Posts Tagged 'thessaloniki documentary festival'

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.

Thessaloniki doc fest pays tribute to iconoclast art critic John Berger

berger_art_of_looking

By Harry van Versendaal

Organizers of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival will pay tribute to English art critic and author John Berger, who died earlier this year.

Berger, whose groundbreaking 1972 BBC television series and book “Ways of Seeing” is credited with transforming the way in which a generation looked at and understood art, is the subject of two documentary films which will be showcased at the annual event taking place in the northern port city from March 3 to 12.

“The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger” is a four-part cinematic portrait crafted over five years by his actress friend Tilda Swinton, together with Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth and Bartek Dziadosz.

Also screening is Cordelia Dvorak’s “John Berger: The Art of Looking,” an intimate take on the man’s personality and work on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

Now in its 19th year, the festival will screen more than 210 documentaries – both shorts and feature-length works – by directors from all over the world.

Meanwhile, the Contemporary Art Center of Thessaloniki (Warehouse B1, Thessaloniki Port) will host an exhibition of original artwork by Berger. The show, organized by TDF and the Contemporary Art Center of Thessaloniki – State Museum of Contemporary Art, is the first of its kind since Berger’s death. Some 30 drawings and paintings, video footage and copies of his books will go on display.

A round-table discussion on Berger’s legacy will take place at the same venue on March 8, starting at 7.30 p.m. Speakers will include Berger’s editor and biographer Tom Overton, and Antonis Kotidis, professor emeritus at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki’s Art History Department.

A committed Marxist and vehement critic of capitalism, Berger trained as a painter, but soon turned his hand to writing. He worked as an art critic for the New Statesman for 10 years.

Berger’s novel “G” bagged Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize in 1972. Reacting to reports of slave labor that had enriched the sponsor Booker McConnell, Berger famously pledged to donate half his prize money to the Black Panthers, who were, as he put it, “the black movement with the socialist and revolutionary perspective that I find myself most in agreement with in this country.”

“He showed us how to see, not as individuals, but together,” BBC arts editor Will Gompertz said on the news of Berger’s death. “He showed us how to see art not as a relay race of individual geniuses but as a kind of companionship.”

Having lived for many years in a farmhouse in the French Alps near Mont Blanc, Berger died in Paris in early January. He was 90 years old.

Documentary films take center stage in Thessaloniki

tower

By Harry van Versendaal

As fake news, alt-facts and post-truths infect the world like a disinformation disease, fact-finding films can serve as a welcome antidote.

In its 19th annual iteration, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) will host more more than 213 nonfiction films (64 Greek productions) on a wide range of critical subjects including politics, human rights, art and the environment and two brand-new sections on cinema and food. Hosted at the flagship Olympion and Pavlos Zannas cinemas on Aristotelous Square and the red-brick and steel complex on the docks, the 10-day event runs from March 3 to 12.

The full lineup has not yet been made public, but the organizers have already announced a few of the most powerful offerings among the latest in international documentary production.

In “Austerlitz,” acclaimed Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa observes crowds of visitors at the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps while subtly examining intricate questions such as historical memory, respect, morality and normality.

Directed by Benthe Forrer of the Netherlands, “The Chocolate Case (Tony)” follows the efforts of investigative journalist-turned-activist Teun van de Keuken and his colleagues to explore child slavery in the chocolate industry all the way to their eventful launch of the world’s first “slave-free” chocolate bar.

Another TDF highlight is “Tower,” a groundbreaking reconstruction of the August 1966 sniper attack at the University of Texas at Austin that left 18 people dead. Director Keith Maitland brings together rotoscope animation, archival footage and present-day interviews, lending dramatic immediacy to an account of what is widely considered the first modern mass shooting.

Festival organizers have prepared a tribute to award-winning Russian director Vitaly Mansky. Born in Lviv, Ukraine, in 1963, Mansky has over the years shot in excess of 30 films that have been showcased at more than 400 international film festivals around the globe. He has worked extensively with amateur private footage shot in the years of the former USSR, before returning to his roots to meet his family members in his latest work, “Close Relations.” In between, Mansky crafted several remarkable features, including his 2015 “Under the Sun,” an unforgiving exposure of North Korea’s powerful propaganda apparatus. The film, which follows an 8-year-old girl as she prepares to celebrate the Day of the Shining Star, the birthday of late strongman Kim Jong-il, sparked a diplomatic tiff between Moscow and Pyongyang after its release.

Joining forces with the quinquennial exhibition Documenta (14), organizers have also prepared a tribute to the work of Italian avant-garde filmmaking duo Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi. Since breaking into the film scene in 1986 with “From the Pole to the Equator,” an arty, experimental comment on the dark side of Western civilization, the directors have mostly depended on found archival footage to make films about war, colonialism and exploitation.

Life: A user’s manual

trueblue

By Harry van Versendaal

When he was in his mid-60s, Stamatis Moraitis was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. His doctor told him he had between six and nine months to live. Living at the time in the US with his Greek-American wife Elpiniki and their three children, Stamatis was not going to be dictated to.

“The cheapest funeral at the time was $15,000. I told her that in Icaria island, a priest friend of mine will do a nice funeral for me for $200. So, we can go to the island for the funeral and the $15,000 can go for the kids. Why should the undertakers have it?” says Stamatis in Haris Raftogiannis’s “True Blue,” which screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival this week.

So the couple moved across the Atlantic to the idiosyncratic eastern Aegean island about 30 miles off the Turkish coast.

Nine months came and went… then years. Stamatis somehow managed to save something far more precious than his $15,000. Rather than succumbing to the disease, his ailing health gradually improved.

When he decided to check with his doctors back in the States, he found out that “they were all dead,” he recalls, giggling at his kitchen table as he takes another sip of his “medicine,” Icaria’s sweet red wine.

Scientists from around the world have sought to crack the mystery behind the good health and longevity of the inhabitants of this small, lush island with a population of less than 10,000. A 2009 study published by the National Geographic Society listed Icaria among five so-called “blue zones” where residents were found to outlive the American and Western European average by around a decade. About one in three Icarians was found to live into their 90s, while the population featured much lower rates of cancer and heart disease and significantly smaller chances of suffering from dementia or depression.

Producer Vicky Micha thought at the time that making a movie on the subject was bound to attract global interest. However, coming up with funds for the movie proved to be a challenge, Raftogiannis, a media-shy filmmaker in his late 30s, said during an interview in the northern port city.

“The project was in a coma for a few years, and I was close to pulling the plug on it last spring,” Raftogiannis said. Like Stamatis, the leading character, the project had its own back-from-the-dead twist. After taking one final look at the material and trying out a different structure, Raftogiannis managed to put together a 28-minute gem that seemed to resonate with Thessaloniki audiences.

Stamatis, now in his mid-90s, and his “girlie,” as he likes to call his wife, are a delight. Married for over 60 years, they are the epitome of joie de vivre. They spend their days chatting, teasing and helping one another, tending to their garden or cruising the island’s winding roads in their red Lada.

The news about Greece’s economic woes on the TV does not seem to disrupt their routine. The only thing capable of briefly shaking their existential tranquillity is bad news of a different kind: the death of or a memorial service for a fellow villager.

“I am interested in loss and how people deal with it,” Raftogiannis said. “Love, life and death is the trinity that plays on my mind, my existence; that’s the kind of thing I become obsessed with,” said the filmmaker nine years after making a short about unrequited love in a butcher’s shop.

“So what is interesting about this couple is how chilled out they are about everything, like they don’t give a damn. Even when things are serious, they find a way to ride it out, and I found that fascinating. It’s this idea of overcoming: seeing a bad thing coming and finding a way of coming out unscathed,” he says.

But how much of this is thanks to Icaria?

“Icaria, yes, there is certainly something special about the place, but I have no idea what it is. Some people say it is the natural radiation emanating from the ground,” Raftogiannis said in reference to the island’s granite rocks and famous hot springs. “Everything there is just slower.”

Scientists tend to link the Icarians’ high life expectancy to a range of factors, including the local version of the Mediterranean diet, a healthy social life (exemplified in their Dionysiac “panigyria” or outdoor feasts), daily exercise on its rocky slopes and the habit of taking afternoon naps.

“It’s possible it has something to do with the place. But you must also have it in you as well. The place alone is not enough,” the director said.

Any stressed-out urbanites watching this heartwarming, uplifting film will likely feel a longing for the couple’s relaxed lifestyle. Raftogiannis, for one, is not coy about his sentiments.

“You can’t help liking their carefree nature while also feeling a bit envious. They are cool, charismatic people.”


Haris Raftogiannis is currently working on three new documentaries and one feature-length fiction film to be called “To Potami” (The River), “an existential fairy tale about love.”

 

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

landfillharmonic_tania_at_home

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.

Thessaloniki doc fest tunes in to refugee crisis

JON BANG CAR

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s all in perfect tune with the darkish zeitgeist. Greece’s biggest documentary festival kicks off next month in the northern port city of Thessaloniki with a tribute to the plight of refugees streaming into Europe.

Syria’s five-year civil war has displaced millions of people, many of whom have sought to reach the safe and more prosperous nations of the European Union. The influx has opened cracks in Europe’s migration policy and triggered political wrangling between national governments. More importantly, the death toll is rising. More than 400 people have died so far this year trying to cross the sea to Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). And nearly 10 times as many migrants crossed in the first six weeks of 2016 than the same period last year.

Between March 11 and 20, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival – Images of the 21st Century (TDF) will showcase several films documenting the personal stories often lost behind the devastating statistics.

Filmed by Emmy-award-winning director Mani Yassir Benchelah, “This Is Exile: Diaries of Child Refugees” tells the story of Syrian children forced to flee to next-door Lebanon. It’s a beautifully crafted film, based on the exiled youngsters’ testimonies about loss, hardship and hope.

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

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

TDF organizers have also planned a panel discussion titled “Documenting the Refugee Crisis: Methods, Objectives, Challenges and Ethics.” The dates, speakers and venues for the event will be announced in the coming days.

Double tribute

Among this year’s highlights are tributes to contemporary Danish cinematographer Jon Bang Carlsen and Northern Irish filmmaker, writer and curator Mark Cousins.

Known for his radical, cross-genre style, which he lays out in his “How to Invent Reality,” Carlsen, 65, has since the 1970s made more than two dozen films that draw heavily on personal experience. As he puts it: “My films are not the truth, they just express the way I feel the world. That’s all.”

Born in 1965, Scotland-based Cousins is best known for his epic 15-hour 2011 documentary “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” an adaptation of his 2004 book “The Story of Film.”

Both directors will be at the festival to discuss their work.

Oscar-nominated works

Also screening this year are two Oscar-nominated films.

“Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah” is a short documentary film that recounts the making of the landmark 613-minute Holocaust documentary “Shoah.” The film was written, directed and produced by British filmmaker and journalist Adam Benzine.

Courtney Marsh’s “Chau, Beyond the Lines” is a movie about a teenager disabled by the effects of Agent Orange, the highly toxic defoliant sprayed by the US military onto Vietnam’s jungle during the conflict to expose northern communist troops.

Bow out

Now in its 18th year, this will be the last documentary festival directed by Dimitris Eipidis since his appointment in 1992.

“When we started out I didn’t expect that this project would last for so long. However, I persisted because I love documentary films,” Eipidis said in a previous interview.

“I believe that having alternative sources of information is a cornerstone of modern civilization.”


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