Thessaloniki Doc Fest throws spotlight on Middle East

The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, whose 10 days of screenings and parallel events get under way on Friday, March 11, is introducing a timely segment dubbed ?Middle East,? featuring eight recent productions. The section puts names on the innocent faces of headline terror, dissecting some of the most burning social and political problems dogging the volatile region.

One of the highlights is Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan?s ?Jaffa, the Orange?s Clockwork,? which deconstructs the story behind the production of the iconic citrus fruit variety also known as the ?golden apple.? Drawing on a wealth of material including archival footage, paintings, posters, songs, poetry and interviews, Sivan documents the gradual appropriation of what used to be the Arabs? main agricultural product into an emblem of Israeli statehood.

In the second installment of her post-9/11 trilogy following ?My Country, My Country,? which was nominated for an Academy Award, American director Laura Poitras?s film ?The Oath? narrates the divergent stories of two brothers-in-law, Abu Jandal and Salim Hamdam. Having served as Osama bin Laden?s bodyguard, Jandal now makes a living as a cabbie in Yemen, while Hamdam, a former driver of the al-Qaida founder, awaits military trial at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

Organizers have also booked the controversial ?Tears of Gaza.? Made by Norwegian model-turned-war film director and feminist Vibeke Lokkeberg, this stomach-churning film depicts the Israeli bombings of Gaza between 2008 and 2009 in all their hair-raising detail. Putting together stills and footage shot by Palestinian cameramen during and after the air raid, which Tel Aviv said was a response to repeated rocket fire from Hamas militia on the country’s southern towns and villages, Lokkeberg captures the horror of war and its devastating impact on civilians, particularly women and children.

In ?12 Angry Lebanese,? filmmaker Zeina Daccache, a well-known activist and a comedian on Lebanese television, documents her efforts to organize drama therapy sessions inside a local high-security prison, as inmates stage a theater production of Reginald Rose’s ?12 Angry Men.?

The TDF has slated 220 films from just over 50 countries (including 80 entries from Greek directors) for its March 11-20 run in the northern port city. Organizers remain committed to screening thought-provoking films past and present, but also to provoking discussion about them. If escapism is your thing, it’s better to stay away.

Now it its 13th year, the festival seems to be going from strength to strength, attracting increasing numbers of visitors and gaining a position in the top league of similar festivals around Europe. A record 45,000 people last year flocked to festival theaters which include the flagship Olympion and Pavlos Zannas cinemas on Aristotelous Square and the red-brick and steel seaside complex.

Representatives of the event, which operates under the guidance of its energetic chief Dimitris Eipides, said they had to slash the budget for the event to 1 million euros from 6 million last year. All money prizes have been scrapped.

How I Am

Aside from the standard sections on human rights, the environment and personal stories, this year?s event will be hosting a separate program dedicated to films on mental illness and developmental disabilities.

Titled ?How I Am: Challenging Perceptions,? the segment was introduced on the occasion of the Special Olympics in Athens later this year. Some 30 movies are lined up, including two world premieres — both from the United States. In ?Neurotypical,? which is his debut movie, Adam Larsen takes on the often exclusive concept of ?normality? in a sensitive albeit sometimes humorous manner, while Jon Kent deals with a rare genetic disorder known as Williams syndrome in ?Embraceable.?

A must-see highlight is a retrospective on the work of Sergei Loznitsa, a Belarus-born experimental documaker who recently received warm reviews for his first fiction feature, ?My Joy.? Loznitsa, who has made the bulk of his work using vintage newsreel footage from Soviet Union archives, is expected in town to present and discuss his craft. Organizers have also planned tributes to award-winning director Helena Trestikova, famous for her long-term observational documentary projects, and homegrown filmmaker Kyriaki Malama.

As well as the screenings, this will once again be a city-wide affair, with tributes, parties and parallel events. Istanbul-based photographer Dieter Sauter will be presenting his portraits of construction workers in the Golden Horn estuary. His ?Human Landscapes? project, made between 2006 and 2007, will be on display at the Contemporary Art Center of Thessaloniki (Warehouse B1, Port Complex). Meanwhile the French Institute of Thessaloniki (2A Stratou) will be hosting an exhibition of works by Magnum photographer Patrick Zachmann.

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