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The journey and the sacrifice

A child is fighting in the breadline at the port of Mytilene island.

By Harry van Versendaal

Odyssey, tragedy, deadlock. The three words that sum up each of the chapters in Nikos Pilos’s 17-minute black-and-white documentary trilogy “Dying for Europe,” which makes its Greek debut at the ongoing Thessaloniki festival, have been routinely used by international media to describe Europe’s refugee crisis.

However, there is nothing cliche about the crisis itself. And this powerful and emotive film lays bare the harrowing reality of displacement in a way that inevitably makes the mind cling to the project title’s eerie, literal interpretation. When the boat carrying Youssef Hamo and his family sinks off the eastern Aegean island of Kos, the 56-year-old Syrian refugee has to grapple with the loss of his wife, son and daughter, while another son is missing.

Shot over a period of eight months, the short chronicles the perilous journey of the wretched masses, the tragedy of loss, and the eventual closure of the so-called Balkan route that left thousands of people stranded on Greek soil.

Yet although human suffering is the dominant element in the whirling vortex of Europe’s refugee crisis, it is not the only one. Kathimerini English Edition caught up with the award-winning photojournalist for a discussion on the personal and professional challenges that come into play in documenting a theme where ethical, humanitarian, political and aesthetic issues intersect.

Born in Athens in 1967, Pilos has over the past three decades documented conflicts, natural disasters, poverty and cultural shifts across the globe, including the overthrow of Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the breakdown of former Yugoslavia and the Iraq war.

His work has featured in major media publications including The New York Times, Time, The Financial Times, and The Guardian. It has also brought him numerous awards, most recently second place in the 2017 World Press Photo Digital Storytelling Contest’s Short Form category for his film “Trapped,” on the shutdown of the Balkan refugee route to Northern Europe.

Although coverage of the refugee crisis has brought Pilos closer to home, the stakes, he says, are nothing less than the very survival of European values.

What compelled you to explore this subject? How long did the project take and what was its goal? What does it add to an issue that has been so widely discussed already?

I was driven by the fact that members of my family and close circle have emigrated and I still have relatives in America. I have been interested in this subject since the 1980s, when thousands of refugees from Eastern Europe came to Greece looking for a better life. I dare say we did not treat them in the best possible manner.

The project was shot over a period of eight months and addresses the question: What does someone need to sacrifice to reach Europe? The answer is given by the survivor Youssef as he describes his family’s deadly journey from the Turkish coast to Kos frame by frame. The narrative closes with the fence placed on the border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, effectively closing the Balkan route and the path of thousands of refugees to Europe. Trapped behind the barbed wire, they unwittingly become the symbol of a modern version of isolationism, nationalist fervor and xenophobia.

Even though the timeline follows that of the Balkan route, it describes the overall collapse of united Europe’s values.

What kind of psychological impact can such a project have? How easy is it to compartmentalize it and not take it home with you?

Of course there is a lot of psychological pressure in situations like this, pressure that freelancers like myself have to deal with on their own or only with the help of their close environment, unlike people who work for major agencies that give them all the help and support they need in the field and later. When you’ve been doing this for years, there are no compartments. You just learn to cope.

Is it possible not to become personally involved in this kind of work?

Learning how not to become personally involved is a lengthy process that comes automatically as time goes on and you mature professionally. It is also the factor that helps you limit the psychological pressure and allows you to record the events around you objectively.

Which moment or scene has had the biggest impact on you?

There are so many but in this particular project what really shocked me was the stoicism of one of our documentary’s protagonists, Youssef, toward the loss of his family in the Kos wreck.

How do you respond to criticism regarding graphic images like those of the Kos wreck? Are there instances when the victim, their families or viewers need to be protected? Can constant exposure to such images lead to compassion fatigue in the public?

To begin with, let me say that I disagree entirely with the term graphic images. If you look at the global coverage, it was images such as these that influenced public opinion and changed the course of events on a number of issues. I can cite many examples, starting with the photograph of the toddler Aylan on the beach of Bodrum. Or a Greek one from in the inter-war years in Thessaloniki showing the mother of a tobacco worker mourning over her son’s body lying on a door, killed by a police officer during a tobacco workers’ protest, a photograph that inspired one of the greatest pieces of modern Greek poetry, Yiannis Ritsos’s “Epitaphios.” Or the world-famous photograph of the young girl running away from a napalm bomb in Vietnam that helped change the course of the war. Or that from Biafra of a vulture waiting for life to leave a bloated half-dead boy so it can devour him, which galvanized the United Nations into action. Or the photograph by Robert Capa of a democratic army soldier dropping dead from a bullet in the Spanish Civil War. And hundreds more.

I want to stress that this conversation started in the mid-1990s when businessmen replaced traditional media publishers. This resulted in content being more or less determined by advertisers who did not want to see such material next to their ads.

Naturally such images need to be published with caution, but I do not believe that they weaken the message. The message can be so strong that the US government prohibited the publication of images of dead American soldiers in the last Gulf war. It took three before The New York Times, I believe, flouted the ban and directly opposed the Bush administration.

There are, of course, many cases where the victims and their relatives need to be protected. I will agree that there is no reason to publicize the photograph of a car crash victim, but I would not say the same of the photograph showing [slain rapper] Pavlos Fyssas in his girlfriend’s arms shortly before he died. This was a historic event and not only should it have been published, but the photograph should serve as the main image in any march against fascism, refreshing the memories of older members of society and teaching the young ones.

In the case of the Kos shipwreck, the material was published with the surviving father’s approval.

Do you find yourself facing moral quandaries in this line of work? Is it odd to present such an ugly subject in such a “beautiful” way?

I started out in the 1980s, at a time when the media had full access to all social and political developments. There were no privacy laws, so, perforce, you had to set the limits on what was morally acceptable and what was not. It’s still a constant process.

What we are looking at here is not a spectacle but reality, and each individual has the choice whether to watch or ignore it. As for the artistic aspect, this is a matter of each photographer’s style.

Were you inspired by a particular project for this film and why did you opt for black-and-white?

Filming in black-and-white was intended as a response to the ephemeral. Images of the refugee crisis that were shown time and time again on news bulletins and others that were buried in the miscellaneous file serve as the threads of a narrative that has escaped the confines of a classical news feature and aims at sending a powerful political message to united Europe, a notion founded on the principles of open borders and democracy.

What do you do that is different to other photographers? What are the dividing lines between photojournalism and other related forms like documentary filmmaking?

I don’t think I do anything different to my colleagues. Technology is giving us new means of expression and it is only natural to use them – this is what evolution is about, after all.

I also don’t see that there are any differences between photojournalism and documentary filmmaking. It is the same narrative in a different medium. As a photojournalist you are looking for a moment and as a documentary filmmaker you want an entire scene to tell the story. Photography and documentary film are arts that were created to reach out to a broad audience and this is precisely what photojournalism and documentary filmmaking do.

Can they bring change or are they simply preaching to the converted? Is the onslaught of fake news a defeat for documentaries?

I don’t believe that viewers have had an overdose of tough images.

The difficulty of a photograph changing something in the present doesn’t have to do with who takes it but with the fact that mainstream media, mainly, are losing their credibility and therefore have shrinking influence. In the age of social media, of course, a message can reach a lot of people in a lot of different ways.

I also don’t believe that fake news influences or is a blow to documentaries. After all, it is as easy to expose a fake photograph as it is to manipulate an image with digital technology. Also, most fake news is exposed for what it is within a very short period of time.

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Thessaloniki Doc Fest turns 20 amid fake news onslaught

"Faces Places"  JR; from Cohen Media Group

By Harry van Versendaal

Nominated for this year’s Academy Award for best documentary feature, “Faces Places” by 89-year-old French New Wave pioneer Agnes Varda and French guerrilla “photograffeur” JR will open the 20th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which starts on March 2.

The film (its original title is “Visages, Villages”) follows the unlikely duo as they roam the French countryside in a van equipped with a photo booth and large-format printer, chatting with people and taking their pictures before plastering epic-size portraits on multiple surfaces including houses, barns, boulders and shipping containers. Their encounters with locals – factory workers, retired miners, waitresses and so on – generate charming musings about the ups and downs of the modern world.

The tribute to Varda’s cinematic legacy is one of the treats prepared by organizers as the non-fiction event celebrates its 20th birthday.

“We pay tribute to the festival’s 20-year presence in a city which has been well educated in the documentary genre,” festival director Orestis Andreadakis told Kathimerini English Edition.

Andreadakis, who was installed in the festival’s driving seat two years ago, also commended the work of his predecessor and founder of TDF Dimitri Eipides.

“In only a short period of time, Eipides succeeded in making this one of the top-10 festivals in the world,” he said of the event which returns with a fresh crop of hard-hitting productions on social justice, culture, the environment and personal stories.

Organizers have already revealed some of this year’s highlights to be screened at the flagship Olympion and Pavlos Zannas cinemas on Aristotelous Square and the red-brick and steel complex on the docks.

Four years after his harrowing “Return to Homs,” Berlin-based filmmaker Talal Derki is back with another Sundance winner, “Of Fathers and Sons,” which chronicles the Jihadi radicalization of a family in his conflict-wracked homeland, while award-winning US journalist and filmmaker Jon Alpert follows the lives of three Cuban families over the course of more than four decades in “Cuba and the Cameraman.”

Seasoned American documentarist Joe Berlinger meets with historians and scholars as he exposes Ankara’s campaign to downplay the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces in “Intent to Destroy,” while in “Cyborgs Among Us” Barcelona-born Rafel Duran Torrent explores the implications of merging man and machine in a bid to expand human capabilities.

Sara Driver

Organizers have this year given carte blanche to American independent filmmaker Sara Driver, who gets to pick 11 films (10 documentaries and one fiction film). Meanwhile, the festival will screen her latest work, “Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” a profile of the poet, musician and graffiti prodigy in late-1970s New York.

Also, the festival will host a special section on the seismic events of 1968. Organizers have scrambled together a rare selection of films that cast light on lesser-documented events, including the student demonstrations in Belgrade and Japan. It will be the first Greek screenings of the films.

“These are extremely rare films, which draw on stunning archive material that sheds light on that extraordinary year. It was very hard to track them down and bring them here,” Andreadakis said.

“Our aim was to redefine 1968, beyond the events of May,” he said in reference to France’s student and worker uprisings. “This year was not just about the events of May,” he added.

Amid the proliferation of fake news, alternative facts and social-media driven echo chambers, platforms like TDF are faced with a quasi-existential question. Asked whether the spread of fake news, widely associated with Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign, signaled a defeat for the promise of documentary to create more-active, better-informed citizens, Andreadakis sounded pragmatic, albeit committed to the cause.

“If that were the case, then art too ought to have made us better people,” Andreadakis said.

“We are fortunate that there are many serious documentaries out there to combat the trend. Films can arm people by showing them what fake news is all about and how they can better protect themselves against it,” he said.

“Things would be much grimmer without documentaries.”

Bulgarian postman with a noble message

The Good Postman

By Harry van Versendaal

Ivan, the postman of a mostly deserted Bulgarian village on the border with Turkey, is running for mayor on a rather unconventional message: If he wins the election, he will welcome Syrian refugees, who now creep silently through the rural terrain, so they can settle in the village’s many vacant, dilapidated properties and breathe new life into the settlement.

Golyam Dervent (pop. 38) – known as as the “great gate” due to its location – is the setting of Tonislav Hristov latest documentary “The Good Postman,” which is screening at the ongoing Thessaloniki Documentary Festival and resembles a microcosm of the drama that has been unfolding in Europe since the outbreak of the Syrian refugee crisis. Bulgaria has joined other nations in the Balkan region in taking a hardline response to the influx of migrants and asylum seekers into the continent. Less than two decades since removing a massive border fence designed to keep people in, authorities in the former Soviet satellite have built a new one along the border with Turkey – this time to keep people out.

Shot over the course of a regional election campaign, the camera follows Ivan, a gentle-mannered, silver-haired man who lives alone, pitting his inclusive, progressive vision against the xenophobic, we-had-it-better-under-communism alternative put forward by his rival, who resembles a washed-up Hollywood has-been. (In what is probably the film’s most funnily surreal moment, the latter delivers a confused speech from the village cafe patio overlooking a vacant field to the futuristic sounds of a vintage Casio keyboard synthesizer). The elderly villagers’ reactions are mixed.

“The Good Postman” premiered in 2016 at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA), where it was nominated for Best Feature-Length Documentary, before screening at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Beautifully crafted, with stunning wide-screen cinematography and a wonderful score by Petar Dundakov, Hristov’s documentary, his fifth, exposes the strange world of small-town politics, the estrangement of the political elites, the stinging poverty in the EU’s backyard, the harrowing misinformation surrounding the migration debate, and the nuances of the human character.

“I heard on the news that they’re bad people who kill Bulgarians,” a young girl is heard saying on a TV news bulletin playing in the background. “But maybe not everyone is bad,” she adds.

One thing bound to draw protests from purists is that the Bulgarian filmmaker, and writer Lubomir Tsvetkov, appear to have staged at least some of the scenes. “Minimal interference doesn’t mean maximum reality. It can actually be the total opposite. Sometimes you have to interfere to get as close to the truth as possible,” Tsvetkov said in a recent interview.

The election result (spoiler alert) is not what any of them would have hoped for. Although it’s hard to see how things could change in Golyam Dervent. Ten years after joining the European Union, Bulgaria remains one of the bloc’s poorest and most corrupt members. Meanwhile, public opposition to immigration is strong. In a recent survey, 73 percent of Bulgarians said they would back a total ban on citizens of Muslim-majority nations entering their country. The same poll found that 77 percent view immigration as a threat to the country, up from 47 percent in 2015.

The Swiss guards of EU border agency Frontex seen patrolling for migrants traipsing through the rural terrain are unlikely to move out anytime soon.

Strangers in a strange land

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Algerian writer and journalist Kamel Daoud poses on October 27, 2014 in the southern French city of Marseille. [AFP]

By Harry van Versendaal

“Just think, we’re talking about one of the most-read books in the world. My brother might have been famous if your author had merely deigned to give him a name… But no, he didn’t name him, because if he had, my brother would have caused the murderer a problem with his conscience: You can’t easily kill a man when he has a given name.”

Seventy years after the publication of “The Stranger,” Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud revisits Meursault, the absurd anti-hero of Albert Camus’s emblematic novel. Meursault, “a Frenchman who just didn’t know what to do with his day and with the rest of the world, which he carried on his back,” shoots and kills an Arab man lying on a beach as he is dazzled by the blazing midday sun. In his book, “The Meursault Investigation” (Patakis, translated by Giannis Stringos), which was recently published in Greek, Daoud grapples with what he considers an overwhelming omission in Camus’s narrative and sets out to give the victim name and context. The details are narrated by the victim’s younger brother, Harun, who also discloses, as it were, the name of the dead Arab: Musa.

Harun, whose life has been hijacked by the anger and sadness of a mourning mother that imposed upon him the duty of reincarnating her tragic firstborn, is seeking justice and absolution. He will finally get his chance during the 1962 massacre of Oran, where a still-unknown number of Pieds-Noirs met their death. Ironically, killing a Frenchman – this one with a full name – leaves him with an absurd aftertaste. In the aftermath, Musa is not accused of taking another man’s life, but for picking the wrong time.

“This Frenchman, you should have killed him with us, during the war, not last week!,” an officer of the Algerian National Liberation Front yells at Harun during interrogation. “I didn’t see what difference that made, I replied,” says Harun. At the trial of “The Stranger,” Meursault is found guilty because he was not seen crying at his mother’s funeral.

Randomly thrown into a meaningless universe, Harun and Meursault appear immune to the values and the dictates of the judge, the priest, or the officer. Both are strangers in their respective worlds.

Although this is a post-colonial narrative about the legacy of millions of Meursaults, the author finds very little to celebrate as the setting smacks of decay and frustration. “I watched the post-independence enthusiasm consume itself and the illusions collapse,” the hero says.

Daoud uses the same material as Camus – “the stones from the old houses the colonists left behind” – but he uses it in a very different way. Contrary to the cold, detached language of the Nobel Prize-winning author and philosopher, the book which last year won the Prix Goncourt for a first novel, crackles with tension and sentiment.

Born in 1970 at Mostaganem, Daoud now lives at the port of Oran on the Mediterranean coast where he works for a French-language Algerian newspaper. Not everybody is fond of his ideas: one ultraconservative cleric has demanded his public execution for being “an enemy of religion.” Inevitably, there are times when the words of Harun appear to come straight from the author’s lips:

“As far as I’m concerned , religion is public transportation I never use. This God – I like traveling in his direction, on foot if necessary, but I don’t want to take an organized trip.”

Ο ξένος του Καμύ κι ακόμη ένας

FRANCE-ALGERIA-LITERATURE-AWARD
Του Χάρη φαν Φέρσεντααλ

«Σκέψου το λίγο, είναι ένα από τα πλέον διαβασμένα βιβλία στον κόσμο, ο αδελφός μου θα μπορούσε να ’χε γίνει διάσημος, αν ο συγγραφέας του είχε καταδεχτεί μονάχα να του δώσει ένα όνομα… Ομως όχι, δεν του έδωσε όνομα, αλλιώς ο αδελφός μου θα είχε δημιουργήσει πρόβλημα συνείδησης στον δολοφόνο – δε σκοτώνει κανείς εύκολα έναν άνθρωπο όταν αυτός έχει όνομα».

Eβδομήντα και κάτι χρόνια μετά την κυκλοφορία του «Ξένου», ο Αλγερινός δημοσιογράφος Καμέλ Νταούντ στέκεται απέναντι στον Μερσώ, τον «παράλογο» αντιήρωα του εμβληματικού έργου του Αλμπέρ Καμύ. Ο Μερσώ, «ένας Γάλλος ο οποίος δεν ήξερε τι να κάνει τη μέρα του κι όλο τον υπόλοιπο κόσμο που κουβαλούσε στους ώμους του», πυροβολεί θανάσιμα έναν Αραβα σε μια παραλία κάτω από το ανελέητο φως του μεσημεριανού ήλιου. Στο βιβλίο του, «Μερσώ, ο άλλος ξένος», ο Νταούντ καταπιάνεται με το βασανιστικό για αυτόν κενό στην αφήγηση του Καμύ και αναλαμβάνει να δώσει όνομα, οικογένεια και χαρακτήρα στο θύμα. Τις λεπτομέρειες αφηγείται ο μικρός αδελφός του θύματος, Χαρούν, ο οποίος μας φανερώνει και το όνομα του νεκρού Αραβα: Μούσσα.

Ο Μούσσα, που η ζωή του έγινε βορά στον θυμό και στο πένθος μιας μητέρας που του ανέθεσε το χρέος της μετενσάρκωσης του αδικοχαμένου πρωτότοκου, αποζητά δικαιοσύνη και λύτρωση. Θα έχει την ευκαιρία του κατά τη διάρκεια των γεγονότων του Οράν, τον Ιούλιο του 1962, και τη σφαγή άγνωστου μέχρι και σήμερα αριθμού Αλγερινών ευρωπαϊκής καταγωγής. Ομως η δολοφονία ενός Γάλλου –με ονοματεπώνυμο εδώ– επιφυλάσσει στον Μούσσα μια γεύση παραλόγου. Βρίσκεται να κατηγορείται όχι επειδή σκότωσε, αλλά επειδή δεν διέπραξε το έγκλημά του στο πλαίσιο του απελευθερωτικού αγώνα. «Τον Γάλλο έπρεπε να τον σκοτώσεις μαζί μας, στον πόλεμο, όχι αυτή την εβδομάδα!», ωρύεται ένας αξιωματικός κατά την ανάκριση. «Απάντησα πως αυτό δεν άλλαζε και πολλά πράγματα», εξιστορεί ο Χαρούν. Στη δίκη του «Ξένου», ο Μερσώ κρίνεται ένοχος επειδή, νωρίτερα, δεν έκλαψε στην κηδεία της μητέρας του.

Σε έναν κόσμο όπου βρέθηκαν τυχαία, έναν κόσμο χωρίς έξωθεν ή εγγενές νόημα, οι δύο ήρωες παρουσιάζουν ανοσία στις αξίες και τις επιταγές του δικαστή, του παπά, του αξιωματικού. Αμφότεροι είναι ξένοι στον κόσμο τους.

Αν και έχουμε να κάνουμε με ένα μετααποικιοκρατικό αφήγημα πάνω στα πεπραγμένα και στη σκιά χιλιάδων Μερσώ, το σκηνικό βρίθει από παρακμή και ματαίωση. «Είδα τον ενθουσιασμό της Ανεξαρτησίας να ξεφουσκώνει, είδα τις ψευδαισθήσεις να ναυαγούν», λέει ο πρωταγωνιστής, στα μάτια του οποίου το Αλγέρι μοιάζει με «παλιά ξεπερασμένη ηθοποιό της επαναστατικής τέχνης». Ο Νταούντ χρησιμοποιεί τα ίδια υλικά με τον Καμύ, «τις πέτρες από τα παλιά σπίτια των αποικιοκρατών», αλλά με διαφορετικό τρόπο. Σε αντίθεση με την ψυχρή, αποστασιοποιημένη γλώσσα του Γάλλου, το ύφος του βιβλίου, που πέρυσι βραβεύτηκε με το Goncourt πρώτου μυθιστορήματος, δονείται από ένταση και συναίσθημα.

Γεννημένος το 1970 στο Μοσταγκανέμ της Αλγερίας, ο Νταούντ ζει σήμερα στο μεσογειακό λιμάνι του Οράν, όπου αρθρογραφεί σε τοπική εφημερίδα. Οι απόψεις του δεν είναι αρεστές σε όλους. Ενας συντηρητικός κληρικός ζήτησε την εκτέλεσή του χαρακτηρίζοντας τον «εχθρό της θρησκείας». Αναπόφευκτα, είναι στιγμές που οι λέξεις του Χαρούν μοιάζουν να βγαίνουν απευθείας από τα χείλη του συγγραφέα: «Για μένα η θρησκεία είναι ένα μαζικό μέσο μεταφοράς που δεν χρησιμοποιώ», λέει. «Μου αρέσει να πηγαίνω προς αυτό τον Θεό με τα πόδια, αν χρειαστεί, αλλά όχι με οργανωμένο ταξίδι».

Home and away: Andreas Koefoed talks about his film on plight of displaced children

Andreas_Koefoed

By Harry van Versendaal

Big shocks change perceptions, and Denmark’s decision earlier this year to confiscate valuables from asylum seekers hoping to find refuge on Danish territory caused some serious damage to the nation’s benevolent image.

However, as Andreas Koefoed’s latest documentary demonstrates, any absolute, black-and-white narrative must be treated with suspicion. “At Home in the World,” to be screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which opened Friday, tells a heartwarming, encouraging story from the same Nordic country.

Relying on an unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall style, the 36-year-old director follows five non-native children attending a Red Cross school in Lynge while Danish authorities consider their families’ asylum claims. Denmark last year received 10,434 asylum applications.

Initial impressions can be deceiving. Unbending introversion or sudden outbursts of violent behavior suggest that the reasons that made these children and their families flee, the often treacherous journeys to safe territory and uncertainty about the future have resulted in profound psychological trauma.

Connecting these stories, which are documented over the course of a single school year, is Dorte, a committed and compassionate teacher whose presence and demeanor deconstructs another stereotype: that of the self-centered, robotic Northern European.

Born in Copenhagen, Koefoed graduated in documentary direction from the National Film School of Denmark in 2009. He holds a sociology degree from Copenhagen University too, where he also studied anthropology and political science. “At Home in the World” won the award for best mid-length film at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) 2015.

Koefoed spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about his movie, Europe’s response to the ongoing refugee crisis and mainstream media coverage of the situation.

What was your motive in making this film?

I wanted to understand what it’s like to be a child and a refugee. What it’s like to lose a home and be on the run and having to search for a place where you can feel safe – a possible new home. How do you face the challenges of everyday life, a new language, new people, new friends? And how do you deal with a troubled past and an uncertain future?

How conscious were the children of the situation they were in, in your view?

My understanding is that they know their present situation pretty well, the status of their case and so on. However, many of the children did not know why they had to flee, because their parents never told them. Not knowing your own story is difficult. You need it to create meaning in your life and to be able to engage in the present, to establish a new home.

How difficult was it to gain access and make this documentary? How difficult was it to become “invisible” and escape the attention of little kids?

It was not that difficult. The Red Cross in general and the head of the school in particular were very helpful and open. They normally do not allow journalists in because they have to protect the children. But they had confidence in my project and they felt they could benefit from the film in the sense that people could get an understanding of what they are doing there. The kids were very aware of the camera in the beginning, but slowly I became a part of the classroom and the kids lost interest and all the natural scenes would simply pop up.

Are you hoping the film will challenge mainstream Western perceptions of migrants and refugees?

Yes. I want to show that these kids are like other kids, but in a difficult situation. It seems to be such an obvious point, but because of the mainstream media’s and politicians’ representations of refugees they have become a stereotype with no personality and no face. You hear many refugee stories, but they are mostly presented by others, and as a result they are usually portrayed in a cliche manner. I also tell the kids’ story, but I try to take a step back and let the children come forward and let us into their lives.

Are you happy with the way Europe has responded to the ongoing refugee crisis?

I am not at all happy. I am disappointed that many countries, including my own, do not assume the responsibility that is needed, and that Europe as a whole hasn’t been able so far to solve it together.

What is your opinion of Denmark’s recent decision to allow authorities to confiscate valuables from refugees?

I think it is awful and completely unnecessary. I understand the point that if a refugee is wealthy then he can cover his own expenses, but I guess only a very small number of the refugees belong to this category. Taking a person’s valuables gives them the worst possible start for a new life in Denmark.

Do you agree with criticism of the so-called multicultural model adopted by Western European states? Is traditional Islam, in your view, compatible with Western, secular values?

I believe that there is room for all cultures within our societies. We have to make sure that young Muslims don’t get attracted to the radical groups by including them in society and letting them practice their beliefs and giving them an opportunity for a good life and a good career. If people feel accepted, respected and appreciated, they will also feel as a part of society.

Film about Paraguay trash band opens Thessaloniki doc fest

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By Harry van Versendaal

A film about a group of children living next to one of Paraguay’s biggest landfills who learn to play instruments crafted entirely out of trash until they start performing around the world will be the curtain raiser Friday at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which this year hosts a timely tribute to the plight of refugees.

Directed by Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley, “Landfill Harmonic – A Symphony of the Human Spirit” showcases the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura as an example of how human creativity, expressed here in the form of music and recycled objects, can bring about social transformation even in the most poverty-wracked communities.

Now in its 18th year, the 10-day festival has gone from strength to strength. In 2015, about 50,000 viewers flocked to the TDF theaters, which include the Olympion and Pavlos Zannas cinemas in central Aristotelous Square and the red-brick complex on the seafront. Despite stubborn budget woes, organizers have managed to bring together about 186 shorts and features, including 72 homemade productions, for this year’s event – the last to be directed by Dimitris Eipidis since his 1992 appointment.

Refugee crisis

Audiences in the northern port city, which is just a one-hour drive from the expanding refugee camp near Idomeni at Greece’s border with Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), can this year choose from among a host of films on migrants and asylum seekers.

Highlights include “This Is Exile: Diaries of Child Refugees,” by Emmy-award-winning director Mani Yassir Benchelah, which tells the story of Syrian children forced to flee to neighboring Lebanon. The film is based on the exiled youngsters’ testimonies about loss, hardship and hope.

In “At Home in the World,” Danish filmmaker Andreas Koefoed observes five refugee children attending a Red Cross school in his home country as they try to overcome traumas and build a new life. The film received the 2015 Award for Best Mid-Length Documentary at Europe’s most prestigious documentary festival, the IDFA in Amsterdam.

The Nordic country, which recently enacted controversial laws allowing police to seize refugees’ assets, is the setting of Michael Graversen’s “Dreaming of Denmark” as he follows an Afghan minor stuck in the EU country’s asylum process.

A panel discussion titled “Documenting the Refugee Issue: Methods, Objectives, Challenges, Ethics” will take place at the Pavlos Zannas Theater on Wednesday, March 16, starting at 11 a.m.

‘Inventing reality’

Among this year’s highlights is a masterclass by contemporary Danish cinematographer Jon Bang Carlsen. Known for his radical, hybrid style, which he lays out in “How to Invent Reality,” the 65-year-old Carlsen has made more than two dozen films since the 1970s that draw heavily on personal experience. His masterclass, “Inventing Reality,” will take place at the Pavlos Zannas Theater, on Tuesday, March 15, starting at 11 a.m.

Approximately 490 films will be available at this year’s Doc Market, a digital library that caters to television networks and industry professionals from around the globe. Some 60 buyers are expected to attend from Europe, the United States and Canada.

Parallel to the screenings will be a photo exhibition by nonprofit street paper Schedia vendors. Organized by TDF, Schedia, the State Museum of Contemporary Art and the Thessaloniki Center of Contemporary Art, the exhibition “Images of Our Other Self” will be staged at the Thessaloniki Center of Contemporary Art (Warehouse B1, Thessaloniki Port) between March 12 and 26.


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