The Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival is held annually in Greece every spring, and has gradually become one of the most important documentary film festivals out there in its eleven years of existence. I had the amazing opportunity to attend, and seeing as a lot of the documentaries I saw are being featured in Reykjavík right now, I thought I should tell you about it.
Documentaries have become an increasingly popular film genre and are now ever more important, in the world’s political landscape today with the mass media usually serving the politics agenda rather than the people’s search for truth and meaning in world events. While news segments create simple short dramatic sequences of world events more akin to entertainment than information, documentary filmmakers place themselves in the midst of events and allow the camera to tell a story over a longer period of time and capture what is usually lost in our fast paced news and mass media, which is some sense of truth.
That is why documentaries have become so important in 21st century journalism. And that is why I love going to documentary film festival such as the Thessaloniki one. We Icelanders are lucky because there is a special link between this festival and the Reykjavík International Film Festival (RIFF), because Dimitri Eipides, the artistic director of the festival, is also the program director for RIFF and is therefore sure to bring some of the best documentaries to Reykjavík.
Eipides, who is a veteran program manager for festivals around the world, says in the catalogue: “More than any other film genre, the documentary resists classification, not only because of the multitude of aesthetic approaches, methodological frameworks, thematic interchanges and ideological directions.” And he is right, there are endless ways to approach the truth but it is this sense of truth that audiences around the world are looking for: “In documentaries, images hold their own, independent truth, whatever the conditions or intentions at the moment they were filmed.”
Icelanders have generally embraced the documentary form. In the six years RIFF has gone on, the documentary section has always been very well attended. We live in a world burdened with all kinds of trouble, climate change, water shortage, food crisis, wars, poverty, human rights issues, homelessness and so on. There are so many issues that most of the time we cannot be bothered—sometimes it can simply be too depressing to watch all those stories being told—but those who love documentaries like to be informed and have opinions. The fact that documentaries are becoming ever more popular is perhaps a sign that there is still hope for this world.
Sometimes, the most terrible stories leave you inspired by the fight some people are willing to fight, and these are more often than not heartbreaking tales but also really beautiful and inspiring stories.
One of my favourites is Dancing Forest by Brice Lainé, a film shot in a small village in Togo where the women of the community have taken control of their own existence. It is a powerfully optimistic vision of 21st century Africa, and a touching story that shows us that change from within is possibility. Its message is that if people in Africa focus on what they need the most and take charge of their own situation, rather than relying on foreign aid programs, anything is possible. But despite its positive tone, Dancing Forest is also a subtle attack on the IMF and similar programs. This film is very impressive for a first time filmmaker. Brice Lainé is French but grew up in Togo and is thus familiar with the society and had a clear vision of the story he wanted to tell when he went back armed with a camera and sound equipment.
Another story from Africa, by another pair of French filmmakers, is Umoja: The Village Where Men Are Forbidden by Jean Crousillac and Jean-Marc Sainclair. It is also another story about women in Africa, but a far more troubling one, although the strength of the women is very inspiring. Women who were raped by British soldiers in Northern Kenya from 1970 to 2003 established the village where men are forbidden. Some 1600 women said they have been raped by these Western soldiers, and in 1990 a few of them gathered to establish this village where they spend their days making jewellery for sale and support. This is a powerful story about women’s rights and the way the West is treating places like Africa.
Another favourite from the Thessaloniki program was CRUDE by Joe Berlinger, an especially touching story of local people in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador fighting Chevron, one of the biggest oil companies in the world, over their environmental disasters that cause cancer and other diseases while killing rain forests in South-America, where indigenous people, their lives and the environment, are sacrificed for a big corporations’ financial growth. It’s a David and Goliath type of story that follows the largest and most controversial legal case today, the $27 “Amazon Chernobyl.” Joe Berlinger, a heavyweight in documentary film making after his Metallica film Some Kind of Monster, delivers a particularly well-made and solid film that leaves the audience angry, touched and inspired at the same time.
It is common in documentaries to see individuals conquer their world and make a difference in their surroundings such as in CRUDE. Sometimes documentary filmmaking is a form of activism by people who would like to make a difference in this world by making films about people who do make a difference in this world. And such a big theme in documentary film making today is environmental activism, which really shows the need for thinking differently about this planet. One interesting documentary that touches upon that subject is Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action by Velcrow Ripper that really ponders the question why so many people are willing to devote themselves completely to special causes in their fight against injustice and destruction. The film travels across the globe on a journey to capture the roots of activism and the powerful personalities that are igniting a new kind of spiritual action across the globe. The film is beautifully shot and Ripper is himself a long time documentary filmmaker fueled by a personal belief that another world is possible.
It is Dimitri Eipides’ cinematic vision and search for touching human stories that will benefit this world and our local Reykjavík International Film Festival taking place right now, where the above mentioned documentaries are being shown. So go to the cinema for enlightenment and inspiration.