Of brothels, barricades and the bottom line: The 14th Annual Thessaloniki Documentary Festival

Although tear gas, street rioters and baton-brandishing police officers have come to replace the Parthenon, capricious gods and spear-wielding warriors as icons of Greek culture these days, the northern coastal city of Thessaloniki displays no such responses to economic crisis. The country’s cultural center and second-largest city is home to two international film festivals: in late fall the acclaimed fiction festival and in early spring an equally celebrated documentary festival.

Thessaloniki’s winding cobblestone streets overflow with diners sampling a multitude of restaurants; its picturesque Aristotelous Square overlooking the Aegean Sea is packed with weekend sightseers and festival filmgoers; and its pastry shops—as omnipresent as Starbucks in the States—serve up unparalleled delights. Yet on weekdays a quiet pall of impending doom hovers over the nearly empty restaurants and shops haunted by boarded-up storefronts nearby. This “elephant” in the city, indeed in Europe and the world, is a subject openly addressed in several of the festival’s more than 170 documentaries.

Situating the Greek crisis within a global historical context, journalist Stelios Kouloglou’s Oligarchy (Greece, 2012) is a standout among other festival offerings on the subject. Kouloglou skillfully connects the dots between Pinochet’s Chile of the 1970s (with its harsh economic measures shaped by University of Chicago professor Milton Friedman as top advisor) and neoliberalist policies of the 1980s in the U.S. and Great Britain that extend forward to the U.S. and European Union of today.

A carefully researched, visually varied portrait of world economic conditions, rich with archival footage and informative expert interviews, Oligarchy refuses to play the conservative-vs.-liberal game but rather illustrates the powerful hold of dominant financial institutions like Goldman Sachs upon governments and politicians of both persuasions, most of whom collude in the “permanent process of blackmailing” weak nations, as one economist defines it. International privatization trends force Bolivians, for instance, to spend half their wages on water, now owned by U.S. corporations, while Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou resigned in 2011 in resistance to selling Greek utilities and islands in exchange for IMF loans. A surprising bit of information for filmgoers not regularly exposed to German and other European media is a campaign spearheaded by Germany to discredit Greece, positioning it as economic scapegoat. Ads featuring “the greedy Greek” label lazy, pleasure-seeking, non-working Greeks as the root cause of the country’s crisis.

The impact of globalization on farmers in the Vidarbha region of India is the subject of Micha X. Peled’s Bitter Seeds (USA-India, 2011), a film exposing conditions that have prompted the suicides of more than a quarter-million farmers, with one suicide occurring every half-hour. When the U.S. forced the WTO to open its doors to Monsanto seeds, produced by the world’s largest biotech company, less expensive conventional seeds were driven from the market. Already poor, farmers have been forced to purchase Monsanto’s hybrid seeds which, although resistant to the boll weevil, are highly susceptible to destructive mealy bug infestations and require more fertilizer and more water than traditional seeds, creating an impossible situation for farmers who cannot afford to irrigate their land.

Peled structures this third film of his globalization trilogy (Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town, 2001, and China Blue, 2005) around the daily life of Manjusha, the daughter of a suicide victim. Manjusha hopes to become a journalist in order to bear witness to the famers’ plight—an ambition her mother discourages and few villagers understand. We observe Manjusha as she attends classes and conducts interviews with farmers and their families, including her aunt and uncle who struggle with both their crop and arranging a suitable marriage for their eldest daughter. “Love marriages” bring shame to households that depend upon an arranged marriage for economic survival, yet impoverished farmers like Manjusha’s uncle strain to offer even modestly attractive dowries. By film’s end, the family’s crop has failed yet again; the lender remains intractable, and Manjusha’s uncle consumes a fatal dose of insecticide as so many other farmers have done—driven by the deep shame of debt and the inability to provide for their families. The convergence of economic and gender imperatives resonates powerfully, yet Manjusha remains undeterred in her goal, sadly made possible, one speculates, through the death of her father and restrictions his presence very likely would impose.

Gender restrictions also inform Nocem Collado’s Cartography of Loneliness (Spain, 2011), a film that observes the plight of widows in India, Nepal and Afghanistan, where widows and women whose husbands have abandoned them often are restricted from holding jobs and frequently are forced onto the streets as beggars or prostitutes. Arranged marriages between much older men and girls as young as ten or twelve are responsible for the world’s highest population of widows in these three countries. Although often recording dehumanizing conditions, Collado’s lyrical cinematography, much like Peled’s in Bitter Seeds, manages to elevate and celebrate the humanity and perseverance of these women, many of whom, like Manjusha, actively seek and create alternatives.

One widow has founded and operates a communal shelter in India; women in Nepal actively work within and receive assistance from WHR (Women for Human Rights), a non-governmental support group for single women. In Afghanistan women work in the HAWAC (Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children). Like Peled in Bitter Seeds, Collado refrains from narration, preferring instead to observe the worst of circumstances and also the best of activism as widows grow into greater self-determination through assisting others. Cooking classes enable them to provide meals to the less fortunate among their lot and education helps assist them in living independently from their families, where, in Afghanistan for instance, widowed women are regarded as the sexual property of their husbands’ brothers, resulting in growing polygamy rates. One woman proclaims that the current condition of women in Afghanistan is worse than at any time in the country’s history, a situation clearly intensified by war.

Sex work is the subject of Michael Glawogger’s Whores’ Glory (Austria-Germany, 2011), a film that drew standing-room-only Festival crowds. The third film also in his globalization trilogy (Megacities, 1998, and Working Man’s Death, 2005) Glawogger’s film, like Cartography, observes women in three different geographical locations: Bangkok, Bangladesh and Reynosa, Mexico. Through interviews and observation, Glawogger reveals both self-determination and oppression among prostitutes in very different circumstances. In Bangladesh, especially, it is hard to see prostitutes as anything other than victims inhabiting or held against their will in dark, confined, multi-story brothels to which they often are sold and forced to work from the time of first menstruation. Under the rule of older women or “mothers”—rather than male pimps as we might expect—the girls rarely or never emerge from the brothel, if even to stroll on an outside street. They eat, sleep, work and live there.

In Bangkok, by contrast, the Fish Tank is a brothel that serves dinner and drinks and supplies its sex workers with makeup artists, hair stylists and a wardrobe room. Once costumed, they enter a narrow glass case where, like department-store mannequins, they are displayed to the male “shoppers.” Although mafia-run, the Bangkok brothel provides prostitutes with a large percentage of their earnings, in marked contrast to Bangladesh and Mexico, where male pimps control prostitutes by cell-phone from a distance and through other prostitutes planted as “managers.” Glawogger has greatest access to the women and their work in Mexico, where he films an actual liaison between prostitute and customer and converses with one prostitute who enthusiastically describes her sexual techniques, eliciting much laughter from the theatre audience.

Glawogger makes no bones about having paid the mafia establishment, pimps, prostitutes and even johns in order to gain access, making it clear that for every minute in front of the camera, the prostitutes are losing out on potential earnings. “It’s a matter of decency,” he said during a post-screening discussion, adding that “prostitutes don’t do anything without payment.” Religion also plays a part in the lives of his prostitutes, whether they pray for customers at a small Buddhist shrine on the way to work in Bangkok or, in Reynosa, to Lady Death, a figure tied to local inflections of Catholicism. Glawogger expresses the intriguing connection between sex and religion, explaining that his film’s structure was inspired by triptychs in Catholic altar paintings. Color, light and shot composition create a visually stunning film that is part exposé, part neutral representation of the varied rules and practices of prostitution. Although the film arguably borders on exploitation at certain moments, it mostly steers clear of eliciting erotic voyeuristic pleasure.

The same is true of Scarlet Road (Australia, 2011), one of the most surprising and interesting of Festival offerings. The film follows Rachel Wotton, a sex worker in New South Wales—the only Australian state in which prostitution is legal—as she pursues an activist agenda in support of sex workers’ rights and promotes the advocacy group “Touching Base,” which runs workshops for sex workers specializing in disabled clients. More than half of Rachel’s clients are disabled, her services often blurring the boundary between health care and sex work.

The camera captures a truly radiant, intelligent and committed person in Rachel, as in one instance when she learns how to transfer a paralyzed young man from wheelchair to bed in advance of spending the night with him. In fulfillment of his desire to wake up with a woman next to him in the morning, as so many other men do, his night with Rachel is a birthday gift from his elderly parents. Rachel also meets with the mother of several Down syndrome boys, one of whom is in his teens and longing for sexual experience. She gently and humorously discusses with mother and son the various options and ways of accessing partners through local sources.

The openness and joy with which Rachel approaches her work is inspiring, yet she is not a volunteer—she is a professional who requires payment for her services. One longtime client, wheelchair-bound with MS, speaks about saving up for three months in order to afford an evening with Rachel. As we witness a few moments of her caring, gentle interactions with him, we can only agree that it is well worth the cost. The next day he is empowered and aglow, speaking with a few friends about how great a night he had with Rachel.

This year’s Festival honored the work of Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan, featuring seven of his 19 films, including the world premiere of his most recent Common State (France, 2012), in which he proposes a common Israeli-Palestinian state in lieu of the “two-state solution” that has resulted in an ongoing impasse in peace negotiations. As in so many of his films, Sivan interviews a range of Israelis and Palestinians, including journalists, scholars, artists and refugees, as a means of exploring the resolution his film proposes.

Viewed as a dissident filmmaker in his native country, Sivan, having entered documentary filmmaking through the unlikely door of fashion photography, is co-director of the graduate film program at the University of East London. In many of his films, Sivan criticizes the admonition to “always remember” past Jewish suffering as politically self-serving. In Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel (France-Belgium-UK-Germany, 2003), Sivan and Palestinian filmmaker Michel Khleifi chronicle their 2002 trip along the border created by UN Resolution 181 in 1947, partitioning Palestine to create the nation of Israel. They speak with Palestinians and Israelis who wistfully remember a peaceful, neighborly past of co-existence. When asked about the names, existence and inhabitants of former Arab communities that have since “evaporated,” some Israelis claim they “don’t remember” or assert that “there were no Arabs here.” Izkor: Slaves of Memory (France-Israel, 1990), focuses on one Jewish family and the schools their children attend, where they are taught to remember (“izkor” in Hebrew) through songs, history lessons and celebrations. The film captures the ironies of victimhood and its rhetoric. In Sivan's films, images of barbed-wire checkpoints, walled-in settlements, and bulldozed homes of suspected terrorists hauntingly recall those of Nazi oppression and horror. Through the marred Israeli landscape, his own penetrating questions and the responses of Israelis and Palestinians of all ages, Sivan paints a portrait of lives so overshadowed by uncertainty and potential violence that even bright moments of childhood play or communal celebration are drained of deeply genuine joy.

Lighter fare garnered public enthusiasm, with the International Selection Audience Award going to Italy, Love It or Leave It (Italy/Germany, 2011), a personal diary in which filmmaker Luca Ragazzi records his campaign to persuade his partner and co-director Gustav Hofer to remain in Italy, despite Gustav’s disillusionment with the country’s wages, benefits and general quality of life. In order to convince Gustav, who wants to move to Berlin, Luca takes him on a road trip throughout Italy. What could have been both a deeply humorous and tellingly ironic portrait is, to this critic’s sensibility, at points tiresome, sophomoric, and derivative of far more clever documentary diarists like Ross McElwee. The dazzling ORA (Canada 2011), a dance allegory drawing upon the myths of Narcissus and Prometheus, as inflected by Darwin’s theory of evolution, received the International Selection Audience Award in the short film category.

The FIPRESCI Award for Greek selection went to Nikos Dayandas for Sayome (2011), a film about a Japanese woman who, at age 22, moves to Greece. Jurors honored the film for “building bridges” between two distant cultures. The International FIPRESCI was awarded to Canicula (Mexico, 2011), a lyrical film about daily life in a small Mexican town that jurors honored for its “depiction of a marginalized culture” and its “admirable narrative restraint.” Among other awards, the Amnesty International Award went to This Is Not a Film (Iran, 2011), Jafar Panahi’s film surreptitiously shot while under house arrest and banned from filmmaking by Iranian authorities.

The Festival and its magnificent Thessaloniki setting—with ancient ruins sitting next to imposing early 20th-century architecture and spare modern structures—stand as testimony to the power of art, and the art of documentary filmmaking in its ongoing mission of making the unfamiliar familiar and vice-versa, inviting us to look anew at our surroundings and the remarkable people and details that so often go unnoticed.