Thessaloniki Documentary Festival 2013 in Brief, Part Three

to the wolfThis post wraps up my coverage of this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival – previous postings may be found here (a pointer to my Indiewire coverage of several Greek titles and works-in-progress) and here (highlights from three fest sections). Below are thoughts on a number of the remaining sections, “Recordings of Memory,” “Habitat,” and “Human Rights.”

TDF’s “Recordings of Memory” explore personal and collective history and its bearing on contemporary society. Nahid Persson Sarvestani’s film is particularly appropriately placed. Inspired by the activism she witnesses being awakened by the Iranian presidential election, and still feeling guilty over her brother’s death in Iran thirty years ago while she fled the country for safety after the Revolution, the filmmaker reconnects with old comrades who became political prisoners yet survived to tell their stories. Placing herself, and her longstanding guilt, at the forefront of her inquiry, Sarvestani creates an undeniably personal narrative, but one that is too-often self-indulgent, weakening her film with awkward reaction shots of herself or wistful looks off to the side. The true power here rests in the horrific but affecting testimony given by the brave women she interviews, tales revisiting years of physical, emotional, and mental abuse meant to turn them against their beliefs and against their comrades. That they resisted, just as Sarvestani learns her brother resisted, serves as a testament to their desire for freedom and justice, and makes the project worthwhile.

Also in the same section was Stelios Kouloglou’s investigation of the rise of Golden Dawn, the right-wing extremist party that surprised many by claiming a not-insignificant portion of votes in the national elections last year, securing nearly two dozen parliamentary seats. Of particular concern for Kouloglou was the increase in popularity of this racist party, whose leaders praise Adolph Hitler, in cities that were decimated by the Nazi occupation during WWII. Seeking to make sense of the historical and cultural amnesia that would allow for this development, the film revisits the tragic past of these cities, relates stories of survivors, and, provocatively, explores the role Greek collaborators played in oppressing their own people. Sharing this history with students in the cities, they attempt to reconcile difficult truths, both past and present. The film within a film conceit doesn’t completely work, sometimes engendering a sense of the too-academic to the conversations that follow, but, like Sarvestani’s film, the righteousness of the elderly survivors still comes through, making a strong case against the fascist doctrines of Golden Dawn and their adherents.

Making its world premiere at TDF, Dieter Sauter’s film similarly employs the narratives of the survivors of oppression – in this case, Istanbul-Greeks (or their descendants) who were subject to a pogrom in 1955 that eventually led to the reduction of a once-thriving minority Greek population of 150,000 to today’s 2,000. Those who remained reveal the challenges of living through those times and into the modern day, having to navigate cultural and religious differences, sometimes hiding their identities, as they lived among the “enemy.” Profiling various individuals, including a younger generation that have either grown up in Istanbul, or whose parents were part of the diaspora to Greece and have come to live in Turkey and reclaim their Istanbul-Greek identity, Sauter’s film effectively bridges two time periods, demonstrating the changes in attitudes that have developed in the interim.

Inasmuch as Sauter’s film is as much about a place as its people, it serves as a bridge to the next festival program section, “Habitat,” devoted to films about men and women and their environment. Christos, the subject of Menios Karayiannis’ measured film, like the minority of Greeks in Istanbul, is one who stayed behind. In his case, Christos is literally the last of his village, a remote land (the translation of the doc’s title) with no conveniences – no electricity, no running water. Eschewing modern life, the elderly man lives separate from society, aside from occasional radio broadcasts, sticking to his sheep, rabbits, and cats, and the old ways of doing things. This is a quiet, slow portrait, but appropriately so, its pace matching that of its protagonist, and offering a fitting way to experience and appreciate life in a way that has sadly become foreign to most viewers.

Approaching similar terrain, Christina Koutsospyrou and Aran Hughes’ documentary/fiction hybrid is set in a dying village in the west of Greece (pictured above). Instead of one solitary subject, the filmmakers work with a slightly larger cast of villagers who basically play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves, rugged, aged mountain folk struggling to scrape by in an unforgiving and harsh, seemingly perpetually raining land. Condensing months of filming into what appears to be just a handful of days, Koutsospyrou and Hughes craft an intriguing, remarkably lensed, and unrelently bleak semi-ethnography that doubles as a commentary about Greece in a time of austerity and crisis. The viewer is left wondering, however, if the fictionalization ends up being absolutely necessary, or, alternately, if the hybrid label distracts from the project, with audiences questioning what parts are “true” and which are not.

The situation is decidedly less dire in Sarah Gavron and David Katznelson’s “Habitat” entry, a year in the life of the residents of Niaqornat, a small fishing village in remote Greenland. With a population numbering under sixty, and the local fish processing plant shuttered, the community is rightfully concerned about their continued existence. The filmmakers follow four subjects – a transplant to the community, in charge of its sewage; the oldest woman in the village, the repository of its tradition and history; the mayor, an avid polar bear hunter; and his unacknowledged son, a teenager who dreams of a bigger life away from Niaqornat, a common path for many in the dwindling community. Presented in chapters corresponding to the native names of the seasons, the film highlights their daily lives without comment, presenting their efforts to keep their home from disappearing – chiefly through a plan to resurrect the processing plant as a community-owned co-op. As they wait for the slow engine of bureaucracy to realize that dream, they tentatively welcome Danish tourists seeking authentic Greenland culture. Gorgeously shot, the doc is a carefully composed, artfully told story of a place and a people in transition.

The Albanians featured in Daniele Vicari’s film, part of TDF’s “Human Rights” section, reflect on the way they faced the dramatic changes sweeping across Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The film details the stranger than fiction episode that took place in August 1991 when an Albanian ship was overwhelmed by would-be refugees seeking asylum in Italy. Roughly 20,000 Albanians commandeered the vessel, forcing the captain to dock in Bari. Upon arrival, chaos ensued, with the harried Italian authorities unprepared to manage the influx of people, resulting in questionable decisions that prove strangely resonant with the situation of Katrina refugees. More than two decades later, a number of individuals who were involved – from both the Albanian and Italian sides – reflect on the incident and its ramifications. Skillfully blending often unbelievable contemporary media reports with present-day interviews, Vicari creates a moving document demonstrating the lengths some were willing to go to in order to escape decades of repression.


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

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