Posts Tagged 'tdf'

The archaeology of the present

By Harry van Versendaal

When digging up the past, you may unearth some ugly truths about the present.

Georgia Karamitrou-Mendesidi, the central character in Kimon Tsakiris’s latest gem “The Archaeologist,” which comes out in theaters on March 19, is doomed to learn this the hard way, as her efforts to rescue ancient artifacts before they end up at the bottom of an artificial lake in Greece’s northwestern Macedonia region get caught up in an uncomfortably familiar web of dysfunction, corruption and red tape.

“I did not want to make your standard archaeological documentary. Here is an individual, a strong character, who has set out a goal, and she tries to achieve this goal as several parallel stories unfold,” Tsakiris said during an interview with Kathimerini English Edition ahead of the film’s debut at the ongoing Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

Sporting an Indiana Jones hat and white fingerless gloves Karamitrou carries no whip but is single-minded in her devotion to the riverside excavations of ancient Aiani. She confronts local villagers, meets with politicians and spends hours on the phone and at the 110-acre dig near the hamlet of Elati to salvage and record what she can before the waters rise and cover the ancient stones for good.

Legally, construction of any kind takes a backseat when archaeological finds are involved. But the Public Power Corporation’s massive hydroelectric dam construction, powered by political and bureaucratic obstacles, relentlessly chugs on as Karamitrou and her team are given a mere two months before the area is irreversibly flooded.

A Greek microcosm

Coming nearly a decade after the 40-year-old filmmaker’s darkly humorous “Sugartown: The Bridegrooms,” the documentary contains the subtle irony, careful dissection, and cathartic moments that have become a trademark of Tsakiris’s work. “The Archaeologist” inevitably ends up serving as a metaphor for contemporary Greece.

“You see how the institutions and our society works. From the small favor you’ll ask of your mayor all the way to the top of the pyramid, cronyism cuts across all levels. With a character that struggles to function in all of this while trying to make a difference, this is how her clash with reality manifests itself. It’s like a Greek microcosm,” said Tsakiris, who worked on the film for two years until wrapping up shooting in January 2014.

The anti-hero of “The Archaeologist” is Greece itself: a bankrupt country where structure and institutions have mostly broken down, and individuals often have to take things into their own hands to make things work.

Karamitrou, who has been digging in Aiani since the early 1980s and was instrumental in the building of the local museum, has given up a life in academia with her husband and kids to stay in the area and fight for what she believes in.

“When you hear this talk about collective responsibility, it means no one is responsible,” the archaeologist says in her steady voice behind the wheel of her blue Toyota, echoing a familiar mantra in Tsakiris’s work.

“Karamitrou, from her position, decided to take the responsibility. Imagine if we all did that, each from their own position. This is what counts,” the director said.

Change

But as admiring as Tsakiris may be of Karamitrou’s drive and commitment, he is not idealistic about it.

“Sure, the whole lone cowboy thing is important because often pioneers with a vision have showed the way and then others followed. But I don’t think this is the solution. The point is not to have 100, 150 or 500 individuals who go and put themselves out on a limb and either achieve something small or fail to do so. This is only a paradigm, I hope, until new institutions come into place and things work better, and things are not so quixotic anymore,” Tsakiris said.

“There is no reason why things should be that hard. Why should it be so hard to simply do your job? Karamitrou is an example of what anyone trying to achieve a goal will encounter in this country. It could be a nurse or a journalist trying to do a job and who is hampered by the ill mentality of society,” he said.

As a filmmaker working in Greece, Tsakiris knows one or two things about the obstacles that aspiring professionals face.

After public Greek broadcaster ERT was abruptly shut down by the previous conservative-led administration in the summer of 2013, he was among the many local directors who saw European funding for their productions go up in smoke. His previous film, “Mitsigan – Hardships and Beauties,” the profile of a quirky vegetable farmer in the Peloponnese, was eventually completed after he was able to find alternative sources of funding. “The Archaeologist” was produced by Faliro House.

There is no last-minute rescue for the excavations at Aiani. As the river’s banks crumble, swallowing up both trees and neolithic stones in beautiful underwater cinematography accompanied by Thanasis Papakonstantinou’s baritone lament, the feeling is one of utter desolation.

In a final insult, our lone cowgirl becomes one of the thousands of Greek civil servants to get pushed into early retirement or a labor reserve scheme on heavily docked wages, in line with foreign creditors’ demands.

Ghost ex machina exposes Europe’s wretched migrants

By Harry van Versendaal

Morgan Knibbe did not set out to make an objective documentary about one of the biggest problems facing Europe today: the plight of migrants and refugees on the continent.

“My ambition was to try to understand how these people feel. I wanted to submerge myself in their world and to share this experience with other people. I felt that I was able to achieve this by creating a highly subjective audiovisual form,” the 26-year-old filmmaker from the Netherlands says about his first feature film, “Those Who Feel the Fire Burning,” which will screen at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

“Filmmaking is the art of manipulation… Pulling people out of their comfort zone makes them look at existing values in a different way.”

The opening of the film, which made waves at Amsterdam’s prestigious IDFA film festival, where it debuted, is faithful to this credo. A boat carrying immigrant families is seen adrift on rough seas in the black of night. A father tries to calm his anxious daughter as the vessel is tossed about by the waves. A man falls into the water and starts to go down. And then, black.

This re-enactment of a Lampedusa-style boat tragedy, the only staged part of the film, is enough to raise eyebrows among purist documentary filmmakers. However, it is also instrumental in allowing Knibbe to introduce his ghost ex machina, as it were. Stuck in purgatory, a ghost steers viewers through the largely invisible lives of undocumented migrants.

“We wanted to create the perspective of a ghost flying through a dark place between heaven and hell. A metaphor,” he says of his cinematic device which is reminiscent of Wim Wenders’s fiction classic “Wings of Desire.”

It’s a highly immersive feel, achieved through the extensive use of a Steadicam system and drone cameras – combined with some creative editing. Adding to the whole experience is the gripping, if sometimes overly lyrical, voice-over.

Thousands of mainly African and Asian immigrants try to reach Europe’s borders every year. Knibbe has chosen to offer zero figures and statistics. When it comes to engaging people, he says, posting cold facts and numbers does little to help the cause.

“That is what most media do and I think it doesn’t touch people. We also left out specifics about location so that no one could point a finger to a specific country. This is a European problem, in fact a global problem,” he says.

As the ghost floats around the grim cityscape, we get to glimpse at snippets from the lives of migrant families crammed into run-down apartments, men praying in underground makeshift mosques, scrap metal collectors roaming the streets, a drug addict mother taking her heroin shot. The setting remains unidentified, but uncomfortably familiar: Greece, which despite a brutal five-year economic crisis remains the gateway of choice for the vast majority of migrants seeking to make their way into Western Europe.

Commitment

It was not Knibbe’s first time at Europe’s porous external border. As a student, the Dutchman spent time in the western port city of Patra, the site of a now-deserted makeshift migrant settlement, and during that time he actually co-directed the film, “We Go Europe Insha’Allah.” Stuff you won’t see in Holland.

The distance makes his commitment all the more admirable.

“I did this because I feel privileged to have been born in relative wealth. We often take our wealth for granted. I like to see the world and its living creatures, including the human race, as an organism. There is a big imbalance and people tend to think small instead of big. Individual instead of universal. I’d like to make people think about the bigger picture,” Knibbe says.

“People who are in trouble want to move to a place where there seems to be wealth, but the wealthy don’t know how to deal with this. The film is mostly meant to give depth to this subject that is in my eyes generally treated in a shallow, informative and seemingly objective way. I wanted to make people empathize again,” he says.

Access was sensitive and painstaking. Knibbe often had to go to great lengths to approach and win the trust of his vulnerable subjects at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise.

“I followed people on the street collecting garbage up to the places where they lived, either in some sort of an apartment, a basement or on the streets. I met a homeless guy in a park. I bought a football to play games with refugees. I cooked meals for and with people. It took time, care and love to build mutual trust. This was the most important thing for the whole film,” he says.

Introspection

Creating the film also had an impact on Knibbe himself – particularly shooting on the Italian island of Lampedusa in the wake of the 2013 shipwreck which killed 366 African migrants.

“Lampedusa was heavy stuff,” he says. Footage inserted into the documentary from his award-winning 2014 short “Shipwreck” captures the despair of the victims’ relatives as well as the confusion and grief of Italian officials as the victims’ bodies are taken away from the site. The director’s own presence, amid the crowd of cynical media people, made him ponder his own part in all that. It took some adjustment, shifting down a gear.

“It was an absurd mix: the deep trauma of the survivors and the media circus around them – who, quite frankly, were a parasitic, egoistic phenomenon. All these journalists trying to get their quotes and shots and then leave. I was confronted with myself as a part of this circus and tried to do things drastically different: I took more time and took it slow building mutual trust with the refugees,” he says.

It may be a bit more decent, dignified manner of handling the issue, but can a work like this improve the situation? In fact, what can?

Knibbe remains sober about the prospects.

“I’m not sure what we can do to change this problem. I don’t have answers. What I am trying to do with this film is to plant seeds in the minds of people that could hopefully flourish into more liberal and empathetic ways of dealing with this problem. I think building borders is useless and inhumane. We are wealthy, and we take it for granted. When the poor want a share, we tell them to p*** off and that their culture doesn’t fit ours. That’s f***ed up.”

Thessaloniki doc fest returns with tribute to Austrian, Romanian filmmakers

By Harry van Versendaal

Hubert Sauper and Alexandru Solomon are but a couple of the filmmakers heading to this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), according to organizers as they unveiled the lineup of tributes to be screened at the annual international festival in the northern port city, this year from March 13 to 22.

Ten years after his Oscar-nominated “Darwin’s Nightmare,” a riveting film on the fishing industry in Tanzania’s Lake Victoria, Sauper last year returned with another political work. In “We Come as Friends,” the 49-year-old Austrian filmmaker takes a look at the neocolonialist exploitation of South Sudan in the wake of independence – and does so flying in his homemade aircraft.

“I think that if you were to make a film about the state of our times, it would be about nothing more than economics,” the France-based director, writer and actor has said in an interview with Issue Magazine.

“Before it was more about the ideas, Marxism, etc. Now the bottom line is always the dollar. All human relations have been reduced to this sort of game, ‘I give to you, you give to me,’” said Sauper, who teaches film in Europe and the USA.

The Sauper tribute features three more works: Shot in 1993, “On the Road with Emil” tells the story of an old circus director as he travels with his troupe through the wintry Austrian landscape. “Kisangani Diary” documents the 1997 massacre of Rwanda refugees at the hands of the so-called liberating rebel army of the new “Democratic Republic” of Congo. The movie was released in 1998, four years before “Alone with Our Stories,” a collection of testimonies by female victims of domestic violence in France.

The Austrian will be joined in Thessaloniki by his colleague Solomon from Romania, also 49.

Drawing from interviews with a number of powerful magnates in post-communist Romania, Solomon’s most recent film, “Kapitalism: Our Improved Formula,” paints a portrait of a corruption-wracked country stuck in limbo between communism and capitalism. The film was released in 2010, three years after Solomon made “Cold Waves,” a documentary on Radio Free Europe, the US-funded broadcaster that spread anti-Soviet propaganda across Eastern Europe during the Cold War.

Communism under later-to-be-executed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu also served as a theme for Solomon’s 2004 film “The Great Communist Bank Robbery.” Solomon, who works as a filmmaker, cinematographer and producer, used interviews and archival material on a Romanian propaganda film inspired by a late-1950s bank robbery, later attributed to high-ranking members of the nomenklatura, to expose the absurdity of life behind the iron curtain.

“In the end, it is more important to understand there is no ultimate truth left after 45 years of propaganda,” Solomon has said about the movie. “I think despair leads people to the kind of gestures that aren’t logical at all.”

In the same lineup is 2008’s “Apocalypse on Wheels,” in which Solomon looks at how roads and traffic in his motherland also function as a metaphor for contemporary Romanian society – a theme bound to strike a chord with audiences here.

The Thessaloniki doc fest, now in its 17th year, will also host a tribute to German documentaries, offering a wide-ranging selection from the country’s recent crop, including “Katharine Hepburn – The Great Kate,” a portrait of the Hollywood icon by directors Andrew Davies and Rieke Brendel; Oswald von Richthofen’s “35 Cows and a Kalashnikov,” a lyrical tribute to the captivating beauty and sublime strength of the African continent; and Alexander Gentelev’s “Raiders,” an expose of the mafia network in Putin’s Russia.

More films and highlights are to be announced in the coming days.

Info: tdf.filmfestival.gr

Stranger in a strange land

By Harry van Versendaal

Not everyone’s home videos have the makings of a modern-day Greek tragedy.

Alexandra Anthony’s family documentary “Lost in the Bewilderness,” which earned warm reviews at the recent Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, tells the story of a long-lost hero who, after many travails, finally returns home to claim his rightful place in the old country.

The story begins in the early 1970s, at the house of the Psychopaidopoulos family in the southern Athens neighborhood of Nea Smyrni. When Anthony’s cousin Lucas is born, he is instantly immersed in the typically Greek overdose of attention and affection bestowed upon the first male child of a generation. But at the age of 5, Lucas’s parents separate.

That is when the drama begins to unfold, and the story is elevated from Super-8 home movie memories to something darker. One day the boy disappears with his mother, throwing the Psychopaidopoulos family into a state of shock and mourning. A worldwide search, also with the help of Interpol, is of no avail.

But 11 years after the abduction, a telephone call from Maryland in the US sets the drama back in motion. It’s Athena, asking Orestis, her former husband, to take impossible teenager Lucas back to the homeland and off her hands.

“When the kid was found, it was like, ‘Get the camera and go,’” Anthony says.

Live your myth

Filmed over the course of 30 years, the 97-minute documentary is a mixture of archival footage and cinema verite. It takes off thanks to masterful editing, a clean structure, and captivating narration by Anthony herself whose matter-of-fact delivery seamlessly meshes the ancient myths of Oedipus, Perseus and Odysseus with Lucas’s story.

The 61-year-old director was born to Greek parents in Charleston, South Carolina. She spent her childhood in Athens and her adolescence in London, before moving to the US to study art history at Wellesley College and filmmaking at MIT. She now lives in Boston, but visits Greece every summer, always with her camera equipment. Over the years, she has filmed several ethnographic films in numerous remote areas of her native country.

Hence, it comes as little surprise that Anthony knows her Greek mythology well, and cleverly chooses just which parallels to draw between Lucas and ancient Greek heroes.

“I’ve always had an interest in mythology, in ancient Greek theater, drama and tragedy. I find great beauty in all those stories. I grew up with them. They are part of who I am. But it was really an organic process, not a forced thing. It became more and more apparent to me that there were so many parallels with ancient mythology and the archetypes of Orestis who was exiled, or Euphrosyne, his grandmother, who was one of the three Graces. And then, as I dug deeper, I saw there is a theme with all these young kings and heroes who, at a very young age, as babies or toddlers, are taken away to be killed or exiled so that they don’t take over the throne or whatever. But in every case they return on the cusp of manhood to reclaim their rightful place on the throne or in the family. Especially Perseus, whose own mother took him across the sea.”

However, the central metaphor for Anthony was the Orpheus and Eurydice story of a man losing his beloved early and made a deal to get her back from the underworld. Orpheus could not keep his promise of not looking behind him and, as he made his way back to the world of the living, he lost his love for a second time.

“I really love the idea of Orestis going to this netherworld, which is shown as black and white and gray – which is the US as a kind of underworld – to bring Lucas back to life, and it’s then in full color when he comes to Greece.”

Being a student at the MIT film section under direct cinema pioneers Richard (Ricky) Leacock and Ed Pincus, Anthony was inevitably schooled in the orthodoxy of cinema verite, always recording things as they happened. For this project, however, she used old pictures and – in a somewhat liberating betrayal of the verite rulebook – she recreated the back story using vintage-style footage of her own daughter and the daughter of Nana, a family friend.

“I wanted to introduce the characters so by the time you got to the actual story you could kind of see it through their eyes and have empathy with what they were experiencing.”

Lost in translation

The director was there when Lucas first landed in Athens. As soon as the boy walked out of the airport at Elliniko, she sensed his unease.

“I think he was just a deer in headlights. Here he is, a stranger in a strange land here in Greece. He did not know he had a Greek family, he doesn’t speak the language and all of a sudden his mother has turned him over to these strangers.

“He was uncomfortable anyway and here is this camera in his face. And I felt really sensitive. Life comes first and then comes film. I didn’t want to make his life more difficult for him. So I slowly withdrew a little bit after the first two weeks and I thought I ‘d let them just find themselves, they have enough to deal with, without me there. But I didn’t think I had enough for a film at all.”

Despite this, “Lost in the Bewilderness” became Anthony’s hobby, as she kept on filming the family in their garden, in the living room, on the beach, every time she came to Greece over the years. Without realizing it, she also captured images of a changing society.

The film is a rich parade of modern Greek history, from Lucas’s namesake, his grandfather – the archetypical Greek gentleman of the 1950s – the glory days of PASOK founder Andreas Papandreou during a 1984 rally, and through to the tsunami of “antiparochi” deals between landowners and contractors that led to the brutal destruction of many old private houses. The Psychopaidopoulos family home, which we get to know and love as intimately as its owners, is too knocked down, without any warning, by a yellow bulldozer, to make way for a modern apartment building.

And all that’s left at the end is a story, a visually rich, suspense-filled ride.

The pioneering electric car that hit the skids

By Harry van Versendaal

Built for the urban motorist, this quirky vehicle is quiet, easy to drive and can be plugged directly into a wall socket.

It is the Enfield 8000, and it first rolled off the production line in 1973.

The name will ring very few bells these days, but not only did such a car hit the road some four decades before the Tesla Model S or Nissan Leaf, it actually did so with the help of Greek brains, hands and money.

Now a new documentary unravels the story behind the birth and premature death of an electric pioneer. “A Tale of Two Isles,” an informative, well-crafted and at times emotional film directed by Michalis Stavropoulos, a Greek automotive journalist, is showing at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF).

The story goes back to 1966 when the UK’s Electricity Council launched a tender for a prototype electric car, a move that was, in part at least, prompted by growing energy concerns when the OPEC oil embargo led to a global fuel crisis. Underdog Enfield – a brand that used to make rifles, speedboats and hovercrafts, and which had just been acquired by Greek shipowner John Goulandris – eventually beat rival bids from Ford and British Leyland for the production of about 100 vehicles at its factory on the Isle of Wight.

Powered by eight heavy duty 12V lead acid batteries – four under the bonnet and another four in the boot – the Enfield 8000 could travel at a top speed of 77 kilometers per hour and had a range of around 64 km.

The vehicle was designed around a tubular chassis frame with panels made of lightweight aluminum. It featured an impressive aerodynamic drag coefficient – its designers brag it was found to actually be lower than the Porsche of that time – while the low center of gravity gave the car very good handling. Running costs were estimated at a quarter of the Mini, while maintenance costs were almost zero as there were no moving parts and no fuel. Designers relied extensively on commercially available parts and components to facilitate repairs and replacements around the globe.

On the down side, the bulky batteries took their toll as the Enfield 8000 weighed nearly a ton. And when the batteries ran out, they had to be charged for up to 10 hours.

It all went rather smoothly until a strike by sheet metal workers forced Goulandris to eventually shut down the Isle of Wight factory. A frustrated Goulandris soon made the controversial decision to move production to the Greek island of Syros, capital of the Cyclades and the country’s one-time maritime and commercial hub, where his family had acquired control of the Neorion Shipyards. As was to be expected, not everyone agreed with the plan; and not everyone followed.

Production of the Enfield now took place inside a defunct textile factory next to the port. Machinery and equipment had to be shipped from the UK while engineers, hired from the island’s shipyards, built the cars by hand. There was no assembly line, but six work stations where an equal number of vehicles were built from scratch all at the same time – no doubt a costly procedure. The fact that the car was designed in Britain, then made in Greece, then transported back to England where the batteries were installed, before being exported to the rest of the world made little financial sense either.

The hefty price tag – the Enfield 8000 cost almost twice the Mini – was certainly one of the things that killed the project. As the people behind the project tell the camera, the infamous Greek bureaucracy, politics and hostility from the oil industry – who were, after all, Goulandris’s business partners – proved a minefield.

The last Enfield car rolled out of the Syros factory in early 1976. A total of 123 cars were assembled then shipped to the various electricity boards around the UK and all around the world from France and Russia to Africa and Australia. None was sold in Greece because of red tape.

For people who took part in that innovative project, such as versatile designer John Ackroyd, seeing electric cars finally charge into the mainstream so many years later spurs a mixture of sadness and vindication.

The Enfield 8000, Ackroyd says in the documentary, “gave the message that electric cars could work to the world; but the world didn’t really catch on.”

New tool for female empowerment: Turkish soap operas

By Harry van Versendaal

When the Turkish soap opera “Noor” revealed to Samar that marriage can be an equal partnership between two loving people rather than a state of misery and repression, she switched off her TV and got herself a divorce lawyer.

“I liked using the subject of soap operas to speak of the important issue of women’s rights. Doing so cast a different light on the story; it was also a happier way to tell the story,” says Nina Maria Paschalidou. Her latest film, “Kismet,” is screening at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) after making a well-reviewed debut at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in November where it was nominated for the IDFA Best Mid-Length Documentary Award.

Fifty-four-year-old Samar, a Lebanese woman living for years in the United Arab Emirates, is not alone in finding inspiration in Turkish TV dramas. Samira, a victim of sexual harassment in Cairo during the recent Egyptian revolution, tells the camera how she found the courage, despite being pressured by her family to keep quiet, to take the perpetrators – army officers – to court after watching Fatmagul, a gang-rape victim in another Turkish drama series, fight for justice. She not only won her case, but also helped to stop the until-then mandatory “virginity tests” given to all females in police custody.

Paschalidou, a 40-year-old filmmaker, journalist and producer from Veria, a small town in northern Greece with a strong Ottoman imprint, became fascinated by how a medium that provokes much derision in the West has become a successful tool for female empowerment in the East.

“I was staying in Washington when a friend, who is from Turkey, showed me a Washington Post article on Turkish soap operas. I was intrigued and began to look into the subject,” says Paschalidou, founder of independent documentary and multimedia group Forest Troop.

Millions of viewers across the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkans are hooked on TV dramas such as “Gumus,” which is broadcast across the Arab world as “Noor,” “What Is Fatmagul’s Fault?” “The Magnificent Century,” “Life Goes On,” and “Forbidden Love.” During a recent survey carried out in 16 Middle East countries, three out of four said they had seen at least one of about 70 Turkish shows that have been sold abroad since 2001.

“The impact went beyond all expectations. People started to name their children after the main characters, women started to divorce their husbands because of what they saw on TV, tourist operators offered site-specific tours,” Paschalidou says.

Bad signal

The success of these shows naturally did not go down well with conservatives in the Middle East. In Iran, where shows are watched via smuggled satellite dishes hidden on balconies, authorities said soaps were “destabilizing the institution of the family.” Saudi clerics went as far as to issue fatwas against people watching the shows.

Apart from being an unintended cultural export and a unique brand of soft power, Turkish dramas also raked in cash – tons of it. The value of soap opera exports skyrocketed from a million dollars in 2007 to 130 million in 2012 as the country sold 13,000 hours of programming, according to data from the country’s Tourism and Culture Ministry.

Part of their appeal, the director says, was thanks to the good-old American recipe. “It’s the drama, the passionate love affairs, the nasty vendettas – a recipe first sold by the Americans with ‘Dallas’ and ‘Dynasty’ in the 1980s,” says Paschalidou.

But, like most observers, Paschalidou also sees culture-specific factors at play. “It was no coincidence that these shows struck a chord with audiences in the areas of the former Ottoman Empire. There was something exotic, yet at the same time quite familiar, to them. People in this part of the world have many shared memories, a common past, similar food,” she says.

They also have similar ambitions.

“Viewers in the Middle East see the Turkish woman as a model of the modern Muslim female. This is a bit who they would like to be, who they struggle to become,” Paschalidou says. They want greater freedom and more rights. And more wealth. “What all these shows have in common is their penchant to show off designer clothes, nice homes and luxury villas,” she says.

Interestingly, while women in Arab countries appear in the documentary to be inspired by the modern, feminist narrative, their Greek counterparts are looking in the other direction as Turkish series have triggered in many a nostalgia for pre-modern values and ideals such as tradition and family ties. “I like these shows because they have morals and the girls don’t take off their underwear all the time like they do here,” says one elderly Greek fan.

Greece’s stubborn recession, now in its seventh year, has hit most people hard and at the same time influenced Greeks’ collective self-understanding. “The crisis has been widely associated with the West and many things modern. As a result, we have dug out old memories and turned to the Eastern part of our identity,” Paschalidou says.

“Perhaps there is also this longing for true love, for the type of man who stands by his wife and looks after her needs – even if he is a bit of on the macho side,” she says.

To be continued

Closer to home, these programs have inflicted some collateral damage by exposing Turkey’s internal contradictions: The narrative of a modern, prosperous Turkey is being challenged by a conservative, intolerant backlash. Once the darling of liberal reformists, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who has criticized a historical soap based on the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, which depicts the sultan as a man in thrall to his favorite wife, as “an attempt to insult our past, to treat our history with disrespect” – has fed concerns among secularists about his increasingly authoritarian style of government.

“Turkey’s efforts to promote a modern, Western face cannot disguise its huge shortcomings in the area of women’s rights,” Paschalidou says.

Despite a series of legal reforms over the past few years, Turkey did poorly in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Gender Gap Index. A recent survey found that a third of marriages in Turkey’s eastern and southeastern provinces involved very young brides, many of them under the age of 15. In “Life Goes On” a young girl from Anatolia is married off to an abusive 70-year-old. The girl escapes her yoke, but in reality such happy endings are less common.

“Reality is not always like in the series. A girl who has been forced into marrying at an early age in Turkey will not have the support of her family if she decides to break up,” the director says.

“These series present an idealized image that Turkish society is mature enough to solve its problems, which is not always the case,” she says.

But the effort is there, and it is a genuine effort Paschalidou believes. The shows are mainly written by female scriptwriters who nudge the narratives into more feminist paths, and even attempt to involve their audience. When the final court scene of “What Is Fatmagul’s Fault? was filmed, the extras cast to carry banners and shout slogans in support of Fatmagul were real-life victims of sexual abuse.

“What really impressed me was that Turkish actresses are fully conscious of what it is that they are doing,” she says. Many of them have taken the effort outside the TV studio by participating in a campaign to stop domestic violence against women.

“It’s not just a marketing strategy. Some of them genuinely believe they can help.”

Thessaloniki Doc Fest opens with moving feature about little boy’s journey to get a new heart

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By Harry van Versendaal

Nastia Tarasova’s “Linar,” a documentary about a Russian boy who travels to Italy to receive a heart transplant, will be the curtain raiser at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) which gets under way on March 14.

In her first full-length film, the Moscow-based director observes 5-year-old Linar as he spends his time at a Moscow clinic, his small body connected to a big machine on wheels that pumps blood into his failing heart. Tarasova follows the boy as bureaucratic obstacles mean that he has to travel to a small Italian town to receive a heart transplant.

Now in its 16th year, the festival has gone from strength to strength. Last year, a record 45,000 viewers flocked to the TDF theaters, which include the Olympion and Pavlos Zannas cinemas on central Aristotelous Square and the redbrick port complex. Notwithstanding budget woes, with the help of European Union funds organizers have managed to bring together about 112 films, including 60 homemade productions for this year’s event.

Alongside “Linar,” festival highlights include Rithy Panh’s “The Missing Picture,” a haunting documentary about the crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime that received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, a first for a Cambodian feature. An adaptation of Panh’s memoir “The Elimination,” the film uses dozens of impressive clay figurines and powerful archival footage to chronicle the fate of his family before and during Pol Pot’s genocidal rule – and the demons that continue to haunt him.

Directed by veteran filmmaker Larry Weinstein and debuting director Drew Taylor, “Our Man in Tehran” is a factual account of the events that inspired Ben Affleck’s blockbuster “Argo.” Based on several interviews with the Western protagonists of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, the documentary provides a great deal of interesting background while taking a fair share of the drama out of Affleck’s rendition of the life-or-death secret operation to rescue six American diplomats hiding in the residence of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor – including a heart-stopping chase after a Swissair plane down the tarmac of Tehran’s airport.

Syria’s uprising-turned-civil-war is the background for Talal Derki’s harrowing, behind-the-barricades footage brought to the big screen in “The Return to Homs.” The movie, which received the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for a documentary at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival this year, follows Basset, a 19-year-old goalkeeper who evolves into a local icon of the resistance movement and militia leader in the struggle against the Assad regime, as well as his close friend, 24-year-old citizen journalist Ossama.

Double tribute

TDF organizers have also prepared a tribute to Canadian filmmaker Peter Wintonick, who died last year of a rare form of liver cancer. Best known for his 1992 box-office hit “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media,” a near-three-hour expose of the US media industry which he co-directed by Mark Achbar, Wintonick, sometimes dubbed Canada’s documentary ambassador to the world, had dedicated most of his life to working as a director, producer, editor and reporter – and was a permanent fixture at TDF. A new audience award named after him will be presented to the festival’s best foreign feature.

Award-winning French documentarist Nicolas Philibert will also be honored by the festival, which plans to screen nine of his films, including what many consider his finest moment: “To Be and to Have.” Shot in 2002, this touching portrait of a one-room schoolhouse in rural France became an instant critical and commercial success. Its fame has persisted despite a fair amount of controversy following its release, after the main character in the movie, veteran teacher George Lopez, sued the 63-year-old director for a healthy share of the profits, claiming that he had been exploited. The court rejected the claim, which was seen by some as raising some interesting ethical questions about the nature of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking.

Approximately 500 films will be available in this year’s Doc Market, a digital library that caters to television networks and industry professionals from around the world. Some 60 buyers are expected to attend from Europe, the United States and Canada.

As usual, organizers have planned a number of workshops, discussions and side events, including an exhibition by Albanian photojournalist Enri Canaj. Taking place with the support of the Thessaloniki State Museum of Contemporary Art, the show, titled “In a Sharp Frame,” will be inaugurated on March 15 at the Thessaloniki Center of Contemporary Art.

Ongoing crisis sets the frame for Greek filmmakers at TDF

By Harry van Versendaal

The controversial shutdown of Greece’s state TV and radio broadcaster last year, the devastating implications of German-inspired austerity policies on Europe’s southern periphery, the effect of Turkey’s most significant cultural export: soap operas.

These are some of the issues at the focus of local filmmakers taking part in this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) which gets under way on March 14 with 60 titles – feature as well as shorts – listed in the Greek program.

The thought-provoking lineup includes works dealing with a wide range of subjects such as the environment, history, migration and the arts – although a fair share of filmmakers naturally took an interest in the ongoing financial crisis which has trapped Greece in recession for more than six years.

A year after “Neo-Nazi: The Holocaust of Memory,” TV journalist and documentarist Stelios Kouloglou returns to the TDF with another timely project. This time he documents the social and economic repercussions of the ongoing malaise on Greece and other debt-wracked nations in the euro area. The 100-minute film, titled “The Godmother,” does so while presenting a portrait of one of the key characters in the European debt saga, Angela Merkel, detailing her rise from humble Protestant pastor’s daughter to chancellor of European paymaster Germany. The title of the documentary is taken from veteran Christian Democrat Gertrud Hohler’s book “The Godmother: How Angela Merkel Is Reconstructing Germany.”

Also related to the crisis is Yorgos Avgeropoulos’s “Lost Signal of Democracy,” which chronicles the Greek government’s decision in June 2013 to abruptly shut down the country’s state broadcaster ERT after 75 years of continuous operation. The highly controversial move, which led to the defection of a junior socialist partner from the power-sharing administration, was portrayed by authorities as a bid to trim state spending as demanded by the terms of an international bailout as an allegedly smaller, cheaper corporation was set up in ERT’s place.

ERT’s shutdown did nothing to slow the invasion of Turkish soap operas, which have proved a major success in Greece as well as the Arab world. “Kismet,” by Nina Maria Paschalidou, examines the popularity of shows such as “Fatmagul” and “Suleiman” and their cultural impact on Islamic homes as they challenge social norms and taboos in the more hardline nations. Filmed in Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bulgaria and Greece, Paschalidou’s documentary features interviews with the stars, directors, and scriptwriters coupled with experts’ opinion and portraits of fans.

The TDF, now in its 16th year, runs until March 23.

http://www.filmfestival.gr

Fateful encounters

appel_500

By Harry van Versendaal

John Appel knew he wanted to make a film about chance; All he had to do was wait for the right sequence of events. So when Norwegian far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik went on his murderous rampage on July 22, 2011, the Dutch director reached for his camera.

“I wanted to make a film about how people deal with fate. It had to be based on a tragic event,” Appel, 55, said during an interview at the Olympion Theater after a screening of “Wrong Time Wrong Place,” part of Thessaloniki’s Documentary Festival which wraps up this weekend.

“I didn’t want to concentrate on who committed the crimes – only on the victims. This is a story about why people found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said of the film that opened the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in November.

After setting off a car bomb outside government headquarters in Oslo, the 33-year-old Breivik went on a shooting spree on Utoya island, where more than 500 people had gathered for the Labor Party’s annual summer camp. Eight people died in the bombing and 69 were killed on the island. More than 240 were injured. Breivik claimed the killings were “cruel and necessary” to protect his country from being overrun by Muslims.

The documentary follows five people who either narrowly survived the massacre or had a close friend or relative killed in it. Harald, a Norwegian civil servant, had just arrived at the office that morning when the bomb went off, killing several of his colleagues and leaving him partially blind. Ritah, a pregnant woman from Uganda, only decided to go to the summer camp at the very last minute. She escaped by hiding inside a toilet with another two people. One of these was Hakon, who had noticed Breivik on the ferry to the island. Visiting from Georgia, Natia managed to escape, but her friend Tamta was the last person Breivik shot before being arrested by the police. The heartbreaking account of her parents is central to the film.

Convincing his characters to take part in the documentary, especially so soon after the tragic events, was not easy. “Some people did not trust me,” said Appel, adding that people were naturally put off by the sensation-hungry media. With others, he was able to convince them that his motives were different.

“I had to persuade them that I did not wish to exploit the drama. It was not my intention to investigate why the killer acted the way he did. I was not interested in his story, but in the story of the victims that were able to survive,” he said.

Quite fittingly, chance also played a big part in making the film. Appel started filming before he had found any characters or a story. “I was looking for characters and then, during filming really, by chance I met the individuals that appear in the film,” he said.

“I totally could not find the lady from Uganda [Ritah]. I wanted to tell the story of the people who hid inside the toilet but I could only find two of them. I was looking for Ritah in Uganda but I could not find her, and then, thanks to a coincidental contact, I found out she was living in the Netherlands, where she had applied for political asylum,” he said.

“I visited her, the next day I filmed, and the day after that she gave birth to the baby. I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he said.

Watching the film, it’s hard not to be intrigued by the way cultural and religious differences affect the way people deal with tragedy. The mother of Tamta, who can be seen praying in an apartment filled with religious icons and family pictures, appears to believe that the fate of her daughter, her only daughter, was sealed in old religious texts. “It was a relief for her. It was a relief to discover the book that had predicted what happened – that is being born on Christmas Day – meant something special and this was in the hand of the gods and she had to die anyway,” said Appel, who is not religious himself.

He says the cold Nordic character is perhaps more suitable to deal with such circumstances. “Look at how they dealt with the court case and Breivik himself. They were extremely civilized. If it had taken place in Greece, maybe people would try to kill him. Norwegians are different,” he said. Judges declared Breivik sane and sentenced him to at least 21 years in prison.

Appel, who has directed more than 30 documentaries for cinema and television, says his next project will be completely coincidental – including the starting point of the film. “If you make a coincidental film, you meet one person that leads you to the next person, and that leads you to another person, and this whole thing will reveal everything life is about,” he said.

Does he think that the realization of this unbearable lightness of being, as it were, should make us treat life a bit less seriously? “Yes, I think so. One of the views I want to express in this film is that life is not controllable. You can try to live as safely as you can, but you never know what is going to happen. You may get sick or get involved in a serious accident,” he said.

“So you should be a little more open to the unexpected and not try to control everything in life. It’s really not worth it.”

Documentary festival rolling in Thessaloniki

By Harry van Versendaal

Dancer-turned-filmmaker Bess Kargman’s award-winning “First Position,” a documentary about the toughness of mind and body demanded of young classical ballet dancers, will open this year’s 10-day Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which gets under way on March 15.

The film follows a handful of boys and girls from various parts of the world as they train for the Youth America Grand Prix in New York City, a competition that could determine their future in the ballet world. The documentary has picked up numerous accolades, including a Jury Prize at the San Francisco DocFest and audience awards at DOC NYC and the Portland International Film Festival.

Now in its 15th year, the TDF has drawn a big following of movie buffs and filmmakers who make the annual trip to the northern port city for the rich crop of hard-hitting productions and interesting side events.

“Its success is not just measured by the high numbers of people who flock to its theaters every year,” said Konstantinos Aivaliotis, a visual anthropology expert who is currently doing research on the festival.

“The festival is really talked about abroad, ranking in the top five – if not top three – on the European doc fest circuit,” he said.

Despite the financial difficulties, organizers have managed to bring together about 200 films from 45 countries, as well as 58 local productions.

Alongside “First Position,” festival highlights include Kirby Dick’s Oscar-nominated film “The Invisible War,” a shocking account of rape and sexual assault in the US military. Based on more than 100 interviews, the Arizona-born director exposes the systemic cover-up of sexual crimes and the everyday struggle of victims – mostly women but also men – to rebuild their lives and find justice.

In his Sundance winner “Blood Brother,” Pittsburg director Steve Hoover travels to southern India to document his longtime friend’s mission to help children living with HIV and AIDS. The film won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience award for American documentaries at what is the largest independent film festival in the US.

Dutch John Appel’s “Wrong Time, Wrong Place,” billed as a film about “how small, seemingly trivial events can upset the fine balance between life and death,” features discussions with five people who were caught up in the 2011 bomb attack in Oslo and the ensuing shooting spree on the island of Utoya where Norwegian far-right activist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people and wounded 242.

In “Forbidden Voices,” Swiss director Barbara Miller documents the lives of dissident bloggers in Cuba, China and Iran who use their laptops to fight for free speech and press freedom.

The organizers have also prepared a tribute to Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman, maker of the classic 260-minute trilogy “The Battle of Chile,” which chronicles the atrocities of the Pinochet regime. The 71-year-old director, who won five-star reviews for his 2010 philosophical cine-essay on history and memory, “Nostalgia for the Light,” has been booked for a workshop in Thessaloniki.

Uncomfortably relevant

Stuck in recession for a sixth year, debt-wracked Greece is struggling with severe austerity measures and sky-high unemployment. It’s a lethal mix that has fueled social turmoil and political polarization as reflected in the meteoric ascent of the country’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. It all makes the doc fest uncomfortably topical.

“Documentaries can serve as an alternative news source and highlight issues that do not come up in mainstream media,” Aivaliotis said.

He says the crisis has not produced a major shift in subject matter, but at least a few of this year’s 58 movies seem to be influenced by the zeitgeist in one way or another.

“Neo-Nazi, the Holocaust of Memory,” shot by established TV journalist and documentarist Stelios Kouloglou, revisits the country’s path from the German occupation during World War II to the rise of Golden Dawn, which currently controls 18 seats in the Greek Parliament.

“To the Wolf,” a documentary-narrative hybrid shot in the mountains of western Greece by first-time directing duo Christina Koutsospyrou and Britain’s Aran Hughes, follows two shepherd families as they try to survive the Greek crisis. The production earned flattering reviews when it premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

Nikos Dayandas, who last year left Thessaloniki with the Film Critics’ Award for his film “Sayome,” returns with “The Little Land” to tell the story of a disaffected young urban couple who decide to try their luck on the remote Aegean island of Icaria.

The Greek economic crisis, which has touched all levels of society, also means that local documentarists – never a spoiled lot – will continue to struggle for funding. But on the other hand, they have technology on their side as digital video is making films cheaper to produce.

“The means [to make a documentary] are more accessible now and the need to cooperate has started to be more obvious, so I think we will continue to see fresh things from Greek creators,” Aivaliotis said.

Approximately 520 films will be available in this year’s Doc Market, including all those screened as part of the official program. Around 60 buyers will be attending from Europe, the USA and Canada.


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