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Hellenistic Holiday: Thessaloniki Doc Fest Serves Up Beauty and Truth

By Gabriel Paletz

Like migrant workers hiking on to the next harvest, or explorers trekking to the next historic site, film professionals can tour festivals year-round. Your IDA correspondent landed after 2:00 a.m. at the Thessaloniki airport, in a globally warm March, to be transported to the center of town, on a first visit to the documentary festivities, the city and Greece.

That the festival has no screenings before noon and holds no workshops before 11:00 a.m. is conducive to both alert audiences and an active night life. The proximity of the two screening areas also lends the festival intimacy, with the opportunity, at the converted port theaters, to stroll by the Aegean before popping back into the next screening program.

The festival tag "Images of the 21st Century" leads you to consider film's possibilities, and the prospects for imaginative storytelling tied to a humane awareness through documentaries. Even in the homeland of the urn behind Keats' ode, it may be tricky to equate beauty with truth. But if documentaries don't necessarily improve people, they can transmit inspiration in several ways.

For example, even the Greek sun and sea may be overshadowed by the revelation of a documentary location. Turning a fading world into fact, The Lost Colony (Dir.: Astrid Bussink) recovers the world's oldest monkey lab, famous when its home in the Republic of Abkhazia was part of the Soviet Union. But the lab's pace of life has grown so slow that the arrival of foreign visitors becomes the film's climax: the sweeping of steps in preparation has the impact of a race to save the world. The setting guides the tempo of the film and the viewer's patient interest even at a hectic event.

A documentary setting can also indicate an original film structure. The first half-hour of Up the Yangtze sets up the service on a tourist boat and the lives of two young Chinese before bringing them on board as the leading characters, and fusing their stories with the global tourist industry. Director Yung Chang likened the picture's narrative to a boat trip where passengers can disembark and later re-board, a flexibility that maintains audience involvement and surprise.

When questioned whether he had made a docudrama with scripted scenes, Chang replied, "I'm not smart enough to write the kind of dialogue they [his characters] gave to me." Films that, outside of their settings, also take inspiration from a personality may find unexpected emotional punctuations.

Documentaries prove that audiences can do without the sentimentality that obscures deeper appreciations of people. Alex (Dirs.: Alexandros Papanicolaou and Emilie Yannoukou) follows a young man who became a paraplegic in one accidental, devastating dive. He wins a medal and gets a girlfriend at the 2004 Paraplegic Olympics in Athens. The scenario can be too uplifting, but the filmmakers do show us the first two races in which Alex does not place before he earns the silver, as well as his girlfriend's describing the enjoyment of and obstacles to their lovemaking. Alex stays grounded in the details of its hero's life, from its comparison of a dog paddling through the water to shots of Alex lowered in and lifted out of a swimming pool.

The festival paid tribute to the work of Finn Arto Halonen and American documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. In their master class, the latter two filmmakers spoke of their debt to and transformations of the direct cinema tradition. Both started their careers with the Maysles Brothers, who, the filmmakers reflected, showed them the possibilities of a documentary partnership.

While reflecting interpersonal relationships, another latent strength of documentary lies in its intertwining of an intimate story with a portrait of a society. Through the transsexuals who are the subjects of Be Like Others (Dir.: Tanaz Eshaghian), the contradictions of Iran are lucidly conveyed: a country that justifies its permission for transsexual surgery through quotations from the Koran, yet vilifies homosexuals until they go through the excruciating operation. The film brings you to a visceral acknowledgement of how regimes can decide the fate of our bodies. Be Like Others earned the FIPRESCI Award: International Selection.

The accolades for these movies reaffirm the greater receptiveness to documentary form versus fiction films, where people may be dissatisfied with the very fulfillment of their expectations. And documentaries can cultivate original sources besides those from settings, structures and treatments of people; they can innovate even by rejecting an easy humanism. City of Cranes (Dir.: Eva Weber), which won the Audience Award for best foreign documentary under 45 minutes, redeems overlooked workers and their labors. The film creates a relay of the voices of crane operators without showing them speaking, reminding that they are absent personalities to most people. Combining the men's perspectives with epic visuals of the London skyline, the film gives fresh poignancy to work routines in tower offices and on the ground.

Filmmaker Julien Temple has said that this is an age where people are losing their humanity. Taking off from qualities of places, people and vantage points, documentarians need not stick to talking heads to evoke humane responses. Where fiction films can feel polarized between identification with a hero at all costs or rejecting emotional connections, the openness of audiences to documentary stories can carry them along freshly cut creative paths.

Yet the festival showed how difficult it is to surrender the comforts of the familiar. The Audience Award winner for best foreign documentary over 45 minutes, As Seen through These Eyes focuses on the indelible subject of the Holocaust, introducing paintings and drawings done by inmates of the concentration camps. But the film's style dims its material with non-stop voiceover and music, portentous slow motion of archival footage, and an examination that does not go beyond celebration of heroism under siege.

To paraphrase the picture's director, Hilary Helstein, public acclaim of any nonfiction work is an encouragement. But the award winner was the least interesting of the films discussed above, and more reminiscent of formulaic TV documentaries than the TV programs for the Greek series War Zone.

Based on the episode Burma: Two Names for One Dictatorship (Dir.: Dimitris Gerardis), seen in a theater of almost exclusively Greek spectators, the TV docs avoid the set style and superficial investigation for which the medium is often reproached. The programs suggest that, contrary to the current emphasis on self-examination and exposure, penetrating films can be made from outside a relationship or land. (When Bulgarian director Adela Peeva [Divorce Albanian Style] was asked why no one else had made a film on the forced separations of international couples under the Hoxha dictatorship, she replied that while the story is extraordinary to her, to the couples in Albania, "it's ordinary life.")

The daily life of the festival leaves mostly enjoyable impressions--not so fondly, of the Greek attachment to mobile phones, with the talker at most covering the mouthpiece during a film screening. But then, there are the possibilities expressed by correspondent and War Zone creator Sotiris Danezis, who believes that "there are no subjects that 'don't interest people,' only subjects we don't understand, don't want to deal with or simply don't know about." The images that answer to a fuller human understanding will most likely come from the future of documentary.

Gabriel M. Paletz is on the senior faculty of the PCFE Film School in Prague, where he teaches documentary and screenwriting.