Under different circumstances, the 24th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival might have been a more celebratory affair, with coronavirus restrictions gradually loosening across Greece and the country’s second city hosting an in-person edition of a festival that was among the world’s first to go virtual at the start of the pandemic in 2020.
But with the humanitarian toll rising in Ukraine, as Russia continues its relentless assault of its Eastern European neighbor, festival director Orestis Andreadakis offered a sobering reflection on the eve of opening night on war, cinema and the need for solidarity.
“It’s shocking what is happening,” Andreadakis told Variety, likening the threat to the one faced by Europe during World War II. “After the war, we had this slogan: Never again. Never again to war. Never again to Holocaust. Never again to horror. Every time we repeated this phrase, every time we wrote it on the walls, we thought that it was the end of the horror. And suddenly, the horror is back.”
While the recent events in Ukraine have cast a pall over Europe and the rest of the world, they’ve also strengthened the resolve of the European film community. Festivals, industry trade groups, national film bodies and individual filmmakers across the continent have raised funds, welcomed refugees and rallied behind the untold numbers of Ukrainians whose lives have been upended by a war that has sent more than two million fleeing westward into Europe and displaced countless millions more.
For Andreadakis, the outpouring of support has sharpened the focus of this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, which runs March 10-20. “What is the position of a festival? What can we do as filmmakers, as artists, as curators?” he asked. “Of course, we cannot go and help physically. But at least we can speak to the people. We can make people understand this is unacceptable.”
One way the festival hopes to achieve that is through a special programming focus on three documentaries that approach the war in Ukraine and its widening impact from different angles.
French war correspondent Loup Bureau’s “Trenches,” which premiered Out of Competition at the Venice Film Festival last year, travels to the frontline of Ukraine’s restive Donbass region, where the director spent four months embedded with soldiers living under the constant threat of bombardment from Russia-backed separatist groups. Simon Lereng Wilmont’s “A House Made of Splinters,” which earned the Dane best director honors at Sundance and screens in Thessaloniki’s international competition, follows a group of social workers and residents at an institution in Eastern Ukraine where the children of unfit parents are sheltered while their next steps are decided.
Meanwhile Vera Krichevskaya’s “F@ck This Job” offers a spirited, behind-the-scenes portrait of a decade in the life of Russia’s last independent broadcaster, TV Rain, which just last week was forced off the air in the wake of the Kremlin’s draconian new media law which bans any reference to the war in Ukraine.
The festival also announced that Lereng Wilmont’s “The Distant Barking of Dogs,” which follows a teenager living in the shadow of war in Eastern Ukraine and won Thessaloniki’s Golden Alexander in 2018, would be available on its online platform with all proceeds going to Voices of Children, an NGO launched in 2015 to help children impacted by the war.
Andreadakis pointed to the ability of such filmmakers to bear witness – to political folly, to human suffering, to a shared humanity – as evidence of the vital role played by documentary filmmaking in the world today.
“Documentary exists to be there and frame all the difficult situations around the world,” he said. “I think it’s one of the reasons in the last 20 years that documentary is so strong.” He cited climate change, the global financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic as large-scale, history-defining events deserving of a cinematic platform. “There are so many big problems it’s as if they demand to be filmed. They demand a spotlight.”
The curtain rises on this year’s festival March 10 with the world premiere of “How to Survive a Pandemic,” a riveting, behind-the-scenes documentary about the race to develop and roll-out COVID-19 vaccines, from Oscar-nominated director David France (“How to Survive a Plague,” “Welcome to Chechnya”). The festival wraps March 20 with “Blind Ambition,” Warwick Ross and Rob Coe’s film about the first-ever Zimbabwean team to compete in the World Blind Wine Tasting Championships – the Olympics of the wine world.
More than 230 feature-length and short documentary films will screen across the 10-day event, including 77 from the host country. Andreadakis noted the growing strength of the Greek documentary industry as a heartening sign and an integral part of the festival’s mandate. “I think Greek documentary filmmakers are making a big leap forward the last 20 years. I hope that our festival played a role in that,” he said.
The festival’s industry arm, Agora, is prepping for a busy edition with a combination of online and on-site events, kicking off with the anticipated Thessaloniki Pitching Forum, the co-producing and co-financing platform of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. Fourteen projects in different stages of development will make their pitch to potential industry partners on March 14. Ten projects from Southeast Europe and the Mediterranean region will also take part in the Agora Docs in Progress, where they will be presented to industry professionals, sales agents, distributors, producers and festival programmers.
Four days of talks and parallel events will take place March 14-17 within the framework of Agora Talks, including a masterclass from acclaimed Danish editor Niels Pagh Andersen (“The Art of Killing,” “The Look of Silence”). Throughout the festival, more than 350 finished documentary films will be available to accredited guests through the Agora Doc Market online library.