Weapon of Choice

in 17th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Yoana Pavlova

Images of the 21st century: the title of Thessaloniki Documentary Festival seems to deliver as promised. Film crews from one corner of the world explore the opposite corner, like aliens, with the camera lens being the sole point of interaction. What is their driving force: curiosity, satiety, irony, or just a simple wish to gain control over the media's status quo by discovering something new and pure?

Two of TDF's key films could eventually provide an answer: the African journey We Come as Friends, by Hubert Sauper, and The Salt of the Earth, a portrait of Sebastião Salgado by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. In the former, alienation is not on the director's agenda; on the contrary, Sauper has spent so many years and developed so many projects on the "dark Continent" he can barely be called outsider. The sense of detachment emerges, rather, in the eye sof the (Western) spectator, who witnesses the forced split of Sudan as a nation and all its tragic implications. This detachment is related to the bitter realization that contemporary civilization, as a project, has come to a dead end. We Come as Friends plays with the concept of colonization on two levels, by reenacting the (Western) romanticism of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and baptizing the crew's airplane Sputnik—a nod to the history of space race—and by following the urge to return to Africa's colonial past and repeat certainhistorical gestures, not with a gun and a Bible, but, rather, with a camera. No wonder at the end we get the sense that the "we come in peace" mantra is turning into a menace. When analyzing We Come as Friends, it is worth mentioning that the last "thank you" credit of the film goes to Werner Herzog. Fitzcarraldo indeed comes to mind, and the imminent collapse of culture, the way we know it.

With the mention of Herzog it is easy to segue into the second title mentioned above, Wenders’ magnum opus (co-directed with newcomer Juliano Ribeiro Salgado), since both veteran German filmmakers are now known for their depletion in recent years—unless we speak of their efforts in the realm of nonfiction. The Salt of the Earth offers a double discovery, first through the lens of photographer Salgado, who has been documenting "the human condition" for many decades on every continent of the planet, and then through the camera of Wenders, who in Salgado has found a new and exciting subject. Salgado's photos contain the freshness of raw talent and the grains of authentic Christian compassion. His motivation to travel around the globe and work to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion can be regarded as part of the missionary tradition. Wenders, for his part, stamps the whole package with his rock’n’roll persona, working his usual charm and finally posing as a true (Western) explorer, fully aware of his footage's value, silver and gold—in the form of cinema awards, of course. The material is very powerful indeed: The Salt of the Earth's third act bring real tears of joy and relief. By tracing the life-path of Salgado and seeing the planet through his lens, viewers are granted the mercy of purification from all sins committed by (Western) man. Next: a new Genesis.

It is noteworthy that two hidden gems among the Greek titles at Thessaloniki Documentary Festival echo We Come as Friends and The Salt of the Earth by developing the same themes on more or less the same ground. A Place for Everyone, by Angelos Rallis and Hans Ulrich Gößl, narrates the Rwandan genocide in the light of its 20-year commemoration in 2014. The directors focus on a single village and two stories: a Hutu boy wants to marry a Tutsi girl, and a Tutsi girl tries to reconcile with the killer of her mother. What I personally find intriguing in the documentary is that the question of trust between the locals and the white people with cameras is always present. This is echoed in a question of trust between the directors and the viewers: we observe the bare bones of the plot, just as we see the bare bones of the genocide victims being exhumed. We cannot help but ponder whether events in the village would have evolved the same way if "the white man" was not there with his camera. Furthermore, A Place for Everyone plays gently with the tension between personages on screen in terms of narrative and mise-en-scène, which creates the feeling of authenticity, so different from the exploitive tricks of Joshua Oppenheimer, whose The Look of Silence was shown at TDF as well.

The other Greek title in that same contextual framework is Leaving is Living, by Laura Maragoudaki, a charming and humorous documentary about springtime poaching of the turtle-dove population on the Ionian islands. The film is produced by the Hellenic Ornithological Society, yet even with small budget and specific topic, it succeeds in sketching a colorful portrait of contemporary Greece, exposing the whole business-as-usual atmosphere which allows the illegal shooting to occur. Some of the most simultaneously revealing and amusing episodes in Leaving is Living are interviews with "reformed" hunters who admit that killing is a basic human instinct and they cannot escape nature, despite their guilty conscience. Again, it turns out the camera can replace a gun: one ex-hunter shares his experience of overcoming his deadly passion through photography.

Apparently this "evolution" gives a suitable answer to the current documentary cinema boom. Sounds like a happy ending, right? One last statement: to keep its EU funding, Thessaloniki Documentary Festival's programme must feature at least 80% European productions. It looks like the 21st century is simply a matter of (Western) status quo.

Edited by José Teodoro
© FIPRESCI 2015

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