The 19th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Darragh O'Donoghue

Any fears that there might be a disconnect between the often dark, brutal, and depressing content of a documentary film festival and its setting in Thessaloniki—light bleaching the horizon of the Adriatic, and rich with the remains of its Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Greek past—are quickly allayed as you drive into the city itself. Unequivocal graffiti is scrawled over most available space, often in English, with multinationals particularly targeted (“Fuck your winter sale!”). Bus stops have long been denuded of their glazing. Stalls sell T-shirts proclaiming “No job, no money, no problem.” “What’s Going On’,” Marvin Gaye’s urgent response to social collapse, played on the radio over breakfast. Unlike an oppressively image-conscious city like London, Thessaloniki seems unwilling—or, more likely unable, to paint over the traces of and angry reactions to either the continued effects of the recession (the city has nearly thirty percent unemployment, homelessness is rife), and the closure of the border with Macedonia, which has seen thousands of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants stranded or deported. Thessaloniki turns out to the perfect setting for a medium—the documentary film—committed to public engagement and truth telling.

Rosa Eskenazi, legendary Jewish-Greek rebetiko singer and subject of Roy Sher's My Sweet Canary.

Appropriately, many of the films screening at the nineteenth edition of the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival, played on contrast between the timeless beauty of the region and the human horrors perpetrated within it. Costas Dandinakis’s Dragged off a Cliff, Crete 1947 recounted the murder of a priest by a rightist militia during the Greek Civil War. The subject of Roy Sher’s My Little Canary—part of a festival retrospective selected by founder and outgoing director Dimitri Eipides—was Jewish rebetiko singer and sometime Thessaloniki resident Roza Eskenazi, who juggled an affair with a senior Nazi with resistance work to protect friends and family during the Nazi occupation of Greece. A retrospective of works by artist/filmmaking couple Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi included Nocturne (1997), filmed clandestinely in Sarajevo and Belgrade during the Yugoslav Wars, while Balkan Inventory (2000) reworks amateur footage shot in the Balkans between the 1920s and 1940s, including the home movies of an invading Nazi officer.

The festival missed a trick in not programming the duo’s breakthrough work From the Pole to the Equator (1986), which would have complemented the screening of Ulrich Seidl’s Safari. Gianikian and Lucci Ricchi appropriated and reprocessed 1910 travelogue footage by Italian documentary pioneer Luca Comerio, which includes then-celebratory now-distressing sequences of big-game hunting, commissioned by wealthy aristocrats. One would hope that such sequences of animals being killed, terrorized, and tortured, of white Europeans posing with their trophies while black Africans do the heavy labor of carrying and skinning game would be outdated, but they are played out again in the supposedly postcolonial era of Safari. Seidl documents latter-day hunting tourists—economic colonialists replacing and seemingly more powerful than their political forebears—focusing on one family (mother, father, son, daughter) who are either spectacularly lacking in self-awareness or breathtakingly cynical as they boast about their activities.

Victims of European big game hunting: Ulrich Seidl's Safari.

Seidl’s career deliberately problematizes fiction and nonfiction projects—documentaries, like Safari, are blatantly staged, characterized by provocatively artificial tableaux; fictions like Import Export (2007) are full of problematic “real-life” and real-time episodes. The satiric intent of Safari is unambiguous. The “meat” of the film—if you’ll forgive a pun as deficient as Seidl’s “high concept”—is four long sequences at a hunting lodge in the former German colony of Namibia. The last three feature an alpha-nuclear family, the Eichinger-Hofmanns. We follow a kill through its various stages. First the animal is stalked, then shot. Once death is confirmed—one sequence, with a giraffe going through protracted death throes, will surely become notorious—“hunters’ handshakes” are exchanged, and the corpse is propped up for a commemorative photograph. The last two of these sequences continue with the stripping of the animals by local workers; throughout the film they do the menial work under the commanding gaze of white paymasters who rarely bother to speak to them. The chatter between the Namibians themselves is not translated—whether this is the choice of Seidl or his distributor is not clear—and they are not interviewed, unlike the hunters and the lodge owner. These interviews are conducted in Seidl’s trademark sarcastic, frontal style, giving these unreflective thugs enough rope to hang themselves. As Seidl’s demonstration of racism and exploitation becomes more strident, this enforced silence and provocative shots of workers gnawing raw meat off the bone make his polemics problematic.

Like his Northern European contemporary Lars von Trier—Safari was produced by Danish Documentary—Seidl doesn’t allow his audience to settle into a cozy “us vs. them” dialectic, and even seems to inscribe racism into the film in order not to let the spectator off the hook. In the first scene after the credits, a scene that punctuates the film, two old duffers in a lookout shelter shoot at the viewer. The haute-bourgeois Seidl revels in his complicity with his own class—the tripod used by the hunters to steady their binoculars and rifles and the gruesomely hilarious staging of the trophy photos, are clear analogies for Seidl’s own work as a documentarian. Many will doubtless criticize the director for once more taking on an easy target—as if caricature and satire were not valid journalistic modes or venerable artistic traditions. He is clearly striving for a Rules of the Game-style allegory, Renoir’s critique of the French ruling class on the eve of World War II centred on a rabbit hunt. In both cases, any critique is morally compromised by the actual, systematic cruelty inflicted on animals.

The Thessaloniki Festival prides itself on offering an expansive definition of documentary—according to director Orestis Andreadakis, “It’s preferable to destroy the precision of definitions than to endanger the precious freedom of a film genre which was born refusing the stifling rules of fiction film.” The two experimental strands alone encompassed animation, music video, found-footage films, artist moving image work, dance film, filmed performance, works shot on iPhone, and a reimagining of silent film. This range of approaches is an attempt to adequately represent the range of experiences deemed to be the province of the genre. The vastness of this content was arbitrarily divided by programmers into the strands Minorities, Human Rights, Memory/History, Habitat (films about the environment), Food vs. Food, Music, Cinema, Greek Panorama, Docs for Kids, Tributes (including a retrospective of Ukrainian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky, a kind of gentler Seidl) and the catch-all Kaleidoscope—other equally valid access points might have been sex, migration, or the portrait of the artist. Despite—or, perhaps because of all this guidance—I made the rookie mistake of choosing my schedule at random, thereby contriving to miss nearly all of the festival’s prize winners. For the record, the Golden Alexander for Best Documentary was awarded to David Borenstein’s Dream Empire; Rahul Jain’s Machines won several prizes including two sponsored by the Hellenic Parliament and FIPRESCI. Therefore, it should be borne in mind that this report does not necessarily account for the cream of the Thessaloniki crop.

It was delightful if unexpected to find a film about Bollywood at a documentary film festival, although Nina Maria Paschalidou’s The Snake Charmer (winner of the Youth Jury Best Film Award) soon proved to be as dubious as most outsider attempts to understand Hindi popular cinema. Bollywood is the greatest film industry in the world and produces countless images of Indian life by Indians that the West refuses to look at outside of the cultural ghettos of the Indian diaspora. India always has to be presented through a Western filter, with the focus either a nostalgia for the days of British imperialism or the evils of contemporary Indian society (there is a tacit assumption that the end of one caused the second). Films such as Wee Willie Winkie, Gandhi, or Slumdog Millionaire have little interest in what actual Indians see or say and are more concerned with confirming romanticized or negative Western prejudices about the subcontinent.

Bollywood legend and social activist Aamir Khan, subject of The Snake Charmer, by Greek director Nina Maria Paschalidou.

Greek filmmaker Paschalidou has her predecessors’ indifference to Bollywood as an entertainment, never mind an art, and presents a superficial precis of its allegedly reactionary ideologies. Her film centers on Hindi legend Aamir Khan, one of the three Khans who revolutionized male stardom in the 1990s and who still dominate the Indian box office today. Unlike Salman Khan, who will cheerfully star in any old rubbish as long as it makes money, and to a lesser extent Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir has always agonized over his acting choices, starring in comparatively few and usually thoughtful films, and even directing one of the great classics about traumatized marginality, Taare Zameen Par (2007), about a dyslexic schoolboy. This is not mentioned in The Snake Charmer, which prefers to portray Aamir as a mindless macho who is suddenly converted to liberal sensitivity.

Aamir’s crisis of conscience about his industry reached breaking point with the series of horrific rapes and murders of young women in India around 2012, the culmination of generations of domestic and sexual abuse against women, and the general misogyny of Indian society. He developed a massively influential Oprah-style TV show, Satyamev Jayate (Truth Alone Triumphs) that brought these outrages into a public sphere that preferred to ignore them. It is easy to mock Aamir, and occasionally Paschalidou seems to do just that—lingering on him at makeup before the start of his show, itemizing his ready tearfulness at every sob story—implying that the program was the vanity project of a preening Bollywood star. Certainly, Dangal—a film he developed from one of the show’s segments about two female wrestlers—has recently become the highest grossing Hindi film of all time (it is also, incidentally, a masterpiece).

Aamir was doing more than naming and shaming uglier elements of his society, from widespread child abuse to the underworld influence on contemporary politics. Aamir Khan is a Muslim in a country where majority Hindu distrust of their Islamic fellow citizens frequently spills over into communal violence. India is currently undergoing one of its periodic swings to right-wing Hindu nationalism, and the opposition of various interest groups to Aamir’s program is expressed in thinly veiled bigotry by politicians and professionals, and the naked bigotry by yobs who burn his effigy outside his home, accusing him of treason and demanding his deportation. By displaying many ugly sides underneath India’s bright and shiny economic miracle, under cover of the emotionalizing mode of address central to Indian popular culture, this very great actor goaded into the spotlight a ruling class that allows terrible things to happen. If nothing else, The Snake Charmer is a testament to Aamir Khan’s courage.

There were several films that dealt with historical trauma using the kind of poetic reverence that only reinforces the audience’s assumptions and changes nothing—Paz Encina’s Memory Exercises, about the thirty-five-year junta in Paraguay, is a typically worthy example. With Stories Our Cinema Did (Not) Tell, Brazilian Fernanda Pessoa—like Roberto Benigni with his Holocaust comedy Life is Beautiful—asks us to look at this kind of issue from another perspective, and through humor. When the film’s subjects include torture, abduction, rape, murder, and totalitarianism, many viewers might find such humor inappropriate and disrespectful. Rather than excavating the usual newsreel footage or conducting interviews with survivors, Pessoa takes as her starting point the Brazilian pornochanchadas that were hugely successful during the military junta of 1964 to 1985. Just as The Atomic Café (1982) turned public information films of the 1940s and 1950s against their original intentions and content to create a satirical narrative of Cold War paranoia in the United States, so Stories re-edits twenty-nine of these soft-core pornos to create a mirror narrative of Brazilian life under a military dictatorship in the 1970s.

A characteristic 1970s pornochanchada, the popular soft-porn genre that provides a sidelight on the Brazilian military dictatorship in Fernanda Pessoa's Stories Our Cinema Did (Not) Tell.

It is a “mirror” narrative rather than a counternarrative. Like porn in most countries, the pornochanchadas responded opportunistically to contemporary concerns and stereotypes rather than interrogating or subverting them as apologists of popular and trash culture might wish. Nevertheless, they seem more representative of the concerns and aspirations of contemporary Brazilian society than the often-hectoring Cinema Novo films or the sex comedies preferred by domestic critics and sent abroad. These pornochanchadas embody, inscribe, or perpetuate images of gender and misogyny, race and racism, homosexuality and homophobia, while illustrating the mutual dependence of the junta and the professional and entrepreneurial middle classes, the influence of American capitalism and ideology on Latin American affairs, and the equivalence of criminality with business and politics. Unexpectedly, some films even show examples of brutal police torture.

The editing of this material into thematic clusters makes it easy to laugh at the original films—Stories was by far the most enjoyed film of the festival, judging by audience reaction. But by using this material simply as a corpus with which to score cheap satiric points, it does a disservice to the original films. We learn nothing of their original context or exhibition; the use of achronological editing, and the refusal to identify clips during the film means that it is impossible to chart the development (if any) of the genre. We are asked to take its mass popularity for granted—no questions are asked about how such a phenomena arose in a devoutly Catholic country during a military dictatorship (I can assure you that theocratic Ireland wasn’t producing pornochanchadas in the 1970s), or its links to the promotion of Brazil through a kind of sex tourism via carnivals, music, and the like by travel agencies and embassies. Tackling such issues, of course, would have probably made for a much duller and more conventional documentary—though it must be confessed the joke wears thin long before its eighty minutes were up. Nevertheless, it was a brave and welcome attempt to tackle somber subject matter from an unexpected angle.

Among the festival’s sidebars was an exhibition of drawings by John Berger, part of an “impromptu tribute” to the influential writer who died in January. This show was clearly designed with Cordelia Dvorák’s John Berger or the Art of Looking and the multiauthored The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger in mind. In the latter film, we see Berger doggedly scratching similar images onto paper with pen or chalk, and hear Tilda Swinton reciting his poems, including “Self-portrait 1914-1918,” which is reproduced in the exhibition. Each of the art/historical genres employed by Berger the artist is represented in the film—portraiture; landscape (bombastic snowscapes shot with cranes and helicopters that are beyond the financial reach of most serious documentarians); still lifes (food and workman’s tools that are supposed to evoke the humility of Berger’s farming life in the tiny Alpine village of Quincy); and even a (female) nude. All of this adds up to a kind of history painting: it might be entitled John Berger and Friends Fight the Modern World (While Doing Rather Well Out of It).

Propped up by Tilda Swinton, John Berger struggles for attention in his own 'portrait' film, The Seasons in Quincy.

Perhaps echoing the structure of his Ways of Seeing—the seminal BBC TV series and book digesting modern critical theory that became required viewing or reading for generations of grateful humanities students—Quincy comprises four “portraits” of Berger at home, filmed by actress Swinton, literary theorist, film scholar, and producer Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth, and Bartek Dziadosz. Each focuses on particular themes: conversation, fathers, and memory; animals; politics and activism; family and friends. In reality, two basic, mutually exclusive threads run through each portrait and throughout the entire film. Firstly, the Wise Old Patriarch being listened to and hero-worshipped by younger acolytes. This sits ill with Berger’s avowed Marxism, or his project in Ways of Seeing to deconstruct the “Great Man” theory of cultural history used to mask private interest interests, repressive ideologies, and narrow canons. This tendency of Quincy, however, is dissipated by the second impulse; the vanity of several participants—especially, but not confined to Swinton, who proves that her obnoxious and self-regarding producer in Luca Guadagnino’s The Protagonists (1999) was a lot closer to the truth than we realized—tends to drown out Berger’s wisdom. It seems unlikely, but there are several sections in the third “portrait” (MacCabe’s), that make you wonder whether the whole thing is an elaborate joke: earnest discussions about the New World Older accompanied by jovial leftist singalongs on the soundtracks, or shots of Berger’s admirers nodding in admiring unison as he pronounces yet another banality. This would fix in a satiric framework Berger’s idealization of the “peasant,” his refusal to see that his humble hideaway in a privileged utopia is available only to the one percent he derides, or the posturing about revolution and market forces from sometime Disney employee Swinton. But that would be to credit those involved with a great deal more self-awareness than seems available.

Artistic light faces the historical shade in Dimitris Koutsiabasakos' portrait of the artist, Yannis Kastritsis: the Man and His Shadow.

Some of the Greek films I attended were impenetrably local, but one was outstanding: Yannis Kastritsis: The Man and His Shadow, Dimitris Koutsiabasakos’s study of the Greek artist. This begins as a very pleasant old-school arts documentary of the type where we simply and unobtrusively follow the artist in his studio while he talks about his practice. Far from being reactionary, the nostalgic content of his work is a progressive act in a country always forgetting its past, and his superficially traditional landscapes and portraits are smeared with traces of Greece’s divided past. Shadow enacts a journey into that past. Kastritis’s car journey from Athens to his home village, where he preserves his father’s house as a museum to a vanished way of life, as well as an act of familial and cultural patrimony and continuity in a constantly disruptive culture. This backward focus is belied by an embrace of modern technology, in particular Kastritis’s own videos, which were initially used to record his artistic process, but then became ethnographic home movies in their own right. Nevertheless, there is something melancholy about Kastritis’s project of preservation. We hear nothing about his personal life, as if his own present is sacrificed to the ghosts of the past.

I am rather embarrassed to admit that from a festival self-consciously dedicated to “plac[ing] the burning issues of our time at the center,” my two favorites were works about dead filmmakers. As its title seems to straightforwardly promise Cinema, Manoel de Oliveira and Me is about the relationship between the filmmaker João Botelho and the legendary, seemingly deathless Portuguese auteur. Botelho met Oliveira as a student when he dedicated the first number of his film magazine M to his hero; he later cast him as a priest in his first film, Conversa Acabada (1980), a biopic about the multipseudonymous Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (not to be confused with the director of Stories Our Cinema Did (Not) Tell). An on-set photograph of mentor and acolyte from that shoot is the starting point for this biopic, which is more in the nature of an intellectual biography, as Botelho unspools long extracts from Oliveira’s long, varied, yet consistent career (he made his first film in 1931, his last just before his death in 2015), lightly annotated with commentary clearly informed by countless conversations with Oliveira (from one of which we learn of the maestro’s love of Brazilian soap opera!).

From The Girl With the Gloves, the silent-film-within-the-documentary that is part of João Botelho's Cinema, Manoel de Oliveira and Me.

So far so good for the savvy cinephile, if overly reverential—Botelho deploys Oliveira’s ethically scrupulous, one viewpoint, long-take, static camera style, without seeming to notice that Oliveira broke with it at crucial moments, such as the zoom and use of slow motion in a key scene of Doomed Love (1979), the film Botelho considers his masterpiece. He also seems to lack the dry-as-dust humor that made Oliveira the perfect filmmaker to direct a sequel to Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (Belle Toujours, 2006). But Botelho has actually been engaging in a very Oliveiran game of double bluff. There appear to be two Botelhos in Manoel de Oliveira—the narrator/protagonist of the film, and the director of the film. The former misrepresents the complexity of Oliveira’s style in order to posit a misleadingly monolithic aesthetic philosophy. The latter disagrees; in an extraordinary, unanticipated coup, Botelho switches gear. In the manner of a maths equation, having given us the “theory” of Oliveira’s style and its influence on him, he puts it into practice with the most exquisite, black-and-white pastiche of silent film, an adaptation of some hokey slice of nineteenth-century naturalism recast as fairy tale or dream. Based on a treatment left by Oliveira at his death, this clichéd and contrived, gleamingly lit, and meticulously framed tale of a prostitute who dies of tuberculosis, might be an affront to everything documentary supposedly stands for, and the fact that I prize it above everything else in this documentary festival says more about my retrograde tastes than the documentary genre. In fact, it demonstrates that a representation of “reality” that does not take dream, desire, fantasy, poetry, or cultural memory into account is an impoverished one, and a lesson only a few truly great documentarians have passed on, such as Jean Vigo, Humphrey Jennings, Georges Franju, Chris Marker, and Stephen Dwoskin.

And Kiarostami. My other favorite film of the festival was Seifollah Samadian’s 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami, an assemblage of footage shot by the director’s friend and collaborator for more than twenty-five years. It was preceded by the lame short Take Me Home, an animation of Kiarostami photographs following a boy’s bouncing ball through the steep narrow alleys and steps of a Southern Italian village. It is like watching the world’s most boring computer game with the controls stuck, and will not dissuade anyone who thinks Kiarostami frittered his talents in his last years on frivolous prestige projects for the international art and festival circuits.

The revered director in pensive mood in Seifollah Samadian's 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami.

76 Minutes is a far more fitting memorial to the most important cineaste of the last four decades; the title refers to Kiarostami’s age (seventy-six years and fifteen days) at his death in 2016. It contains footage of film shoots and photography sessions, in editing suites and at workshops, but also precious moments of temps morts in hotel lobbies, airplanes, or at home, where time allotted to apparent boredom, games with his daughter, and small talk yields sequences of pure revelation. Like Botelho and Oliveira, Samadian is respectful of Kiarostami’s themes, motifs, and modi operandi. In the opening sequence, we watch Kiarostami find a subject (a deer) and frame the image with the camera, then the director taking his own image, at a slight angle to his master. There are long sequences of driving in cars in various weather conditions, bumping into actors from previous works, and recitations of Persian poetry. There are various demonstrations and analyses of the act of making images and the interface between reality and its media manipulation: the framing of photographs through snow- and rain-blurred car windows, with Kiarostami comically protesting when a driver overtakes and ruins the “perfect” tracks in the snow; the manipulation of photographic images in the darkroom; the creation of naturalistic scenes by feeding ducks and then later adding Foley effects because the “real” sound were not “real” enough; or the construction of a fake copse. Images of faces in the airplane sequence are refracted through mirrors and awkward angles necessitated by the cramped space. The different media used in Samadian’s source footage—film, video, digital—mirror Kiarostami’s own technical progress over the decades. Each sequence is punctuated by fades-to-black, slow enough to create a sense of joyous anticipation of the next one. The fades feel like organic breaths, and at the end, when the final fade announces no new footage—because, of course, Kiarostami has died—the audience is left bereft. Amid all the criticality, anger, epiphany, history, and joy on display at Thessaloniki, it is this devastating sense of loss that will be my abiding memory of the festival.

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

Darragh O’Donoghue, a Cineaste contributing writer, works as an archivist at Tate Britain in London.

Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 3