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Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival 2024: European Disunion

A woman bathed in turquoise light raises her hand to testify in a courtroom.Stray Bodies

in Festivals & Events
on Mar 26, 2024

One of the world’s leading forums for nonfiction work, this year the Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival became a lightning rod for extremist rage. As widely reported, the opening night world premiere of Greek filmmaker Elina Psykou’s Stray Bodies happened under the watch of riot police amid a temporary ban on public protests after the film’s controversial poster — an image of a topless pregnant woman nailed to a cross —set off right-wing and religious figures and generated a volley of threats. The film also premiered in the wake of a massive public protest in support of a transgender couple that had been attacked by a mob a few days before, a short walk from the festival’s luxe showcase movie palace, the Olympion. 

In order to see the second public screening of Stray Bodies, I had to pass through two checkpoints on the festival campus, an assortment of repurposed warehouses jutting out into the Thermaic Gulf along the downtown waterfront. Black-garbed police were everywhere, a (successful) safeguard against further disruption. Psykou’s film was so scrupulously balanced in its inclusion of multiple viewpoints around its life-and-death issues that the extreme reaction provoked by its poster seemed ridiculous. I only wish it had more of the bite the poster implied. The film unravels three overlapping threads: abortion, in vitro fertilization and euthanasia, tracking and engaging with individuals (nearly all women) on flipsides of the issues and in different parts of a European Union frustratingly divided on the legality of the procedures. For post-Roe v. Wade American audiences, there are obvious parallels as red states move to end abortion access and, in the recent case of Alabama, block IVF. Some of Psykou’s subjects are especially personable, such as a young Maltese woman named Robin, bound for Sicily to get the legal abortion she can’t have at home, and who performs her version of Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” dancing in a church. Other moments are emotionally crushing, as we eventually witness an elderly woman’s assisted suicide in Swtizerland and also sit with the suffering of two other people who might reasonably choose to end their lives but can’t or won’t for reasons of legality or faith. While the film compellingly humanizes powerful existential questions that in the media often are reduced to dogmatic talking points, it also feels stretched thin in its effort to include so many characters and situations. 

Lidia Duda’s Forest, which won the festival’s Silver Alexander prize, also confronts a fraught European political and humanitarian crisis from an intimately focused perspective. The film centers on the experience of a family whose three children (Marysia, Ignacy and Franek) are growing up in the Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that sprawls across the border of Poland and Belarus. As in Agnieszka Holland’s fictionalized Green Border (2023), the doc explores the forest’s role as a passageway for migrants — political pawns antagonized by both nations — on the move from Belarus into Poland, in this case from the point of view of the kids, whose attentive and thoughtful parents have chosen to raise them in an arboreal paradise, training them in woodland skills and cultivating a storybook sort of eco-childhood.

Their intention to go back to nature is unsettled by the steady flow of refugees, who pose an ethical dilemma and also bring unwanted attention from border patrols and invasive Polish media and politicians. This family has to find a balance between being protective of its children while also teaching them compassion, yet also deal with the fallout from officially illegal acts of kindness toward the strangers who, captured on a wildlife cam, pass nearby every night. Duda, who spent more than two years filming in the forest, engenders a sense of immersive “being there” by often bringing the camera down to the children’s level and most often suggesting rather than exposing the refugees’ presence — up to a point they become another facet of the forest’s mystery, yet one imprinted on the children in an elemental way. The filmmaking is so gently attuned to its subjects that the story could stand alone as a family portrait, something that makes more resonant its idea that there is no longer an escape from this pivotal moment in European history. The wilderness, once a refuge, is now a hot spot.

Forest’s sign-off drone shot of treetops swaying in the breeze recurs in A Tree Grows in My Dreams Every Night, now in service to a deeply rooted evocation of folklife in the northeastern Slovenian region of Haloze, a place that feels abandoned in time. Director Vid Hajnšek drew on multiple sources for this 55-minute tone poem, including the actual poetry of his grandfather — something akin to the region’s bard — and the images of Stojan Kerbler, an octogenarian photographer who has documented the villages, vineyards, hillsides and their people for his entire career. Hajnšek brings the implied narratives in these photographs full circle by reconnecting with subjects, now elderly, who were Kerbler’s subjects as children. Floating through this are the bittersweet, droning refrains of accordionist Sara Korošec, a young player-composer collaborating with the area’s traditional folk musicians. Neither a fusty callback to a faded sepia era nor an ethno-touristic drive-by, A Tree Grows registers as a genuine act of cultural appreciation—the work of an artist trying to get in touch with his DNA and discovering it at the intersection of landscape and memory. 

Fans of the great American photographer Joel Meyerowitz may be in for a surprise with Two Strangers Trying Not to Kill Each Other, a splendid title for a documentary that has very little to offer in regards to the artist’s work but opens wide the door to the joys and struggles of the 30-plus-year marriage of Meyerowitz (now 86) and Maggie Barrett (77), an English writer and therapist. The film’s radiant visual warmth keys off of its (mostly) spirited and energetic subjects, yet also is a tip-off that filmmakers Jacob Perlmutter and Manon Ouimet are themselves award-winning photographers with a keen sense for blocking interiors and marshaling light. Working with Danish producer Signe Byrge Sørensen (a multiple Academy Award-nominee for The Act of Killing and Flee), the pair capture honeyed moments of intense intimacy and vulnerable introspection between the couple as well as cracking fault lines that sketch a far more complex and troubled portrait of long-term companionship.

Both subjects are vivid with charisma and wit. Narrating a timeline of snapshots tracing her life before she met Meyerowitz, Barrett cuts to the chase: “In ‘67 I worked with Robert Altman, got divorced and went to the nuthouse.” The underlying potential for fracture is made all too painfully real when Barrett suffers a broken femur in an accident while the New Yorkers are at their part-time home in Tuscany. The calamity unlocks a batch of doubts, anxieties, resentments and emotions about the frailties and awful compromises of age but also, for Barrett, the dynamics of her marriage, which has left her creative efforts as a novelist obscured in the long shadows of Meyerowitz’s prolific achievements and busy career. “There will be an obit for you in The New York Times,” she tells her husband, in a startling moment of raw honesty that erupts near the end of the film. “There will not be one for me.” Much of this tug-of-war is thematically adjacent to recent films like Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story and Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, but I hope it’s no spoiler to say that the movie doesn’t end in divorce or a body count. It does prompt questions about the ground rules the filmmakers worked out with Meyerowitz and Barrett, complete naturals in front of a camera who lean into the performative aspects of scenes that often are meticulously framed. When jolts come to disorder things, they’re even more unsettling. 

The major Greek project getting its post-Berlinale launch in Thessaloniki was the 14-hour exergue – on documenta 14, an epic longitudinal dive into the making (and unmaking) of the 2017 global contemporary art exhibition, founded in Kassel, Germany in 1955. Its Polish artistic director, Adam Szymczyk, aims to produce a dual Documenta, with a second exhibition in Athens. Those ambitions lead the headstrong Szymczyk full-tilt into a political and media firestorm when the exhibitions go €5.3 million over budget. Filmmaker Dimitris Athiridis takes on the heroic project of redeeming (or perhaps un-demonizing) Szymczyk and his team, seemingly all-but-glued to his subject for the better part of three years.

At Thessaloniki, audiences could watch two episodes each day in blocks of roughly 2-to-2-1/2 hours. I managed to see the final four episodes, which, while made in observational fashion, flip back-and-forth in time frame to provide context. Szymczyk, tall and slender with a shaggy mop of hair, has a nervous, youthful energy that, with his minimalist attire, makes him look like the former leader of a No Wave band. (And not for nothing, I imagine, does the camera follow him to an opening party where he takes over the microphone while a rock band bashes away behind him). He’s fascinating to watch, but more so Athiridis commits to a deeper explication of the themes underlying the film’s conflict, where clashing cultural and economic positions between Germany and Greece cause ruptures and the eternal debate over art vs. commerce rears the ugliest of heads. Although a decade in the making, exergue arrives feeling very much of the moment. In a better world, it might stream on Netflix. 

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