Letter from Thessaloniki

Set in the 70s, the focus of this documentary film is a jazz musician, a charismatic icon of rock subculture, a self-professed genius of a guitar player. Now, 56-year-old, Terry Papadinas lives on the fringes of Thessaloniki’s society, painfully seeking recognition and recovery. His sad story of ups and downs, drugs and womanizing, plus the music he plays, convinces us of his talent while his personal traits are nothing if not intense sleaze. Immersed in mystery and rock folklore, Terry’s story makes a film that may not go down in the history books, but generated much interest among the local audience of the 11th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, subtitled Images of the 21st Century. Many of those present at the Olympion Cinema for the film’s screening have known him personally. Some local middle-aged matrons assured me personally that they have been his mistresses. «T 4 Trouble and the Self Admiration Society,» the title of this documentary made by Dimitris Athiridis, was one of the high points of the festival. The question that arises is: What is a documentary film? Filmmaker John Grierson used the term in 1926 to refer to any nonfiction film medium, including travelogues and instructional films. Up to the present day, it has more or less remained that way. Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov defined documentary film as «life as it is» – that is, life filmed surreptitiously. Others described it as «life caught unawares» – which is life surprised by the camera. In the 70s, I was personally involved in nonfiction, working together with Roussos Koundouros in Italy. It was a time when such films provided an opinion. Along with the facts that they presented there were specific – mainly political – messages. No more. Now, if anything, there are mostly ecological messages, which is far better I presume, than the habitually romantic «ideological teachings» of the 70s and 80s. In this year’s anniversary program, a total of 168 films were presented. There were special, ill-defined sections with titles such as «Hybrid Docs,» «Recordings of Memory,» «Habitat» and so on – all under the general title «Images of the 21st Century.» The same «Images» program will also be held in the cities of Alexandroupolis, Kavala, Kastoria, Florina, Ioannina, Rethymnon, Edessa, Kilkis and Patras. Also, for the first time in the festival’s history, a selection will be presented in Athens, at the Trianon Film Center (21 Kodrigtonos, tel 210.821.5469) starting next Thursday, March 26, and running until April 1. There will be 26 films in this selection. Here is a list of the ones I consider worth seeing: «From Olympus to Everest» by Pavlos Tsiantos – a must for those interested in mountaineering. Chao Gan’s award-winning «The Red Race» from China is an up-close and very raw look of how China trains its children – boys and girls as young as 5 or 6 years old – in gymnastics. Practices very close to child abuse. «National Garden» by Apostolos Karakasis, in which people of every age and origin seek respite from everyday life in Athens’s National Garden, was one of the best-made films. «Theo Angelopoulos Films Dust of Time» by Nikos Ligouris, is the portrait of a passionate artist at work. «Bathers» by Eva Stefani follows a summer season in the lives of a group of retired persons at spa towns. «Children of the Pyre,» by Indian filmmaker Rajesh S. Jala, recounts activities in the busiest cremation ground in India. «Sandra’s Paradise,» by Marianne Roussy, is a work on how Sandra decided to do something about the misery in Colombia. «Charisma X – Iannis Xenakis» by Efi Xirou, is a documentary on the «architect of sound,» a composer whose work combines art with science. «Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father» by an American with a typical German name – Kurt Kuenne. A crime-and-punishment story. «Among the Rocks» by Alinda Dimitriou, the story of 33 Greek women during the red-scare years in Greece in the late 40s. «Keiskamma» by Miki Redelinghuys is about how love can change the course of a tragic life somewhere in South Africa. «Grief: Little Tales of Unemployment» by Giorgos Zervas, a contemplative «portrait» of people who have lost their job in Greece today. «Bells, Thread and Miracles» by Marianna Economou. Every year on April 23, thousands of Muslims visit a Christian monastery on one of the Princes’ Islands off the coast of Istanbul, to pray to an Orthodox saint for a miracle. The story itself makes an interesting film. «Bombing» by Angelos Athanasopoulos. A documentary about a gang of four and the adventures of their generation. Nowadays, most documentaries are created with video-recorders. It is easier, simple and – most importantly – much cheaper that way. The newsreel-video tradition is important in documentary film; newsreels may sometimes have been staged, but were usually re-enactments of events that had already happened, not attempts to steer events as they were in the process of happening. For instance, much of the battle footage from the early 20th century was staged; the cameramen would usually arrive at the site after a major battle and re-enact scenes to film them. How it is done now I couldn’t say. Happily there were hardly any re-enacted films in Thessaloniki. Sure enough, some used the technique practised by Dziga Vertov about 100 years ago. No big crime! Vertov was a central figure in the so-called «Kino-Pravda» (literally «film-truth») newsreel series of the 1920s. A pioneer in the true sense of the word, he believed that the camera – with its different lenses, shot/counter-shot editing, time-lapse, slow motion capability, stop-motion and fast-motion – could render reality more accurately than the human eye and created a film philosophy out of it: A philosophy that is still alive, as Thessaloniki’s doc fest proved once more. Inspired by artistic director Dimitri Eipides, Thessaloniki’s Documentary Film Festival has become one of Europe’s primary showcases for the work of new and emerging filmmakers.

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