Thessaloniki Doc Fest was a showcase for some great pieces of documentary cinema, equally pervaded by urgency and visual idioms.

Adina Bradeanu
Adina Bradeanu is affiliated to the University of Westminster, London. In the recent years she has researched the professional culture of the documentary studio of national-communist Romania ('Alexandru Sahia').

As a newcomer to Thessaloniki, I cannot compare this year’s festival with previous ones, but can only cite “Thessaloniki in Figures”sent out by the festival team to visitor inboxes: 10 festival days, 6 venues used for 327 screenings, roughly 35,000 tickets sold, 19 side-bar events, which included Longinotto/Jon Bang Carlsen/Wintonick masterclasses and 2 conferences on “Africa” and “Globalization” respectively, the latter featuring Vandana Shiva as a bonus.

I missed all of that. As I arrived at Thessaloniki with the FIPRESCI Jury, I was busy seeing all the sixty or so films on my list. The chocolate sold by the cafeteria on the left-hand side of the Olympion Cinema helped, but what made my daily ration of six feature docs enjoyable was the quality of the selection, quelling my enthusiasms, questions and doubts.

Hybrids

s2378607“100% Human” (Trond Winterkjær and Jan Dalchow, Norway) https://vimeo.com/128407663was inspiring genre-and-gender crossing at a late hour. Although I had decided to leave after 10 minutes and see it in full another day, I ended up sitting on the stairs until the credits, “just to see where this thing was headed.” Everything went smoothly in this humorous and (at times) imaginatively shot musical documentary about young “Morten” preparing for the surgery that would transform him into “Monica”. I decided to stay when Morten/Monica started singing in a train station surrounded by dancing fellow travellers. The reactions from the floor were enthusiastic, but several voices suggested that the musical numbers undermined the documentary quality of the film. That was surprising: to me, it was precisely because of those numbers that this smart pic upgraded from educational to creative.

The indecision of the local audience about whether to stick to a notion of “un-tampered reality” or open up to poetic licence based on documentary conventions was overcome when the Audience Award for films over 45 minutes in the International Selection went to “39 Pounds of Love” (Dani Menkin, USA). A love-story-cum-road-movie never fails, and failure is even less likely when this highly emotional concoction about a man suffering from spinal muscular atrophy who takes a trip to the US is put together by one of the most altruistic film crews ever. The road from altruism to aggressive enthusiasm has its downsides, however: I found the film to be an overly transparent lesson in positive thinking at times.

Where “100% Human” relied on musical numbers, “39 Pounds of Love” brought in animation. That was diegetically motivated initially, as Ami created an autobiographical animation piece that was later incorporated into and developed in the documentary. The decision to incorporate it into the plot allowed the film to follow an emotional journey in a non-invasive but emotionally engaging way. The film had a feel of ‘love conquers all’ which proved no stranger to the voting figures.

Political Doc as Love Story?

“The only thing that I knew when I left for China was that I wanted a love story,” Micha Peled said after the screening of his “China Blue”. A rather puzzling statement, particularly as it was attached to one of the most visible recent-issue docs. Peled’s search for a love story on the global garment-industry map led to discoveries which left the anaemic romance between two workers’ struggle for visibility, while Peled ended up starting an ad-hoc session of sweatshop-free clothes awareness when he asked every denim-clad member of the public to stand up and consider personal consumer choices.

Voices of Perpetrators

the-anatomy-of-evil_ove-nyholm“Anatomy of Evil” (Ove Nyholm, Denmark) was a break from journalistic investigation. Nyholm’s first-person commentary, both cultivated and concerned, set the tone of a film conceived as an act of reflection on the roots of evil in a century whose bloodiness brings in “the temptation of the ‘no comment’”. Nyholm did not give victims a “voice”. Rather, he examined the psychology of the perpetrators, i.e. the ones who, disguised as talking shadows at the forefront of a cinema screen, recalled chilling “personal stories” about the initiation value of the first act of killing or about one’s elation at seeing the soul leaving a victim’s body. The magnitude of the subject matter was matched by the reflective and somehow elegiac tone of the film and was visually conveyed by the mix of rough, tinted, blurred, and superimposed images.

Meaningful Silences

“The more a work of art can successfully incorporate sparse means within an abundant society, the nearer it approaches its transcendental end,” wrote Paul Schrader in his classic piece on “transcendental style” in Cinema. “Into Great Silence” (Philip Gröning, Germany), the observational piece resulting from Gröning’s long-term immersion in the daily lives of the monks of the Grande Chartreuse, can be read through some of the distinctions made by Schrader: repetition is chosen over variation, group and anonymity over individualization. There is no scarcity of means in Gröning’s piece, however: its object is indeed scarce, its rendering on film is not.

Virtually non-spoken, with inter-titles used with an incantatory function, it is a film that uses time, light and space as its main characters. Contemplation is the word, but there also seems to be a hint of voyeurism in the shots of monks engaged in daily actions: a monk applying ointment to another’s frail body, a monk sitting on a chair, slowly described by the camera. But do we get more than the shell of monastic life? Are these glimpses of “reality” filtered through an aesthetic vision more than an epidermal account of the external lives of the monks? Undoubtedly, “Into Great Silence” puts the practice (and the illusions) of observationalism in a new light: at a time of increased doubts as to whether attending only to actions may be enough, a potential question here is whether observation works better for individuals who live in the present of their ritualised actions in a way that is different from lay people?

I couldn’t help comparing “Into Great Silence” with “Our Daily Bread”, which also relied exclusively on images to convey its message about the large-scale production rituals of affluent societies. Although worlds apart in more than one sense, the films shared formal elements such as the recurring sequences of silent human beings closely observed: “spiritualised” monks on the one hand vs ‘dehumanised’ workers on the other. The recent audience success of “Into Great Silencesuggests that the film possibly feeds on “Our Daily Bread’s” lingering “forgive us our trespasses”, i.e. the audience’s own aspirations for seclusion and purification.

The Unseen

The winner of the FIPRESCI Prize for a film in the International Programme also engaged with that which is barely noticed by mainstream media. The film’s title, “Iraq in Fragments” (James Longley, USA), refers both to its subject matter – a country torn apart – and to its stylistics, an approach that stayed with the snippet and the “slice of life”.

People living in violent environments are usually doomed to the continuous present of the live news feed. Longley’s film went beyond that and made room for the past and the future through memories, dreams and fears collected from young and old. He refused to build his film on the illusion of documentary as a window on the world: he shot mostly vérité style but also jump-cut and sped up the image to translate a perceptual reality that could not be grasped in a purely observational manner. Some of the memorable cinematic moments in the film were the shots of swimming multicoloured fish superimposed on deserted streets in an attempt to visualize the memories of a lost Baghdad.

…And the Greeks

Thessaloniki is a festival with a mission: Greek names are scarce in the international documentary market, and stylistic variety and innovation are conspicuously absent on the national scene. The festival, with its associated Market and Forum, is a crucial event for the country and the region. It serves not only as a showcase for Greek docs but also as an opportunity for regional filmmakers to plan the steps ahead for going international.

sugar1_picIt was symptomatic that “Sugartown – The Bridegrooms” (Kimon Tsakiris, Greece, part of BBC’s “World Weddings”) won the Audience Award for a Greek film over 45 minutes. Smart, funny, with a good sense of rhythm and a bunch of humorous inter-titles, “Sugartown” followed a number of Greek lads of various ages scouting for foreign women. Of all the films in the Greek Panorama, “Sugartown” seemed the one most easily translatable for an international audience.

The most accomplished film of the Greek selection was placed on the line of tradition: the FIPRESCI Prize for a film in the Greek Panorama went to “Yannis Moralis, Painter” (Stelios Haralambopoulos), a portrait film that stood out for the humour, well-tempered nostalgia, and incidental irreverence of the charming main character. Imaginative camerawork and an inspired musical score placed it effortlessly alongside the films in the international selection.

 


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