Bright Lights Film Journal

On the Border of the Thermian Gulf: The Ninth Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

“The documentaries that most stood out have a near fictional flair, blurring the border between reality and fable.”

For the ninth year, the formerly predominantly Jewish city of Thessaloniki in Greece (former because of the Holocaust) has hosted an exceptional documentary festival, chosen personally by Art Director Dimitri Eipides, who screened 1,000 works before deciding on the final number of 236.

As usual at a film festival, it is the little-sung film that has the most resonance. The festival celebrated veteran Barbara Kopple, renowned for her left-leaning films Harlan County USA and American Dream. Since those early works, featuring hard-core working-class heroes, Kopple has gone the direction of many an artist: commercial. Her latest effort, Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing was a big hit with audiences — very entertaining because of the sexy blonde powerful singers, their catchy music, and the thin storyline about political subversion against Bush (main singer Natalie Maines says: “I am ashamed the president is from Texas,” and this creates an uproar in rightwing country-rock-land). Yet the political subversion of Maines’ comment is only a decoy in this film to what is ostensibly, as one disgruntled leftist longhaired Greek student said, a music video commercial for the band. Since when did the Dixie Chicks protest in the trenches? They spend most of the film worrying how to fill their concert arenas — and keep their fame.

Fame has not yet come to Jack Youngelson, co-director (with Peter Sutherland) of Tierney Gearon: The Mother Project, and indeed, on leaving the festival, he sat in second class of the same airplane in which Barbara Kopple sat in first. Yet his film was surely the jewel of the festival.

Tierney Gearon, the American photographer, and her psychological-artistic relation to her mother, is Youngelson’s subject. The film begins with a shot of Tierney enthusiastically running up the lawn to visit her mother in the South. The shock is that the mother is borderline crazy. She brutally insults Tierney, and later — in scenes that are even more shocking — lifts up her skirts to Tierney’s small children, to reveal her graying vagina. Throughout the film, Tierney brightly photographs the mother who is shocking her children, as well as her own children who valiantly accept their rather unconventional childhood: a mad grandmother and a mother obsessively photographing their innocence.

The film is brilliant, as it does, without pretension, what most postmodern documentaries try yet fail to do, too often burdened by their own theoretical apparatus: explore the boundaries of frame and reality, art and invasion, movement and history. Youngelson filming Tierney filming her mother becomes a meditation on what it means to create a subject, without exploiting the subject. What did it feel like for Youngelson to film Tierney thrusting her newborn baby on the withered breast of her naked mother, as the latter straddles a straw chair in the barn and Tierney’s older toddler peers through the barn door to watch?

“It felt strange,” admitted Youngelson, a native New Yorker. “I put the footage in storage for six months because it was too unsettling.”

Yet in the same way that Tierney’s own controversial artwork (her photos of her naked children were judged obscene and “pervy” by an outraged British public) is supremely ethical — a form of healing of her past — so is Youngelson’s project. Tierney is rarely without a smile as she compulsively shoots her children on picnic blankets, or under a tree: a necessary vindication of her own history. She admits, in a vulnerable moment spinning on a deli stool, that her own childhood, as responsible daughter of a schizophrenic, was traumatizing, as perhaps it would have been to her own children, if they were not once-removed from the mother, through film-stock and generation.

Tierney’s photos are alive with light and beauty: her deranged mother has a soft wistful cast of sun on her cheeks; her children’s bodies are new and fish-clean, vulnerable yet lovely. Similarly, Youngelson’s shots of Tierney taking photos are nonjudgmental and compassionate, showing the virtue of the artistic project as well as its absolute pain and horror. Throughout the documentary, the actual act of photo-making dissolves from movement into still-life (a rather sublime achievement), reminding us that perhaps artistic framing of history is what we most have to heal, a way of reinvesting time with a new gaze. The frame matters.

Indeed, the documentaries that most stood out for their originality in this festival all have a near fictional flair, blurring the border between reality and fable. In another well-received film, Pernille Rose Grønkjær’s The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun, an old Dane muses about why he bought a castle to turn into a monastery. He also muses on why he never married. “Probably my problem with noses,” he says. “I am very picky with noses.” We follow this odd character puttering around the garden, in conversations with a contentious Russian Orthodox nun, through rooms being painted for the spiritual path, and we get a glimpse, but never crack, at the heart behind this dream. Then one day the Vig’s body is in a wooden coffin, and a mass is said over him in the castle. The monastery is complete.

Sjur Paulsen’s Loop, ostensibly a mega-tribute to individuals who dare physical and mental lone challenges, such as crossing a fjord in a boat (Paulsen is Norwegian) or spending a year alone in a cabin, watching for forest fires, also delves into the hidden chambers of human striving. An extreme adventurer climbs a nearly vertical mountain alone, and faces many challenges, such as having to sleep on a narrow ledge the size of a toilet seat. The greatest risk is that after a strenuous last climb, preceded by two days not sleeping, he notes that he is 100 feet from the top — and cannot make the peak, because he did not bring enough rope. He will have to climb back down to get some. “That’s life,” he says. “You get 100 feet from the top, only to realize you have to go 1,000 feet back down, to get the extra bit of rope.” So he does. The last shot of the film is the climber flying through the air off the mountain, in a base jump to the water below.

If Sjur’s evocative images of these men alone with their thoughts in the stark white mountains of Norway does not hit the point about the importance of a poetic vision loudly enough, it is Heddy Honigmann’s documentary Forever that most directly approaches the theme. The film is a series of conversations with devoted visitors to Pere Lachaise graves in Paris. The visitors are not morbid: they are drawn there to give thanks to the creators and visionaries who provided some boost above the “reality” of their lives. “He is why I am here,” comments a young Japanese pianist, praying before Chopin’s grave. “I play Chopin for my dead father.”

Political documentaries were of course the order of the day. Danish Vores Iykkes Fjender’s Enemies of Happiness, spotlights young Afghan woman Malalai Joya, who astonishingly won a seat in Parliament in Afghanistan, despite sexism and an assassination attempt. American Laura Poitras’ My Country, My Country, exploring one Iraqi doctor’s involvement in the first elections after Hussein’s downfall, reminds us of the native effort to forge some order in the chaos created by our war. These documentaries still fall short, however, as they use conventional means of “objective” storytelling, without a fixed narrative; their trajectory is to simply follow subjects unobtrusively in their neighborhood and family.

Sometimes one appreciates a more determined and manipulated gaze: such as that given by Timo Bovotny’s Life in Loops. A remix of the Michael Glawogger’s 1997 film Megacities, Bovotny has created a music video of the traumatizing experience of poverty in Mexico City, New York, Moscow, and Bombay. The images of an Indian Sikkh in fast motion pounding blue dyes and then red dyes and then yellow dyes until he too is a blurry dervish of color, all this to techno rock, casts a deep impression. The screening room was packed, with young and old huddled on the ground, because there were no seats.

Documentaries of humans vanquishing their suffering was a popular plot line. Many of these works seemed to focus on poor or orphaned children being “trained” by adults to be happier adults, as if this is where we can best see the results of positive action. Barak and Tomer Heymann’s Bridge Over the Wadi is a riveting look into the experiment of an Arab-Jewish school on the West Bank. These children are being raised without prejudice, to learn each other’s traditions, and they hold hands, flirt, adore each other, as the parents and teachers go through tears and accusations while trying to make peace with each other in the board room. A more straightforward documentary is Austrian director Mark Verkerk’s Buddha’s Lost Children, about a noble Thai boxer Buddhist who trains orphans with strict Buddhist-boxer skills. In my view the hero is a bit aggressive (swiping an uncooperative assistant in the face), more of a martial artist than a humanist, but the film seems to celebrate his actions.

Then there is Lucy Walker’s tender Blindsight, about the first school for the blind in Tibet, run by a blind German woman who invites a blind mountain climber to teach them how to climb Mount Everest. They of course — a bit too predictably — all make it.

Overcoming suffering seems to work best in a documentary when it is just not that easy. A young man diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease is the subject of Steven Ascher’s and Jean Jordan’s So Much So Fast. In this very American film, the family of Stephen Heywood valiantly decide to use positive thinking, know-how, and resourcefulness to conquer this disease. There is no cure, and no scientists working on a cure because of the rarity of the disease. We will fundraise and hire our own scientists, says Stephen’s brother Jamie. The film traces this rah-rah spirit as Stephen cheerfully declines over a three-year span. We see his healthy handsome body slowly become strapped and immobilized in a wheelchair. At one point, his tongue muscles are so slow, he cannot talk, so he learns a new speech with a computer. His wife throughout adores him, and he continues to build houses (he is a creative constructor), giving directions from his state-of-the-art chair. In the meantime, Jamie’s wife cannot stand her gung-ho obsessive husband any more, and leaves him. This also becomes a message of this engaging film, whose purpose of showing heroism despite odds thankfully goes against itself, making the film more engrossing than it would be otherwise.

Finally there are films like Jennifer Fox’s Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman — six hours of the director watching herself puzzle out what it means to be forty without clear parameters of love, sex, and family — that make us appreciate the artistic striving of a film like Tierney Guernon. While Fox’s film ostensibly wants to make us “fly” with a “free woman,” it is the more subtle observations of the beauty of photography, film, and pain that really make us soar.