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Documentary Recognition Grows in Greece Thanks to Thessaloniki

By Carol Nahra

From Laura Portillo's <em>Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman) </em>, which chronicles the more than 200 young women who have been murdered in the border town since 1994.

When on any given day of the year, two film festivals are taking place, it’s easy to imagine the time when people will say, “Enough is enough.” Luckily, the organizers of the long-running Thessaloniki Film Festival didn’t think so when considering whether to spin off the documentary strand into its own festival. Four years on, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival has become a high profile, hugely popular, and rewarding addition to the Southern Europe cultural calendar.

As little sister to the Thessaloniki Film Festival, held every November, the documentary festival has been able to hit the ground running each March, and is supported by the Greek government and television and film industries. The northern Greek city of Thessaloniki—second only to Athens in size—is home to 80,000 university students, and most of them seemed to show up for the festival screenings.

The festival theme was “Images of the 21st Century,” and the 91 films of the program offered a diverse window to the world. The core of the festival is its unflinching human rights strand cataloguing a range of miseries around the globe--this year with a particular focus on the harsh realities faced by children in wartime.

A striking subtext of the festival this year was the number of films undertaken in order to address miscarriages of justice. The most personal crusade was Christian Bauer’s Missing Allen, the story of the German filmmaker’s search for his friend and cameraman, Chicago native Allen Ross, who disappeared in the US shortly after completing their seventh film together. Four years after his disappearance in late 1995, frustrated by the apathy of the police, Bauer decided to conduct a documentary investigation.

Bauer found straddling the roles of both filmmaker and investigator surprisingly difficult. “Initially, when I began the project, I thought the process in which an investigator and a filmmaker work are quite similar,” he reflects. “I found out that it was quite the contrary. With this case, an open murder case, people just did not want to talk, for various reasons. They didn’t want to be involved so they stayed away from the camera.” Nevertheless, Bauer’s efforts were doubly successful, if sadly so: his investigations led to the police locating Allen’s body; and Bauer has made a compelling, haunting, and ultimately unforgettable film.

While Missing Allen focused on a single tragic missing person case, Lourdes Portillo’s film took on hundreds: the ongoing unsolved murders of young Mexican women in the town of Ciudad Juarez. Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman) chronicles the more than 200 young women who have been murdered in the border town since 1994; the depressing trail Portillo follows involves drugs trafficking, pornography and shocking police corruption.

Like Bauer, Portillo found people afraid to talk, and has had to leave out of the film much of what she learned. But she hopes the film will help bring justice, and introduced the screening with the plea, “This film is about human rights, and I’m just hoping that there is something in it that speaks to you to act and to help.”

The act of chronicling wrongdoing was the subject of Canadian filmmakers Peter Witonick and Katerina Cizek’s new film Seeing is Believing, a rough cut of which screened at the festival. The film looks at the impact of minicams on activism; in researching it, the filmmakers collected more than 200 hours of video activism, the largest category cataloguing police failing to do their jobs. “We found this huge phenomenon of people picking up cameras actively to document their realities and prove things that the rest of the world otherwise would easily ignore,” says Cizek.

Thessaloniki also provides a forum for international producers, filmmakers and broadcasters, with an intensive workshop and pitching session run by the European Documentary Network, and a doc market and videotheque sponsored by Greek television, which this year featured 166 films in addition to the festival program.

One of the most striking aspects of the week-long festival is how its director and founder Dimitri Eipedes is molding it into a platform to raise public consciousness on social issues. He uses the lure of the docs to draw young, committed Greek audiences by the hundreds, and runs parallel events to focus on the issues. This year’s festival hosted a symposium on children’s rights, a video conference on terrorism with Noam Chomsky, a telethon to raise money for children, and an honorary award given to Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf for his film on Afghan children, Afghan Alphabet.

Eipedes has high hopes that the sell-out crowds at the documentary screenings will lead to Greek broadcasters recognizing documentary’s importance and appeal to the public, and advocates that television should devote a quarter of its programming to documentaries. “It’s not enough to be assigned a place in educational zones some time in the afternoon…documentaries have become quite essential,” he says.

Carol Nahra ( is a freelance journalist based in London.