Coinciding with the events in Thessaloniki as the European Youth Capital, the screens in the northern Greek city wrote ethics, truth and literacy on the wall.
Peter Wintonick once wrote: “We should attempt to pour our work and activism into the forge of human service. Let us become our own masters, re-appropriate our media away from conglomerates, consumption and mass-mind colonizers. Let us ‘robin hoodwink’ them, transforming our documentary artwork into real media for the masses.”
This year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival honored the ambassador of the international documentary community Peter Wintonick (who passed on last November) and his fellow film director Nicolas Philibert (To Be and to Have, Nénette). In the words of Wintonick, “Documentary is an ethical enterprise.” In our digital media culture this means that the documentary artwork educates, has a worldview and communicates.
Philibert’s In the Land of the Deaf (1992) is the perfect example of power discrimination between the hearing and the deaf, which is still considered a taboo in the 21st century. Never before a work has emphasized so strongly the importance of imaginative social work. In his early years, Florent who is deaf by birth, lets us inside his world while learning the sign language with his mother and schoolteachers. When he reaches for Philibert’s boom mic behind the camera, we’re taken by his hands’ and facial expressions: all that really matters to him and thousands of people who live in silence. Philibert’s film impacts our understanding of communication and his method makes us understand about the world we live in.
Philibert tells me, “All my choices are linked with the idea of cinema. When I decided to make this film it was also because sign language is very close to cinema language. A famous linguist explained that sign language has much more in common with cinema editing than any other language. Sign language is like a frame because it’s a visual language. You have close ups, wide views and movements of zoom inside the sign language and this is also what drove me to make this film. Not only the subject.” When I asked him about what advice he would give to new filmmakers he tells me, “I’m not the one who wants to give any lessons to other filmmakers because they are able to give their best. Any filmmaker has to invent his/her own tools, grammar, method and approach.”
On June 11, 2013 Greece’s broadcasting corporation (ERT) was shut within five hours. A similar incident never happened before not even during the years of the Greek dictatorship and the fascist military junta. Thus it came as a shock to the global community. Yorgos Avgeropoulos’s The Lost Signal of Democracy gives a comprehensive analysis of what exactly happened nine months ago. Apparently an unpublished legislative act allowed ministers the statutory authorization to publish a ministerial decree to close down ERT. The fact that legislative acts are a way to circumvent the Parliament but only in emergency circumstances, as set fourth in the constitution, didn’t matter to the nation’s current Prime Minister Antonis Samaras at all.
This was a decision of political control, ignoring profound democratic questions. On June 17, 2013 Greece’s supreme court ruled the Prime Minister’s act as non-legitimate but the Greek government never obeyed its decision. Job losses added to the 1.5 million of people out of work in Greece with current unemployment surpassing 30% while the closure of ERT also meant the loss of €300 million revenue.
Meanwhile fascism is escalating in the Greek Cypriot community on the sunny island of Cyprus as we get to see in Iva Radivojevic’s shocking essay film Evaporating Boarders. Cyprus is a multicultural island with a 25% of immigrant population, the majority of which are Palestinians from Iraq who escaped from suffering in search for a place to work with ease.
The director and narrator of Evaporating Boarders is herself Easter European who fled the Balkan Wars of the 1990s and resided in Cyprus. Her picture allows us the chance to see a picture of the island as the worst of places for migrants to live. A place where laws are not respected and where, according to Cypriots, a migrant is not an individual but rather an amorphous body we need to be protected from. One can only hope Radivojevic’s film is seen by as many people as possible in all corners of Greece and around the world.
The festival’s opening film for its 16th edition, Linar by Nastia Tarasova, tells the brave story of Marsel who was refused heart transplant in his native Russia due to prohibition. Thus Marsel was forced to live with a ventricle device, the size of a medium height fridge, connected to his body for more than a year, before finally being operated in Italy where he lived inside a hospital with his uncle for three months. Tarasova captures the sorrows and strengths of this child unfortunate enough to be born in a country that hasn’t got the law to carry heart transplants from child to child. But the absence of Marsel’s mother from his long journey remains a mystery.
To see more women filmmakers in the Greek documentary production than ever before is a sign good enough to be excited about. Their work proved dynamic both in worldview issues and auteur style. Christina Pitouli’s Bref is a distinct film about female genital mutilation as experienced by African immigrants whose feelings expressed on camera. Despite their traumatic experiences, Pitouli’s film reveals a diverse opinion on FGM torture, in which cultural heritage fails to recognise health warnings.
There’s plenty on family bonds and memory captured on Alexandra Anthony’s diarist Lost in the Bewilderness, a personal story searching for her cousin. Anthony’s family footage is a precious and delicate encounter of adolescence caught between the magic moments of child’s play and the suffocating world of adults with a strong need for possession. Difficulties in a society are believed to play a significant role within the family and communities, often bringing them together. Similarly, music has historically brought people together but that shouldn’t exist only during a crisis, as teachers demonstrate in Thekla Malamou’s and Alexandra Saliba’s short film Social Conservatory – Notes: a music school in Athens run entirely by volunteers for three years.
In the 1980s, Jim Jarmusch’s friend and American author Louis Sarno went to the Central African Republic and lived among the community of Yandoumbe. He went there to record the Bayakan music and the sounds of the Bayaka Pygmy’s surrounding environment deep inside the rain forest, which he digitised. He married a Bayakan and they now have a son whom one night while he held him in his arms after falling very ill, he promised to show him New York where Louis comes from. Samedi is now 13 years old and ready to take the long trip to the most populous city of the world with his father in Michael Obert’s Song from the Forest.
Obert’s film is an intriguing portrait of two worlds of wilderness: the tropical rain forest and the wild concrete city. One is pure, the other offended by, as Jarmusch says, “territories of greedy power and racism Americans don’t admit”. Both worlds have different perceptions on consumerism and survival. But Obert’s camera and Matthias Ziegler’s still photography have rescued the Bayaka Pygmy from the devil of nationalism by highlighting how Louis as an outsider was accepted among the pygmy’s small community.
Money is worth almost nothing in Cuba whilst Charlie Petersmann’s picture, Cantos, tells us that not only there aren’t drugs available to cure the cancer disease in the Caribbean country, its citizens are unable to connect to the Internet and the outside world. Utopias are far removed and Petersmann’s chronicle of four individuals in his debut feature documentary, are struggling to find their destiny in memory of a revolutionary dream. Perhaps it is our own selves we should be prepare to seek, understand and re-shape, for the ones who have families take a certain responsibility to raise their children responsibly for future generations to come.
Cristina, Jorge, Hayde, Ariadna, Giobanni, Karen and Adrian are escorted to a consultation room of a children’s hospital in Mexico City by their own parents in Nuria Ibañez’s The Naked Room (El cuarto desnudo). The whole world of these children, all abused by a member of their family in one way or another, is closely interrogated in one single room. But on what account their parents have any rights in giving them pills and isolating them in a clinic (instead of educating them) when their errors lead these kids to take their own lives? All of Ibañez’ portraits are close-ups of heroes triumphing their courage to live from a very young age.
In the championship fever of Bill Siegel’s solo debut feature The Trials of Muhammad Ali, the lifelong journey of emerging boxing superhero confronts us all. Ali was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War shortly after his decision to convert to Islam. His opposition to the call by famously saying, “No Viet Cong ever called me ‘niger’” came as a shock to some but influenced many more Americans in the 1960s. Siegel’s film is an inspiring work of Ali’s path by emphasising his fight for his identity, issues of power, race and faith, which will intrigue even an atheist. Archive interviews of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. alongside interviews with Ali’s brother, Rahman and Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan illustrate the champion’s human side and powerful worldviews. In 2005 Ali received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, ironically by George W. Bush.
On defining his documentary work Werner Herzog once said: Perhaps I seek certain utopian things, space of human honor and respect, landscapes not yet offended.” Cristina Picchi’s short documentary Winter embraces just that. Her portrait of a journey through North Russia and Siberia illustrates the harshest of climates that once experienced you become indifferent to everything. People are elements of millennial and unpredictable scripts in Lidia Duda’s Everything Is Possible. In the film, 80-year-old Teresa becomes sick and tired of her marriage and finds her true lover after hitchhiking to faraway places from her native Poland.
A better world doesn’t take a big deal, just will. But be very afraid of ideologies. Instead we should embrace and value schools before a childhood is lost. Rithy Panh’s unique The Missing Picture shows us that in fact nothing is real, just cinema, the revolution of cinema. Peter Wintonick may have gone but his light shown bright in Thessaloniki Documentary Festival this year. Herzog once told Wintonick, “The world is just not for filmmaking. You have to know that every time you make a film you must be prepared to wrestle it away from the Devil himself. But carry on, dammit! Ignite the fire.”
I ask Philibert if he has faith in this world and he tells me, “Not that much. I think that human beings are barbarians. If you look around you, you see corruption, wars, and jealousy. If you look to the recent past you can see how humans are able to act worst than animals. In my films I try to show the small things here and there that are like a life vest, which helps people to keep in life.” Philibert’s film Animals (Un Animal, des animaux, 1996) also screened in the festival’s tribute to his work.