Thessaloniki Documentary Festival 2012 Overview

This month, I’m excited to be attending the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival for the first time. I’ll be leaving SXSW after its first half to catch the second half of the Greek festival, making for a packed couple of weeks. It’s been far too many years since I’ve been to Greece – the homeland of both of my parents – and the first time I’ve attended a film event there. The tight timing unfortunately means I won’t have a chance to visit relatives in Athens, putting me in the doghouse with them, but so it goes.

Thessaloniki’s documentary fest, part of the same organization that puts together the larger non-doc specific event in the Fall, opens tomorrow, March 9 and runs through the 18th. Its 14th edition, under the theme “Images of the 21st Century, presents a staggering 185 films – features and shorts – under eight sections plus an additional six special programs. I’m covering the festival for Indiewire and looking forward to sampling as many of the offerings as possible. Following is a section-by-section overview, with some of the titles that caught my attention as I read through the lineup descriptions:

The festival’s Views of the World includes eight films tackling social and political themes. Here, I’m most interested in two docs on Cuba: MOTHERLAND OR DEATH, a multiperspectival, impressionistic look at modern day Havana; THE STRAWBERRY TREE (pictured), a timely portrait of a small Cuban fishing village made before it was destroyed by a hurricane. I’m also drawn to CANÍCULA, on a similarly small Mexican town; and UNWELCOME IN TEHRAN, on the challenges facing single women in Iranian society.

The 37 features in Stories to Tell focus on the personal. There are quite a few films in this section that have already impressed at other recent festivals, including PLANET OF SNAIL, WOMEN WITH COWS, OPEN SECRET, and INTO THE ABYSS, among others. Sharing a similar setting with the latter is a film on my radar that I haven’t already seen, INTERVIEWS BEFORE EXECUTION: A CHINESE TALK SHOW, which explores a hit TV show featuring people on death row. Additional titles I’d like to see include 66 MONTHS, about a dysfunctional relationship between two damaged men; SCARLET ROAD, focusing on a sex worker who specializes in servicing people with disabilities; PAPIROSEN, a longitudinal study of the director’s family over the course of a decade that saw them move up the economic ladder; KRISIS (pictured), exploring Greece’s tumultuous present; THE WORLD’S FIRST COMPUTER, an investigation into a computer built by ancient Greeks; and HEROES OF THE FLICKS, where the movie projectionist takes the spotlight.

In Recordings of Memory, eight films center on the telling of history, both personal and collective. In addition to titles like Sundance winner 5 BROKEN CAMERAS and THE LOVING STORY, this section includes THE YOUNG BUTLER, a portrait of an accomplice in Pinochet’s reign of terror; CHILDREN OF THE GULAG (pictured), the story of the youth who were condemned to Siberia under Stalin; and HITLER’S CHILDREN, about the offspring of the leaders of the Third Reich, and the legacy they have had to bear.

The festival highlights thirteen feature docs about unique personal stories in Portraits: Human Journeys, including Toronto doc LOVE ALWAYS, CAROLYN, about which I haven’t yet had a chance to write. Three titles here that have piqued my interest also coincidentally profile women: KATINOULA (pictured) looks at an elderly maidservant in Cairo; THE OLD GRIFTER promises the story of an octogenarian con artist; and I AM NOT A ROCK STAR follows an aspiring classical pianist over eight years.

Sixteen feature docs explore the interrelationship between individuals and their environments in Habitat, including the acclaimed THE ISLAND PRESIDENT, another Toronto title I haven’t written about yet. At the top of my list here are PERAH ISTAR, exploring pigeons and people; GAVDOS. SOUTHWARDS, looking at the inhabitants, local and recent, of an island at the edge of Europe; and LAST DAYS OF THE ARCTIC, a portrait of a celebrated photographer and his subjects facing climate change.

Human Rights take the forefront in fifteen features, which includes previously seen titles like GIVE UP TOMORROW and HONK! (pictured). Here I’m hoping to see RED FAIRY N THE HOLY GHOST, on lower caste Indian woman horrifically persecuted as witches; THE GUANTANAMO TRAP, on the impact of the infamous prison on several individuals; and OLIGARCHY, a look at the Frankfurt Group, the power elite of the European Union.

24 features are included in Thessaloniki’s Greek Panorama, capturing the country through a diverse selection of themes and approaches. Here, I’d like to take a look at THE GIRLS OF THE RAIN (pictured), about Greek female political prisoners of the late 1960s and early 1970s; CHILDREN OF THE RIOTS, focusing on the youth at the center of Greece’s ongoing crisis; GREEKTOWN – NEW ENGLAND, exploring Greek-American communities; NOUR YOU CAN FIND LIGHT EVERYWHERE, on a young Afghan refugee in Athens; and THE OUTCASTS, telling the story of Ghanian women accused of practicing wichcraft. The last regular program section includes seven features focused on Music, but, true to form, beyond a couple I’ve seen elsewhere and already written about, none have made my list.

The six Special Programs include two director tributes, two TV series profiles, and two regional spotlights. Nine of Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan’s 19 films are being screened, while six of Turkish Greek filmmaker Angelos Abazoglou’s are in the lineup, including his charming newest title, MUSTAFA’S SWEET DREAMS (pictured).

The first regional spotlight is on the always impressive Denmark’s non-fiction output, with the selections included in the various main sections of the festival noted above. I’ve already seen five of the eight films: THE AMBASSADOR, 1/2 REVOLUTION, PUTIN’S KISS, BALLROOM DANCER, and LOVE ADDICT. I’d like to catch up on the remaining: THE SAMURAI CASE (pictured), Eva Mulvad’s look at a bizarre murder trial; AT NIGHT I FLY, on prisoners seeking self-expression through art; and AU PAIR, about three young Filipina immigrant workers.

The second regional spotlight is on the Balkans, with six features representing Romania, Croatia, Turkey, and Serbia. The three Romanian titles, all focused on love and relationships, sound especially promising: VISITING ROOM (pictured) explores the love lives of prisoners; NOOSFERA finds a sociology professor with a scientific theory on love but a string of failed relationships; while TWO OF US looks at the challenges facing a young gay couple in present-day Romania.

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, Overviews, Recommendations

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