Thessaloniki Documentary Festival – Looking at the big picture



Last weekend, the 17th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival ended. After ten days of screenings and discussions, it was the British production ”Virunga” that took home the audience price. The movie was already nominated for an Academy Award and director, Orlando von Einsiedel, sent video greetings.

It was rather cold this year in Thessaloniki. Once though, when the sun is out, the bay is calm and Mount Olympus reveals himself, one might think to have ended up somewhere in Switzerland. This impression doesn’t hold for long though. The livelihood of Greece’s second biggest city, its imperfection that connects distinct beauty with the pulse of real live, puts every Zurich or Geneva in its place.

Window to the world

The reality of Thessaloniki, like every city in Greece, is also marked by the crisis, a phenomenon that became a paradigm for much more than just financial issues. During the year, Greeks are busy managing this reality. During the annual documentary festival though, the city’s silver screens become windows to the world, revealing most of all one thing: However the crisis might be grasped in its totality, it is a phenomenon that extends way past the Hellenic borders.

As in previous years, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival has proven, why it belongs to the important events in the business. The choice of movies covers the wide range of documentary filmmaking: Individual portrays, the arts, human rights, retrospectives, society and so forth. As part of the festival, the individual movies show their true nature as pieces in the mosaic of a reality that is way more complex than leading media make us believe. Driven by the spirit of watching screenings together and engaging in discussion afterwards, this complexity unravels in a moment of shared truth, of focusing on something that escapes our personal vision of the world.

Connecting pieces of truth

When, in one screening, two French directors present movies like Ikaria, about the passionate fight of the inhabitants of a remote Aegean island to keep their health care system alive, and Greece of Christos Chryssopoulos, Patros Markaris and Ersi Sotiropoulos, in which three authors share their vision of Greece today, the audience is being taken from a close-up look at grass-root movements to the intellectual abstraction of it. Or when the Norwegian film I am Kuba on the dramatic situation of one of the so called Euro-orphans is screened right before Storm Makers, a documentary on young girls in Cambodia, who are sold into slavery, a strange connection between pieces of collective truth come to light.

Virunga, the movie, which eventually was awarded by the audience, managed to connect pieces, that brought the war in Congo, the survival of the earth’s last mountain gorillas and the

relentless methods of the European oil company SOCO to the attention of the viewers. Produced by Leonardo di Caprio, Virunga showed, how the struggle of rangers in a national park in midst of war and violence is directly connected to global companies based in Europe, and how the survival of gorillas is nothing short of the moral obligation we bear as human beings.

Greek directors take close look at their country

As in previous years, the crisis was the leading motif of the Greek contributions. While Agora – From democracy to the market by Yorgos Avgeropoulos was a chronological retrospective on the crisis, linking the bigger economic and political context with faces on the streets, Fascim Inc. by Aris Chatzistefanou dealt with fascism as a shield of the economic elite, using political systems in order to unable the rights of the working class and exploit the human being as an expandable resource.

The movie was crowd-funded and “belongs to the people,” as the director stated, announcing that it will be online and free of charge. In the longest Q&A-session of the festival, the audience expressed their appreciation for the movie. “Capitalism without Fascism is possible, Fascism without capitalism not,” Chatzistefanou pointed out the people.

But there were also movies that portrayed different stories of Greece, like the story of Olympia by Stavros Psillakis. While pregnant, Olympia is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Despite the risks, she decides to have the baby. The movie focuses on her, who, despite her disease, takes gratitude in life, inspired by her loving family, outstanding medical care (Yes, in Greece!) and, most of all, in her son Panayiotis. Eventually she did not win the battle against cancer. But the movie was a reminder of how the simple things in life, as well as the presence of family and friends are the sources of true beauty in life.

More important issues that Varoufaki’s finger

So, while Germany was busy discussing, if Varoufakis actually showed the finger or if the video was a fake, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival focused on much more important issues. Apart from the many stories that were told, and the information that was spread, it is a positive sign to see, how many filmmakers travel the world in order to drag attention to things that, in the mass media, are either simplified or ignored. The selection of the festival was great proof of the important role documentaries play, especially in a world ruled by simplifying mass media.

While many productions were already co-funded on an international basis, it will be interesting to see, if German and Greek directors, or European filmmakers in general, will find together in the future and shoot movies, that follow a rather comparative approach. The focus on the individual countries is important, but the big challenge for Europe now is to realize that the crisis is most of all an indicator of problems concerning culture and democracy – problems that are detectable in every country. Documentaries have a tremendous potential when it comes to uncovering the essence of a situation. This tool needs to be used in order keep social cohesion in Europe alive. And it is time to realize: Documentary filmmakers might be the most underpaid people in Western society.


This article was published first in NewEurope