The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Cynthia Rowell
If there was a thematic thread running through selections at the Eighteenth Annual Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), March 11–20, 2016, it was human compassion and the profound connection of the personal to the political—no more apparent than in a series of films documenting the global refugee crisis. The festival (and its independently hosted Documentary Market) is an offshoot of the fifty-six-year-old international film festival held every November. As with its parent organization, TDF’s main venue is the elegant Olympion Theatre, located on Aristotelous Square—the heart of the city. A short walk along the nearby curved esplanade leads to a jetty where several warehouses now are dedicated to the arts, including a year-round cinematheque. Moviegoers are treated not only to the sights on the screen but also to the vista of the port, with its naval and commercial ships, cranes standing like sentries along the quays, and the calm waters of the Themaikos Gulf stretching off into the distant horizon—not unlike the unique maritime world charted in Dead Slow Ahead, one of the 186 films screened at the festival.
A hypnotic and visually stunning log of the Fair Lady freighter’s voyage to destinations unknown, Dead Slow Ahead, the directorial debut of Spanish cinematographer Mauro Herce, is more about the journey itself than it is about the final port of call. With artful, sometimes abstract compositions, scant dialogue, trance-inducing music, and a pace that captures the lumbering ship’s own momentum, this experimental documentary submerges viewers in the details. Unlike the frantic motion of GoPro cameras registering the activities of commercial trawler workers in Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s much-lauded 2014 film, Dead Slow Ahead employs fly-on-the-wall observation in its haunting explorations of the freighter’s space. Herce often trains his lens on empty, claustrophobic corridors, holds, and rooms of the watercraft, in contrast to wide shots of the vast ocean—its waves constantly conquering the topside. The viewer is like a ghost prowling the decks of a seemingly deserted vessel. When humans do make an appearance, they seem merely extensions of the machinery, specks against nature. Or they appear as disembodied voices, either singing karaoke or engaged in long-distance telephone calls—a diminution that leaves us yearning to connect with them ever the more. Existential dread and loneliness permeate the film. Dead Slow Ahead documents feelings as much as it captures concrete experience.
In dramatic contrast to Dead Slow’s practically unpopulated on-screen space, The Woods Dreams Are Made Of meanders through Paris’s largest public park, the Bois de Vincennes, located on the city’s eastern edge and teeming with humanity. Capturing the beauty and activity of the seasons, director Claire Simon walks the wooded trails and encounters an array of people who take refuge from urban stresses in the park’s idyllic surroundings. Simon speaks with dog-walkers, runners, tai chi practitioners, gay men seeking a quick tryst, recreational anglers, park rangers, prostitutes engaging in their profession al fresco, revelers, and solitude-seekers. Simon’s solicitous, observational documentary radiates a nonjudgmental, democratic aura, reinforcing a vision of the park as a kind of utopia where those from different walks of life can cross paths and coexist peacefully—a kind of metaphor for the diversity of films and participants in a film festival, itself.
This year, the festival offered tributes to documentary filmmakers Mark Cousins and Jon Bang Carlsen, both in attendance. An innovative Danish director, Carlsen conducted a master class on his approach to constructing or “reinventing” reality with often staged documentaries that convey his own subjective truth. Among the six Carlsen films screened were Portrait of God—an introspective essay film in which, aware of his own lack of faith, the director investigates how people, in his then-home of South Africa, have found God. He discovers inspiration in the comfort his subjects are able to draw from their belief. In Déjà Vu, Carlsen takes a sort of This Is Your Life look back at his own career and how his personal life has manifested itself in the subjects he has chosen to film.
The four Cousins works screened at the festival included A Story of Children and Film (2013)—a de facto addendum to his magnum opus, The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), a fifteen-part journey through cinema. In a recording of his niece and nephew playing with an elaborate, Rube Goldberg–like marble run, Cousins spies aspects of childhood—innocence, imagination, destruction, stroppiness—that he then connects with excerpts from classic and lesser-known films. Cousins believes that no art form has looked at kids more closely or effectively than the cinema. In fact, he says that movies themselves—which as the seventh art, is the youngest—are like children inhabiting a dream-like world.
Cousins’s I Am Belfast also has an oneiric quality. A lyrical love letter to his hometown, with ravishing cinematography by the inimitable Christopher Doyle, Belfast captures the spirit of the city as personified by its narrator, a “10,000-year-old woman” who wanders invisibly among the city’s denizens and streets gathering stories—ranging from quotidian moments to tragic tales of The Troubles. This is not a straightforward history of Belfast. Judiciously tapping into his proclivity for voice-over and archival footage, Cousins has intertwined documentary elements with a certain lyricism to produce a deeply personal, heartfelt catalogue of how the changing city has most affected him and shaped his vision.
The festival’s thematic spotlight, entitled Refugees: Escape to Freedom?, featured nine films focused on stories set in Italy, Denmark, Lebanon, France, Switzerland, and other countries struggling with the burgeoning influx of refugees. The United Nations estimates that there are currently more than 21 million people classified as refugees (half of whom are under the age of eighteen), out of an unprecedented 65.3 million who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. In a mid-March 2016 summit in Brussels, EU and Turkish officials agreed to deport migrants (mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq) who were landing on any Greek island, and unable to successfully apply for asylum, back to nearby Turkey. Earlier in the month, Macedonia closed its border with Greece—about an hour’s drive from the festival—stranding thousands trying to cross further into Europe in Idomeni, once home to Greece’s largest informal refugee camp. This makeshift camp was abolished in May, pushing people into urban centers such as Thessaloniki, either to tent cities arising in abandoned factories or onto the streets. Greek prime minister Alexis Tspiras warned that the country was on the verge of becoming a “warehouse of souls.” In taking social activism from the reel into real life, TDF sponsored a panel discussion, “Documenting the Refugee Issue: Methods, Objectives, Challenges, Ethics” and also co-organized a drive for baby food and other children’s essentials with a drop-off point at the waterfront cinematheque.
The tiny, southern Italian island of Lampedusa, like the Greek islands, is a popular entry point for refugees headed to Europe. Lampedusa in Winter opens with a chilling scene in which the Italian Coast Guard heads forward to the coordinates of an SOS call, only to discover that an over-encumbered vessel has plunged hundreds of souls to the bottom of the sea. The people of Lampedusa almost daily are surrounded by visions of death—news of boats sinking, bodies washing up ashore, and refugees mourning loved ones.
Director Jakob Brosmann introduces us to those locals of the overwhelmed migration portal. Among others, a fed-up lawyer, trying to offer assistance, confesses to the refugees that “we can’t help you; we can just cry and shout to journalists”; a couple collects items that have washed ashore to add to their makeshift museum commemorating lives lost; and the town’s formidable female mayor battles the offshore EU bureaucracy to secure much needed assistance for Lampedusa’s surplus of asylum seekers—at the same time she is dealing with citizens’ onshore fury over a delay in replacing the island’s ferry that has gone up in flames. Although the majority of Italians Brosmann features are those empathetic folks trying to aid the refugees, we do not get to know any of the African migrants individually. The film circles back to the sea at its conclusion—reinforcing the harsh cycle that continues, as another wave of refugees attempts the crossing. But this time, instead of a heart-wrenching absence, Brosmann encounters an equally painful overabundance: another boat with an excess of passengers, barely able to stay afloat. As the Italians reach out to transfer people to safety, the camera zooms in and freezes on one frightened face. This unknown man’s eyes stare directly at us, asking for compassion, empathy, and a helping hand.
A spiritual sequel to Lampedusa, I Am Dublin is a documentary made by Swedish filmmakers Anna Persson and David Aronowitsch, along with Somalian filmmakers and former refugees Sharmake Binyusuf and Ahmed Abduallahi. While still a teenager, Ahmed Obsiye, also from Somalia, took the risk of crossing the Mediterranean via Lampedusa in order to escape a dead-end fate in his wartorn country. Ahmed eventually settled in Sweden, where he managed to create a relatively peaceful life for himself, complete with friends, a home, and creative aspirations—all the while living under the radar.
The film team came together when Ahmed was cast in Aronowitsch’s short film Dublin, which mirrors its lead’s own harrowing experiences. Parts of the short are incorporated into I Am Dublin. Both the short and the documentary are about the Dublin Regulation, which states that applicants must reside, if accepted, only in the EU member state in which they first registered for asylum. Desperate for legal residence papers in Europe, Ahmed had first applied in Finland. After an appearance before Sweden’s Migration Board, Ahmed is deported to the neighboring Scandinavian nation. Stuck in the snowy isolation of the fenced-in no-man’s land, Ahmed realizes that the documentary is his lifeline: “If there is no camera, there is no help.”
In 2009, while on a government-monitored tour of Damascus, British filmmaker Sean McAllister—who previously had made documentaries in Iraq and Yemen focusing on personal stories during turbulent times—decided to go off the beaten path in order to seek out subjects beyond the state-sanctioned “booming tourism” story. The resulting film, A Syrian Love Story, tells of the Palestinian Amer and the Syrian revolutionary Raghda who had fallen in love fifteen years earlier when they were political prisoners in adjacent cells. When McAllister started filming, Raghda was imprisoned for having written a thinly veiled account of their love story, complete with unrepentant anti-Assad sentiment. At the same time, Amer was raising their children on his own, while also advocating for her release. The Arab Spring of 2011 reunites Raghda with her family, but their happiness is short-lived—they are cast into exile. Ragha yearns to be part of the fight back in her Syrian homeland, but that does not sit well with Amer: “She cannot be Che Guevara and a mother at the same time.”
Tracking the family for five years, as both Syria and the couple’s marriage had become battlefields, McAllister also had become a de facto member of the clan, enabling him the high-degree of intimacy we see in the film. Although his “one-man band” filmmaking does not result in the most striking of visuals, the home-video look works well within the private domestic settings. The rich detail mined in these close quarters elevates the documentary to novelistic proportions.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival, A Syrian Love Story did well during its U.K. release. It’s a shame that—as of this writing—there was no news of U.S. distribution of this compelling story of a family brought together and torn apart by politics and war. For this to have happened to a couple like Amer and Raghda, with so much in common and a fierce will to fight for what is right, only elevates the likely impact that millions of other families are facing, as they are suddenly catapulted into fragile and unknown territory.
Raghda’s internal war, in A Syrian Love Story, as she struggles to find inner peace and be true to herself might possibly, perhaps, have been her true personal and political revolution all along. Her search for authenticity, her entrenched activism—and her underlying depression—mirror those qualities of Mayer Vishner in Left on Purpose, co-directed by Justin Schein with editor David Mehlman. Even as a teen in the Sixties, Vishner was outspoken about his radical views, submitting an Op-Ed to The New York Times declaring homework as tantamount to slavery. He channeled this revolutionary spirit into a lifelong dedication to left-wing pursuits, such as creating political audio programs that were broadcast to U.S. troops in Vietnam; volunteering for the War Resisters League; and serving as “the scientist” behind Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies of the radical Youth International Party. “I wasn’t just hanging out with giants. I was helping them be giants,” Vishner proclaims.
Schein’s intent was to create a short portrait documenting this fascinating life, but ever the headstrong personality, Vishner declared that his final political act would be to commit suicide—transforming the project into something entirely different. Afflicted with OCD, a tendency to hoard, alcoholism, and clinical depression, as well as physical ailments, Vishner bemoans that he can’t stop his own pain, let alone that of the world. Despite all that he has done to challenge the universal problems of racism, hunger, and war, the only thing he feels he now has to offer is the ability to exert his free will. Schein is in a tough spot: “I can’t stay behind the camera and watch him kill himself.” Both men are honest about their feelings, even if their end-goals differ.
In A Syrian Love Story, McAllister interacts with the family, even changing the course of their lives through his footage and involvement. This counters the, by now, debunked claim that documentaries are to be objective. In Left on Purpose, Schein, as a director, faces a similar situation of close involvement with his subject, now with life-or-death ramifications. Whether Schein should do more to “rescue” Vishner, instead of just filming him, raises the question of documentary ethics, as long debated among academics and documentarians—most notably in earlier years by Brian Winston and George Stoney.
Vishner’s doctor refuses to take part in his patient’s “existential project.” Yet it’s the friendship between filmmaker and subject that forms the heart of the film. Schein genuinely cares for Vishner and does his best to honor Vishner’s wish and life. Clearly, the camera’s presence gives Vishner motivation to continue living, albeit not enough reason to abandon his ultimate wish. Able to organize on behalf of others, in the end Visher’s inner demons prevent him from functioning and keeping his own life in order. And so, in a final political act, he follows in the footsteps of leftist mentors and comrades who also had taken their own lives. His final note reads: “Vishner, Mayer. Forced into this life February 13, 1949. Left on purpose on August 22, 2013.”
Of the films featured at the festival, Left on Purpose struck a most personal, intimate chord—bringing this writer to tears. The film is as entertaining as it is devastating, thanks to Vishner’s wit. Left on Purpose presents a complex portrait of a man who devoted his life to becoming a peace warrior and to progressive causes and who, in his twilight years, is convinced that he has nothing left to offer, despite his obvious influence on so many people.
Such deeply personal and political commitments also were evident in many of the Greek films screened at this year’s TDF. In addition to its strong international lineup, the festival is committed to supporting and nurturing homegrown talent. Among its 186 films, the festival presented seventy-three documentaries made by local filmmakers, many about Greece and furnishing insight into the country’s past, present, and future. And so many Greek citizens turned out to fill the theaters—greeting their national films with thunderous applause before and after the screenings.
A little-known yet crucial corner of U.S. labor history is illuminated in Leonidas Varanos’s LUDLOW: Greek Americans in the Colorado Coal War. Winner of the Human Values award, this more traditional talking-head documentary chronicles a miners’ strike during 1913–1914. Greek immigrants, using guerrilla combat tactics acquired during the Balkan Wars, were described as “the bone and sinew” of the union’s army, which took a stand against strike-breaking goons after a deadly attack. Filled with interesting and often astonishing facts detailing injustice and courage, this thoroughly researched documentary mixes a wealth of photographs and other archival treasures with compelling insights by descendants and historians (including Cineaste’s own Dan Georgakas). LUDLOW proudly unfurls a century-old tale charged with contemporary relevance in an age when the working class is taking the greatest hits and the one-percenters shore up power and immunity.
Not unexpectedly, several of the Greek films examined the nation’s austerity policies and the effect on its citizens. Although arising from such grim origins, Next Stop, Utopia exudes optimism. “You came with your camera and saw something extraordinary,” is an overheard comment aimed at director Apostolos Karakasis, who records the progress of workers occupying the Viome factory on the outskirts of Thessaloniki. The workers refuse to accept unemployment caused by the worldwide recession and the factory owners’ negligence. In December 2015, the workers successfully blocked an auction of the premises. Now that a six-month moratorium has ended and liquidation is again possible, the workers and their supporters are facing off against the government and their riot police in order to, once and for all, officially self-manage the factory. The factory, in addition to housing stranded refugees, also has served as storage and transshipment facility for necessities for displaced people in the area. After the jam-packed screening, activist cooperative members didn’t miss the opportunity to continue their fight by distributing pamphlets headlined “Occupy, Resist, Produce!” (also the name of a video installation the festival hosted about the self-management movement).
The FIPRESCI prize for best Greek production went to Maro Anastopoulou’s Whispers in the Sky, a contemplative look at daily life on Amorgos, a tiny, rocky island in the Aegean Sea. Anastopoulou’s focus is on a sea captain, Constantis, and a shepherd, Leonidas, two lifelong residents who rely on traditional knowledge of natural elements—clouds, sun, stars, wind, and most crucially, accurate prediction of weather—to guide them in their professions. Located eighteen miles from the mainland, Amorgos, in its isolation, forces inhabitants to commune with nature and adapt to a slower pace. In keeping with this theme, the camera lingers on a hillside with its shifting sunshine and shadows, remains static among the grazing animals, and patiently peers into the dark at the few lights flickering in the distance. Anastopoulou’s keen anthropological instincts paint a vivid picture of a remote community, showcasing the rugged beauty of the landscape and the endurance of its people—a quality that calls to mind Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran.
Embodying the TDF mission “to inform, sensitize, and mobilize the audience about critical issues which require the audience’s active participation” the festival provided programs in ten categories (Habitat; Portrait: Human Journeys; Human Rights; Music; Arts; Views of the World; Recordings of Memory; Stories to Tell; Greek Panorama; and Docs for Kids), representing a mix of veteran filmmakers (Barbara Kopple, Chantal Akerman, Rithy Panh, Albert Maysles) and those wishing to make their mark on the field. Like Whispers in the Sky, Left on Purpose, Dead Slow Ahead, and many of the other films discussed here, the festival provided the very best documentary works being produced today—the poetically lyrical, the intimately personal, and the frankly political. The packed theaters and the informed, enthusiastic comments and questions raised by audience members attest to the vital role of documentary filmmaking today—even at a time when “global Hollywood” would want us to think otherwise.
For more information on the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, click here.
Cynthia Rowell is an assistant editor of Cineaste.
Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 1