One year after the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival was among the world’s first industry events to pivot to an online edition because of the coronavirus pandemic, planning for the 2021 follow-up “has been feverish, to say the least,” says festival director Orestis Andreadakis.
But with open-air cinemas across Greece reopening this spring, and life in this sun-splashed Mediterranean nation—as it is elsewhere in Europe and some parts of the world—beginning to return to something like normal, the timing couldn’t have been better to raise the curtain on the festival’s 23rd edition.
“It was a painstaking task worthy of every effort as a physical festival, a festival with actual audience watching films in actual cinemas on a large screen, was sorely missed,” Andreadakis tells Variety. “We missed seeing films the way they are supposed to be seen, and most of all we missed sharing the screen with our friends, the audience of Thessaloniki.”
This year’s festival kicked off during its customary March window, with a series of online screenings designed to whet the appetite of audiences eager to return to cinemas and lay the groundwork for the summer’s festivities. Now a physical edition will unspool in Thessaloniki from June 24-July 4, alongside a hybrid version of its industry platform, Agora, which takes place onsite and online from June 25-July 3.
The 23rd edition presents more premieres than ever before, with 36 of the films screening in its three competition sections having their world, international or European premieres. Twelve titles will take part in the main competition, where they’ll vie for the Golden Alexander, while 72 short and feature-length Greek documentaries will also screen.
Programming head Yorgos Krassakopoulos describes this year’s selection as “one of the strongest in recent years.”
“Despite the fact that filmmakers were struggling (as did most of the people around them), the quality and the quantity of the work did not suffer,” he says. “Especially for this edition of TDF we had more or less as many submissions as we did any other year, and the quality was impressive.”
Given the unprecedented circumstances, it was perhaps expected that the coronavirus pandemic “in all its expressions” would be present throughout the program, says Krassakopoulos, “from personal films about its impact on people, to large-scale, on-the-spot accounts of it ravaging cities like Wuhan.” But he credits the filmmakers for exploring the broader human condition as well, and offering a wider perspective on the past year.
“Films that can be seen as collective or personal testaments, not of just life during the pandemic, but of human nature and spirit as well,” he says. “Looking at the world in a deeper way and offering us a better understanding of a bigger picture through stories that can come in all shapes and sizes.”
The festival opens with “Tina,” the acclaimed portrait of the life of Tina Turner from Oscar-winning directors Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin, which recently bowed in the U.S. on HBO Max. Running parallel to the screenings in Thessaloniki will be the Agora industry program, whose highlights include the anticipated co-production pitching forum and works-in-progress section, as well as a series of talks and masterclasses. Accredited guests will also have access to the Agora Doc Market digital library, which includes more than 400 completed documentaries.
Pulling off this year’s edition at a time when the world is still struggling to emerge from the pandemic’s vise-grip has been a “journey,” says Andreadakis, who credits the organizing team with using available technology to make the most of difficult circumstances.
The pandemic, which forced Andreadakis and his colleagues to do most of their work remotely, also hastened other changes to move the festival further into the digital era, with virtual accreditations, paperless tickets, and a fully electronic customer service replacing the box office of previous editions.
Ultimately, though, the biggest change after the events of the past year will be a return to the festival as a physical gathering place. “The Thessaloniki Film Festival has been there for 60-odd years, educating the audience, bringing stars and upcoming talents to one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” says Andreadakis. “Thessaloniki is and will for long be on the world’s cinematic map for so many industry professionals who long to come back and take part in the market’s activities.”
This year’s festival, he adds, is a ringing endorsement of the perseverance that has brought both Thessaloniki and the film industry as a whole to this point. “These extraordinary conditions in which the industry had to adapt and follow through a rather prolonged period prove the versatility and adaptability of the industry,” says Andreadakis. “Film is here to stay, and so are festivals. We fought and learned a lot, and we owe much of this new knowledge to our audiences, our friends and our associates in the industry.”