Thessaloniki International Doc Festival is celebrating LGBTQ+ Cinema

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Thessaloniki International Doc Festival is celebrating LGBTQ+ Cinema
A report from the 2024 TIDF sees art, empathy, a bit of violence and a hopeful vision for the future of Greek cinema.

In the sprawling port city of Thessaloniki, with its combination of Byzantine architecture dating back centuries, and walls bedecked in vivid graffiti art, there’s an omnipresent poster of two charcoal-sketched figures in an embrace. The artwork for the 26th annual Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival loomed large around the city as the fest opened its doors for a feast of nonfiction films from around the world.

Run by the same organisers as the November edition of the festival that focuses on features, held in the second-largest city in Greece, it welcomes artists, students and filmgoers of all stripes. But it is largely a Greek-language audience who sees and enjoys its selections, smattered as they are across repurposed warehouses around the city’s dock-based infrastructure. With that in mind, as a first-time visitor to both city and festival, I endeavoured to learn as much as I could about the selection of domestic filmmaking on show.

A particular highlight included ‘Citizen Queer’, a strand of films dedicated to celebrating and depicting a wide variety of LGBTQ+ lives in Greece and abroad. At home, though, this was of particular interest: 2024 is a historic year in Greece, with the Orthodox Christian country legalising same-sex marriage. The polls show that the population is in majority support of this ruling by a slender margin, so the ongoing discourse – and films which contribute positively to it – are crucial. Head of the Greek programme at TIDF, Eleni Androutsopoulou, spoke to LWL about the process of selection for the fest in terms of domestic picks, as well as the national film industry in Greece.

“We try every year to have a tribute to an important Greek documentary filmmaker. This year, we have Panagiotis Evangelidis, a very important screenwriter and director, as well as a translator. We will have the opportunity to see his new film, Sylvia Robyn, and all of his films are about queer topics. Sylvia Robyn is about a trans person,” she says. “Evangelidis’ film Tilos Weddings was a major conversation-starter in Greece about same-sex marriage, and it was important to screen this film because the Greek government has legalised it. So we wanted to do this as a statement,’ she says.

A toxic and unfortunate reminder of the need for that statement – and the need to depict trans lives onscreen – came over the weekend I was in Thessaloniki. Just a short walk from my hotel, in Aristotelous Square, a trans couple attending the festival were attacked by a black-clad mob who spat and threw bottles at them. Mercifully no one was seriously hurt, but this hateful transphobia was precisely the kind of thing the programmers of TIDF26 were looking to combat.

In Evangelidis’ latest film, Sylvia Robyn, the filmmaker takes a deeply intimate look at the slow move toward transition the protagonist undertakes, but also examines her struggles and experiences with loneliness, neurodivergence, and a complex family background. Evangelidis pulls no punches, unflinchingly depicting his subject’s difficulties with self-harm and even unsimulated masturbation. It’s a surprising journey, although it is sometimes uncomfortable in its intimacy with the subject (close-ups on sloppy eating, etc). Yet it also paints an increasingly poignant picture of alienation and individualism. That Sylvia’s sense of self and her happiness emerges alongside her gender identity is clear.

In Lesvia, Greek filmmaker Tzeli Hadjidimitriou explores the gap between the island of Lesvos as a historical fixture and pilgrimage spot for lesbian tourists, and its own island population, who often feel overlooked or irritated by that external activity. A tenderly-made look at tensions within and outside of the queer community, set on the dazzling beaches of this holiday destination, Lesvia does what the best of nonfiction film sets out to: bring to vivid life an otherwise-unseen niche.

Other social concerns appeared among the docs shown, not least the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. International co-production The Pickers, directed by Elke Sasse, is a meditative and effective exploration of several nations’ exploitative relationship to migrant fruit pickers and farm labourers, including Greece. Following individual stories of those who took perilous journeys from Mali, Pakistan, Morocco and elsewhere – only to find themselves caught in a web of immigration red-tape and back-breaking, underpaid work – the film captures the story of the hands that picked the fruit in our supermarkets in unsettling ways.

TIDF provides a vital and sometimes rare platform for Greek documentaries to be shown on domestic Greek screens, since cinema distribution is expensive and hard to manage. As Sylvia Robyn filmmaker Evangelidis told HPFA’s Golden Globes in 2023, “[Documentarians] are badly treated here in Greece – no one gets paid, the state doesn’t give much, the foundations maybe give a little bit… so even a little bit of money sounds like a miracle from heaven.”

Androutsopoulou agrees: “Most documentaries are handmade, with a small crew and very small funding. Most of the Greek directors are dedicated to doc production with passion, effort, and the help of their friends,” she adds.

Alongside their work at TIDF to provide a platform for Greek documentarians, there is also a larger dedication to getting Greek issues, themes, and history to international audiences beyond just the realm of documentary film. Androutsopoulou and a team of her hard-working colleagues are currently deep in the research in order to build an online, bilingual Greek film archive, something she calls “a Greek IMDb”, of sorts.

Along with production information, stills and other material, the key factor is that this database is set to contain information about the whereabouts, format, and rights-holders for those who would like to exhibit Greek films. “It’s a partnership of the film festival, the Hellenic Academy of Cinema, and the Greek Film Centre. We’re scanning the archives and trying to put it on a platform. We also will have video interviews with important Greek filmmakers speaking about their experience. We’ve started with 2000 films for the first year, and it’s a big undertaking, because most of the time the archives are in the house of the directors,” Androutsopoulou explains.

This move will help promote the work of directors like Takis Kanellopoulos, a TIDF-celebrated filmmaker who made both non-fiction and feature films and one of the few who remained based in Thessaloniki for his entire career. In spite of a remarkable series of New Wave-influenced ethnographic and romantic films in the ’60s and ’70s, his work remains little-seen in Greece – nevermind outside of it.

“The most important thing is that it will be in Greek and English, and if there is a print available in case a festival from abroad, for example, might want to organise a retrospective. This is important for us, because right now, if I wanted to do a tribute, I have to call my friends from the industry to ask for information, or chase to find out if the wife of a director is alive. And it’s a pity, because many organisations from abroad want to do tributes,” she says.

With such dedication from Androutsopoulou and her colleagues to protecting Greek cinema past and present, it seems like a matter of time before more of it is being beamed into cinemas and discovered by international cinephiles. In the meantime, to visit TIDF’s cinema warehouses, museums, and festival hubs, and to explore the work they do, is to be impressed by the passion and knowledge therein.

This piece was originally published by our sister magazine, Little White Lies.

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