Last year I wrote that Thessaloniki was a festival with a mission: although its programmers had managed to develop audience awareness and loyalty, they still wanted to introduce domestic filmmakers to more creative ways of storytelling and to do away with a certain tradition of social and political disengagement in Greek documentary.
In my report from this year’s TDF, I am tempted to stress its personal touch, i.e. the way in which the programming managed to open spaces for reflection on some of the current pressing issues facing individuals, rather than communities. Many of the films screened in Thessaloniki addressed their audiences as gendered subjects struggling to strike a balance between distinct professional and private agendas, such as complying with acceptable models of gendered behaviour, raising children and feeling vulnerable to socially induced fears, and ultimately dreaming to break free and contemplate their long dormant “inner selves”.
This facet of the programme may have been induced by the new pan-humanism emerging in the process through which the “local” is expected to become “European” (or global, for that matter) in factual representation. With TV programming attempting to produce trans-national landscapes of humanity, a new type of cinematic representation is arising, rooted in the larger “family of man”mythology, and legitimising a new look at common sets of life experiences such as masculinity, femininity, childhood, childbirth, sexuality, etc. The move from the national to the trans-national and ‘European’ has affected not only existing networks of production and distribution, but also cinematic representation itself, now caught between the “commodification” of cultural specificity and the dismissal of that in favour of the generally human. On a market where anthropomorphic penguins sell best, one also hopes that humanity itself would also do well.
Last year “Sugartown -The Bridegrooms” (Kimon Tsakiris), a witty piece about a bunch of men looking for foreign wives due to a local shortage, won TDF’s Audience Award. This year the festival organised a discussion around a new format where the implication of Greece’s broadcaster ERT was linked to the international success of “Sugartown”. The panel included representatives of EDN, EBU, Greek Television ERT, Greek Media Desk, plus the Greek director of “European Man”.
“European Man” was introduced as an attempt to trace a variety of contexts of masculinity lived out in Europe and, incidentally, to validate alternative “new masculinities”. It is a variation on the collection format, grounded in an attempt to bring film professionals from distinct national contexts to work together: individual “local” stories were researched and directed by domestic filmmakers (from Poland, Finland, Denmark and Greece) but the episodes were shot and edited by the central team.
As a former communist “citizen” (in Ceausescu’s Romania), I am apprehensive of programmes that involuntarily recall politically orchestrated celebrations of exemplary gendered citizenship. Also, the notion of a series focusing on European men aroused my curiosity about any potential “European Woman”waiting in the EBU pipeline. The answer was negative, leaving room for some interest in a potential “European Child” series.
But the short unglamorous clips of men living in different ‘national’ contexts promised genuine engagement. The discussion touched on the logistics of getting involved in this type of cross-national production and emphasised the format’s role in expanding audiences’ cultural repertoire. What remained unmentioned was the process through which the “international eye” (ensuring the requisite stylistic unity) also perpetuates ‘safe’ documentary models and gradually pushes aside national/regional storytelling models. Some of these national traditions might be unremarkable, but others (e.g. Lithuania’s) embody visual idioms and sensitivity that I would hate to see lost or rendered invisible. Leena Pasanen made a point about the disparities among distinct documentary cultures developed in various parts of Europe and emphasised the need to get professional communities with similar documentary cultures to join forces rather than trying to accommodate professionals carrying different types of professional luggage.
At the end of the day, the most appealing men in the festival were non-European. The first was Jon Alpert, who gave a memorable masterclass on documentary ethics covering a lifetime of journalistic engagement, from interviewing Castro to the philosophy behind community television DCTV.
The second was eccentric “celluloid” butler “Santiago” (Joao Salles, Brazil)-the subject of a documentary project left uncompleted for a number of years. Initiated as a portrait of his family’s butler, Salles’ film was a sophisticated engagement with the tension between “documenting “and “manipulating” a subject’s profile on the shaky ground provided by a pre-existent hierarchical relationship between him and the filmmaker: “I never failed to be the son of the owner of the house, and he never failed to be the butler of the house,” comments the filmmaker in the voiceover.
Festivals around the world offer sections targeted at children of various ages in an attempt to nurture future generations of doc-literate audiences. For a change, Thessaloniki addressed children as subjects (or objects) of representation. This included a carefully selected film programme and the Troubled Innocence conference, whose panel featured Julia Reichert and a number of Greek academics and activists. Hybrid academic/professional contexts often reveal painful struggles from both sides while trying to bridge the gap between academic jargon and the industry’s straightforwardness. In this case things went smoothly, with the academic presence providing consistence to a conversation complemented by a film selection that included festival highlights such as “The Blood of Yingzhou District”, “Jesus Camp” or “We Are Together”, plus several well-told stories with ethical ramifications, such as “The Boy in The Bubble” (Barak Goodman, John Maggio).
The focus on childhood continued in the editing masterclass taught by Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar, with direct reference to their human, but also political, “A Lion in the House” project. Reichert chillingly summed up how healthcare access in the US is defined along racial lines by stating that a child’s blackness is a cancer risk in itself. The moral of the masterclass touched on a crucial moment of the editing process-what Reichert and Bognar called “the shifting of allegiance from the material to the film”.
A festival highlight was Jack Youngelson’s and Peter Sutherland’s Thierney Gearon: “The Mother Project”, an unobtrusive take on Gearon’s biographic artistic work as a mother living between the US and the UK with a camera in hand. “The only way to protect myself is to expose myself,” says Gearon in the film about placing herself under scrutiny and joining the club of female subjects turned towards art under difficult personal circumstances. The film grasps her obsession with capturing peculiar private moments-in photographic works often labelled ‘disturbing-but also her honesty when personally confronted with the camera.
For those not yet into parental guilt, Jennifer Fox introduced her doubts about flying freely as a professional woman contemplating motherhood. Having seen only the first part of her “Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman” (due to sold-out shows), I found it a charming journey into female self-definition and self-expression. I liked both the idea of the mobile camera and the nomadic female subject behind it.
With nine years under its belt, TDF is starting to break free from its “regional” label. It features a distinct identity and an inspired programming increasingly backed by industry presence and high profile guests. Its domestic agenda is still to expose Greek filmmakers to emerging mechanisms of international co-production and to updated cinematic vocabularies. Greek documentary still needs to build up its international profile: Greek filmmakers need to catch up with their festival.
Apart from the FIPRESCI prizewinner (“Secrets and Lies”, Stavros Stagos), Eva Stefani’s “What Time Is It”? was one of the soundest Greek pics at TDF. A witty vérité demonstration focusing on two friends sharing a home and a passion for alcohol, the film was still somehow disconcerting in its provision of a “suspended”human behaviour, with no context provided about the two protagonists engaged in endless trivial arguments. Although entertained, I was left with a sense of entomological curiosity, as if the subjects were in a loop beyond the filmmaker’s reach.
© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).