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A Greek Week for Documentaries: Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

By Anette Olsen

From Jocelyn Ajami's 'Queen of the Gypsies-A Portrait of Carmen Amaya.'

Government elections and cultural events don't always go hand in hand. This year's Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival in Greece was rescheduled to take place a week later than planned, due to the elections. It also lasted a week instead of the usual ten days, but that didn't mean fewer films, just a more compact program—and less time to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee in the sun. But then again, the films offered several feel-good moments.

The opening film, The Story of the Weeping Camel by Luigu Falorni and Byambasureb Davaa, a German/Mongolian production, was a hit. Inspired by the work of Robert Flaherty, the filmmakers mix re-created scenes with documentary footage. The cast is a nomadic family that re-creates, before the camera, the drama of its life. Shot on 35mm, the visuals of this tale from the Mongolian steppes are breathtaking on the big screen. The basic story is about a family of nomadic shepherds who assist the birth of their herd of camels. One of the camels has a rare, white calf, but the mother rejects it. As the camel story unfolds, we follow the life of the shepherd family, with children, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents living together in what seems to be harmony and happiness. The family tries to make the mother accept her offspring by bringing it to her, but each time the mother wanders off, leaving the calf to weep.

One last chance for a mother-and-child reunion is to have a musician play for the camels, so a young boy, Ugna, and his uncle ride off to town to find one. In town, Ugna has a rare chance to watch television with the rest of the town's kids, and he is hooked. He wants his uncle to buy a TV set, and that dialogue alone suggests that maybe the harmonious traditional life of the nomads will not be able to resist the intrusion of modern technology that may change that culture forever. Nonetheless, the film ends happily: A musician is brought back to the camp, he plays for the camels and the miracle occurs—the camel mother lets the calf drink her milk and stay with her. The film successfully bridges the gap between drama and documentary in an authentic and compelling style.

Another feel-good doc, Ballroom Dancing by Livia Gyarmathy, takes viewers to a small Hungarian village, where the postman, the math teacher and the girl from the grocery all take dance lessons once a week at the local village hall.

They waltz and tango with style and elegance—or at least they try. Many of the scenes are staged; the filmmaker obviously tells people what to do in certain takes, and we can see that they act. The characters, however, can't hide their real feelings and their joy of dancing; the playfulness of the mise-en-scene reveals a hidden side of the characters, who seem to be at ease with the situations. It's funny to see the postman lose himself in the cha-cha-cha steps, and to watch certain scenes of the film from the point-of-view of a runaway pig. Ballroom Dancing is a quirky film about completely normal people who willingly accept and play roles.

Another film on dancing that screened at Thessaloniki was Queen of the Gypsies—A Portrait of Carmen Amaya, about the legendary flamenco dancer. The film, by American Jocelyn Ajami, chronicles the life and career of the slim-bodied Spanish dancer who started to dance in the streets of Barcelona at the age of four. When she died, at 50, Amaya was a great star in Hollywood and on Broadway. She revolutionized the art of flamenco by inventing new steps and footwork, delivering powerful and ardent performances that left her audiences mesmerized—including the crowd at Thessaloniki.

Queen of the Gypsies not only celebrates the dancer Amaya, but it also takes a close and often humorous look at the gypsy culture that was her background. The tight family relations both offered security and restrained her independence as a woman. She was not allowed to marry until her 30s, and her family depended heavily on her income.

Thessaloniki also offered a retrospective of Heddy Honigmann's wonderful films and paid a tribute to Swedish filmmaker Stefan Jarl. Jarl received a lifetime achievement award, and he held a master class. "Better make a simple film that no film at all" was his response to a comment from the audience about the simplistic interview style that he and the co-director Lucas Moodyssons adopted in their low- budget film Terrorists-The Kids They Sentenced. In the film the young activists who demonstrated at the EU Summit in Gothenburg in 2001 are interviewed about what happened when demonstrators and police clashed. They talk eloquently about their political opinions, globalization and the failing system of justice in Sweden. Jarl generously offered DVDs of his films, and this made him a popular man.


Anette Olsen is the editor of DOX, the magazine of the European Documentary Network.