Earlier this week, I posted a pointer to my Indiewire article on different aspects of this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, including the Docs in Progress selections, several of the Greek films, and the awards. In this and one additional post later this week, I’ll cover a number of other titles screened in the TDF’s various sections. First up, highlights from “Views of the World,” “Stories to Tell,” and “Portraits – Human Journeys.”
THE BELLA VISTA
“Views of the World” focuses on contemporary social issues and their intersection with the human experience. Alicia Cano’s intriguingly unusual exploration of the contentious history of a building in a small Uruguayan village touches upon homophobia, but is hardly a standard social issue doc (pictured above). Once the hangout for a local soccer club, the titular structure has been used as a transsexual brothel for years – despite being located in a very conservative community. Over the course of the film, individuals are motivated to try to reclaim the space, leading ultimately to a third, unexpected incarnation. Further adding to the film’s curiosity, it eschews traditional documentary conventions to unfold very much like a fictional narrative, and even includes subjects gleefully re-enacting developments that took place offscreen. While Cano profiles some of the people involved – a trans prostitute in love with a younger man, the openly homophobic former soccer player rallying the town against the brothel – her true focus is on the space itself. Like their temporary usage of the building, these characters have a transient presence in the film – the audience follows them for a time, but they’re only a small portion of the story Cano is telling about contested spaces.
Also in this section is Rob and Lisa Fruchtman’s well-traveled doc about Ingoma Nshya, a pioneering troupe of Rwandan women drummers who forge their own future. Survivors of the horrific genocide of 1994, the women originally gathered to find support and healing through drumming, a traditionally male-only activity – largely because of concerns about the weight of the drums. Uniting women from both sides of the conflict – those who lost family members, as well as those whose family members participated in the slaughter – Ingoma Nshya brought about a unique form of reconciliation. The Fruchtmans’ film details the group’s efforts to bring the first ice cream shop to their country, creating women-led economic opportunities. Profiling a number of the women, and the ups and downs of trying to get a small business off the ground – compounded by the challenge of introducing an entirely new dessert item to their fellow Rwandans – the film is a winning and hopeful look at resilience and cooperation.
Shifting to TDF’s “Stories to Tell,” a section devoted to more intimate, personal portraits, Daniel Abma’s gritty film also looks at individuals attempting to bounce back from difficult pasts. In this case, his subjects are three young German men as they try to adjust to life after prison. Surprisingly vulnerable and even charming, Imo, Marcel, and Jano – none older than 25 – struggle with life on the outside – from difficulties finding work with a criminal record to fears of failure and issues of self-esteem. As each young man gets his girlfriend pregnant, their paths diverge further, reacting in diverse ways to impending fatherhood – from overprotectiveness to desperation that has unfortunate, but not unexpected, consequences.
CHRONICLE OF A FORGOTTEN DEATH
If Abma’s subjects are lost souls trying to find their way, Pierre Morath’s focus is on a man who lost his way, only for no one to notice. Michel Christen’s story begins with his death, or, more appropriately, more than two years after, when his decomposed body was finally discovered in his apartment, long after every social network had forgotten about him. What’s perhaps more disturbing is that Christen’s story is not altogether so unique – early in Morath’s film, he follows along as another person’s remains are removed from an apartment. Still, the focus is on Christen, and interviews with his ex-wife, estranged daughter, and various social service officials attempt to piece together how the man slipped through the cracks for so long. In the process, the film offers a quiet but bracing indictment of a disconnected, sadly indifferent society.
ANATOMY OF A MURDER
The reconstruction of a death is also at the heart of Joop Van Wikj’s film, an exploration of his sister-in-law’s murder. His intent is not to find blame – that’s been determined by the court, as Jos has confessed and served his sentence for killing his wife, Ancil-Marie – but instead to make sense of the tragedy and help the film’s participants come to terms with their loss. Gaining the cooperation of Jos, Van Wikj has him recount the circumstances of his horrific act, which he first attempted to cover up, while other voices – family, friends, authorities, attorneys – provide a more expansive perspective on the case, albeit one that’s heavy on talking heads. The approach is unorthodox, and somewhat frustrating, but there’s something provocative at the same time in its mannered deconstruction of what could have been a more typically grisly true crime doc.
FORGET ME NOT
David Sieveking’s personal doc also interrogates a family and their response to the loss of a loved one. The difference here is that his subject, his mother Gretel, has not died, but her advanced Alzheimer’s has in many ways taken her away from her family. As he visits with his parents at home, and witnesses the impact of Gretel’s condition on his father, Malte, Sieveking explores their unconventional marriage, a product of the countercultural sixties that championed free love, even within the bounds of matrimony. Serving as his wife’s caretaker wasn’t in Malte’s plans for retirement, something that his nonagenarian mother echoes, but both love and guilt play roles in his decision to resist relocating her to an assisted living facility. Expertly balancing unexpected humor with disarming honesty, Sieveking succeeds in conveying to the viewer a full sense of Gretel, before and after Alzheimer’s onset.
THE FLOWERS OF MY FAMILY
Family dynamics take on melodramatic and tragicomic proportions in Juan Ignacio Fernández Hoppe’s impressive study of the relationship between his mother, Alicia, and grandmother, Nivia. Having asked her mother to move in long ago, Alicia upends the 90-year-old’s world by announcing that she’s going to move in with her boyfriend. Feeling abandoned, betrayed, and at a loss for where she could go – and what would happen to her balcony plants – Nivia responds with both passive-aggression and downright hostility to dissuade Alicia from ruining everything. Filming in extreme close-ups which perhaps mimic his subjects’ intertwined, too-close, and increasingly tense co-existence, Fernández Hoppe uses his camera to wisely stay out of the conflict, witnessing Alicia’s attempts to disengage for her own sense of freedom and happiness, even as she contends with the resultant guilt and responsibility she feels for Nivia.
ONE STEP AHEAD
Finally, in TDF’s “Portraits” section, Dimitris Athyridis turns the spotlight on Thessaloniki’s controversial mayor, Yiannis Boutaris. A recovering alcoholic turned maverick winemaker, Boutaris faced an uphill battle as he sought office in the 2010 elections, often running into trouble for his outspoken and off-the-cuff comments that enraged political opponents and the Greek Orthodox church. In a smaller scale Greek version of THE WAR ROOM of sorts, Athyridis follows his campaign, while also delving into the tragedies of his personal life, such as the loss of his wife. While Greek audiences were perhaps more interested in the latter, having already lived through the minutiae of the election, I found it to be a sentimental distraction at odds with the more interesting, bristly elements of the politician’s personality, serving to make an already lengthy film that much longer.