The 2019 Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Darragh O’Donoghue

So many documentary filmmakers are financed by television and use stock televisual formulae in order to make their products more saleable. Whatever or wherever the trauma, such films will be narrated by an authoritative narrator; it will feature a character who goes on a “journey,” preferably with a deadline, and usually accompanied by an expert who can explain the wider historical context of that journey, with pauses for advertisements and frequent recaps of information we have already heard, visits to archives and libraries with generous dollops of evocative but nonspecific archival footage, a musical score, often for solo piano and vaguely reminiscent of Michael Nyman’s score for The Piano, leading you to those points where you should emote or feel suspense, just in case the story isn’t doing it for you, and, no matter how atrocious the subject, some sort of happy or at least just or final ending.

There were many variants of this formula at the twenty-first Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, including Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground (about a 1960s avant-garde mover and shaker who “declined” into drugs, physical and mental illness, and Orthodox Judaism); the Greek Traces (about the “missing” persons of the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus); The East Has Set (about the ill-fated Greek Occupation of Smyrna after WWI); and Back to Berlin (about Jewish professionals cycling through Europe to the site of the 1936 Nazi Olympics). This readymade formula has the effect of flattening local and specific instances of trauma into yet another genre, the Trauma Weepie (what in literature is called the “misery memoir”), wherein violence, suffering, and injustice are safely packaged for an hour or two’s catharsis before the temporarily saddened but satisfied viewer goes to bed, glad to be alive right now.

The genius of You Only Die Twice is not to avoid this formula, but to embrace and subvert it for all it’s worth. It plays with the Who Do You Think You Are? TV model, whereby a professionally and financially secure celebrity investigates their family tree to uncover tales of indigence, wrongdoing, or bravery that are shown to have made the celebrity the spectacular person they are today. Such programs are affirmations of individual identity, just as the films mentioned earlier shore up collective identities. In You Only Die Twice, such certainties—and the prejudices that reinforce them—collapse all around Israeli director and protagonist Yair Lev. His mother inherits a house from a distant relative, but finds out that her father died “twice.” One Ernst Bechinsky, with name, date, and place of birth recorded in a late nineteenth-century Viennese state register, emigrated to Palestine in the 1930s; his daughter married a Holocaust survivor and gave birth to the director; he died in 1969. A second Ernst Bechinsky, also from Vienna, with the same date of birth, stayed in Europe, married into a Christian Nazi family, became president of the Innsbruck Jewish community, and died in 1987. Which man is the real Ernst Bechinsky? Which is the impostor, and how did he come by his imposture? Was one a Nazi covering war crimes by masquerading as a Jew? Is the director, whose very identity is defined by the experience of his family, even Jewish?

Yair Lev’s doc, You Only Die Twice, is about the man who assumed his grandfather’s identity.

These are shattering questions, and the film travels through time and space into the darkest corners of European history. The title references James Bond, a superhuman always in control of actions and events, whereas Lev is anything but. Yet, it is not frivolous to suggest that You Only Die Twice is a comic bromance and love story about the Holocaust and Nazi hunting that somehow manages to revitalize your exhausted faith in humanity without for one moment minimizing the terminal negation of humanity in the death camps. That the film’s moral center is the beaming blond grandson of an SS commander indicates how strange yet exhilarating the journey that Lev, the film, and the audience undergo.

An even more troubled Israeli film won the festival’s main prize, the Golden Alexander for best documentary, as well as the International Film Critics (FIPRESCI) award; now that Thessaloniki has become a nominated festival of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it will automatically qualify for the documentary Oscar longlist. Advocate was made by left-wing filmmakers about a left-wing Israeli Jewish human rights lawyer (or, as she is demonized in a media whose aggressive bias is exposed in the film, the “devil’s advocate”) defending Israeli Palestinians whose crimes, from misdemeanor to murder and terrorism she understands as a justifiable response to occupation and apartheid. Simply by focusing on one aspect of civil society—the legal system, where individual and collective desires confront and are processed by the state—attorney Lea Tsemel demonstrates the historic and ongoing second-class status conferred on a section of the Israeli citizenry, their existence suppressed and even denied; their lands appropriated and “settled”; their actions judged by police, the media, lynch mobs, and high-level politicians before they are even brought to trial; their occasional execution in the streets barely noticed. Advocate follows one particular case—a stabbing spree by two Palestinian teenagers—to expose the inequities of a legal system that subjects Arabs to far harsher sentences and social opprobrium than settlers of the same age.

In many ways Advocate is a portrait of failure—Tsemel rarely wins a case, at best getting minimal reductions in absurdly severe sentences. Advocate was shown in a competition that had as its theme “Noli me tangere” or “Touch me not,” Jesus’s commandment to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection. It seems tasteless to subject an Israeli film to Christian theology; that said, Tsemel’s reaching out to, and often literal touching of Palestinians—those abject scapegoats on whom mainstream Israeli society heaps its fears and anxieties—is undoubtedly heroic.

Advocate is to be congratulated for reinstating a long-suppressed and reviled history of Israeli-Jewish left-wing opposition to official Israeli policy, centred on the Matzpen group, of which Tsemel and her activist journalist husband Michel Warschawski were prominent members. There is, however, an unavoidable problem. Tsemel is a saint; the filmmakers have impeccable credentials and good intentions, but Advocate remains a film in which the Israeli-Jewish experience and worldview is central and has agency, and that of the Arabs is peripheral and dependent. This may be an accurate reflection of social hierarchy in Israel, but I was reminded of a recent critique by black U.K. Labour politician David Lammy of minor celebrities filmed clutching starving African babies for charity as “white saviors.”

Two of the masterpieces of the festival were Animus Animalis and the short Time and Tide. Though very different in style and approach, both were linked by a knowledge that cinema is not a slide projection of “wow” shots, but the result of a profound engagement with a subject to produce an appropriate audiovisual means of communicating it; a sensitivity to light and texture; a commitment to process and the revelatory detail; and, most importantly, a musical facility with editing in sound and image, a basic yet too often overlooked knowledge that each shot is transformed by that preceding and following it.

Time and Tide, as its clichéd title suggests, is both modest and epic, microscopic and cosmic. It takes an unpromising patch of one of the dullest parts of the world, a sand dune in Holland, and, much like Godard’s cup of coffee in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, finds the universe in it. As in the early, silent films of her Dutch and Flemish predecessors, Joris Ivens and Henri Storck, Marleen van der Werf creates the visual equivalent of a musical tone poem, orchestrating a storm into four movements: 1) Calm before the storm; 2) The storm; 3) Aftermath; and 4) Tentative resumption of calm.

We are drawn into this imaginative yet strictly observational majesty by a small earwig struggling to walk over sand, falling over and down the dunes in the increasingly powerful gust. This minuscule activity alerts us to the scale of tiny life invisible in the film’s wider shots, and the upheaval and destruction that will be unleashed on this seemingly uninhabited spot. Framing, camera movement, the rhythm within and between shots, build up to a tremendous crescendo and its gradual, uncertain fall. The winds uncover layered evidence for human, animal and vegetal presence over the millennia. By the end, as some sort of polyp covered in sand tries to breathe through an open blowhole, I felt a rare sense of happiness and wonder of the sort that Terrence Malick always promises but never delivers. This is a film with deep roots not just in the cinema but also in the art of the Low Countries, an art that rejected the Renaissance idealism of gods, heroes, and beauties, and looked at the apparently humdrum but actually inexhaustible and remarkable life surrounding them.

Aistė Žegulytė’s Animus Animalis.

Aistė Žegulytė’s Animus Animalis.

Animus Animalis translates as the soul of animals. “The skin of animals” might have been a better title; there are very few “live” animals in this film about hunting and taxidermy. Though it can accommodate satire and irony, it is the concentrated, ontological, and even sacral gaze of the film that is astonishing—few will forget the time-lapse sequence of a fox’s head being literally skinned by worms. Five years in the making, Aistė Žegulytė’s film has a glowing, burnished, icon-like quality: the orange sashes of hunters gleaming in a twilit forest; the silhouettes of hunters as they approach the camera, ironically seeming to dissolve rather than emerge clearer or more solid as they come closer; the preparation of animals for a fireside feast like something out of Brueghel. At an Orthodox Mass, skins are littered on an altar like pagan sacrifices. One daring shot aligns a crucifix (symbol of the sacrificed godhead, often emblematized in animal form, such as the Lamb of God) and an animal skull, with the priest below seeming to attempt a reconciliation between Christian and pagan realms. A long take of a child exploring and playing with the scattered skins—this is a profoundly sensual film of textures that are at once material and metaphysical—suggests that the adult rituals we’ve been witnessing are equally serious and childish.

Another toilsome film shown in the “Habitat” strand, The Book of the Sea takes us back to the contentious origins of the “poetic” documentary feature, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), a film that has been reviled for reordering truth, reconstructing reality, preferring romantic myth to dreary fact, and not being above misleading or even lying if it made for a good story. Aleksei Vakhrushev understands why Flaherty chose to make these decisions. The documentary genre would develop via Grierson and cinéma vérité along the lines of rational and empirical enquiry, a non- and even anti-theological faith in the visible world and its ability to reveal the processes that comprise that reality. Vakhrushev, like Flaherty, knows that simply photographing what is in front of you in no way exhausts the complexity of that reality—the unseen processes that converge in a given reality at any given moment. In the Baring Strait Inuit fishing and hunting community he documents in The Book of the Sea, an old man with a gun tracking a seal is not simply an old man with a gun, but part of a dense cultural matrix encompassing the social, the historical, the mythological, and the genealogical.

How do you show this layered complexity in a visual medium like film? Instead of augmenting documentary reality à la Flaherty, Vakhrushev supplements it with animated storytelling to narrate the folk culture of the region, the coexistence and frequent metamorphosis of humans, animals, spirits, and the natural world. This digital animation mimics scrimshaws and paintings on skin, wooden sculpture, puppetry, and similar local art forms. Long sequences of cartoon are intercut into live- action narrative that is filmed in vivid, though clearly staged, Direct Cinema style, as hunters race after whales in noisy speedboats or creep silently after seals in the snow. The problem is that the animation is so beguiling that every shift back into live action becomes increasingly unwelcome, while the sponsorship of the film by a Russian government with imperial ambitions in the region kept forcing onto this viewer unwelcome thoughts about its actual purpose.

Up the Mountain by Zhang Yang about a folk painting academy.

Up the Mountain by Zhang Yang, screened in “The artist is present” strand, is about Shen Jianhua, an artist who runs an academy of folk painting in his remote mountainside home. It is one of the most exquisite movies you will ever see. Zhang’s heavily formalized, static camera setups reflect a hierarchical and ritualized culture in which the life cycle is contained in the square of the canvas, of the film frame, of the enclosing architecture.

Unruly human behavior bursts from these frames: women’s bawdy conversations, mocking and undermining patriarchal control; animals behaving like animals; marital rows. During one energetic sequence of public festivity, the camera is knocked over by an enthusiastic participant. Zhang could easily have cut this shot out to keep up the mood of formal serenity; the fact that he didn’t points to its emblematic importance, representing the human ghost that will haunt any machine, any system of standardization and control, no matter how attractive.

Like The Book of the Sea, Zhang demonstrates how art can reveal what the observing camera cannot. A long, brilliant sequence of a funeral is followed by its folk art rendering. The camera can show only the human, secular content of the event. The painting adds to this the spiritual dimension in the shape of a floating Buddha in the clouds.

One of the festival’s retrospectives was devoted to Zhang’s compatriot, a stylistically very different filmmaker, Wang Bing. His near-ten-hour debut West of the Tracks (2002) screened at the festival, but Alone (2013), an eighty-nine minute reduction of his two-and-a-half hour Three Sisters (2012), is probably the best introduction to his work. Three children have been “abandoned” by their mother; their father works as a miner in a faraway city; and they are being raised by an aunt and grandfather in a remote mountain village. Their existence at first seems Stone-Aged; they live in a hovel with only dim natural- or fire-light (auntie permanently blinks because of the darkness), in filth (we see one girl defecate outdoors without wiping up), apparently barely above the level of the geese, pigs, and dogs they tend. They regularly wear the same dirty clothes; torn trainers damage their feet. In this context, the children’s graffiti around the farm buildings takes on the quality of prehistoric cave paintings. This is a primordial existence—basic farming in an otherwise uninhabited or abandoned settlement. Then we notice the detritus of Western capitalism amidst which the sisters live—outmoded brands of clothing, plastic bags filled with rubbish, even a fully functioning television set. Just as West of the Tracks turns the vérité documentary into a horror film, so Alone invokes science fiction or fantasy, the derelict milieu of postapocalyptic dystopias.

As with the earlier films of Satyajit Ray and Abbas Kiarostami, there is a danger that Wang makes films about exoticized Asian squalor for the delectation of primarily white middle-class Western audiences (they are funded by European art galleries and production companies, and are not shown in China). A counterargument is that Wang is committed to showing invisible or marginalized lives, giving a face to statistics, showing ways of life that are excluded from current communist rhetoric, a grim reminder of the “simple” rural life once extolled by the regime.

A second retrospective honored another artist/filmmaker, Austrian Gustav Deutsch. It was a joy amid the digital homogeneity of the rest of the festival to experience the invigorating flicker of 16mm film. Deutsch’s masterpiece is the ongoing Film ist. series. Film ist. 1–6 (1998) sources, arranges, and processes scientific, industrial, educational, military, and medical films from the 1890s to the 1970s. These films were originally instruments of control, but Deutsch works against their original intent—like the Surrealists with their found materials—to uncover their hidden poetry. It is a hard-won poetry; introducing the screening, Deutsch joked about asking archives to project material backward so that he wouldn’t be influenced by the circumscribed, heavily ideological nature of its content.

A bullet in Gustav Deutsch’s Film ist. 1–6.

A bullet in Gustav Deutsch’s Film ist. 1–6.

Thessaloniki—unlike higher-profile festivals like London or New York—do not dump avant-garde films in “Experimenta” or “Projections” ghettoes, but fully absorb them into the main program. This is particularly appropriate at a documentary festival when historically so much avant-garde film has had a documentary impulse, its images from the “real world” subjected to formal and subjective processing. The sources of Film ist. 1–6 were created far from any “real world”—these were artificial, “laboratory” setups designed to produce certain results or test certain theories, and yet this transparency makes them more reliable as “documents” than most of the works in the festival, and also allows Deutsch to emphasise stylization that pushes toward abstraction, in the decelerated trajectory of a bullet, for example, or the single-minded prowl of a cat. Deutsch’s series is part of, yet parodies the Structural film tradition wherein the physical and representational properties of cinema are the subject, and the diverse materials are classified into themes and organized into alphanumeric systems so sardonically absurd they seem closer to the fabulist fables of Borges than the taxonomies of science. Whereas most Structural film, particularly in its rebarbative British variant, can be seen as an assault on the ideological assumptions embodied in visual pleasure, Film ist. 1–6 takes and provides synesthetic delight in movement, shape, color, metamorphosis, cinematic trickery, and sound.

Film ist. 7–12 (2002) concentrates on sources from the silent period, mostly narrative shorts and features, but also advertising, home movies, travelogues, and ethnographic films. Here Deutsch plays with the Kuleshov effect by creating new “narratives” with this material by matching shots from radically different films—for example, the bourgeois peeping through a keyhole who sees varied exotic and melodramatic material. He ironically and suggestively juxtaposes visually similar material, such as parades of showgirls, imperial soldiers, and African women carrying pots on their heads. There is a wonderful montage of sequences where dogs running in background are made to seem like one canine Zelig scampering throughout history.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the next instalment, Film ist. a girl and a gun (2009). The Notes & sketches (2016), despite their modest conception, are another series of a high order. The title evokes the work of Jonas Mekas, whose recently departed spirit flitted throughout the festival, but Deutsch’s fragments owe more to early cinema, updating the fixed-frame Lumière actuality and the phantom ride with digital technology, to record everyday, seemingly marginal scenes, “mostly in foreign countries,” that are actually brimming with life—a dog scratching his back against a hot wall, a local “character” dancing to a busker’s song, a turtle trying to get up on a stone and repeatedly falling back into water, each fall executed with impeccable Chuck Jones timing. As with Up the Mountain, the uniformity of the framing places a delusive order on variegated reality, which often steps disobligingly in and out of Deutsch’s camera. At the end, the film turns into The Shining as the camera moves through a labyrinthine hotel hallway, unable to escape the seemingly endless corridors, piano music audible in the distance until it emerges onto the lobby and approaches a mirror to reveal—who else?—Deutsch, asserting his own self, and perhaps reassuring himself of his own existence after thirty-one films shot by himself but crowded with others.

Radu Jude’s The Marshal’s Two Executions about Nazi collaborator Ion Antonescu.

Radu Jude’s The Marshal’s Two Executions about Nazi collaborator Ion Antonescu.

Radu Jude’s The Marshal’s Two Executions was one of the festival’s highlights. Where so many films lazily and thoughtlessly use archival footage to signify “pastness” or “the past,” devaluing both the image and the traumas it is supposed to document (a devaluation Claude Lanzmann spent his entire career working against, with little apparent success), Jude’s short is a masterful and chilling deconstruction of the archival image—analyzing the differences between what is shown and what is seen—and the best of its kind since Godard and Gorin’s Letter to Jane (1972). The premise is ingeniously simple (as opposed to simplistic or simpleminded). A contemporary film of the 1946 execution of Romanian fascist Ion Antonescu and his stooges is intercut with a 1993 biopic that re-created the ritual. The documentary images are silent and in black and white; the feature film adds the color, sound, and especially dialogue intimated by the original. There is no commentary beyond the intercutting, which of course is all commentary. The documentary is a snuff movie and among the most literally dreadful things I have ever seen. It was made under a communist regime with its own agenda in scapegoating fascists and creating a convenient and malleable collective memory. Sergiu Nicolaescu’s The Mirror was made four years after the equally public execution of the last communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, and had the aim of restoring Antonescu’s reputation. Jude’s film, with its cool analytical treatment of (over) heated material, owes something to the nonfiction experiments of Alexander Kluge, but The Marshal’s Two Executions is a major achievement in its own right, rare proof that film excellence, as Claude Chabrol once suggested, has nothing to do with mere size and all to do with cinematic scale.

Hassan Fazili’s Midnight Traveler is a “twist” on the home movie genre. Fazili, the only nonmullah in a very religious Afghan family, made a film about the Taliban that enraged them. Fazili flees with his family—wife and fellow filmmaker Fatima Hussaini and their two young daughters Nargis and Zahra—to Tajikistan, but when their asylum application is rejected, they must return to Afghanistan. Asylum to Australia is also rejected. They decide to illegally migrate to Europe via Iran and the Balkans. They put their fate into the hands of an unscrupulous smuggler who at one point threatens to abduct the daughters when Fazili runs out of money. They are also threatened by European racists and eventually caught by the authorities that put them in a heavily fenced transit camp to await the result of the renewed and endlessly deferred application process.

Astonishingly, this harrowing journey was recorded on mobile phones by all the members of the family. We are used to (mostly negative) imagery of migrants taken and interpreted by outsiders. This is an inside account by the migrants themselves. My synopsis makes the film sound impossibly grim; Midnight Traveler is anything but. Firstly, each member of the family is bright, funny, engaging, and receptive to new experience. This is arguably problematic—all migrants have the right to tell their stories, they shouldn’t have to be supercharming like the Fazilis, but there is no denying the great love each member has for the others, despite the wearing events. The bickering fondness of the parents (the film’s most memorable and oddly moving sequence sees the hurt Fatima fail to laugh off her husband’s mild flirtation with a European at the transit camp), and the open-eyed wonder, perceptiveness, and playfulness of the children (in another great scene Nargis, having spent most of her life in desert country, rhapsodizes over an incoming tide), make their “journey” (for once an apt term) truly engaging.

The fact that the protagonists are themselves doing the filming, rather than being at the mercy of the image-making of others, gives them a reassuring imaginative control over events that they do not possess in real life—even the muted “happy ending” is discomfitingly open-ended. Most importantly, each family member is a great and memorable image-maker, comfortable behind and before the camera (the fact that they use phones adds to the intimacy), adept in circumstances that would tax the most conscientious auteur at finding the right composition and rhythm, an illusion fostered no doubt by the brilliant editing of producer Emelie Mahdavian. In fact, the family’s presence, conjured into visual existence by the phone, makes the film’s long unrecorded ellipses so terrifying. Midnight Traveler is both ethically and aesthetically distinguished, and was a deserved Special Jury Award winner in what was a very strong, didactic, activist and technologically innovative year for the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

For more information about the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, visit here.

Darragh O’Donoghue, a Contributing Writer for Cineaste, works as an archivist at Tate Britain in London.

Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 3