I was sitting on a bench in the lobby of the Museum of Byzantine Culture with Constantinos Sfikas, head tour guide for the 15th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF). We had just concluded the festival-sponsored tour of Greece’s second-largest city with a look at ancient coins and pieces of pottery; prior to that, my group and I had spent over two hours passing through and around elegant old churches, and staring at ancient ruins near coffee shops. The tour’s midpoint had been marked by Sfikas—an animated middle-aged man pointing out landmarks with a red metal cane, and sometimes checking his watch to see how much more could be squeezed in before his guests’ photo shoots and press conferences began—taking us into a sweet shop to buy us all small, traditionally Greek chocolate cigars; soon afterwards, we had marched to the Arch of Galerius and the Rotunda, neighboring fourth-century stone monuments in the midst of modern apartment buildings and cars passing a crowded street.
The past and present live together within Thessaloniki’s daily life, Sfikas kept telling me as we sat in the Museum. “The city has so many options,” he said, explaining the tours currently offered through the municipality, with many UNESCO-designated world heritage monuments as stopping points. “Ottoman, Jewish, Roman, Byzantine, the villas, the upper city,” he listed as some of the paths one could take. “We have a blend of East and West in Thessaloniki. It all has a story of 2,300 years of continuous life.” He spoke to me, as he had throughout the day, with a kind of mischievous intensity; though his eyes fixed firmly upon whomever he was addressing, there was no telling when they might break away to gesture towards some local treasure.
It’s sometimes hard to watch films at TDF—whose sub-heading is “Images of the 21st Century”—because one only has so much time to absorb the city. At most festivals one can get away pretty well with ignoring the surroundings in favor of throwing films over one’s head like a blanket, but to do that there would miss the point. The eight afternoon minutes I spent staring at the sunlight illuminating the water as I walked along the waterfront from my hotel to Thessaloniki’s central pier, where four of TDF’s six screens were located, were the richest moments of each day. It’s difficult to compare sitting in a movie theater to feeling like one is walking around inside a movie.
In addition to appearing onscreen many times, I discovered, Thessaloniki has been essential to Greek film history in other ways. “The first film screening in Greece was documented at Thessaloniki in 1897, at a hotel café in the city center,” Doctor of Film Studies Angeliki Milonaki, co-editor (with film critic Yannis Grosdanis) of the University Studio Press book Cine Thessaloniki: Stories from the City and the Cinema, wrote me by email. “It was the base for the first Greek filmmakers, the Manakis brothers and their successors. In the 1910s it was characterized as a cosmopolitan city that would host both Greek and foreign filmmakers, who mainly shot war film newsreels for the Entente Allies during World War I. In time Thessaloniki came to also be identified as the city for Greece’s cinephile audiences, with the country’s most popular open-air cinemas, its most pioneering film journals, and its first and most important film festival—the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, founded in 1960.”
Milonaki added that TDF, like its older, larger sibling, has become an invaluable resource for Film Studies students at the nearby Aristotle University, the largest university in Greece and in the Balkans, who constitute filmmakers, volunteers, and audience members. In contrast to what I’ve been told is a large international mix of guests at the bigger festival in November, this year’s TDF sported a local feel. Though several foreign filmmakers, programmers, critics, and distributors were present (many for the festival sales event, the International Doc Market), there were also a few Q&A sessions with Greek filmmakers where no one in the room needed an English-language translator.
Each time a sheepish utterance of “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Greek” left my mouth, I was reminded that I was someone passing through. The awareness that time was short led to taking lots of photographs, eating honey-drenched kataifi, and visiting the ancient ruins of Vergina, where one can see the tomb of Philip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father. These were all very pleasurable educational experiences—as were, ultimately, TDF’s good films.
The opportunity to learn something concrete about the greater world is part of both the essence and the lasting appeal of the documentary form. The ways in which documentaries typically present those opportunities have by now, it seems, become as codified as school subjects. I’ll summarize the standard forms I saw on display at TDF this year, as well as give an example of a single film for each:
Flash and dazzle. The lesson is buy this product. Most readily apparent in the form of short commercials, one of which was the official TDF advertisement (a sheep’s head whose blindfold is removed, allowing it to see the wonders of cinema) that played before each screening.
Chronological retellings of historical periods and events, with biography (in particular artists’ biographies) a popular subcategory. Archival footage and photographs are linked through voiceover narration and talking heads. Story takes great priority over character. The lessons to be learned from these films are usually factual, and as self-evident in the telling as those presented in any textbook. I could probably think of few greater examples than Patricio Guzmán’s three-part documentary The Battle of Chile, completed between 1975 and 1979 and screening on DigiBeta as part of a Guzmán retrospective. The left-wing Guzmán and his crew filmed in Chile shortly before, during, and immediately after the United States-supported military coup that replaced the Marxist, democratically elected leader Salvador Allende with the dictator General Augusto Pinochet. Riots and protests unfold onscreen throughout the first two parts, which, while alternating between the perspectives of leftists and rightists; the third part returns to the time soon before the coup to observe ground-level efforts towards implementing Allende’s educational and economic policies for the sake of creating an equal society. “The left, united, will never be defeated,” cheer Allende’s supporters throughout all three parts. The film leaves viewers with a bittersweet feeling, coupling a register of what Chile lost in the coup with a hope that it can someday be regained.
The TDF screenings for Guzmán’s films were among the most crowded I attended, with The Battle of Chile in particular playing in sold-out auditoriums to frequent audience applause. Guzmán, who could not attend TDF because of a broken leg, gave taped introductions to all his films, and said as prelude to the second part of Battle, “When we started we were thinking about making a film about the revolution. Then we realized that we were making a film about the anti-revolution, the liquidation of a revolutionary plan.” After its completion the film, which Guzmán claims depicts “the end of the last utopia of the twentieth century,” was censored and kept from release in his home country. In his 1997 film Chile, Obstinate Memory, Guzmán—who has lived in exile in Europe (first Spain, then France) since the coup—returns to Chile for the first time since the 1970s to show the film to young people, and records their shock and outrage at having had their history concealed from them. He and they then work together to recover memories of the past, a duty that they believe will help Chile’s future.
A topic (the pleasure of Scrabble, the unknowable wills of God) is offered, typically with a mix of archive footage and talking heads. In form and structure it often proceeds much like the history film, with thematic organization instead of chronological. Essentially wordless films that explore their themes impressionistically, such as the Qatsi trilogy, also qualify. The chief lesson often lies in the vast number of perspectives and pieces of information given about the film’s central topic. Though I have yet to see all of Viktor Kossakovsky’s ¡Vivan las Antipodas!, my understanding is that the film proposes to show what antipodes (locations directly opposite each other on the planet Earth’s surface) look like in relation to each other, and then does so, allowing the viewer to see what many different parts of the world look like in the process.
Human Rights Films
Stories of specific recent events and situations, often (though not always) about natives of underdeveloped countries or of poor communities in developed ones who are dealing with atrocities committed against them by authority figures. Individual struggles are offered to illustrate greater ones. The lessons of these films are usually self-evident, to be boiled down to clear pro/con positions—pro-women’s rights, anti-homophobia, pro-freedom of speech, and so on. Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellmann’s Outlawed in Pakistan follows a teenage girl named Kainat Soomro and her family across several years as they attempt to prosecute four men who she accuses of gang-raping her. In the meantime, her family members’ refusal to kill her lead them to join her as outcasts, with her brother even killed for his.
Whatever nuance exists within the human rights film usually serves to illustrate its greater message. In Outlawed in Pakistan both Kainat’s attorney—a middle-class man who takes on cases like hers pro bono—and the men’s attorney—a wealthy celebrity who has previously represented a Pakistani Prime Minister—address the filmmakers with self-awareness of their positions within a corrupt legal system. Her lawyer, who knows that his work is essentially symbolic, explains how the carelessness with which Pakistani police handle evidence of rape cases—a function of their greater treatment of Pakistani women as second-class citizens—has led him to rely on his judgment that a young woman wouldn’t lie about something that could get her killed as his strongest evidence. The men’s lawyer explains that, even if there’s no match in a cross-examination between him and a young girl, he has to take full advantage of what Pakistani laws allow him. Both men deepen the film’s point that the laws are wrong.
A person or small group of people is recorded over a specific period of time. Observation of everyday routines mixes with interviews with the people about themselves. The opposite of the history and theme films in that character takes great precedence over story. When there is an overt narrative, it often feels as though the main characters will that narrative into being through the decisions they take.
As with the human rights film, the individuals often end up representing groups. The lesson of these films is that these specific people are interesting, and worthy of attention—and so, by extension, are people like them. They Glow in the Dark was shot by the Greek filmmaker Panayotis Evangelidis in New Orleans, where he followed a gay couple named Jim and Michael in June 2010. Both HIV-positive men have been celibate for years (Jim says, “When you’ve partied like Caligula, baby, there’s no place else to go”), and live in mutually reliant fashion even though they seldom interact. The film follows them as they sell small clay figures at the French Market, then address the camera in their separate quarters at home. Jim is embittered and sees no way forward for himself; Michael shares his dream of rediscovering a long-lost lover. They Glow in the Dark focuses tightly on the two men, to the point where their scattered commentaries on New Orleans’s difficulty rebuilding post-Hurricane Katrina make them seem like human metaphors for an entire sick, decaying city in need of help.
An individual or small group of people prepare for an event or set of events. These films can overlap with portrait films if the people are developed; though musicians and dancers tend to be frequent subjects, they can also be artists working in other mediums and athletes playing other sports. The lessons usually deal with what it takes for the people to create their performances. To give these lessons, the films typically mix backstage rehearsal material in which we see the people preparing, interviews in which they describe how they think and feel about what they do, and performance footage in which we can study how they do it. The exact mixture of these kinds of footage varies from case to case. Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams’s 2000 film Gaea Girls, which showed as part of a retrospective highlighting former TDF standouts, follows young Japanese women training to be professional female wrestlers. Long sequences of the girls being pummeled by their instructors in the ring during practice lead to long sequences of them pummeling and being pummeled by other girls during matches. Longinotto, also represented at TDF with her new film, Salma— about a South Indian woman who, after twenty years of indoor confinement, became a celebrated poet and politician— writes by email that Gaea Girls “is about ambition, resilience, and the desperate quest to be somebody.” The film’s last image is of an injured young woman holding flowers and posing for photographs, still wincing but thrilled to have fought her first match.
Fiction and documentary (or, if one prefers, staged and unprompted) scenes mix. The Greek filmmakers Christina Koutsospyrou and Aran Hughes’s To the Wolf focuses on a few aging residents of a small mountain village as they proceed with sheepherding and house chores. Like many other hybrid films (which can easily overlap with portrait films), Wolf contains an ethnographic element, with its rural people who would likely never otherwise appear in a movie called upon to perform a version of their everyday lives. Work is decreasing for these people, who spend many hours killing time. The film’s main character, an embittered old man, appears early on insisting, “Greece is finished. It’s dead,” and complains throughout the film about how politicians have deceived people and ruined the country. To the Wolf, like its hybrid peers, teaches a lesson about the need to embrace the malleable, subjective nature of reality. It rejects a corrupt government’s official stories of how Greek citizens are living with its own truth.
A filmmaker explores a topic as a way to discern what he or she thinks, typically, the personal journey is relayed through voiceover that plays over the film’s images. The lessons prove to be as varied as the artists are, with the level of simplicity or complexity in instruction also varying. This genre, which typically overlaps with the portrait and hybrid films, is a personal favorite—a good essay film is difficult to do well, but many of the best instances (for instance, Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia), Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, and Marina Goldovskaya’s The Shattered Mirror) are able to sublimely capture multiple emotional states, sometimes simultaneously and in ineffable ways. This year’s TDF did not screen many, but a marvelous one was Patricio Guzmán’s 2010 film Nostalgia for the Light. In the years since The Battle of Chile, Guzmán has made the need to preserve memory into his major subject. The film’s central contrast is straightforward: the filmmaker, who adored astronomy when he was younger, visits an astronomy center in the Atacama Desert, with an enormous telescope pointed towards the stars. Nearby, women search for the remains of their loved ones, murdered during the Pinochet regime and now buried somewhere under the rocks. Guzmán presents his own beliefs through an external situation. His burgeoning need to look less above and more below becomes a way of working out how to come to terms with the past.
While documentaries that belong primarily to one category typically offer characteristics from others, some documentary films blend several. Jeroen Van Velzen’s luminous Wavumba (the title translates to “They who smell of fish”) is an essay film in which the Dutch director returns to Kenya to record the storytellers he revered while growing up there; a portrait film in which he focuses lovingly on the wrinkled old body of Mashoud, a villager who dreams of capturing a giant shark; a performance film in which Mashoud and a younger native man fish for it; and a history film in which the life of the area is recounted through natives’ legends and tales. As in Guzmán’s work, the central preoccupation connecting all these strands is memory. If the area’s people are not remembered through stories (including this film), then the memory of them will disappear.
Films that focus on current or recent political events. They are usually narrative, and often overlap with the other genres—“All art is political,” wrote George Orwell, and so are all documentaries, though some more explicitly than others. The new film I saw at TDF whose political expression I found most compelling, Demokratia, the Way of the Cross (directed by Marco Gastine, who organized footage shot by five cinematographers), follows four candidates running for office during the lead-up to Greece’s May 2012 Parliamentary elections. We watch them in quiet moments as they talk on the phone with friends and family members, dress themselves, and prepare for meetings with voters who, fed up with living in economic crisis, confront the leaders directly. As a candidate calls for election reform, an audience member interrupts to point out that there’s still no software available for helping people fill out their tax forms and demands, “Let’s work on the simple things first.” Another voter meets a candidate at a fundraiser to ask why the rich are hiding money abroad, and says, “You want to create a country in the example of Chile.” A political film is a history film about the present. When I heard this line I remembered the audience applause for working-class struggles throughout The Battle of Chile.
Yet both Gastine’s film and Guzmán’s films avoid directly condemning anyone for society’s problems, instead suggesting that all citizens hold a measure of responsibility for them. In Guzmán’s 2010 short Chile, A Galaxy of Problems, we learn that 60 percent of legal cases charging members of the Pinochet regime (which officially ended in 1990) with human rights violations still have yet to be ruled on. A former military head claims that judging the regime for criminal actions is not so easy, since to do so would also constitute a kind of forgetting—after all, he says, none of the soldiers and their leaders acted alone. They committed their crimes with public support.
Similarly, though I saw audience members clap for Demokratia, I also registered that some seemed troubled by the film’s positing politicians as vulnerable human beings. “The film makes the audience a bit more aware of how the political system holds part of the responsibility for Greece’s dramatic current situation,” Gastine writes by email. “What has been very interesting for me, with the feedback I have received after screenings in Thessaloniki and from Greek audiences in general, is that people recognize themselves in the politicians. Usually they had previously considered them strange animals, but after screenings many people came to me and said, ‘Your film was disturbing to us. We identified with them, so now we feel far more responsible for what has happened with our country.’”
Aaron Cutler lives in São Paulo with the artist Mariana Shellard and keeps a film criticism site, The Moviegoer.