The trials and tribulations of the economic crisis in contemporary Greek society have been at the forefront of recent news across the world. But what better place to begin to understand the context of that reality than through the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (March 15-25, 2013) one of the top documentary festivals in the world. Set in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, but administered out of Athens, the Docfest was created 15 years ago by super programmer Dimitri Eipides. It is the documentary offspring sister to the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which he also directs, and which since 1960 has been one of the world's oldest classic festivals. Thessaloniki is what I call my secret city. Founded in 315 BC, it is imbued with history. Named for the half-sister of Alexander the Great, who was born nearby, it was a major site in the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. St. Paul the Apostle wrote his first Epistle of the Bible's New Testament to the Thessalonians. It was a major centre for Judaism, until the German Nazi occupation of the city in the Second World War.
Now Thessaloniki is a crossroads for documentary. From this modern, cultural city of a million people, filled with many educational institutions, the festival draws a literate, activist audience approaching 50,000. Eipides has made the festival both a populist affair and one which attracts a fair number of directors, documentary industry people, buyers, distributors and broadcasters. I have been a fan of this very public festival since the very beginning, having attended most of the previous editions. Divided into thematic sections, the festival has a very big humanitarian streak in its heart. Human rights and environmental films vie for attention beside biographical portraits, views of the world, music and history docs. There are six main venues, most of them nearly full for each screening. The Greek films are almost always sold out.
The thing that differentiates the Thessaloniki Doc Fest from many others is a sense of social purpose. There are many parallel events. Over the years, I have attended conferences discussing the rights of children; one year the festival even organized a national telethon raising money with Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf for a project on the education of Afghani children.
There is a well-established documentary film market, a closed circuit online documentary catalogue, a live streaming of selected films to various towns and cities across the nation, and a documentaries-for-kids programme. This year one event showcased a film library to be housed in Thessaloniki's Film Museum and Cinematheque, in Warehouse in the City Port. The festival is also exemplary in the publishing of excellent books that go along with the major retrospectives; this year one, edited by Dimitris Kerkinos, honoured Chilean director Patricio Guzmán. There are also parallel projects such as art and photographic exhibits related to the festival. This year Thanos Stavropoulos and Iranian-Canadian photographer Babak Salard produced an online workshop Thessaloniki 101 with 14 young Greek photographers. Over the last 15 years the European Documentary Network (EDN) has also held The Docs in Thessaloniki / Pitching Forum 2013 workshop, organized by the EDN and the festival with the support of the EU MEDIA Program. The Forum has been instrumental in developing new talent from the region. After three days of intense training, producers and directors pitch new documentary projects on subjects gleaned from around the world, in two days of open pitching sessions before key broadcasters which also welcome all festival guests as observers.
The festival, over 15 editions, has been known for the quality of its master classes, lifetime awards, retrospectives, market talks and a lovely gem of an event, the annual Just Talking round-tables. Over the years the festival has pioneered long-distance video conferences with thinkers like Noam Chomsky, held before hundreds in the beautiful Olympian Theatre. There is a great conviviality here, where almost every professional is included at communal lunches at the Agora, or parties and musical concerts, which over the years have featured some great acts from the region. The hard-working staff must once again be congratulated for pulling off one of the great documentary festivals, despite economic hardships. The jury had to watch a rich diversity of Greek and international documentaries, some taking personal tracks, others in the direct cinema tradition, and yet other social docs with essay ambitions. We awarded Panayotis Evangelidis' They Glow in the Dark, a moving and engaging film shot in New Orleans, the top Greek award; and Diego Gutierrez's Parts of a Family (Partes de una familia), a film with incredible personal access, which to this viewer had the qualities of a Bergman film. (Peter Wintonick)
Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival: www.filmfestival.gr