footage to chronicle the fate of his family before and during Pol Pot's genocidal rule – and the demons that continue to haunt him.
Directed by veteran filmmaker Larry Weinstein and debuting director Drew Taylor, “Our Man in Tehran” is a factual account of the events that inspired Ben Affleck's blockbuster “Argo.” Based on several interviews with the Western protagonists of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, the documentary provides a great deal of interesting background while taking a fair share of the drama out of Affleck's rendition of the life-or-death secret operation to rescue six American diplomats hiding in the residence of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor – including a heart-stopping chase after a Swissair plane down the tarmac of Tehran's airport.
Syria's uprising-turned-civil-war is the background for Talal Derki's harrowing, behind-the-barricades footage brought to the big screen in “The Return to Homs.” The movie, which received the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for a documentary at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival this year, follows Basset, a 19-year-old goalkeeper who evolves into a local icon of the resistance movement and militia leader in the struggle against the Assad regime, as well as his close friend, 24-year-old citizen journalist Ossama.
TDF organizers have also prepared a tribute to Canadian filmmaker Peter Wintonick, who died last year of a rare form of liver cancer. Best known for his 1992 box-office hit “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media,” a near-three-hour expose of the US media industry which he co-directed by Mark Achbar, Wintonick, sometimes dubbed Canada's documentary ambassador to the world, had dedicated most of his life to working as a director, producer, editor and reporter – and was a permanent fixture at TDF. A new audience award named after him will be presented to the festival's best foreign feature.
Award-winning French documentarist Nicolas Philibert will also be honored by the festival, which plans to screen nine of his films, including what many consider his finest moment: “To Be and to Have.” Shot in 2002, this touching portrait of a one-room schoolhouse in rural France became an instant critical and commercial success. Its fame has persisted despite a fair amount of controversy following its release, after the main character in the movie, veteran teacher George Lopez, sued the 63-year-old director for a healthy share of the profits, claiming that he had been exploited. The court rejected the claim, which was seen by some as raising some interesting ethical questions about the nature of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking.
Approximately 500 films will be available in this year's Doc Market, a digital library that caters to television networks and industry professionals from around the world. Some 60 buyers are expected to attend from Europe, the United States and Canada.
As usual, organizers have planned a number of workshops, discussions and side events, including an exhibition by Albanian photojournalist Enri Canaj. Taking place with the support of the Thessaloniki State Museum of Contemporary Art, the show, titled “In a Sharp Frame,” will be inaugurated on March 15 at the Thessaloniki Center of Contemporary Art.