Greece: Thessaloniki Documentary Festival Succeeds in Hard Times

The week-long 13th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival [el] presented a line up of approximately 220 films from around the world from 11-30 March, 2011, in Thessaloniki, Greece.

Themes included regional retrospectives (this year focusing on the Middle East and Africa), tributes to Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa and Czech Helena Trestikova and thematic sections such as Human Rights, Views of the World, Portraits – Human Journeys, Recordings of Memory, Stories to Tell, Habitat and Music.

Audience at Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. Screenshot from YouTube video by tbihlaz.

Audience at Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. Screenshot from YouTube video by tbihlaz.

A special section titled How I Am: Challenging Perceptions [el] was introduced to spotlight social issues of disabilities, on the occasion of the Athens Special Olympics next summer.

The biggest challenge for the Festival this year were the austerity measures imposed on all Greek state institutions, which bit deeply into its finances. Awards were symbolic this year, guests few and far between, and events trimmed down to essentials; ticket prices were kept low, question and answer sessions with film directors were plentiful, and many screenings were sold out – especially on weekends – with the programming variety pleasing audiences.

Tweeting cinephiles

Several cinephiles attending the Festival took to Twitter with gusto, posting capsule reviews, reporting on Festival life and nagging about the event's shortcomings. Tickets were available right from the beginning, with many attendees well prepared in advance. Fani Gouda (@Fanig) boasted back on March 10:

@Fanig: Έβγαλα πρόγραμμα, πήρα και 29 εισιτήρια και μου μένει να βρω και άλλα 10-15 ντοκιμαντέρ που θέλω να δω και είμαι έτοιμη #tdf13

@Fanig: Schedule done, got 29 tickets, another 10-15 documentaries left to select and I'm ready

Whilst @efou fretted:

@efou: έχω ήδη στα χέρια μου 11 εισιτήρια για το#tdf13…κι αυτά θα με βγάλουν μόνο μέχρι την Τρίτη. :-))

@efou: I already have 11 tickets for #tdf13 [the Festival's hashtag] … and they'll only last me til’ Tuesday

The anticipation was palpable, especially for fans traveling to attend the Festival. Mairoula from Volos (@JaielVL) wrote via Twitter on March 11:

@JaielVL: Έφυγα για Θεσσαλονίκη και #TDF13! Όπως πάντα τις πρώτες ταινίες θα τις δω με τη βαλίτσα….

@JaielVL: Gone for Thessaloniki and #TDF13 [the Festival]! As always, I'll watch the first movies with suitcase in hand…

Opening ceremony

The opening ceremony featured the international premiere of Israeli filmmaker's Roy Sher film ‘My Sweet Canary‘, a biopic-travelogue about the life of famous Jewish Greek singer Roza Eskenazi, who started her career in Thessaloniki, featuring phonetic singers performing songs made famous by her.

As film critic Ioannis Gros (@igkros) noted on Twitter on March 12, ‘My Sweet Canary’ was a real crowd pleaser of an intro film:

@igkros#tdf13 ευχάριστη, με αρκετό συναισθημα και μουσική η ταινία του Ροϊ Σερ για την Ρόζα Εσκενάζι. απέσπασε πολύ χειρόκροτημα και… παλαμάκια!

@igkros: Pleasing, with enough feeling and music, Roy Sher's movie about Roza Eskenazi garnered a lot of applause

Capsule reviews, most often in Greek, were the order of the day. Once again this year, Giannis Sahanidis (@ZlatkoGR) posted one-line reviews of every film seen, complete with ratings, some generous (March 13):

@ZlatkoGR: Το Jaffa: The Orange's Clockwork στην πραγματικότητα ήταν μια πολύ καλή σκιαγράφιση της αποΠαλαιστινιοποίησης της περιοχής. 3*/5 #tdf13

@ZlatkoGR: Jaffa: The Orange's Clockwork was actually a very good illustration of the de-Palestinization of the region. 3*/5 #tdf13

And others stern (March 15):

@ZlatkoGR: Το The Fire Within ήταν ένα άψυχο ντοκιμαντέρ, ακόμη και μετά τις προσπάθειες του σκηνοθέτη να το δραματοποιήσει παραπάνω. 1.5*/5 #tdf13

@ZlatkoGR: The Fire Within was a listless documentary, even after the director's attempts to overdramatize. 1.5*/5 #tdf13

Not all filmgoers were out for a marathon session. Photojournalist Craig Wherlock (@teacherdude), who has covered the Festival many times in the past, mused:

@teacherdude: Saw 2 great documentaries today at the Thessaloniki Doc fest. The Tillman Story and Wiebo's War. Enough for 1 day, time to reflect #TDF13

Festival volunteers recounted their experiences, such as Twitter user Maria P. (@marytealover) on March 12:

@marytealover: επίσης κάποιος μου ζήτησε ποπ κορν και κάποιος μου έβαλε τις φωνές επειδή τα εισιτήρια ήταν sold out σε μια προβολή #tdf13

@marytealover: Someone asked me for popcorn, and another shouted at me because tickets were sold out for a screening #tdf13

The Festival itself made use of Twitter (@filmfestivalgr) to post announcements:

@filmfestivalgr: Free entrance for university students & the unemployed to all screenings at Olympion theatre before 15:00 & at the Pier before 13:00 #TDF13

Besides the entertainment, documentaries also provide food for thought in what are difficult times. ‘Future of Hope‘ was one of the most discussed films this year, for it's upbeat treatment of the way Iceland is dealing with the financial crisis. Festival newcomer Chris Zlatis (@chriszlatis) tweeted at length, not about the movie itself, but about the practices showcased, in the economy:

@chriszlatis: Ισλανδία: καταναλώνουν τοπικά και εποχιακα προϊόντα, έχουν “υπουργείο ιδεών” και στόχο για χρηματοδότηση 50 νέων καινοτόμων startups.#tdf13

@chriszlatis: Iceland: they're consuming local & seasonal products, they have a “ministry of ideas” and aim to fund 50 new innovative startups. #tdf13

And in politics:

@chriszlatis: Ισλανδία: υπάρχει “εθνική συνέλευση”, συμμετεχουν 1500 πολίτες (0.5% πληθυσμού) για εξεύρεση νέων ιδεών! Μεγάλο κοινωνικο πείραμα!#tdf13

@chriszlatis: Iceland: there is a “national conclave” for finding new ideas, where 1,500 citizens (0.5% of the population) participate! #tdf13

Covering the Festival

Reporting on a festival requires time management skills, so most bloggers and film critics prefer to write their reviews afterwards. This year, Ioannis Gros, Giannis Sachanidis and Chris Zlatis posted recap reviews of selected films, as well as their impressions of the Festival. Zlatis also curated a Storify on the Festival, while Gros produced several podcast reports.

Documentary film-maker Phil Grabsky expounded on how film festivals work and lauded the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival's “secret sauce”:

It's funny how random it seems to be which documentary film festivals achieve importance. There are, after all, hundreds of them but I'd say 20 or 30 stand out. I've actually no idea why Thessaloniki in Greece should be one of them but it is. I was really impressed – very friendly, well organised and lots of events to help us directors meet and talk with others

This video, uploaded by YouTube user tbihlaz on March 22, shows some of the Festivals’ highlights:

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