Thessaloniki Documentary Festival 2012 in Brief, Part One: Greek Docs

Yesterday I returned from five nights in Greece, where I attended the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival for the first time. I wrote about the event at more length for Indiewire here and highlighted a number of docs in progress presented at the event here. Since I didn’t write about too many specific films in Iw, my usual fest roundup of films watched will be covered here for the Greek films and in another post later this week for the international selections.

Nikos Katsaounis and Nina Maria Paschalidou’s film collectively documents Greece’s recent economic crisis, and the societal tumult that has resulted, drawing together multiple viewpoints to form a surprisingly diverse tapestry representing modern-day Greeks and their concerns. Shot by more than a dozen photojournalists and including additional footage shot by people in the midst of the various protests, the film reflects the collective passion of the nation and the urgency they feel to take action. As I noted in Iw, compared to some of the other crisis-focused docs in TDF’s lineup, the film provides a more nuanced, multiperspectival approach to the complex issues involved, and brings a level of technical craft that should give the film more of a chance outside the confines of Greece.

Tackling some of the underlying reasons for Greece’s (and other nations’) economic troubles, Stelios Kouloglou’s slickly produced doc takes a broader approach, exploring what the film decidedly views as the undue influence of key players in the geopolitical sphere – the so-called “Frankfurt Group,” a cabal consisting of the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde, Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, the European Central Bank’s Mario Draghi, the European Commission’s José Manuel Barroso, Eurogroup’s Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Council’s Herman van Rompuy, and economic and monetary affairs commissioner Olli Rehn. While it might at times come off as a bit too conspiratorial, the film presents a staggering amount of useful information that serves as a crash course in the European economic crisis. That said, ultimately, the doc covers too much, and sometimes indulges in offputting approaches, including a tired Michael Moore-like riff by the filmmaker, where a more focused approach may have yielded stronger results.

Christos Georgiou takes an in-depth look at the events of December 6, 2008 – when fifteen-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was killed by Athenian police, sparking weeks of riots in several cities. Focusing on Grigoropoulos’ friends and other youth influenced by his murder, the film uses their experiences during the riots and in the three years since to reflect on the role of younger generations in the country, how they have tried to forge their own paths despite a crippling economy and an uncertain future – often through engagement in community and arts activities, from reclaiming a public park to participating in arts and music festivals. Produced for television, the doc takes a fairly conventional, talking heads-heavy approach, but its focused youth perspective makes it noteworthy.

In what may have been my favorite film of the TDF, Myrna Tsapa introduced the documentary character find of the festival. The titular subject, an ancient Greek maid still serving her Greek employer in Cairo, will probably remind any Greek viewer of his/her yiayai (grandmother). Hunched over, prone to muttering to herself (or offhandedly to the camera), frequently letting out a choice stock phrase, she is followed in her daily activities – the early scene of making Turkish coffee is comedic gold – as well as looking through her recently deceased sister’s apartment. It’s a bittersweet, funny portrait of old age – and to be clear, while there might be times the viewer may laugh at things she does, it’s not a mocking laughter. The doc beautifully captures Katinoula, and, most impressively, the pace of life at her age, still active but still able to haggle over prices in the street market with the best of them. At a tight 47 minute running time, I wanted to spend more time with her, utterly charmed.

Nikos Dayandas’ doc, winner of the FIPRESCI jury prize for Greek feature, subtly addresses the hot-button issue of immigration and foreign cultures in Greece, focusing not on a recent transplant but instead on a Japanese woman who has called Crete her home for more than 30 years. The titular subject met a Greek sailor at the age of 22 and left a somewhat troubled past behind in Japan to join him in a new life, at a time when Greece was very much xenophobic. Despite this, the outgoing Sayome adjusted well, learning a new language and culture and fitting in to life on Crete. Spurred on by the death of her mother, she reconnects with her siblings, first when they visit her in Greece, and later when she returns to Japan with her grown son. Dayandas expertly presents a rounded portrait of an appealing outsider subject who still manages to fit in to her surrounding, despite physical and cultural difference.

Well-known in the narrative of Greece’s role in the Holocaust is the story of the town of Katerini, in which its Jewish residents were helped to safety by its non-Jewish citizens. Despite the fact that 87% of the rest of Greece’s Jewish population was exterminated, Katerini has come to stand-in for many as the myth of the nation – Greece as Jewish rescuer. Fofo Terzidou’s film is an attempt to confront this revisionist WWII history with the reality that, Katerini aside, many Greeks did, in fact, collaborate with the Nazis during the Occupation. Though its filmmaking, like many of the other Greek title, tends towards a TV feel, the doc provides fascinating information, and addresses complex issues related to national narrative and historiography – not seeking to demonize, but to look at how and why this tragic element of the country’s past has been elided.

The island of Gavdos, located to the south of Crete, claims the distinction of being the southernmost point of Europe. As such, it has attained a certain mythical significance, both for its native inhabitants and for those wanderers who have adopted it as their home, seeking a refuge from the rest of the world. Anthi Daoundaki’s nicely paced doc is an intriguing exploration of the island, capturing a palpable sense of the isolation of the location through interviews with its residents. The film addresses the widespread issue of essentially dying villages, inhabited primarily by pensioners or set-in-their-ways islanders, most of the youth having left long ago for better job opportunities elsewhere, while also checking in with some of the more intriguing transplants, such as a group of Russian expatriates who have exiled themselves. While the present film doesn’t delve too deeply into their unusual story, an upcoming film promises to reveal much more.

Finally, speaking of unusual, Elisavet Laloudaki and Massimo Pizzocaro find an unexpected wealth of intriguing information about pigeons, of all things, in their doc, an investigation into the changing relationship between man and his urban avian neighbor. Speaking to historians and other academics, they explore how a bird venerated by world religions as a symbol of peace and love has come to be viewed as a plague by many, and the efforts of some to eliminate them or their effects – from accusations of bird poisoning in city parks to the cleaning of damaging bird dropping from the archaelogical ruins of the Acropolis. On the other side, the film profiles a number of pigeon lovers – breeders and advocates who are often self-deprecating about the ruin their love for the birds has cost them.

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief, Recommendations

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