The Twentieth Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Jonathan Murray

Having successfully completed a March 2018 twentieth edition that showcased no fewer than 242 films curated into 17 thoughtfully defined strands, the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival (TDF)’s prominent position on the international circuit is incontestable. TDF’s prestigious status is increasingly acknowledged worldwide, as the July 2018 addition of Thessaloniki to the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Documentary Feature Qualifying Festival list testifies. But there is a notably benign irony at work here. If TDF’s industrial and curatorial reputation is incontestable and secure, that is so because of the festival’s principled support of documentary films and filmmakers unafraid to confront sociopolitical insecurity and contestation around the globe.

10-year-old Oleg’s innocence is eroded by his family’s position on the frontline of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine in Simon Lereng Wilmont’s The Distant Barking of Dogs.

Nowhere was that fact more visible than in the 2018 TDF’s showcase International Competition section. Simon Lereng Wilmont’s The Distant Barking of Dogs, which won the festival’s coveted Golden Alexander Award, provided an emotionally gripping and morally thought-provoking portrait of the human cost of ongoing armed and diplomatic conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Shot in a Ukrainian village situated on the military front line, the film follows ten-year-old Oleg and his grandmother over a year during which the ceaseless grind of hostilities increasingly renders commonplace ideals of domestic security and identity both a logistical and conceptual impossibility. Children’s psychological survival of real-life war games comes to depend on their turning that war into a game: the film’s horror-struck viewer endures the sad spectacle of prepubescent protagonists starting to toy with real guns rather than pretending with toy ones. 

Martin Dicicco’s All That Passes by Through a Window That Doesn’t Open

The enduringly fissile extended aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse reappeared elsewhere in the International Competition. Martin Dicicco’s All That Passes by Through a Window That Doesn’t Open is a more elliptical work than The Distant Barking of Dogs. Dicicco fashions a distinctive visual aesthetic and humanist tone: think Kitchen Sink Western in which horizons unspool endlessly while walls simultaneously close in. He does so in order to depict the suspended existence of Armenian and Azerbaijani rail workers trapped by their respective home nations’ inability to complete a long-promised high-speed rail line—or, by extension, to agree and act on a post-Soviet model of regional cohabitation and cooperation. Elsewhere, Nicolas Wagnieres’s Hotel Jugoslavia puts the concept of concrete metaphor to ambitiously literal-minded historiographical uses. Wagnieres uses the checkered story of his titular central location to explore a decades-long story of nation erection and elimination in the Soviet and post-Soviet Balkans. Cineaste also took in one further work from the International Competition, Special Jury Award co-winner Baronesa by Juliana Antunes. Like its peers, this film turned a narrative setting defined by the lack of a secure and sustaining sense of domesticity (a present-day Brazilian favela) into a potent psychogeographic symbol of a wider national malaise.

Nicolas Wagnieres’s Hotel Jugoslavia

Comprised of no fewer than 46 films, TDF’s Kaleidoscope strand formed a centerpiece for the festival and enabled attendees to engage with the full variety of contemporary documentary practice. Sara Driver’s Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat offered a more optimistic take than many of its International Competition peers on the prospects of people who are excluded (or exclude themselves) from conventional domestic structures and practices. Mixing previously unseen archive footage and present-day interview testimony from late-1970s/early-1980s New York art scene survivors, Boom for Real narrates its subject’s vertiginous rise to fame. Far from being a hagiography, however, Driver’s film both celebrates Basquiat and uses his life and career as a vehicle through which to consider the complex and contingent nature of the modern urban ecologies that give rise to—and/or call time on—city-based artistic movements and subcultures. The latter theme was echoed elsewhere in the festival with films such as In Situ and Living on Soul (of which more below).

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s vertiginous rise to fame forms the subject matter of Sara Driver’s Boom For Real.

Abel Ferrera reveals the hidden histories of central Rome in Piazza Vittorio.

The local specificity and fragility of urban subcultures also forms a central preoccupation of Abel Ferrara’s Piazza Vittorio, a work of wilfully eccentric ethnography that traces the post-WWII past and present of one of central Rome’s most famous squares. Interviewing a cast of local inhabitants from fellow filmmakers Paolo Sorrentino and Willem Dafoe through to illegal African and Asian immigrants, Ferrara’s film linked back to work included in the International Competition. It did so by suggesting the elusiveness of domestic stability—whether in the literal home itself or in the surrounding streets and neighborhood—as a keynote of millennial sociopolitical experience. The rapidly and radically changing demographic of Piazza Vittorio is both a story of intensely localized social change and a portrait of a contemporary European nation challenged by pervasive global processes of local dispossession and consequent international movement. The latter question is, of course, one also faced by Greece, as Håvard Bustnes’s Golden Dawn Girls made abundantly clear. Bustnes counters fascism with absurdism, portraying three female figures within the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement who attain an unexpected and transient moment of national prominence when several of Golden Dawn’s male leaders are imprisoned by the Greek justice system. The studied-cum-satirical reasonableness of Bustnes’s interviewing style and persona allows his central subjects ample opportunity to reveal the ideological ugliness and self-contradiction that define Golden Dawn and other far-right movements currently disfiguring civic life across Europe and beyond.

The female face of contemporary Greek fascism looms large in Håvard Bustnes’ Golden Dawn Girls.

Collier Landry tries to uncover the circumstances of his mother’s violent death in Barbara Kopple’s A Murder in Mansfield.

A Murder in Mansfield

Elsewhere within Kaleidoscope, Marta Prus’s Over the Limit is a gripping narrative of the abusive relationship between a teenage Russian gymnast and her tyrannical coach in the run-up to an Olympic competition. A tragic form of familial dysfunction also lies at the heart of Barbara Kopple’s A Murder in Mansfield, a truth-trumps-fiction-style account of a thirtysomething man’s attempt to uncover the truth of his mother’s 1989 murder, for which his father was convicted. Kopple’s film might be seen as a self-reflexive work, a professional documentarian portraying an amateur counterpart’s emotionally fraught and dangerous enquiry. As such, the film’s ostensibly sensationalist narrative ultimately gives way to a more nuanced consideration of the paradoxical power at the heart of much documentary filmmaking. Collier Landry, the work’s central protagonist, never definitively establishes the specific truth he sets out to attain—his father stubbornly refuses to confess to the crime for which he was convicted. But Collier uncovers valuable alternative truths nonetheless, mainly to do with the psychological necessity of moving on from his relationship with a profoundly damaged and damaging parent. Finally, an intensely personal revisiting of a private past also provides the impetus for the late Claude Lanzmann’s final feature, Napalm. Lanzmann visits present-day North Korea in order to recount and reprocess events that transpired during his only previous trip to the country nearly sixty years before. Like A Murder in Mansfield, Napalm concludes that documentary filmmakers revisit history and historical processes most productively when they renounce any romantic, self-aggrandizing claim to be able to recuperate personal or public pasts simply by the act of turning a camera on them.

The late Claude Lanzmann revisits a six-decade-old visit to North Korea in his final feature, Napalm.

Cineaste also took in substantial segments of two further 2018 TDF programming strands, Human Rights and Music. Both highlighted the curatorial skill with which Thessaloniki encourages audiences to engage with politically complex and challenging subject matter without automatically forgoing the pleasures of narrative incident and emotional involvement. Like many of its counterparts in the International Competition, Joshua Olsthoorn and Lefteris Kaltsas’s Interlude foregrounded domestic dispossession and enforced migration as a central thematic preoccupation of TDF’s twentieth edition. In an Athenian warehouse, six refugees from different Middle Eastern countries draw on packing cases as a way of explaining the reasons behind their arrival in Greece. The setting in which protagonists are filmed and the extemporized materials they use to tell their stories are symbolically pointed. They underscore the extent to which contemporarily dominant European political discourses surrounding mass migration into the continent systematically dehumanize new arrivals, reducing the latter to the status of inanimate goods to be accepted or summarily returned to their point of origin on an unfeeling whim. Leonard Retel Helmrich’s The Long Season, one of Cineaste’s 2018 TDF highlights, explores similar territory. Helmrich’s film turns the figure of nine million (roughly the number of Syrian citizens forced to flee their homeland because of its ongoing civil war) from a conveniently incomprehensible abstraction into something far more emotionally and ethically insistent. It does so by documenting the suspended lives of Syrian exiles confined to a refugee camp in Eastern Lebanon, unable to return home or to integrate within their enforced temporary domicile. The skill and sensitivity with which Helmrich develops an intergenerational and interfamilial human drama that illustrates the material consequences of the Middle East’s troubled central role in contemporary geopolitics is consistently engrossing.

Middle Eastern refugees draw their stories of enforced migration in Joshua Olsthoorn and Lefteris Kaltsas’ Interlude.

Given the universal applicability of Human Rights as both moral concept and political issue, it was no surprise that this 2018 TDF strand also collected stories from elsewhere around the globe. Nancy Buiriski’s The Rape of Recy Taylor (covered at length in Cineaste’s Spring 2018 issue) restated its central subject’s vital place in the ongoing struggle for civil rights in late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century America. Set in present-day Myanmar, Barbet Schroeder’s The Venerable W. provided a disquieting illustration of the depth of religious prejudice and violence within that society and the extent to which individual demagoguery can possess profound consequences for large sections of any given national populace. Lastly, Mikala Krogh’s A Year of Hope is the story of a group of Pilipino street children reacting in very different ways to a year-long sojourn in a rehabilitation center. Krogh’s film exemplified the emotional and moral nuance that characterized TDF’s Human Rights strand more generally, being neither purely an uplifting story of survival nor a handwringing one of scarification. A Year of Hope is visibly aware of the extent to which would-be sympathetic portrayals of dispossessed individuals and communities run the risk of dehumanizing their subjects when filmmakers lean too heavily on ideas and images of undifferentiated victimhood. 

Demagogic instruction supplants divine equivalents in Barbet Schroeder’s The Venerable W.

Filipino street children find temporary shelter from the dangers of urban life in Mikala Krogh’s A Year of Hope.

The late Sharon Jones shines center stage in Jeff Broadway and Cory Bailey’s Living on Soul.

Despite a more ostensibly populist remit, TDF’s Music strand succeeded in articulating a distinctive curatorial identity of its own while also linking thoughtfully to other sections of the 2018 program. As its title already suggests, Chryssa Tzelepi and Akis Kersanidis’s In Situ recalled Boom for Real and Piazza Vittorio’s intense interest in locally specific urban subcultures and ecologies. It also allowed festival attendees to experience and better understand a fascinating aspect of their host city’s cultural history, namely, Thessaloniki’s prominent position within a Europe-wide network of avant-garde improvisational musical composition and performance. The idea that urban specificity often assumes powerful sonic forms also animates Jeff Broadway and Cory Bailey’s Living on Soul. Developed around (although never content to coast on the coattails of) extended concert footage of a celebrated short-term 2014 residency at Harlem’s Apollo Theater by artists recording on New York’s Daptone Records label, Broadway and Bailey’s film functions, among other things, as a poignant celebration of the career and spirt of Daptone’s best-known musician. The late soul singer Sharon Jones is seen and heard in full voice as she gives one of her final live performances before her untimely death from cancer.

Living on Soul

The interplay between music and mortality also assumes center stage in Stephen Nomura Schible’s Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda. This film that documents Sakamoto’s distinctive recording and compositional processes and interests, not to mention the extent to which these have been influenced by his recent experience of surviving throat cancer. As well as offering a sophisticated and sensitive portrait of the artist as a not-so-young man, Coda also functions as a potted introduction to its subject’s distinguished career more generally. It does so by including archive and present-day interview footage that illuminates several of Sakamoto’s key works, including his original scores for Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) and Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987). Ultimately, the film’s title reveals itself as gratefully ironic: the Sakamoto depicted onscreen is a figure very much alive in creative as well as corporeal terms. Finally, Mika Gustafson, Olivia Kastebring, and Tsiobanelis’s Silvana brings to the screen an inspiring musician working at the other pole of their career. A second-generation Swede with Syrian and Lithuanian roots, the film’s titular subject is both contemporary Sweden’s best-known hip-hop artist and a charismatic activist for an interlocking range of feminist, LGBTQ+, and antiracist causes. Intensely reminiscent of Living on Soul’s ability to capture and celebrate the charismatic aura of talented musicians caught in the moment of live performance, Silvana also linked convincingly to TDF’s 2018 cross-strand focus on the politics, problems, and potential of global migration and intercultural encounter within the current moment.

Ryuichi Sakamoto grants viewers access to his home studio and working methods in Stephen Nomura Schible’s Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda.

The only possible downside to a documentary festival as large as Thessaloniki is the sense of gluttonous frustration provoked by the logistical inability to sample all of the multiple courses offered on a bountiful cinematic menu. A few individual works apart, Cineaste was, for example, unable to experience at length several of the 2018 TDF’s main strands, such as retrospective programs for Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Agnès Varda or the Greek Panorama, which, at 53 films strong, constituted the largest section within this year’s program. What is most striking in retrospect, however, is the ingenuity with which the 2018 festival programmers negotiated this dilemma on behalf of their guests. Hopefully, this report makes clear the extent to which extended engagement with any given 2018 TDF strand simultaneously afforded an opportunity to experience many of the central preoccupations that defined other parts of the festival program. What was perhaps most cumulatively striking about the films that Cineaste viewed in the 2018 International Competition, Kaleidoscope, Human Rights, and Music strands was the manifold ways in which those works spoke freely to and about each other across and above the ostensible borders that the Festival’s different thematic strands might have been misunderstood to have drawn.

The consequent sense was one of multiple cinematic and cultural identities that proudly expressed their diversity and specificity while simultaneously contributing to an overarching and enabling sense of mutuality. For that reason, the twentieth Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival was itself a statement of progressive political principle as powerful as any to be found within the individual movies that briefly coalesced as an inspirational migrant collective on the Macedonian coast during early March of this year.   

Jonathan Murray, a Contributing Writer at Cineaste, teaches film and visual culture at the Edinburgh College of Art.

For information on the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival, click here.

Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 4