15th Annual Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival
by Cynthia Lucia
The sunsets in Thessaloniki’s harbor over the Aegean captivate; the city’s narrow cobblestone streets beguile, lined as they are with restaurants featuring moussaka, saganaki, and kufta grilled to perfection; its pastry shops tease, while at the same time, Thessaloniki’s history—a centuries’ old interplay of the triumphal and the tragic—enthralls. When walking the streets of Thessaloniki, the second largest city and cultural center of Greece, one is struck by the indefatigable endurance of human aspiration (and failings) in pursuits of the mind, body, and spirit. Modern apartment buildings cast shadows on the ruins of ancient palaces and amphitheaters just below; crowds throng hotel bistros, movie theaters, and shops in the imposing Aristotelous Square, not far from the spot where Nazis gathered and shot hundreds of the city’s male residents during World War II. The Square itself was part of a reconstruction effort after a raging fire destroyed more than thirty per cent of the city in 1917. One can’t help but become tangibly aware of ties that link past to present and individuals to a much larger history in this breathtaking city—that also has newsstands selling bottled water and Coca-Cola on every corner. The complex historical, social, and cultural life of Thessaloniki, perhaps more than in previous years, resounded, if often indirectly, in the films screened at its impressive 15th Documentary Festival—not the least in the remarkably rich selection of Greek films and in the Festival’s tribute to Chilean filmmaker Patrico Guzmán.
Although a broken leg kept Guzmán from attending the Festival as planned, the retrospective of his work, chronicling the rise and fall of political reform in Chile, most certainly had powerful resonance in a city and country accustomed to struggle, most recently centered on the economic crisis, with bank closings in nearby Cyprus occurring at the start of the festival, as Greek Prime Minister Antoinis Samaras attended high-level meetings at the Electra Palace Hotel on the Square.
The bright hope for socialist reform under Salvador Allende in Guzmán’s The First Year (1971, not shown at the Festival) is tempered by events chronicled in his three-part documentary, The Battle of Chile, screened at the Festival. Part I: The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie (1975), chronicles right-wing protests, that ultimately would escalate into a military coup against Allende; Part II: The Coup d’Etat (1976) examines the eponymous event—Allende’s failed attempt to negotiate with the opposition, the role of the U.S. government, division within the left wing leading to Allende’s downfall, and finally, Pinochet’s bombing of the presidential palace; Part III: The Power of the People (1979) documents grass-roots initiatives by Allende supporters, despite unspeakably violent retribution suffered by friends and family, to retain small collectivist groups, whether through community food co-ops, famers’ committees, or other similar organizations. In Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997) Guzmán returns to his country two decades after having escaped arrest, to reflect on tumultuous events of the 1970s. Also screened were Guzmán’s 2004 homage, Salvador Allende; his short 2010 Chile, a Galaxy of Problems, in which journalists, historians, and psychologists reflect on the “historical amnesia” plaguing Chileans regarding their violent past, and The Pinochet Case (2001), which examines the London arrest and trial of the dictator. Guzmán’s contemplation of ties linking present with past reaches a lyrical crescendo inNostalgia for the Light (2010), a cinematically stunning meditation on the larger human condition. Astronomers meet in Chile’s Atacama Desert, where the altitude allows for unparalleled observation of the stars, while relatives of the many “missing” during Pinochet’s dictatorship search for loved ones in the sands of the same desert, where the intensely dry heat preserves human remains.
Neo-Nazi: The Holocaust of Memory (Greece, 2013) likewise views the chilling present rise of Golden Dawn, Greece’s neo-Nazi political party, through the lens of past Nazi atrocities in Greek cities and islands during World War II. We are told that one hundred Greek towns and villages were “wiped out” during Nazi occupation, followed by the fact that Golden Dawn captured 6.9% of the vote in the most recent election. Filmmaker Stelios Kouloglou juxtaposes sequences devoted to the testimony of survivors, many of whom, as children, witnessed horrifying executions, rape, and torture, with footage of Golden Dawn rallies and media reports that—the filmmaker argues—may, in fact, strengthen the party through coverage that titillates and statistics that exaggerate actual election results. Neo-Nazi argues against an education system that suppresses the country’s historical past, primarily by editing out information about Greek battalions that collaborated with the Nazis and took part in atrocities against their countrymen, neighbors, and friends. Kouloglou takes his camera into classrooms where he screens the eyewitness testimony he has gathered, along with archival images exposing collaboration of Greek battalions, and information clearly linking several past collaborators with their children and grandchildren, some of whom are active or powerful members of Golden Dawn. The same problem of “historical amnesia” that Guzmán explores in Galaxy threatens to create a generation susceptible to the Golden Dawn agenda aimed at expelling and fueling hatred toward immigrants, whom the party claims are responsible for unemployment rates among young Greeks and for the collapse of the Greek economy.
Without commentary, director Marco Gastine, in Demokratica: The Way of the Cross (Greece, 2012), documents the May 2012 Parliamentary election in Greece, fraught with economic and social tensions. He follows four candidates: Giannis Ragousis, socialist Minister of Defense seeking election as the PASOK candidate; Rena Dourou (referred to only as “Mrs. Dourou” in the media), a left radical from the SYRIZA party; Dimitris Avramopoulous, a New Democracy party conservative; and Ilias Panagiotaros, a Golden Dawn neo-Nazi. The film documents rallies, private fundraisers, and television appearances, as well as more intimate moments when candidates interact with family or plan strategy with close campaign advisors. Apparently without irony, Panagiotaros proclaims: “We will force all immigrants to leave of their own will,” at a rally rife with placard slogans reading, “Greece Belongs to Greeks.” Avramopoulous attempts to voice a similar idea, albeit in far more muted terms, as he speaks with individual voters, and at larger events where he does attract significant crowds. Dourou and Ragousis are not so fortunate, with Ragousis often forced (and quite willing) to apologize for the “bad management” of people in his own party, saying he’s “ashamed” but reminding voters that “not all politicians are the same.” He fails to convince the voters, however, and as he packs up his office, Panagiotaros, Dourou, and Avramopoulous prepare for the parliamentary swearing-in ceremony. Viewers in the know, however, will feel a certain twinge of irony for, with seven political parties represented and no clear majority, the parliament was suspended after only two days, in accordance with the Greek constitution, having failed to form a new government. Elections took place again in June.
The irony is not lost on filmmaker Massimo Pizzocaro, who takes a quirky—at times humorous—look at contemporary Greek politics through the varied perspectives of an accomplished economics professor and Democratic Left Party candidate for parliament, an unpaid employee who designs T-shirts, and a young couple, one an artist and the other a musician—all Athens residents—who are Living in Interesting Times (Greece, 2013). With self-deprecating humor the professor, Manos Matsaganis, goes about perfecting his pizza dough while meeting with campaign advisors, fully aware that he has an uphill battle (that he eventually will lose) as a former supporter of the ousted Prime Minister Papandreou. T-shirt designer George provides incisively humorous commentary on everything from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose policies he views as virulently anti-Greek, to TV commercials and soccer games. The married couple eventually packs up for Australia, saying that they simply cannot support themselves through their art, let alone raise their young daughter in the economic chaos of Greece, where paychecks for work completed often come many months later, if at all. Through her playful look at Greek society and politics, Pizzocaro, without trivializing the problems, brings politics down to the personal level, revealing how individuals are forced to adjust in varying ways.
On the historical stage, filmmaker Costas Vakkas explores the ties that bind Greek-American immigrants with their homeland in Greek-American Radicals (2013)—a comprehensive overview of Greek immigrant activists and their offspring who have played crucial roles in U.S. labor history. Interweaving narration, interviews, and archival images, the film details violent arrests and deportations in the Teens and Twenties of immigrant activists deemed “potentially subversive elements.” Posing the question of what it means “to be a revolutionary in nonrevolutionary conditions,” the film traces the “toning down” of revolutionary publications in response to Twenties consumerist ideology in the United States at a time when “Greek workers either don’t accept or know that they are workers,” as one commentator points out, with The Voice of the Worker renamed Forward, in one of many other examples. With the Depression and the New Deal came another shift prompting the restructuring of unions, for as scholar (and Cineaste Consulting Editor) Dan Georgakas points out, “working class consciousness” was about realizing that “you all worked for bosses and wanted a nice life and education for your kids, but you had to fight for it and unions were the weapons.” The film further details the role of Greek-Americans in the Popular Front with its “broad antifascist” stance during World War II and its later struggles with McCarthyism. The film connects past with present through an interview with Eric Poulos, an activist of Greek descent who remembers his father having organized his own workers at their family-owned store and movie theater. Poulos, himself, is a Civil Rights Attorney involved in the Occupy Wall Street Movement.
Revolution has not delivered all of the hoped-for reforms in Egypt, according to Back to the Square (Norway–Canada, 2012), in which filmmaker Peter Lom looks at the lives of several Cairo citizens. He interviews the impoverished adolescent Wally, who had been able to eke out a meager living selling pony rides near the pyramids before the revolution and now is permitted to sell only souvenirs, bringing in far less money. Mistaken for a pro-Mabarak supporter in Tahrir Square, he was injured by a thrown rock and struggles to pay for medication. Citizens tell of unwarranted arrest and torture, with one observing that “you get rid of Mubarak, but the rest of the corruption remains.” Lom intercuts images of postrevolutionary Tahrir Square, with the stories of several citizens, including the teenage girl Salwa, who was forced to take a virginity test when falsely accused of prostitution, and blogger Michael Nabil, who was arrested for his critical commentary and, during Lom’s 2010 filming, was on hunger strike—all of which tacitly answer a placard in the Square that asks, “What Did Revolution Bring?” One man interviewed says that “Mubarak was harsh, but it was civilian rule; today the regime is a hundred times worse, though I hated Mubarak.” Nabil was pardoned in January 2012, very likely the result of pressure from international sources. Although not included in the film, a 2012 Al Arambiya News story aptly quotes the director of the United Nations Watch in saying that, “if Michael Nabil perishes, so does the dream of a free Egypt.”
For some women in Afghanistan, by contrast, imprisonment provides a measure of freedom not possible in a culture that places rigid restrictions upon them. In No Burqas Behind Bars (Sweden, 2012), women serving time for “moral crimes” can shed their burqas, gather strength from mutual support, and care for their children beyond the demands of the men they would be expected to serve in the outside world. “Prison is much better than home,” says one. “Here you can be yourself.” Yet all is not rosy—one woman is forced to sell her infant because she does not produce enough milk to nourish him, and the prison refuses to provide assistance. She is heartbroken. Release from prison is a mixed blessing, for in freedom potentially comes much greater punishment as male family members likely will take revenge through “honor killings” when the women return home—and few have any other option. One woman, unbelievably enough, was imprisoned when she found her husband with another woman and he beather when she was two months pregnant. Another young woman, contracted into an arranged marriage, ran off instead with the young man she loves. Both were captured and housed in different parts of the same prison. Although prison children deliver their secret love letters, upon their mutual release, the young man leaves her standing alone outside the prison gates, choosing instead to marry someone his family has chosen. The young woman feels betrayed and utterly lost with nowhere to turn. Yet, for all of the suffering and restrictions, one can’t help but feel there is a quiet revolution of will going on in this prison—to which filmmaker Nima Sarvestani was granted “unprecedented access”—where women are free to imagine and create families quite apart from men.
They Glow in the Dark (Greece, 2013)—winner of the Festival’s FIPRESCI award for a film in the Greek Selection category—on the other hand, studies a gay couple whose imprisonment is neither literal nor liberating but a complex mixture of disappointed desire, poverty, and physical decline. Filmmaker Panayotis Evangelidis observes Michael and Jim, one-time lovers who now live together as roommates in post-Katrina New Orleans, where they try but fail to make ends meet by selling small figurines and necklaces (that glow in the dark) at a souvenir bazaar. Both suffer from HIV, each with his own set of symptoms, and while theirs is a relationship of mutual dependency, it is fraught with uncertainty and past resentments. “We decided to get back together,” Jim says, “since we had nothing better to do.” Like Jim, Michael is unguardedly honest before the camera. Although Michael claims his loneliness is rooted in his desire for Adam, a former lover during the Vietnam War for whom he continues searching, one senses his genuine longing is for Jim, whom he succeeded in locating after twenty years, upon being handed an HIV diagnosis. “Jim and I have been together for five years,” Michael explains, “and I’ve been alone for every day of those five years.” Cramped in their tiny, cluttered two-story home, one senses that both men are living out Jim’s belief that people come to New Orleans “either to initiate or conclude their process of self-destruction.” Whether Jim’s statement expresses his own sense of emotional isolation, bitter cynicism, and disappointed hope, or his desire for release from a world-weary life, is difficult to tell—and that ambiguity is a tribute to Evangelidis, who had met Michael years before in Athens. His camera conveys the difficult economic, emotional, and physical circumstances of the men, but neither in moralistic nor in sentimental terms—a neutrality of tone that his restrained use of music helps to achieve. “Michael wasn’t so close a friend, and I’d also been working with HIV patients, which gave me necessary access but also necessary distance,” Evangelidis explained after the screening. The film is not a “gay film,” but one about the human condition centered on two characters, who happen to be gay—a circumstance, like any other, that does have an influence, but one no stronger than poverty or illness has.
By contrast, upper middle-class affluence is an imprisoning factor that imposes similar feelings of emotional isolation and alienation in Parts of a Family (Netherlands–Mexico, 2012), the Festival’s FIPRESCI prize-winner. Filmmaker Diego Gutiérrez observes the daily routines of his estranged parents married for nearly fifty years. Gonzalo is a retired physician who now writes and publishes novels, and Gina, a once striking beauty, has spent her married life tending to the children and, now, exclusively to the home—a sprawling, beautifully designed Mexico City villa that requires constant upkeep and a cadre of servants to maintain, chief among them, Lore, who has lived with the family ever since the two were married. Gutiérrez’s lyrical cinematography—with a restraint similar to that of Evangelidis—captures colorful gardens and the high walls enclosing them, leaving the viewer to infer social-class tensions that lie beyond and that may have necessitated the building of those walls in the first place. Through repeated compositions capturing Gina and Gonzalo within the barred window frames of their separate bedrooms, and capturing Gina, Gonzalo, and household workers framed from a distance in narrow passageways, Gutiérrez establishes an emotionally confining atmosphere within the otherwise capacious setting. The colorful, lush, perfectly appointed surroundings stand in stark contrast with the distant, chilly marriage. Like Jim and Michael, Gonzalo and Gina rarely share meals together and even more rarely enter into conversation, though both are forthcoming with Diego when he films them. Hearing from Diego that Gonzalo plans a parachute jump to celebrate his eightieth birthday, Gina wryly observes that “he likes being the center of attention” adding that “he thinks everybody and everything is there just for him.” Of Gina, Gonzalo complains—without apparent irony or self-accusation—that, “her world is the house and the family. She’s bothered when clover grows. I love clover.” When Diego asks the two, separately, what they once liked about the other, Gina pauses for a long time before saying, “I’ve forgotten—there’s so much distance now,” while Gonzalo says of Gina, approximately ten years his junior, “Your mother was a beautiful woman.” He remembers her “tanned skin and white dress” and his falling in love with her “quickly.”
Diego invites us to contemplate the emotional distance, without necessarily revealing or lingering on any one of a number of causes that may have contributed to accumulated hurt or resentment over the years. We never hear about affairs that either or both may or may not have had, and while we do hear that Gina had a mastectomy and feels that “it begins to put you at a disadvantage” to no longer have beautiful breasts, the film never presents this as a central or determining factor. Gina speaks repeatedly of wishing to free herself of the home and the responsibility of coordinating the many people it takes to run and maintain it. “I feel like I can live on my own. I would be totally self-sufficient,” she says. “When I have to take care of everyone else, I have no time for myself. Sometimes I feel like grabbing a suitcase and saying goodbye.” As in Glow, we wonder why the couple remains together, while also recognizing their co-dependency, founded on any number of emotional and practical reasons, not the least of which is a barely perceptible, though nevertheless suppressed, glimmer of love. Gonzalo’s retirement from medicine, “this looking for something to do,” depresses him, and he pours his discontent into his fiction: “He felt the silence and emptiness of his house,” Gonzalo writes of one of his characters. Lore, too, among all of the other servants, suffers her own sense of isolation—both part of and separate from the “family,” which is no longer one. Lore says she never married for “fear of not being a good wife or mother. I never accepted the idea of marriage,” she says, remembering that her parents were “fighting all the time.” She asks, “If all goes well, fine, but what if it doesn’t?” Her question resonates powerfully in a telling image of Gina and Gonzalo standing in the garden, presumably coerced there by Diego. They stand far apart, like two objects drawn into opposing force fields.
One last film worth mentioning is Winter Nomads (Switzerland, 2012), winner of the ERT 3 (Greek Public Television) Award in the Festival’s Habitat category. Here, too, we follow a couple, but in very different circumstances from those in Glow and Parts of a Family. Pascal and the somewhat younger Carol herd sheep through the cold Swiss winter months along highways and rural landscapes in search of grazing spots to fatten and keep them healthy before selling them to market. The couple knows their sheep and dogs by name; they live in tents under glowing campfires on cold, snowy nights; they pick up delicacies at a supermarket for a Christmas Eve celebration under the stars. Theirs is a difficult few months on the road with their herd, but their love and contentment to each other and their work are palpable, albeit with inevitable moments of annoyance when Pascal occasionally lectures Carol, or some mishap with tents or a mule harness occurs along the way. Their employee Jean-Paul drives to meet them periodically to take certain sheep to market; they stop one night at the home of friends along their route; and another couple visits them on New Year’s Eve in their remote tent. Beyond these few interactions with others, they have only each other and their sheep, dogs, and mules. Director Manuel von Stürler refrains from narration, preferring instead to observe the majestic, snow-covered landscape and the occasional incongruous highway or suburban tract along which the sheep must travel. Carol and Pascal seem at harmony with each other and with nature, perhaps because they periodically are forced to abandon the closed-in space of the home and are reminded of the larger forces of nature, which, in the end, necessarily trump personal and political concerns.
The 15th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival was titled “Images of the 21st Century,” using the logo of a sheep’s head that is clearly digitized. The convergence of nature and technology in the creation of this logo is a reminder of larger cultural, political, and film industry convergences that many of the Festival’s selections thoughtfully contemplate—whether focused on past and present, personal and political, or on individuals and their relationship to the natural world. The best of the films look with an honest, open eye at these fundamental concerns in framing the human condition and allowing viewers to do the same.
For more information on the Thessaloniki International Documentary Film Festival, visit http://tdf.filmfestival.gr.
Cynthia Lucia is a Cineaste editor and the author of Framing Female Lawyers: Women on Trial in Film.
Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine