Ana Grgić and Antonis Lagarias report from the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, which celebrated its 24th year with a return to in-person programming following the pandemic. Reflecting a programmatic interest in cinematic themes relating to the future of a humanity facing ecological and techno-existential threats, the festival’s focus was “postreality,” a popular term for indicating the sensory world’s mediation through images and virtual universes. Outside of this special focus on documentaries that challenge conceptions of the “real” world, films employed a range of archival materials to explore issues of individual and collective memory. The festival’s retrospective focused on the Latvian director Laila Pakalniņa, whose central preoccupation is observing and documenting a subjective view of reality.
International film gatherings are core cultural events that transform the daily life of a city. Thessaloniki can boast such events twice a year: the historically renowned International Film Festival takes place each November and the Documentary Festival every March. This year, two years into the global pandemic, the documentary edition celebrated its twenty-fourth year of existence. The return to a physical festival experience was both alienating and comforting; though still requiring the ubiquitous face mask in the festival theaters, there were plenty of opportunities to meet with film practitioners, journalists, curators, and fellow critics. Since most of the screenings take place within brick constructions on a pier, once used as warehouses, festival meetings become masquerades with casual sea strolls around the old port.
The Thessaloniki International Film Festival originally gained fame for its fiery discussions in the 1960s, often evoked with nostalgia nowadays as a vestige of a bygone politized society marked by the Greek Civil War (1946–49) and a period of military dictatorship (1967–74). Though hopefully not nostalgic for the past, this report is the result of just such a characteristic “film festival encounter” of two cinephiles, as it was conceived in the aftermath of meandering conversations around the films shown at this year’s Documentary Festival.
Since the pandemic, the festival team seems to be increasingly interested in exploring cinematic themes relating to the future of a humanity facing ecological and techno-existential threats and challenges.1 The focus of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in 2022 was “postreality,” a concept increasingly gaining in popularity to describe how the sensory world is gradually mediated through images and virtual universes. References to Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, and Jean Baudrillard’s “simulacra” were omnipresent—if not on-screen, at least in the festival catalogues.2 “Postreality” here refers to an overall negative impression of a future—or near present—where screens, representations, and virtual experiences proliferate and eventually replace one single reality—formerly considered a collectively shared commonplace—with multiple radical, hybrid, and subjective realities.
Concerns about the possible emergence of artificial pleasure lands, forever shattering any immediate link to the sensory world, are hardly a consequence of the world’s current digitalization. Fears similar in nature spread throughout the twentieth century, with each period having its own manifestations of “never before seen” potential doom.3 From the very beginning, cinema provided virtual mobility for immobile spectators, allowing them to travel around the globe and be confronted with moving images of elsewhere. The contemporary pandemic-stricken world, in which people spend hours immobile in front of the flat, multicapable, framed virtual space of the computer screen, has profoundly transformed how people work, think, communicate, and create.
Naturally, films that treat the ability of cinema to alter audience perceptions of reality were selected for the festival’s special focus. One such film, Alexandre O. Philippe’s The Taking (2021), revisits the quintessential American genre—the Western—and its depiction of Monument Valley, a landscape appearing in most of John Ford’s films. Structured as an essay and incorporating interviews with international scholars in different academic disciplines, the film shows how cinema inhabits the collective imaginary, forever altering the experience of a natural landscape or a historically and socially significant space. Inspired by the verb used to describe “taking” a photograph, the film’s title refers to the physical and cultural appropriation of Monument Valley by white settlers from its former Indigenous owners, the Navajo. Since it figures as a shooting location for many Westerns, Monument Valley acquires a mythical—if not sacred—role, giving visual substance to the preexisting literary sagas of the conquest of the West and its national fantasies.
Discussing the making of this film with festival audiences, Philippe explained that each interviewee was presented with a sort of contact sheet for each Western film, where all shots depicting Monument Valley were assembled. The scholars were then asked about their impressions of seeing these images together. Extracting and therefore dissociating these frames from the editing, pacing, and sound design of each respective film may provide a rich source for critical analysis, while at the same time accounting for the film’s distant and somewhat cold expository tone. In a creative turn, the director decided to conceal the names and faces of the interviewees, thus creating an academic chorus with their voices comparable to a sort of collective consciousness. However, their discourse feels—paradoxically—both too simple and too complex.
Spectators familiar with the genre and cinema’s mythical dimensions would probably already be well acquainted with most of the ideas presented in the film. After all, mythmaking is an established aspirational element of Westerns, a film genre at odds with historicity. It is precisely the intentionally mythic character of Westerns that allowed André Bazin to name the genre as an example of epic cinema, comparing Billy the Kid to Achilles of ancient Greece and the migration to the American West to the Odyssey, in order to justify the genre’s seemingly universal appeal regardless of geographical or cultural context.4
Viewers unacquainted with such scholarly discussions, however, may see The Taking as an academic lecture in audiovisual form, intellectually stimulating but unengaging cinematically. Still, at times the film proves provocative enough to compel the audience to consider how a specific landscape may become, intentionally or not, a signifier for something beyond its “real” spatialized and sensory existence, and thus serve different social, political, and historical desires and narratives. Finally, the film’s appropriation of old film clips exclusively under the doctrine of “fair use,” a cost-free if time-consuming endeavor, may inspire further creative projects wishing to critically engage with the filmmaking process or with film reception.
If the theme of postreality challenges conceptions of the “real” world, one may argue that films playing outside the festival’s special focus raise similar though different questions—in particular, those dealing with the issues of individual and collective memories. Contemporary documentary films that employ a range of archival materials, such as found footage, “orphan” films, or newsreels reuse and appropriate these archival images to create a personal or collective narrative in an effort to question and negotiate both the potential and the fallacy of memory. These works include Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Bianca Stigter, 2021), in which a short home movie from 1938 played in slow motion returns to haunt the collective memory of Holocaust victims who were the Jewish inhabitants of the Polish town of Nasielsk; and Straight to VHS (Emilio Silva Torres, 2021), where a mysterious cult video from Uruguay, and its equally mysterious creator, Manuel Lamas, are investigated through a creative blend of fiction and documentary footage that ultimately engages with Latin American political history. Speaking to the sensory worlds of spectators, such films rethink contemporary technophobia and engage with themes of postreality, precisely by deploying (past) representations and virtual (archival) experiences to subsequently create radical, hybrid, and multiple subjective realities.
The encounter between the viewer and the archival image constitutes an affective, memorial meeting and gives rise to a multiplicity of significations and meanings that interrogate the effect and the ontology of this very archival document. Jaimie Baron has introduced the notion of an “archive effect,” shifting the discussion from the genre or form to the spectator, in order to account for the differences in the viewer’s reception of the same image/text.5 One such cinematic encounter is captured by Aliona van der Horst’s latest film, Turn Your Body to the Sun (2021), in which the protagonist, Sana, turns her body toward the archival images projected on a huge screen—an embodied gesture and view reminiscent of the opening scene of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). Van der Horst’s documentary deals with the complexity of twentieth-century European history and cultural memory through a woman’s search for the truth about her father’s past. A Soviet soldier of Tatar descent, he was captured by the Nazis during World War II and sent to Stalin’s gulags after the war; in itself, his life constitutes a collective trauma of the Soviet Union.
Turn Your Body to the Sun makes its audience into accomplices on its investigative journey: through witnessing Sana’s father’s story, viewers are made to reflect on complex and still unresolved national histories, collective memories, and personal traumas triggered by the war and its aftermath. Van der Horst reappropriates archival footage found in the Nazi Germany archives, among other materials, and divests it from its original ideology by employing its footage of soldiers for a very different purpose. Here, a daughter’s desire to reconnect with her father’s past, by searching archives and images for traces of her father’s (historical) presence, meshes with the filmmaker’s need to visually re-present her subject(s).
Van der Horst explained in a postscreening discussion that, unable to access the Russian archives, the filmmakers were therefore unable to render a more complete picture of the father’s story during and after the war. The film and its approach, indeed, foreground the fragmentary nature, instability, and elusiveness of archival images, as opposed to the misguided notion that the archive represents a totality, a whole—above all, a promise to yield answers to the incomprehensibility of the past. In the film, Sana evocatively says: “When I’m looking at the archive, I am looking for my father always.” While Sana g(r)azes the images for her father, spectators join in and eventually start to recognize her father’s face in the collective face of soldiers captured and historically appropriated by the Nazi footage.
At such moments, there is a sense that history is staring back at today’s audience through the slow motion of close-ups that reveal the soldiers’ gazes: the spectator is both captivated and mesmerized by the power of the archival gaze and the weight of history. The documentary was shown on the festival’s largest screen, in the auditorium of the Olympion Cinema, granting the Thessaloniki audience an embodied encounter with Sana’s journey into her family’s difficult and complex past through the film’s captivating archival images.
In Robin Hunziger’s Ultraviolette et le gang des cracheuses de sang (Ultraviolette and the Blood-Spitters Gang, 2021), a creative process assigns novel meanings to seemingly unrelated or trivial visual archives. The film had premiered at IDFA in 2021, where it garnered the Reframe Award for Best Creative Use of Archive; its late-night audience in Thessaloniki was left speechless, captivated by the sheer beauty of cinema.
Following the death of his grandmother Emma, the director and his mother, Claudie, discovered a mysterious collection of letters signed by “Marcelle,” a name previously unknown to them. The letters disclosed the story of Marcelle and Emma, who met and fell in love in the mid-1920s, a period hostile to homosexuality. After two years, they had to part ways when Marcelle developed tuberculosis and was admitted to a sanatorium, from where she wrote eloquent letters expressing her everlasting love for Emma. In the absence of visual records (aside from two surviving photographs), the director combines black-and-white archival footage, excerpts from avant-garde films (including those by Germaine Dulac and Maya Deren), and music to re-create the ambiance of the interwar period within a sublimely poetic and sensual film of an impossible adolescent love story. According to the credits, Hunziger’s skillfully arranged archival footage is from the collections of the Cinémathèque de Normandie, Gaumont, Pathé, EYE Film, and more, including CICLIC collections in France (which hold a vast archive of eclectic amateur and professional film footage from the 1920s onward).
While initially resistant to the film’s bold aspirations, the audience eventually surrenders to the seductive power of its editing, which confirms yet again that cinema can narrate any story by rearranging existing filmic material and reshaping its original associations. A soft narrative voice-over and the atmospheric music score composed by Siegfried Canto (with piano, string, and accordion notes) add to the superb rhythm of the visual materials, and the dark pop and electronica songs of the bands Volga and A Second of June highlight the emotive journey of a first love, in all its beauty and pain.
This year’s retrospective focused on the Latvian director Laila Pakalniņa, whose central preoccupation is observing and documenting a subjective view of reality. During her prolific and still very active film career, she has directed and scripted thirty-two documentaries, five shorts, and six fiction feature films. Pakalniņa graduated from the competitive program at the Moscow Film Institute (VGIK) in Film Direction in 1991, just as the Soviet bloc was disintegrating. The film school was important for her career, as Pakalniņa confessed: though it was tough, her time there allowed her to watch great films and to meet her longtime creative collaborator, the Latvian cinematographer Gints Bērziņš.6
Scholarly discussions of Pakalniņa’s films suggest her affiliation with historical film styles and tendencies. Her cinema is often linked to modernism or to the Italian neorealist movement, as a stylistic and aesthetic adaptation of fundamental rules, unmasking and reflecting upon reality, here in Latvia’s specific geographical, social, and temporal context.7 Equally common is her association by critics with the “Riga School of poetic documentary,” an aesthetic movement in political documentary that developed in the sixties and sought to represent everyday life through a heavily metaphorical and poetic angle. “Poetic” documentaries produced during this period of censorship tend to rely on symbols and metaphors to shape social commentary. For example, the urban itinerary of a flower may represent “Latvia’s search for freedom from the Soviet occupation,” and a shipwreck may become a visual displacement for the “silent existence” of those living in costal Estonia.8
However, one could argue that symbolism is Pakalniņa’s last concern. Not surprisingly, she seems reluctant to accept the label of “poetic documentary.”9 Contrary to an intentionally metaphorical approach, her films testify that everyday life expands in complex layers and that specific readings, rather than being externally imposed, simply emerge when the appropriate time and cinematic gaze are provided.
Thessaloniki’s retrospective screened nineteen of her documentaries (widely programmed and honored in festivals around the world upon original release) and allowed viewers to set aside claims for her affiliation with past cinematic styles in order to appreciate the consistency and singularity of her original and personal approach. Pakalniņa describes her films as instances of observation of reality, disclosing that ideas come to her as images in a certain tonality, either in color or in black-and-white.10 While she has filmed in color, in films like Ozols (The Oak, 1997), Leiputrija (Dream Land, 2004), and Isfilma par dzivi (Short Film about Life, 2014), Pakalniņa seems to have an aesthetic preference for black-and-white film. During the postscreening discussion of Mājas (Homes, 2021) in Thessaloniki, Pakalniņa (not surprisingly, to those familiar with the filmmaker’s idiosyncrasies) urged her audience to have “black-and-white dreams.”
Pakalniņa’s films employ cinema’s most elemental audiovisual means—framing, composition, sound—to produce new meanings and novel readings of the views, landscapes, subjects, and objects captured on camera. Whereas the image in her films works to delimit and circumscribe the view of a re-presented reality, the sound is manipulated to amplify, distance, counter, or comment on what is shown.11 Since she opts for long takes, with little to no camera movement, her shots evoke a hunting process, patiently waiting and observing until the unaware prey is revealed and captured. Life becomes a collection of spontaneous and unexpected events that tend to reveal a unique sense of humor. Spectators sense humor as a quasi-omnipresent element of everyday life in this approach to reality, particularly evident in her short documentary Papa Gena (2001) and in her most recent feature, Homes.
Homes exposes spontaneously comic instances of people reacting to the presence of the camera. Documentary subjects and coparticipants are observed outside their homes, through windows, and given directions via walkie-talkie by cinematographer Gints Bērziņš as to a desired position for a balanced and aesthetically pleasing composition (reminiscent of nineteenth-century family studio portraits). Once positioned as the cinematographer desires, they are directed to stand still while the camera continues to roll for a full minute. By documenting this process of staging a scene, the most fundamental element of cinema, Pakalniņa invites the audience to reflect on the process of filmmaking, disclosing a hidden side usually accessible only to those present at the shooting. Moreover, it posits the process of filmmaking itself as a complicit and consensual act between protagonist and filmmaker.
With a habit of giving her documentary subjects sets of instructions that, through their exact phrasing, lead to slightly absurd situations, Pakalniņa previously kept their content concealed from her audiences. In Papa Gena, for instance, viewers witness only the end result: the facial and bodily reactions of people with earpieces listening to inaudible instructions followed by an excerpt from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Instead, in Homes, the cinematographer Bērziņš’s voice directing the filmed “actors” becomes a central auditive and even narrative reference, unifying divergent scenes. Diegetic sound is also used to great effect. While spectators, filmmakers, and camera are separated from the subjects/participants by a glass window and held at a certain distance, the recorded sound of directions being relayed via walkie-talkie, exchanges between participants, and other peripheral sounds are audible and amplified to feel very close. Just as Pakalniņa employed diegetic sound (amplified or distorted) in her earlier films Pasts (The Mail, 1996), Papa Gena, and Karote (Spoon, 2019), here, too, the dialogue among family members as they struggle to stand still for one minute or feel compelled to give instructions to one another becomes a source of humor and irony.
Pakalniņa’s work is also concerned with the themes of ecology and capitalist production. In particular, Spoon and Dream Land invite the viewer to cohabit their production processes. Exploring the process behind the making of a seemingly harmless piece of plastic cutlery, Spoon avoids a conventional didactic or expository approach and instead offers an encounter with the real in terms of the duration of each filmed scene, which, slowly and ironically, reveals the global industrial practices of capitalist times. Each shot is hard to contextualize, but gradually viewers witness the process of creating plastic spoons expanding in time and space through a massive transportation of goods in factories located in five different countries. Conversely, Dream Land is a poetic observational documentary of the life on one city’s massive garbage dump, accompanied by a classical music score that adds another twist of irony as the film slowly becomes an expression of the poetry of ugliness.12 There’s no doubt that the narrative structures of Pakalniņa’s films—where every shot has an equal value in regard to the information it conveys and where meaning emerges only in retrospect after seeing the film as a whole—challenge an audience accustomed to more-conventional storytelling,
For such audiences, the predictable narrative of a documentary like A House Made of Splinters (2022), by Danish filmmaker Simon Lereng Wilmont, delivers alternative pleasures. His film is a compelling and touching story about a Ukrainian social center for neglected children, located only twenty kilometers from the eastern border. Focusing on the lives of three children—Eva, Sasha, and troublemaker Kolya—the documentary bears witness to the events of the center’s daily routine and ultimately demonstrates how a fly-on-the-wall approach personally engages even distant viewers unfamiliar with the issue of domestic violence in war zones.
Wilmont’s film is structured around narratively significant events through which crucial information is shared with the audience, like Sasha meeting her foster family or the children discussing their parents’ drinking issues. The camera remains invisible, and most children seem unaware of its presence, even when they find themselves in an intimate or vulnerable situation. Viewers may be somewhat suspicious, unconvinced by this filmmaking strategy. Perhaps including children’s more “playful” reactions to the camera’s presence would have disrupted a desired tone, or perhaps the children came to accept the presence of the camera as an organic or mandatory element of their new home. Key events, along with the disembodied but calm voice-over of a social worker, eventually shape a circular narrative wherein each child traverses the same repetitive stages, as if in limbo.
While oscillating between hope, despair, and a predictable narrative structure, A House Made of Splinters succeeded in reaching and affecting a mainstream audience as well as the festival’s jury: it was honored with both the FIPRESCI award and the prestigious Golden Alexander for best international documentary. Shot in the destructive aftermath of the first armed conflicts that erupted in the Donbas region in 2014 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the film, with its implicit antiwar narrative, is today all the more noteworthy. Less than a month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, concerns for the displaced population and war victims were voiced by the filmmakers, the festival team, and the audience at almost every postscreening discussion and informal debate.
The festival made most of its films available both in person and via its online platform. Whether due to caution in the face of the coronavirus pandemic or to a newfound preference for viewing films from the comfort of one’s own home, this year’s Thessaloniki festival did not enjoy the habitual full-house screenings of previous editions. Within the unstable and volatile social and biopolitical present—characterized by a politically polarized “democratic” West, the lingering consequences of the still deadly pandemic, and a war raging in Ukraine—festivalgoers seem to be left on their own to ponder the question: What kind of images do we need now? What kind of images should we still create, watch and share?
Over the last years, societies grew accustomed to living in private atomized nightmares in a virus-stricken world where economy and death were weighed and confronted side by side as equal values. In the context of a global system of neoliberal barbarism that produces inhumane dilemmas, it’s time to examine how festivals can construct a political space capable of shaping dynamic encounters between artists and their audiences to revitalize a politized imagination. Perhaps it is time to return once again to Adorno’s much quoted and frequently misunderstood axiom that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”13 Not as a verdict to silence culture or artistic expression, but as a radical, enduring cry to confront the perennial ethical and political responsibility of cinema in the face of an irreversible past and uncertain future.
Each year, the festival selects a focus theme in addition to its main competition program and other sidebar events, programs, and retrospectives. For instance, in 2020, the Documentary Festival examined ongoing environmental concerns and humanity’s destructive actions, united under the umbrella of the Anthropocene, a still widely debated term introduced to describe the current geological period.
See Orestis Andreadakis, ed., Post Reality (Thessaloniki: Twenty-Fourth Thessaloniki Documentary Festival Editions, March 2022).
For instance, Stanisław Lem’s 1974 science-fiction novel, The Futurological Congress, saw in the psychedelic possibilities of chemistry a future where the human brain could be plunged into a chemically induced state of hallucination and euphoria, leading to humanity’s gradual extinction.
André Bazin, “The Western, or the American Film par excellence,” in What Is Cinema?, vol. 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 140–48. Originally published as Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?, vol. 2, Le cinéma et les autres arts (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1959).
Jaimie Baron, The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History (New Brunswick, NJ: Routledge, 2013).
Laila Pakalniņa, email correspondence with authors, April 4, 2022.
Inga Perkone, “Seeing Differently: The Film Language of the Latvian Director Laila Pakalniņa,” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 45, no. 1 (March 2018): 90–102.
Klāra Brūveris, “The ‘Creative Treatment of Actuality’: Poetics and Verisimilitude in Laila Pakalniņa’s Films,” Culture Crossroads 10 (2017): 85–90.
Marija Jeremic´, “GoCritic! Feature: No Action, No Heroes—Laila Pakalnina,” Cineuropa, July 26, 2018, https://cineuropa.org/en/newsdetail/357294/.
Pakalniņa, email correspondence with authors.
Pakalniņa explains: “I like to disassemble real sound. I like to make different (subjective) perspectives in sound (as our hearing is very subjective—we don’t hear like recording machines), so I like something to sound louder or sometimes closer…. Some sounds I would completely remove, and some I like to make sound totally different…. In general this means that we are constructing new sound.” Pakalniņa, email correspondence with authors.
This artistic approach is reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s somewhat disturbing and yet impressive On Ugliness, where he takes the reader on the journey of the subjectivity of perception and conceptualization of the aesthetic notion of “ugly” throughout art history. Umberto Eco, ed., On Ugliness (New York: Rizzoli, 2007).
Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), 34.