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.
“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
“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.
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