The 10th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival


"Passion is no ordinary word"--the Graham Parker motto--is the first thing that comes to mind when meeting Dimitri Eipedes, the founder of the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival in Greece, now in its tenth year. Eipedes, a self-declared utopian, who has never forgotten the legacy of the 1960s, has been passionate about film for thirty years, ever since experiencing dictatorship in Greece. Forced to emigrate to Canada, he returned to a democratic Greece decades later and created, as a one-man show, the first major international doc festival in the country--now one of the most significant doc festivals in Europe. Today the festival attracts l000 documentary entries from all over the world, including the works of American Barbara Kopple and Finnish Arto Halonen.

Why all this passion? "I believe the only way to change the world is through information," Eipedes, with a boyish flourish of his hands and a sparkle in his eye, told me over his desk, on the fifth floor of a theater in the central square of Thessaloniki, a stone's throw from the wharf. "What most militates against change is ignorance. People live in their own isolated worlds, and yet it is a shame, as the world is so small now. It is the time to communicate. When people see documentaries, they learn how it is for other people. They have a chance to care about them and see opportunities to make a difference."

The documentary has become the contemporary art form, gaining, as Eipedes noted himself, new popularity with the advent of works such as those by Michael Moore. His own opinion: documentaries are entertaining and he wants to prove it. What is more entertaining than seeing reality?

Eipedes is right: the documentary is entertaining, and indeed, I went to the films with more enthusiasm than to the fiction films at Cannes or Berlin. There was bound to be something interesting--entertaining even. Especially since the documentary's reputation as a stern black-and-white handheld camera vision of "truth" has changed. The line is quite blurry now between doc film and fiction film, as the documentary form asks doc directors to answer the same questions as an auteur: questions of form (narrative structure: rising action, falling action, climax), content ("who" and "what" will be featured?), and above all, emotional manipulation (the use of music, editing, close-ups, etc. to gain audience sympathy).

There's also the fact that the doc filmmaker has to make a philosophical choice about how to film "reality", which interestingly enough falls into two camps: either hopeful or tragic, the two flip sides of drama. Many of the featured documentaries championed the resourcefulness of the human spirit: the incredible willpower of people in bleak situations to overcome oppression and strife, from blind men climbing Mount Everest (last year's entry) to a poor porter carrying a red refrigerator through the Himalayas to afford his schooling (this year's entry). Others, such as films about water shortage, torture and deforestation, laid the cards on the table on the horrors of our self-destroying world--usually ending with chilling statistics such as the Bush administration's current expenditure on Iraq or the number of girls who do not go to school in Africa.

Which did Eipedes prefer?

"We need hope, "Epides responded quickly. "Why bother otherwise? Without hope, we just ski and swim." Besides, he noted, there is no such thing as a hopeless situation. Even films that show poverty and disfigurement, he added, can show the beauty of the human soul. He gestured, for illumination, at a red flower growing at the window-sill, in the blue skylight. "Every small thing," he said.

Eipedes' own efforts, on the other hand, are testimony to the efficacy of hope. Not only does his documentary festival now attract 65,000 spectators--and offer opportunities for filmmakers to have their films picked up by television--he is also in his daily life inspired to make change on the very issues he screens. Once an Iranian friend explained how Afghan children in Iran cannot study because they lack the money to afford the necessary visas. So Eipedes called a friend on television and asked for a morning slot to make a telethon. Within 3 ½ hours, he raised 85,000 euros, which he gave to UNESCO to build a school, where Afghan children are now taught. "Incredible!" he said. "Within 3 hours."

"Why do I do this?" he continued. "Because at the end of one's life, one asks: what did I do? How did I affect my personal environment?"

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The Thessaloniki Festival is organized according to a variety of subjects, topics that are the festival director's personal concerns. Not surprising, as Eipedes personally views nearly all l200 entries, before choosing the 200 odd films that are screened. This year's topics included Music, Focus on Asia, Stories to Tell, Human Journeys, and Faces of Fascism ("fascism is still around, in different guise," Eipedes noted), and, as usual, a special section on Greek films.

Music documentaries are usually a guarantee of pleasure. This year, two of the best were on 60s rock icon Patti Smith and composer Arthur Russell. Stephen Sebring's "Patti Smith: Dream of Life", which premiered in Berlin, begins with a haunting voice-over. "Life is one's creative design," Smith says in her sober raspy voice: "a congruence of lucky and unlucky moments, and fate." The film traces these lucky and unlucky moments, most of them seeming lucky, due to the strength of Smith's formidable character. In each shot, she is impressive with her uncombed wild brown hair and her imposing stature, whether talking about her songs and drawings, or joshing with or about her creative friends, including Sam Shepherd, Bob Dylan and Robert Mapplethorpe. A key scene: she pours Mapplethorpe's ashes from a vase into her hand, and then back again, leaving dust in her hand, explaining how she likes to keep a little of him with her wherever she goes. Then there is a beautifully quiet scene with her grown daughter, as they hold hands and sit in a carriage, riding around Central Park.

Matt Wolf's "Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell", a highlight of the festival, introduces a little known singer, whose poetic sensitivity--words and voice--are astonishing. We follow those who knew the young singer who were similarly astonished: his lover Tom, who with shining blue eyes explains how after Russell died of AIDS, he would load himself on his tapes whenever he had to leave the house; Russell's two suburban parents, bewildered and proud that they had produced such a passionate genius (who took off for San Fran as a young man to follow his musical dream), and a devoted colleague, Allen Ginzburg. Russell's gifts, a witness notes, "got stronger as his strengths were leaving him." In Russell's own words: "Sadness is okay." He adds: "Music is not something you just dance to, it can really heal you."

The wildest documentary: "Surfwise". A good Jewish doctor, head of the American Medical Association for California, after two divorces and plenty of financial success, decides to drop it all and become a surfer on the beach. His idea: modern society, its money, mores and education system, is inhuman and unhealthy, while he himself is full of health, both charismatic and self-assured. He takes off for Mexico and, what is most incredible, convinces a woman to join his dream and to raise nine children together, each with his or her own tiny surf board, all sleeping together in one small caravan. "They were free as puppies," notes the proud Dad. The children eat gruel for breakfast and then hit the waves.

The film works as full length feature, with flashback home videos, a suspenseful soundtrack and fun clips of interviews with the merry doctor. There is even a dramatic climax in the middle: the children have now grown up, and from healthy happy Rousseau savages they have turned to adults with a gripe. Their father was a dictator, some protest, who stole their education from them. And yet, the whole thing ends with a surprise family reunion!

The ending always betrays the director's "take" on the subject. In a semi-music video, "Shake the Devil Off", Swiss-based director Peter Entell travels to New Orleans after the flood, to participate in a church rebellion. A pastor raises the hearts of his parishioners who have lost children, houses and possessions to the flood--and is unexpectedly "fired" by the Catholic Church. The Church decides it's the right time--in the middle of grief--to get rid of this financially unprofitable parish. The devastated parishioners, their Catholicism a mélange of Christianity and African traditions, explode in song and protest, locking themselves up in the belfry. What would seem a depressing subject comes alive as a passionate splurge of spirituals and jazz music, with the inspiring pastor playing a leading role.

And yet the film abruptly ends badly. I asked the director: wasn't there a happier moment in store? Why arbitrarily end on such a pessimistic note?

The director responded: "It is unwise to give a happy ending. If you are satisfied by a good story that ends well, you stop thinking about the subject as soon as you go home. This way, you are forced to contemplate these issues: that those with power and money, such as the Catholic Church, are adversely affecting the lives of the poor and disadvantaged. This injustice is real."

Another film that ends badly, on purpose, is Patricio Henriquez's "Under the Hood" about US involvement in torture in Iraq, Guatemala and Argentina. The director managed to get witnesses to torture in each area: a French Algerian who was imprisoned in Guantanamo for three years, for having participated in a month military training program in Afghanistan, an American nun tortured in Guatemala for teaching children, an Afghan intellectual sweet gentleman, arrested by mistake, who lost the use of his hand in Abu Ghraib, and an American officer in Guantanamo who had to be dismissed with a mental condition when he was mistakenly subjected to the torture imposed on the inmates. The film intersperses these testimonies with cartoon clips about Inquisition practices (remarkably similar), chilling extracts from the CIA 1963 report on cohersive questioning, and Bush's cheerful speeches before Congress (who applaud him wildly) about how successful he has been on the war on terror.

On a more cheerful note: we watch a young porter carry a red refrigerator through the mountains in Lucien Muntean and Natasa Stankovic's "Journey of a Red Fridge". We are drawn to the beauty of the porter's walk through the mountains: the green steppes in the rain, the red coca-cola deco-ed fridge on the porter's back (the only flash of color), and the moments when the porter takes a rest in villages, offered meals and conversations and objects--such as squeaking chicks--to carry along inside the fridge. The movie is gentle and calm, as the porter pauses, from time to time, to sit with other child porters, all carrying enormous loads on their heads. He is a happy boy, with a bright smile and idiosyncratic wit. From his job, he has learned many things, he noted, for example that "women from Australia, Europe and America are all fit and strong, but complain a lot and are quick to anger."

Yet even this cheerful story cannot let the audience sit still. The film ends with statistics scrolling about the number of children who are porters instead of going to school: 40 percent.