What’s up doc? Eipides takes stock of TDF

«I believe that all those people who voted for Bush had never seen a documentary in their life.» Dimitris Eipides, founder and artistic director of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, believes that documentary films make better people and, yes, better voters. From May 7-16, the increasingly successful event, which turns 10 this year, will be showcasing hard-hitting pictures that give a face to the world’s pressing but often under-publicized problems. «There is an incongruence between what is served up, that wonderful pink thing that is our life in a 1960s Hollywood movie, and reality,» says the outspoken Eipides, who has never stopped trying to wean the documentary festival off its bigger and glitzier brother, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. «It’s set up on a glass foundation. If the board of directors at the TIFF changes and they decide that they don’t want documentaries anymore and would rather have an animation section, or musicals, or whatever, this festival dies.» A recent article in the International Herald Tribune quoted Alex Gibney, director of «Taxi to the Dark Side,» which addresses the abuse of prisoners held on terrorism charges, as saying, «I don’t think Dick Cheney is going to watch this film and say, ‘My God, I’ve been wrong! ‘» Can documentaries influence politics? I believe that documentary filmmaking is definitely a political act because a documentary presents the director’s opinion and normally this opinion is not that which is widely accepted by the largely conservative news media establishment. I do believe in the dynamic of primary reporting and this can come from a director who is involved in his subject, who has been coerced by it into taking a camera and making a documentary. Documentaries offer an alternative source of information. I believe it is essential in a democracy. It is a political act and people who watch documentaries acquire a greater sensitivity, a greater perspective of the universe, of life on this small planet, and as a result they live as better people and maybe even vote better. I believe that all those people who voted for [George W.] Bush had never seen a documentary in their life. To what do you attribute the rising popularity of documentary films? People are becoming more aware and concerned; they see that problems are becoming even more complex rather than being solved. There is a sense that things are happening and that we have no control over them. We are presented with a life on television where everything is rosy, sexy, attractive. None of this is real because from the minute that you step out into the street or go to work you see that nothing is sexy. There is an incongruence between what is served up, that wonderful pink thing that is our life in a 1960s Hollywood movie, and reality. When you take a look at what’s going on… half of Greece was burned down for God’s sake. The climate is changing, major democracies like the United States set up torture camps (Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib), people in the direst of straits swim across the Mediterranean from Africa to Spain, and once they arrive they are treated like animals. Then look at the arms industry. Instead of seeing a trend toward political solutions and reconciliation on an international level, what America and the mighty arms industry suggest are more wars – the easy solution. Is documentary film an art or an information medium? Both. And that is its charm. Documentary film does not proselytize. And it is also an entertainment medium. Proof is in the 10 years that the documentary festival has been running. I go into theaters in the dark and I don’t look at the screen; I look at the faces of the audience. When you see people with tears in their eyes, smiling, you see that this is not an academic medium. Do you think that documentary filmmakers should be passive observers? There are times when they seem to influence their subjects… I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Normally they don’t. Some may for technical or aesthetic reasons. I am completely opposed to dramatized documentaries because I believe that things should be clear-cut. Fiction is fiction and documentary is documentary and the difference between the two must be clear. You don’t want there to be any confusion, the viewer getting mixed up between what is true and what isn’t. The documentary festival is celebrating its 10th anniversary. What have been its greatest achievements? Our greatest achievement is having made documentaries popular in a provincial city like Thessaloniki. We started off in an atmosphere of skepticism to end up 10 years later with 36,500 viewers from 4,000, with a full house. Of course we were also lucky, because with very few resources, in contrast to the other [international film] festival, we managed to make something of this festival. Especially since we are a section of the other festival. This actually may have worked against us. Do you continue to believe that independence from the Thessaloniki International Film Festival is the best course? Like crazy. It’s the only solution. First of all I have never seen anything like this before. A fiction film festival with Hollywood and pomp and glamour leanings being truly interested in documentary films? The truth is that none of those responsible for the festival care. It is simply a matter of prestige to them. It is successful, but it’s set up on a glass foundation. If the board of directors at the TIFF changes and they decide that they don’t want documentaries anymore and would rather have an animation section, or musicals, or whatever, this festival dies. Culture depends on politics and I can see this here because I lived abroad for years… where I never once knew the name of the culture minister, because I didn’t need to know it, I didn’t need to cultivate political relationships. Here it is complete hell. It is about who knows whom, who owes whom a favor and nothing is done with any sense of meritocracy. Greek documentaries appear to be grounded… They’re getting there… Why? Easy does it… that’s the spirit of isolationism. Is it the subject matter? Yes, but it is also that many filmmakers have not grasped what a documentary really is, what potential it has and there continues to be discrimination against documentary film. People think that it is not a serious cinematic genre because it isn’t Hollywood, isn’t industry, doesn’t make money, doesn’t produce stars, doesn’t make you rich… There’s a million reasons. So people end up making documentaries because they are cheap and they feel that they can still dabble in fiction. Yes, but will a good Greek documentary travel abroad? Rarely, but yes, and I can see it happening in the TIFF, where the number of Greek films screened each year is on the rise, proving that the festival provides an impetus for more films to be made and I think that gradually the quality of Greek documentaries is improving. Last year and the year before that we saw the [Giorgos] Avgeropoulos phenomenon. After a tribute to his work in Thessaloniki his film went on to European festivals. It was awarded at two different events and is being sold by a company in Paris. There are other examples, though not as many as there could be. I’m hoping there will be more in the future.

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