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11th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (March 13-22, 2009)
21st Century Images
by Mohammad Ja'fari

The city of Thessaloniki has a traditional structure. It has a strange architecture with no building higher than eight stories. Streets and alleys are named after the Greek emperors, philosophers or poets who give the city the allure of a museum. A city with no subway and skyscrapers whose citizens remind you by their euphoric laughter that you are in the land of Epicurus; the same philosopher of ancient times who held that the highest good is pleasure and believed that this world is ephemeral; someone who as Nietzsche said, a little garden, some figs, a piece of cheese and some good friends was all he called happiness. It was the third time that I've been invited to the Festival. In 1999 and 2000, for the 2nd and 3rd editions of the Festival, I've been invited there for two of my documentaries, Christine and Laleh and Ladan; but as it coincided with the Iranian New Year, I missed both occasions. But this time around, I gave in and although I had only one week to get a visa, everything sorted out quickly and unbelievably. When I got there, I realized that I am the only Iranian present. And I don't talk about the voyage itself. I had to change aircraft thrice for a trajectory which has the same distance as Tehran to Dubai.
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What a sensation that at a time, when West is struggling with economical crisis, Greece is holding one of the most successful international festivals and not a common one, a documentary festival with 360 guests from all around the world, including filmmakers, producers, festival organizers, and buyers and sellers of the films.
One must not underestimate the fact that in the last days of the winter, the Greek viewer stands in line in one of the six theaters of the city, buys a 4-euro ticket and even sits on the floor to watch films ‘till 2 o'clock in the morning. I had only witnessed this kind of enthusiasm toward documentary films in Amsterdam.
Thessaloniki is a near perfect film festival. The participants can fill their program in the morning, with touristy visits to ancient sites on the suburbs of the city, such as resting place of Philip, father of Alexander, Thessaloniki History Museum and other interesting parts of the city. Or, they can meet directors of Leipzig, Reykjavik, Karlovy Vary, Tribeca and Amsterdam film festivals. And at night, they can go to the film market and watch any film they had missed. There are also seminars on European Documentary Network, and some research and studies and workshops on documentaries about children.
Passion and enthusiasm that Dimitri Eipides, director of the Festival, and his assistants show in their treatment of the guests reminds you a lot of the hospitality of the Iranians. You see the same warmth and kindness. I couldn't believe that the first person, who wished me a happy Iranian New Year, was Dimitri. On the stairs of Olympion Theater, the center of the Festival, he hugged me and in a broken Farsi, told me that he feels half Persian. He had even invited Babak Salari, the Iranian photographer living in Canada, to have an exhibition of his black and white photos of war-torn countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, at Macedonian Museum next to the Festival. These were powerful photos and very much in tune with documentaries shown in the Festival.
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Out of 210 documentaries shown during the Festival, one-fourth was Greek and the most popular; the rest were foreign and subtitled. This year, there were no films about Palestine or Iraq and except China, Japan, India, Iran and Taiwan there were no other films from Asia. Out of 95 films in international section, 53 were made by women. The Festival began with The Red Race, a Chinese film, directed by Chao Gan which was programmed in Views of the World section. This film is about Chinese children who are trained by force and treated harshly by their educators to become gymnasts.  The children, alternating between fear and laughter, create very sweet and comic moments that are very good to look at.

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