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Thessaloniki Doc Fest Thrives in Its Second Decade

By Pamela Cohn

Like Canadian filmmaker, producer and activist Peter Wintonick, I have become a professed "festival junkie." Wintonick was one of three international filmmakers who received a tribute at this year's 11th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival: Images of the 21st Century, along with Swiss German filmmaker Stefan Schwietert and Greek-born filmmaker, journalist, author and film archivist Fotos Lamprinos, whose filmography dates all the way back to 1963. There were also tributes to the documentary work coming out of Mexico and Austria, master classes led by Hungarian cinematography great Vilmos Zsigmond and one led by Arik Bernstein on "The Cross Media Documentary Project," creating a truly international celebration of nonfiction cinema and factual television work of the recent past. With a full decade under its belt, this festival, devoted solely to nonfiction, has grown into an important destination on the international circuit. 

I also sat on a panel with Wintonick (where he spoke of the aforementioned addiction), along with Ally Derks, director of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA); Karel Och, programmer for the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival; Hronn Marinosdottir, director of the new Reykjavik IFF; and Dimitri Eipides, our host and the artistic director of the Thessaloniki fest, to discuss the social role documentary festivals can have in the community in which they take place, and how filmmakers can make the most out of participating in these events. But when a local audience member challenged Eipides in taking a more active role in the film community with screenings and classes and more financial support for local filmmakers--in other words, essentially wanting him to provide a year-round festival and funding resource--Wintonick's response was, "Ask not what your local festival can do for you, but what you can do for your local festival."  As if to say, it works both ways: the feasibility and viability for a festival to thrive within its local community is contingent upon whether or not the local community embraces its role as full participants. This is the secret weapon of the most successful festivals, no matter how big their markets, how wild their parties, how juicy the goodie bags and perks given to visiting artists.


Peter Wintonick, participating in a panel at Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. Courtesy of Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.



When he started this fest 11 years ago, Eipides struggled mightily to engage his audience in a meaningful and active way with filmmakers from all over the world who brought their wares to exhibit, sell and distribute. Audiences were reticent to participate in Q&A discussions and were quite passive and silent, so much so that Eipides really didn't know what to make of it. That is, until he started going into the theaters during films and surreptitiously glancing around to see how audiences were reacting to what they were watching. What he saw was full engagement: men and women enraptured with the true stories playing out on the screen, laughing, crying, talking back to the screen, reacting with a full range of emotions, and he knew it was just a matter of time before people would associate documentary films as "tools for the study of contemporary problems, sirens that raise our social awareness, exercises in aesthetic innovation, and a medium for showcasing the lost dimensions of our society and the innermost facets of our conscience," in the superb words of Greece's Minister of Culture, Antonis Samaras. Samaras also notes that nonfiction film is "a difficult, demanding art form, but also a liberating, redemptive way of communication. It is both a surgical scalpel and painter's palette." Indeed.


Dimitri Eipides, artistic director of Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. Courtesy of Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.


Highfalutin' artistic descriptions aside, this festival is also an important market, and in the spirit of keeping up with the expectations of the international commissioning scene, particularly the European one, several inaugural endeavors were launched this year. Alongside its Pitch Forum (which the fest has held every year since its inception) and the Doc Market, where buyers, sellers and guests can view close to 500 nonfiction selections from all over the world, the first EDN (European Documentary Network) Congress in Thessaloniki was held, aiming to create a forum for research, dialogue, ideas and action plans for the international documentary community. Also, for the first time in its history, a selection of films from the festival's program was presented in public screenings for audiences in Athens, as the festival's staff continues to strive to bring nonfiction to the masses.

Another first this year was the inaugural Doc on Air award, courtesy of the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERT), given to the best Pitching Forum project and voted upon by the tutors who participated in the '09 forum run collaboratively with the EDN. The prize, a hefty 7,000 euros, went to UK-based filmmaker Kate McNaughton's project, Rush for Life.

One other first worth mentioning, since Eipides is an admitted purist when it comes to the documentary form, is the inclusion of a segment called "Hybrid Docs," a selection of films that explore and experiment with the different formal aspects of the genre. Some of these hybrids actually won some prizes.

Here are the award winners from this year's festival:

The Hellenic Red Cross Audience Award for a film over 45 minutes in the International Selection, with a prize of 4,000 euros, went to Anders Østergaard's Burma VJ, Reporting from a Closed Country from Denmark.


From Anders Ostergaard's Burma VJ.


The Hellenic Red Cross Audience Award for a film under 45 minutes in the International Selection, with a prize of 2,000 euros, went to Flores de Ruanda (Flowers of Rwanda) by David Munoz from Spain.

The Hellenic Red Cross Audience Award for a Greek film over 45 minutes, with an (astounding) prize of 30,000 euros (and no, that's not a misprint), went to National Garden (Ethnikos Kipos) by Apostolos Karakasis. (These massive prizes for Greek filmmakers are to "upgrade the documentary film genre in Greece.")


From Apostolos Karakasis'  National Garden (Ethnikos Kipos).


The Hellenic Red Cross Audience Award for a Greek film under 45 minutes, with a prize of 20,000 euros, went to The World Naked Bike Ride Project in Thessaloniki (Vgikame Apo Ta Rouha Mas) by Elli Zerbini.

The FIPRESCI Awards (International Federation of Film Critics) went to Greek filmmaker, Eva Stefani's Bathers (Louomeni) and the International selection recognition went to US filmmaker Kimberly Reed's Prodigal Sons. (Reed's film was part of the traveling festival selections that played in local theaters in Athens.)

The Amnesty International Award for the best film in the Human Rights section went to Burma VJ.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Award for best film in the Habitat section went to Joe Berlinger's Crude (USA, Ecuador, UK).


From Joe Berlinger's Crude.


The ERT3 (Greek public television) Broadcasting Award, with a prize of one broadcast on the channel (equivalent to 3,000 euros), recognizing the best film in the Habitat section, went to Ferenc Moldoyanyi's Another Planet: Masik Bolygo from Hungary.

As this superb and dedicated nonfiction festival at the shore of the Aegean Sea enters its second decade, we can look forward to future iterations of independent vision, films concerned with contemporary issues of social and historical impact, and filmmakers from every corner of the globe continuing to contribute their viewpoints on the reality which affects and surrounds us all, broadening our personal and collective memories in the intimate confines of the cinema.


Pamela Cohn is a New York-based independent media producer, documentary film consultant and freelance writer. She writes a well-regarded blog on nonfiction filmmaking called Still in Motion.