The 14th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival
by Gary Crowdus
The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival is held each spring in Greece’s second-largest city. Thessaloniki is nevertheless widely regarded as the country’s liveliest center for contemporary art and culture, and is also a renowned Byzantine seaport boasting centuries of multicultural history, with ancient Greek and Roman ruins and numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites readily visible and accessible on even a casual stroll throughout the city.
This year’s edition of the festival, the fourteenth, held from March 9th-18th, included 185 films (not counting scores of additional films available for viewing in the International Documentary Market), which makes Thessaloniki one of the oldest festivals devoted to documentary films as well as one of the biggest in terms of the number of films shown. As is the case with all such sizable events, Thessaloniki’s films are organized into thematic categories—Views of the World, Stories to Tell, Recordings of Memory, Portraits: Human Journeys, Human Rights, and so on—and, with so many films competing for one’s attention, each viewer must necessarily create a personally curated and condensed version of the festival. Since all the films are screened in a series of modern, well-appointed cinemas located along the Aegean Seafront within just a few minutes walking distance from each other, it’s possible, depending on one’s moviegoing appetite and physical stamina, to see up to half a dozen or more films per day.
As anyone paying the slightest attention to world affairs these days is aware, Greece is now undergoing one of the most difficult periods in its recent history, and is regularly singled out by world leaders and international media as the weak link in the ongoing European debt crisis, the potential first national domino whose economic default would initiate a series of international bankruptcies that could result in a global economic crisis.
The film that best analyzed this situation within both a contemporary and a historical context was Stelios Kouloglou’s Oligarchy, whose opening scenes movingly portray the human dimensions of the harsh economic austerity programs imposed on countries such as Greece and Portugal. Interviews with representatives of the “new poor”—well-educated, middle-class professionals who lost their jobs and have been forced to live on the streets or to rely on social welfare agencies and handouts from food banks in order to survive—reveal the shame and humiliation felt by people surprised to find themselves in such impoverished predicaments. The human tragedies these straitened social circumstances can engender was exemplified by the suicide in early April of a seventy-seven-year-old Greek pensioner, reduced to financial destitution by his medical bills, and who, fearing the prospect of “scavenging through garbage bins for food,” shot himself in the head in front of the Greek Parliament building in Athens.
Having exposed the human consequences of these economic crises, which too often remain abstract concepts for those personally untouched by them, Oligarchy then flashes back to trace the rise of neoliberalism as a socially destructive form of capitalism, beginning with footage of the 1973 military coup d’etat in Chile. That country soon become a laboratory for the “Chicago Boys” school of Chilean economists who championed the theories of American economist Milton Friedman, which, as the film graphically portrays, resulted in the bloody political repression of the Chilean labor movement. The subsequent international influence of Friedman’s economic philosophy, which emphasized the privatization of state-owned companies, government deregulation of business, and other policies that favored corporate over public interests, is chronicled through their implementation by the Reagan and Thatcher governments in the Eighties, and in the Nineties by President Clinton as a result of his secret consultations with former Republican political advisor Dick Morris. Bringing the history up to the present day, the film doesn’t spare President Obama from criticism, in particular for his decision to appoint to financial leadership positions in his administration people such as Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, whom he had earlier criticized for their roles in the Wall Street machinations leading to the 2008 collapse of the U.S. economy.
Oligarchy then follows through on the sinister ruling-clique implications of its title by focusing on the “Frankfurt Group,” an unelected cabal of European leaders responsible for trying to resolve the European debt crisis by imposing harsh austerity programs on countries such as Greece, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicholas Sarkozy, International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs Olli Rehn, Eurogroup Chairman Jean-Claude Juncker, European Council President Herman van Rompuy, and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.
When Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, who was reluctant to agree to the punishing economic measures required by the Frankfurt Group’s bailout offer, announced last fall that he would submit the controversial proposal to a national public referendum, the new “Oligarchy” informed him this was unacceptable, and Papandreou chose to resign. Lucas Papademos, a former Vice President of the European Central Bank, was then appointed to head a Greek national unity government, the film explains, because he was considered a more malleable partner in accepting the bailout deal, which is now having such a devastating impact on the Greek populace. As the film’s director describes the Frankfurt Group’s clout, “Today bankers have more power than politicians, without even the illusion of elections.”
American viewers will find especially informative the film’s revelations about the dominating political role of Goldman Sachs, the multinational American investment banking and securities firm, such as the fact that there has not been a Secretary of the Treasury in any administration in the last twenty years who was not a former employee of the firm.Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi has colorfully characterized Goldman Sachs, notorious for its role in the stock-market scandals that precipitated the 2008 economic meltdown and our ongoing national recession, as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
An inspiriting montage of worldwide public protests provides an upbeat conclusion to Oligarchy, which features an impressive blend of archival footage, adroit animation, and contemporary interviews with economists, sociologists, journalists, politicians, and ordinary if outraged citizens, all of which makes a convincing brief for the Occupy Wall Street movement’s analysis of the rank injustices and gross inequities of the American economic system. Hopefully an enterprising American distributor will quickly acquire and widely release this topical film, especially since one wants so much to believe the stated fear of American industrialist Henry Ford, which is paraphrased at the beginning of the film: “Should our financial system ever be understood by the American public, a revolution will instantly follow.”
The latest documentary by Austrian filmmaker Michael Glawogger, Whores’ Glory, is also essentially a film about economics, more specifically the sexual exchange economics of prostitution. Following Megacities (1998) and Workingman’s Death (2004), Whores’ Glory, which portrays prostitution in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico, is the concluding film in Glawogger’s globalization trilogy on working conditions throughout the world.
Glawogger’s approach here, as with his earlier documentaries, is strictly observational, with no narration or titles to provide the viewer with context, orientation, or interpretation. Nor does Whores’ Glory include any moralizing or theorizing about prostitution. One’s response to the film will therefore largely depend on the preconceptions or biases—ideological, moral, social, or political—that each viewer brings to the film. Glawogger has explained that his aim is neither to condemn nor defend prostitution, but instead to explore what it does “to the hearts, minds and souls on both sides.”
The opening sequence in Bangkok is set in the “Fish Tank,” a fairly upscale brothel where customers can have drinks or dinner along with their selection from dozens of attractive young women displayed in a huge glass enclosure (the customers can see in but the women can’t see out). The women are aided in their nightly competition for clients by the establishment’s beauty salon, where they are primped before going on display. Based on overheard conversations and interviews with these women, most of them have chosen prostitution over secretarial or factory work because they can make more money for themselves and their families.
The Bangladesh sequence, set in Faridpur, known as the “City of Joy,” presumably without any sense of irony, is, by comparison to Bangkok’s Fish Tank, a decidedly grimmer, more downmarket locale, a veritable ghetto of prostitution where between 600 to 800 women live and work in a rabbit-warren complex of dingy rooms, overseen by an abusive, demanding, and unforgiving madam with all the compassion of a concentration-camp commandant. The competition for clients here reaches remarkable levels of desperation—with the women patrolling the hallways, trying to wheedle prospective johns into choosing them, sometimes literally grabbing and dragging reluctant or indecisive customers into their rooms—because in the “City of Joy,” if you don’t work, you don’t eat. A few of the prostitutes are threatened by the madam with being thrown out on the street because they’re not attracting enough customers, and some of the older prostitutes voice concerns about their questionable future. With this sequence, Whores’ Glory, nominally a film about sexuality, reveals itself as much more a devastating portrait of grinding poverty and unrelieved misery.
The film’s final sequence, in Reynosa, Mexico, is set in an area known as “La Zona,” an open-air, drive-through red-light district, where prostitutes stand outside their rooms, as prospective customers drive by, perhaps looking for a favorite girl or a pretty newcomer, before pulling over to negotiate terms. It’s in this final segment that Whores’ Glory, having previously remained discreetly outside the rooms where the purchase of sexual favors is consummated, surprisingly goes behind the closed door with the prostitute and her john. Alas, while her young client is horny, he also claims to be hard up, so the financially needy but no-nonsense prostitute agrees to only an abbreviated session, advising him that, “If you don’t come, it’s not my fault. Bring more money next time!”
Given the rather pathetic and graphically raw nature of the encounter, many viewers will not unreasonably suspect that both participants were paid for their “performance,” which very much seems to have been “directed” for the camera. Indeed, although Glawogger has explained that getting permission to film in each locale required an enormous amount of time and effort in order to establish a sense of trust with his subjects, he has also acknowledged that every single interview in the film was paid for and that all the prostitutes, pimps, and madams who appear in the film, and for whom time is money, were paid for their participation.
Whores’ Glory does offer a rare, frank, and often disturbing behind-the-scenes look at some of the seamier aspects of prostitution. Several of the interviews with these women include heartfelt and heartrending statements, while others offer humorous comments about the hygienic shortcomings of their clients. The film exposes evidence of human trafficking, the escapism of drug addiction, and the role religion plays in each country’s sexual attitudes and practices. For all the valuable insights that can be gleaned from the film, however, some viewers may question in what ways and to what extent the filmmaker’s “checkbook journalism” mediates the ostensible “reality” he shows us.
Despair of a more historic nature is documented in Romain Icard’s Children of the Gulag, a remarkably moving chronicle of how children as young as three years of age were among the victims of the Soviet Union’s forced labor camps in Siberia. During Stalin’s reign of power, especially during the Thirties and Forties, millions of Soviet citizens were arrested by the NKVD on spurious charges of being “counterrevolutionaries” or disloyal to the Soviet regime, and were sentenced, without trial, to long terms of imprisonment in hundreds of camps throughout the Gulag system. The wives of these “enemies of the state” were often sentenced to the camps along with their husbands, as were their children, since they were considered as “coming from the worst stock.” Many children were also born in the camps but, since they were separated from their mothers after a year or so, and were raised in orphanages within the camps, they grew up without ever knowing their parents.
Children of the Gulag uses rare archival footage, family photos, snapshots taken clandestinely in the camps, and contemporary interviews with child survivors, now elderly Soviet citizens, who tell their family stories and recount the horrendous conditions in which they lived, including overcrowded housing, lack of heat or warm clothing, inadequate food, and poor hygiene and health care. Icard’s film is one of a number of documentaries made in recent years, following the opening of the Soviet state and party archives in the Nineties, about the horrendous crimes of the Stalinist regime. Films such as Children of the Gulag thus become valuable public-history complements to literary accounts such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Eugenia Ginzburg’s Within the Whirlwind.
Family histories of another totalitarian regime are portrayed in Chanoch Zeevi’s Hitler’s Children, which also employs archival footage, family photos, and contemporary interviews to show how the descendants of Nazi leaders have dealt with their notorious family legacies. Although none of them can in any way be held responsible for the actions of their forebears, each of these family members has learned in their own way to cope with the overwhelming sense of guilt, shame, and emotional trauma of their lineage.
Katrin Himmler, grand-niece of SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, recounts how as a child in Germany she wept uncontrollably when watching the TV series Holocaust because the name Himmler was repeated so often. “I don’t believe I’ve inherited his ‘badness,’” she explains, “but I live with his name.” She later married an Israeli Jew, the child of Holocaust survivors.
Monika Hertwig, daughter of Kraków-Plaszów concentration camp commandant Amon Goeth (memorably portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List) recalls stories of how her father “liked to shoot women with babies in their arms from the balcony of his house, to see if one bullet could kill two,” and admits that the thought of “how much of the murderer is in me” continues to torment her.
Bettina Goering, great-niece of Hermann Goering, moved to the U.S. and now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she practices herbal medicine. At the age of thirty she had herself sterilized, she says, so she would not “pass on the blood of a monster.”
Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, Nazi Governor of occupied Poland, despises the memory of his father, who he regards as having been a “slime-hole of a Hitler fanatic.” Niklas has devoted his life to researching his father’s crimes, which he has documented in a series of articles and a book, In the Shadow of the Reich. He also regularly lectures on his father and the Nazi era to German schoolchildren.
Rainer Höss, grandson of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, shares family memorabilia, including photos of his father’s childhood. The family home was located within the concentration camp compound, but was visually shielded from the atrocities being carried out only yards away by boarded-up windows and a high surrounding wall, although nothing could disguise the pervasive smell of burning corpses or the layer of human ash that covered their garden. In a later sequence, Rainer, accompanied by a Jewish friend, the Israeli son of Holocaust survivors, visits the Auschwitz Memorial Museum, seeing for the first time the home where his father grew up. He introduces himself to a group of Israeli students, revealing his relationship to the former camp commandant, which results in a tense and awkward encounter, characterized by a mutually self-serving emotional exchange, between descendants of victims and perpetrators.
The long and contentious history and current state of the Israel-Palestinian conflict were portrayed through the festival’s tribute to Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan, seven of whose films, dating from 1987 to 2012, were screened. Sivan, who was born in 1964 in Haifa and grew up in Jerusalem, has directed sixteen films, most of them political and historical documentaries, although only a few have been distributed in the U.S. He is best known here as the codirector (with Palestinian filmmaker Michel Khleifi) of Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel, a three-part, four-and-a-half-hour documentary journey in which the filmmakers traversed the length of Israel, following the route of the 1947 UN Partition plan, along the way visiting Israel towns built over former Palestinian villages, and speaking with both Israeli and remaining Palestinian residents. His 1999 documentary, The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal, a two-hour documentary assembled from the 350 hours of footage recorded of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, was theatrically released in the U.S. in 2000. Both films have generated considerable international controversy.
Other Sivan documentaries shown in Thessaloniki included Izkor: Slaves of Memory (1991), whose interviews with schoolchildren reveal how the Israeli educational system perpetuates nationalist mythology; Jaffa: The Orange’s Clockwork (2010), a fascinating compilation documentary on the world-famous “Jaffa orange” and how its history reveals the development of Israel as a colonial-settler state; and Sivan’s most recent film, Common State: Potential Conversation, a provocative split-screen exchange of views between Israelis and Palestinians about the possible resolution of the conflict by the establishment of a single secular state, a “common state” of all Israel’s residents, as opposed to the long-proposed but seemingly unrealizable “two-state solution.”
I won’t discuss at length here any of these remarkable films, since during the festival we were able to discuss Sivan’s films with him, and we plan to publish the interview in our fall issue. As part of its tribute, the festival published a bilingual (Greek and English) fifty-six-page booklet on the filmmaker, which includes an interview, reviews, and other documents. It is just one of many such booklets published by the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, or the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, devoted to fiction films, which is held each fall. These publications range from the lavishly-illustrated, 158-page hardcover book, Cinemythology: Greek Myth in World Cinema, to smaller booklets (also available in bilingual editions) on Cinema in the Middle East, New Irish Cinema, Brazilian Cinema, European Cinema Heritage, New Cinema from China, and Mexican Cinema, as well as filmmakers such as Joris Ivens, Sergei Loznitsa, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Ousmane Sembene, Barbara Kopple, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, among many others.
The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival also screened a number of other noteworthy documentaries, some of which have already been covered in Cineaste or which are featured in our current issue or on our Website, such as Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light, Mimi Chakarova’s The Price of Sex, Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, and Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s Five Broken Cameras. A series of films screened in the Greek Panorama section included such evocative titles as Toxic Crisis, Children of the Riots, andGreece, I Am Facing Taxing Times!
In this regard, while the statement in the festival catalog by Thessaloniki Documentary Festival founder-director Dimitri Eipides may seem pitched specifically to Greek moviegoers, the global nature of the current recession, with all its attendant social and economic ills, as well as the heightened political debate and reflection it has generated, makes it clear that his comments are relevant for viewers worldwide: “In these times we are living, the documentary is the most necessary film genre. Reality, daily life, and the state of mind of most people are worsening day by day. And it’s a fact that documentaries reinsert the viewer into a reality which he or she is experiencing anyway, with all the burdens it entails. However, this reintroduction, oddly enough, or perhaps understandably, emerges as an unexpected source of endurance and hope. An aware audience is automatically a more powerful audience, able to filter information lucidly, to hone free thinking, to—almost heroically—resist political expediency, criticism and pressure. But above all, it is able to invent creative and productive solutions in the face of this broadening dispute at the center of which it finds itself.”
It would be hard to think of a more insightful statement about the social value of documentary cinema, a function the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival continues to celebrate and promote.
For more information on the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, visit http://www.filmfestival.gr
Gary Crowdus is the Editor-in-Chief of Cineaste.
Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.