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Timely Topics Take the Stage at Thessaloniki Doc Fest’s Pitching Forum

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For the second time in its past three editions, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival has faced a sudden disruption in the face of an unprecedented global crisis. Two years ago, the festival was among the first to be forced online as the coronavirus pandemic swept across Europe. This year, the Russian military launched an invasion of Ukraine just two weeks before opening night.

Yianna Sarri, the head of the festival’s industry arm, Agora, who oversees the selection of projects for Thessaloniki’s Pitching Forum and Docs in Progress events, notes that it was “a different world” when that selection process took place just one month ago. “When we did the selection, everything was different,” Sarri tells Variety. “We just woke up one day and there was war in Europe. It’s totally insane.”

While the war and its widening impact didn’t affect the decision-making process for the Agora’s Pitching Forum or Docs in Progress sections, Sarri notes that humanitarian issues have always had a strong influence on the festival’s selections. The refugee crisis, the #MeToo movement, the growing tide of nationalism, and the changing face of gender and family dynamics are all on display in this year’s crop of projects.

The recent tide of events also illustrates how the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival has managed to adapt to uncertainty. Last year, the coronavirus pandemic forced the festival online for the second straight year. Though a smaller, in-person event was held in the city last summer, this marks the first time since 2019 that industry professionals from across Greece, Europe and the rest of the world can gather face-to-face for the Agora Docs program.

Despite the ability of the global film industry to adapt to the disruptions of the past two years, Sarri says that physical connection is an integral part of what makes the industry run. “The essence of filmmaking is collaboration. It’s a collective process. You cannot do anything on your own,” she says. “Collaboration, meetings, networking, it’s very important for what we do. That’s why we really hated doing everything online, because that part was missing.”

Four months ago, the festival’s sister event, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, held its first in-person edition since the start of the pandemic, with hundreds of industry professionals making the journey to this historic city fronting the Gulf of Salonika. For Sarri, the effect of returning to something like normalcy was “obvious.”

“You could see it in the faces of the people that came to Thessaloniki – they were so happy that they were able again to meet other people,” she says. “It’s the essence of Thessaloniki. They come because they know that it’s very easy to meet other professionals, and it’s very easy to talk and exchange ideas.” She adds that the intimacy of the Thessaloniki market, compared to busier events like Cannes’ Marché du Film or the European Film Market, has become something of a calling card for the Agora. “They know that they will find that [intimacy] here, and they trust us with their projects.”

Seven of the films selected for this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival are alumni of the Agora Docs industry strand, including the international competition titles “Tilos Weddings,” by Panayiotis Evangelidis, which tells the story of the first two gay and lesbian civil weddings ever performed in Greece, and Sean Wang’s 2021 IDFA premiere “A Marble Travelogue” (pictured), which follows the journey of a block of white marble from a Greek quarry to the Chinese sculptors who use it to create Hellenistic-style souvenirs – many of which then return to Europe to be sold to Chinese tourists.

This year’s selection of projects looking for international partners at the Thessaloniki Pitching Forum offers a timely cross-section of issues affecting a world in flux. In some cases, those stories have become even more topical, as with Grzegorz Paprzycki’s “December.” Produced by Maciej Kubicki for Poland’s Telemark, the film looks at the plight of refugees as the cold winter months sweep across Europe, and the “indifference or unwillingness to help” that the director says has long characterized the European response to the refugee crisis.

“I am angry at discrimination, racism and indifference of many people to harm done to another human being. Angry at our selfishness, which tells us to go about our own lives, make a career and spend money on our – often unnecessary – whims,” Paprzycki tells Variety. “Many of us Europeans do not react to the illegal pushbacks of refugees, to their death while trying to cross the border, to their presence next to us.”

The war currently raging in Ukraine, which according to the U.N. created more than two million refugees in its first two weeks alone, only underscores the hypocrisy for the director. “Currently in my country, Ukrainian refugees are welcomed with open arms, while [non-European] refugees or migrants often die at the border,” he says. “It’s a double standard, dividing people into ‘better’ or ‘worse.’ It has the right to arouse anger. It is necessary to talk about this human view on the harm done to others.”

“The Floating World,” from director Fernando Souza, tells the story of a transgender Japanese man who attempts to silence his inner demons by working in a Host Club, a uniquely Japanese institution where men get paid to drink with and entertain women. The Italy-U.S.-Canada co-production is produced by Mo Scarpelli for Rake Films and Jorge Thielen Armand for La Faena Films.

The film follows its protagonist, Ryuki, as he reflects on self-perception and self-destruction while navigating the underbelly of Tokyo. “[Souza’s] unfettered access to this unique world allows the audience a mirror into our own lives which are full of projections, masks and mirrors,” says Scarpelli.

Souza tells Variety the film “has been nothing short of an obsession” since he worked in a Host Club 10 years ago. “These men start complex relationships with women which become both their clients and girlfriends,” he says. “This hyperbolic world reflects how we mask ourselves, online or in real life, as we look for connection in our narcissistic societies. A lot of these themes will hopefully resonate with audiences that have never heard of Host Clubs.”

Spanish filmmaker Ariadna Seuba Serra found herself navigating an equally unfamiliar world two years ago when her girlfriend broke the news that she was trying to get pregnant through assisted reproduction. “I was shocked,” says Seuba, admitting she had “no clue” about how the process worked. “I immediately felt the need to tell her story, which very soon became also my story and the story of everyone that went through a process like this.”

Directed by Serra and produced by Maria Nova López of Spain’s Intactes Films, “Mums” follows Serra and her girlfriend on the bumpy, bitter-sweet journey that the director describes as “a roller-coaster where you don’t want to ride.” It’s a personal exploration of the choices made – and the consequences that follow – for the growing number of women in Europe and the U.S. who decide to postpone motherhood.

“I didn’t want to talk about numbers and statistics but showing what was the real impact in life: how it affects your future plans, how your body changes, how difficult it is to call your family after each failed attempt, the contradictory feelings you have when someone else gets pregnant or how bizarre it is to be at the office the day after you’ve had a miscarriage,” says Seuba.

“Luckily for the audience (and for me as a director), ‘Mums’ is not a drama, but more a tragicomedy,” she adds. “The film won’t tell you anything but show you everything. It’s a journey you will be invited to join, with its ups and downs, with its difficulties and hopes, with its doubts and certainties.”

For his latest feature, “Super Paradise,” which is produced by Paul Typaldos for Filmiki Productions and co-produced by Dafni Kalafati, director Steve Krikris (“The Waiter”) digs deep into his memories of a golden time when, as a teenager in the 1970s, he spent his summer holidays on the Greek island of Mykonos – a place he describes as “a paradise that was lost and never recovered.”

“‘Super Paradise’ is a film about our unquenchable thirst for freedom and self-expression – one that reached its heights in 1970s Mykonos,” says the filmmaker. Drawing a comparison with the geopolitical crises currently roiling the globe, Krikris says his story of a bygone, sundrenched era has renewed relevance and urgency.

“Like in the early 1970s, the world is on fire. Chaos, uncertainty, wars and social unrest define our times. We have never been more ‘connected,’ and yet our lives are more isolated and complicated than ever before,” he says. “With our film we have a unique opportunity to tell a universal story about a simpler time, a time of bliss and happiness.”

The complete list of projects selected for the Thessaloniki Pitching Forum and Agora Docs in Progress can be found below. Highlights from the Agora Docs in Progress section include “Lesvia, the Herstory of Eressos,” from director-producer Tzeli Hadjidimitriou (Anemos Dimiourgias), which tells the story of the island of Lesvos, the birthplace of the ancient Greek poet Sappho, that has become an often-contentious meeting point for the lesbian community from all over the world; and “Citizen Miko,” from director Robin Kvapil and producer Martina Strunc (Silk Films), about a half-Roma truck driver in the Czech Republic who fights to persuade his country’s politicians to help victims of the migrant crisis.

Other notable titles include “Panellinion,” from directors Spyros Mantzavinos and Kostas Antarachas and producer Leonidas Konstantarakos (Alaska Films), which explores the eponymous, out-of-place-and-time chess coffeehouse in the center of Athens, a refuge for people who struggle to adapt to the conditions of modern life; and “#MetiSofia,” by director Vania Turner and producers Onassis Culture, Maria Sidiropoulou and Amanda Livanou, which tells the story of the Olympic medalist Sofia Bekatorou, who sparked Greece’s #MeToo Movement when she sought justice for being repeatedly raped by her coach when she was a child.

 

Τhe projects of the Thessaloniki Pitching Forum are:

Caution, Risk of Falling Exhibits! (Slovakia)
Directors: Jana Durajova, Lena Kusnierikova
Producers: Zuzana Mistrikova, Lubica Orechovska, Arkaitz Basterra (PubRes)

December (Poland)
Director: Grzegorz Paprzycki
Producer: Maciej Kubicki (Telemark)

The Floating World (Italy/U.S./Canada)
Director: Fernando Souza
Producer: Mo Scarpelli (Rake Films)
Co-producer: Jorge Thielen Armand (La Faena Films)

The French Connection (Ireland)
Director: Jamie Goldrick
Producer: Kevin Brannigan (PushPull)

Harvest Mood (Jordan)
Director: Rama Ayasra
Producer: Mariam Salim (New productions)
Co-producer: Asmahan Bkerat

Honeydew (Italy/Sweden)
Directors: Marco Bergonzi, Michael Petrolini
Producer: Simone Catania (Indyca)
Co-producer: Costanza Julia Bani (Fellonica Film)

Land of Sar (France/North Macedonia/Slovenia)
Director: Petra Seliskar
Producer: Victor Ede (Cinéphage)
Co-producers: Petra Seliskar (Petra Pan Films), Sara Ferro (PPFP Doel)

Mums (Spain)
Director: Ariadna Seuba Serra
Producer: Maria López (Intactes Films)

Running for Anna (Italy)
Director-producer: Tomaso Aramini

Super Paradise (Greece)
Director: Steve Krikris
Producer: Paul Typaldos (Filmiki Productions)
Co-producer: Dafni Kalafati

People in My House (Croatia/Germany/Netherlands)
Director: Tatjana Bozic
Producer: Magdalena Petrovic (LEWA productions)
Co-producers: Frank Müller (DOPPELPLUSULTRA FILMPRODUKTION), Jacob Gesink (Spacedust production), Wout Conijn (Conijn Film)

Quixote’s Camera – 10 Letters From Beyond Light (Germany/Slovenia/Greece)
Director: Cordelia Dvorák
Producers: Cordelia Dvorák (Paloma Films), Daniel Hočevar (Vertigo)
Co-producer: Leonidas Liambeys (Long Run Productions)

Sunken (Greece)
Director: Dimitris Gkotsis
Producer: Mina Dreki (Marni Films)

Untitled Project (Germany/Estonia)
Director: Ayşe Toprak
Producer: Ekin Çalışır (Purple Pigeon Productions)
Co-producer: Julia Cöllen (FÜNFERFILM)
Presented in collaboration with CIRCLE Women Doc Accelerator

 

The projects of the Docs in Progress section are:

#MetiSofia (Greece)
Director: Vania Turner
Producers: Onassis Culture, Maria Sidiropoulou, Amanda Livanou

Citizen Miko (Czech Republic)
Director: Robin Kvapil
Producer: Martina Strunc (Silk Films)

The Fortress (Georgia)
Directors: Shorena Tevzadze, Giorgi Pridonishvili
Producers: Shorena Tevzadze (Diafilm), Tamar Mshvenieradze (Actmedia)

I Had a Life (Spain)
Director: Octavio Guerra
Producer: Elisa Torres (Calibrando Producciónes)

Lesvia, the Herstory of Eressos (Greece)
Director-Producer: Tzeli Hadjidimitriou (Anemos Dimiourgias)

The Love Room (North Macedonia)
Director-Producer: Suzana Dinevski (Suzi Kju Production)
Co-producers: Vladimir Stojcevski (Award Film and Video), Bonnie Bojana Dinevski (Suzi Kju Production)

Panellinion (Greece)
Directors: Spyros Mantzavinos, Kostas Antarachas
Producer: Leonidas Konstantarakos (Alaska Films)

The Soul of the Bossales (France)
Director: François Perlier
Producers: Odile Méndez-Bonito, François Perlier (Corpus Films)

Timekeeper (Italy/Germany/Russia)
Director: Kristina Paustian
Producers: Paolo Maria Spina (Revolver), Margarita Amineva-Jester (Voices Films)
Co-producers: Tamara Bogdanova (KinoKult), Yanna Buryak (Mimesis Productions)

Toward Happy Alleys (Bulgaria/India/Germany/Finland)
Director: Sreemoyee Singh
Producers: Boris Despodov (Arthouse Blockbusters), Sreemoyee Singh (Happy Alley Films)