In March, Dimitri Eipides, the director of Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, received the EDN award 2011. In this interview by Truls Lie he talks about movies that matter, action, sabotage and ethics. We witness one man’s enthusiastic commitment.

Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review. Also head of the Norwegian monthly newspaper NY TID. Based in Oslo/Berlin.

Dimitri Eipides founded the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival – Images of the 21st Century (TDF) in 1999. The festival quickly became one of the top documentary festivals in the world. He is also the director of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival (TIFF) since 2010. Eipides was born in Athens. He studied English Literature and Theatre at the University of San Francisco, and Stage Direction at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and the London School of Film. In 1971, with Claude Chamberlain, he founded the Montreal Festival Du Nouveau Cinema, of which he was director for the following 14 years. From 1988 until today, Eipides has worked as senior international programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival, while since 1995 he has been the program director of the Reykjavik International Film Festival. In 1999 FIPRESCI presented him with an honorary award for the quality and originality of the New Horizons section and in 1993, the Iranian Minister of Culture honoured him in recognition of his role in the international promotion of Iranian cinema.

Claude Chamberlan, Dimitri Eipides, John Lennon, Yoko Ono

And now the EDN Award 2011 in recognition of, as EDN’s director Hanne Skjødt says: “His enthusiastic commitment to establishing a space for the independent creative documentary in Greece [which] resulted in the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival becoming one of the leading and highly respected European festivals.

Dimitri Eipides has an extraordinary ability to program a strong contemporary international selection of documentaries. When times change from difficult to worse some people bend, whereas others, like Dimitri Eipides, decide to fight even harder by taking on more responsibilities and bigger challenges. To honour his outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture we are very pleased to present the EDN Award 2011 to Dimitri Eipides.”

Sitting in Eipides’ office in Thessaloniki, in between some intense days, we managed this little talk:
–What’s your very personal motivation for starting this festival 13 years ago?
– My motivation is that I’ve lived a long part of my life abroad in North America – mainly Canada – and information there is largely accessible to all, the sources of information, everything is there for everyone’s use. When I departed to live here I felt a little bit isolated and deprived because Greece is on the edge of Europe. Information comes mainly through the official channels, like television and the press. News is not that credible to me, it comes from news agencies and sometimes there’s political manipulation or certain things that promote it for different reasons. It doesn’t have the power and the immediacy that you get from a documentary that goes out and films a reality that concerns the director.

Festival Director Dimitri Eipides and Planet of Snail director Yi Seung-jun.

– How many years have you been programming film?
– I started the festival in Montreal. It’s over 40 years.
– What are the two main key concepts or key methods to choose a film for you?
– Very personal. There’s no method. There’s just instinct and the way I perceive it and the way I evaluate it, based on my own personal standards I suppose. I consider myself a sort of normal viewer, a person who appreciates that I need to know why I’m here for one thing. In order to understand that, I have to understand what goes on around me as well. The world has become very much smaller; we’re only minutes away from Korea or Scandinavia or South America. Now it’s immediate contact.

With no revolutions and no violent revolutions, we would still be living in the middle ages

So one thing is to understand, what about the more aesthetic things?
– The aesthetic thing, I believe in that too because aesthetics is also a part of information. Documentaries have an aesthetic look to them. Reportage is a different form, the process of selection and evaluation is not there – it’s a mechanical kind of filming the situation.
– You have gone from fiction to documentary, why?
– I tell you what, even my work as a fiction programmer, fiction films programmer, I was always interested in independent cinema. I’ve never, never programmed a Hollywood film. I’m interested in new expression, in research, in new methods of creativity. It’s always the adventure of film, as an art, and also as social information.
– What do you think about change made through films – does documentary really matter?
– I have to believe. It’s a bit of a romantic concept. But I have to believe in some sort of far-fetched ideals because, yes, I think, an informed person has power, has knowledge, like education in many respects. Without knowing, people are manipulated very easily; politically, socially and so on. But the people that have information accumulated in their conscious or subconscious, they are more sensitive to ideas.
– Do you think films can change the world or reality?
– I don’t think the revolution will start in Thessaloniki, the world revolution, definitely not. It’s not likely. We are at the very edge of the world. The people of this town, all of those 13 years that the festival has been taking place, have reactions. It’s wonderful, how the discussions are going, you know they’re always like that, communicating, telling questions and answers and asking for more information.
– Information is one thing…
– Information’s a power. I believe it’s a weapon. Information is a weapon. I believe those people will even know how to vote. Today if you open the television it is nothing but people singing and dancing and the country’s collapsing. We have huge problems, you never get to see them because what sells is advertising and good looks and this and that and a totally artificial image. This is not our lives, our lives are quite different. People face unemployment, they face poverty, the salaries are very low, there’s all sorts of difficulties. There’s pollution that goes on, all the rivers are polluted in Greece, the sea, there’s no fish anymore. There’s serious topics, that’s what should be informed. This is what I believe.

Reykjavik International Film Festival director Hronn Marinosdottir and special programming director Dimitri Eipides

– Have you met politicians who changed their policy because of seeing documentaries?
– I don’t think politicians look at documentaries. I’m speaking of the common, ordinary public, the viewers of films. I would doubt if politicians are concerned with anything but their own politics.
– You have written that docs “is a journey of self-knowledge or a kind of catharsis” and that docs will “sensitize and mobilize”. Do you mean that docs leads to real action?
– I think it will lead to action. I don’t mean that people will turn terrorist or throw bombs and so on but knowledge is a power and lack of knowledge is completely a passive state that keeps people half-asleep, while they’re living their lives, their daily lives. It tricks people to very superficial interests, like athletics or how to be entertained, how to eat well, how to have a comfortable sleep. Stuff like that.
Let’s try a hypothesis where you have a son thirty years younger than you saying he would get involved in sabotage to change the world? Would you stop him doing criminal acts like hacking the Israeli defense military systems to protect Palestinians for example?
– I think I would accept it. You know if you are in a desperate position, you know, and you think that someone oppresses you, I think you have the right to. It would be very difficult for me to be violent, it is not in my nature. But with no revolutions and no violent revolutions, we would still be living in the Middle Ages perhaps, in a feudal state – where people would come with their swords and things and terrorize us, and everybody would keep quiet. This country for instance, had a revolution 200 years ago to liberate us from the Turkish, the Ottoman occupation. They were here for 400 years, and we suffered for 400 years. Finally we went out fighting for our freedom. And today we are free. So it worked somehow.
Nelson Mandela admitted that he engaged in sabotage when he was younger?
– I think there are several forms of sabotage.
You can do economic sabotage, not buying products from people or a company that has a negative attitude towards society. These things are possible. It’s done. I think also organizations like Greenpeace and WWF take action sometimes. But I don’t think it’s violent, it’s an expression of discontent and opposition to what goes on.
– What do you think about Greece today?
– I believe everything that happens begins at a very early stage with education. I think Greeks are educated in a way that they lose contact with values, very few people understand that we have to work, to produce, to pay our dues to the government, pay our taxes, serve the country, the community and the whole country. If the country is strong we also benefit from it. These concepts are not really so widely in use in Greece I’m afraid to say. And we pay the consequences. I believe in ethics very strongly. I think the background of everything is morality. Respect for each other, for the animals, for nature, for the trees, for the birds, the water, everything, you know it’s a lovely planet.
– If you make a film, what is the most ethical principle you can have?
– Ethics to me is of primary importance, it’s a must. The ethical principle is that I will deal with everything with a sense of justice. I will avoid any form of exploitation, I will respect people and ideas and whatever I deal with.
– There are a lot of people saying things like “it is very important” – but they don’t act…
– I don’t know how you would develop yourself. I cannot foresee, you know, it’s a very private, individual reaction to what you see. I cannot stimulate and tell them “go and pick up arms and blow up things.” It’s not my role. When I see something I observe it and I present it so that other people can see it as well. And I believe, by being aware they will find a way to react – if they’re sensitive enough. Others maybe say “why should I care about Rwanda or AIDs or this or that? Why should I care?”
– Well, I care, myself I care.
– You see yourself as optimistic?
– No, I’m not optimistic. I’m growing older. It’s a kind of moral duty to also offer something to the world around me. I wish I could do more. As I cannot prepare bombs and Molotovs and stuff like that – because it’s not in my ability and interest – I work the opposite way with films. That’s all.

 


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