Balkan, Mediterranean Filmmakers in Focus at Thessaloniki Doc Fest’s Pitching Forum

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After a year of grounded flights, video conference calls, and countless other workarounds to help the global film industry through the coronavirus pandemic, the organizers of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival are ready to roll out the red carpet for the 23rd edition.

With travel restrictions in Europe and across much of the globe easing in recent weeks, this year’s hybrid edition will include roughly 100 industry guests taking part in the activities of the Agora, the festival’s industry arm, which will host events both online and onsite in Thessaloniki from June 25-July 4.

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The organizers have made the most of recent experience. Last year, as the pandemic began spreading across Europe, the festival was forced to hastily pivot to an online edition, livestreaming the pitching forum of the annual Agora Doc Market just days after the festival’s 22nd edition was postponed. “Everything was coordinated in three days,” says Agora head Yianna Sarri. “This year, we had much more time to prepare.”

Many of the traditional venues used by the festival and its sister event in November, such as the iconic warehouse complex thrust against the Gulf of Salonika, have been replaced by open spaces with better airflow that can accommodate crowds while still adhering to social-distancing and other health protocols. Industry events taking place onsite will nevertheless be simultaneously livestreamed for the many industry guests unable to attend. “In that sense, it’s like organizing two festivals in one,” says Sarri.

Among the industry highlights will be the Agora Lab workshop, in which renowned documentary specialists offer guidance to Greek filmmakers whose films are in the post-production stage, and Meet the Future, a section that presents up-and-coming documentary filmmakers from the wider geographical region, which this year will shine the spotlight on Serbia. The Agora Doc Market will include more than 400 completed documentaries in its digital library for accredited guests, while a series of talks and masterclasses will look at issues affecting the documentary industry both regionally and worldwide.

But the anchor of Agora is the Thessaloniki Pitching Forum, a co-production and co-financing platform for documentaries in the development stage, and Agora Docs in Progress, which presents films in the final stages of post-production.

This year 14 projects will take part in the pitching forum, and an additional 10 in Docs in Progress, hoping to find the right partners from among the industry professionals invited to either take part in onsite activities in Thessaloniki, or to follow the pitches online.

For a festival hosted by a city that has historically sat at the crossroads of East and West, Thessaloniki’s pitching forum has long prided itself on diversity, with a commitment not only to gender parity—all but two projects across the two sections have women attached as directors or producers—but to an inclusiveness that embraces the wider region.

“We are really trying to represent as many communities as we can,” says Sarri, noting that great care is also taken to support filmmakers in countries and communities faced with social upheaval or unrest. “We really try to help countries that at this moment are in a bad situation.”

This year that includes films like Cherine Karam’s “Depot-Vente,” which is set in a war-scarred Beirut, and follows the efforts of a vintage shop owner to mend both tired souls and cast-off clothes; Anelise Salan’s “Forbidden,” in which a Romanian woman sues the state for the right to marry her girlfriend, complicating her life as a gay person for the first time; and Hesam Eslami’s “Dream Factory,” which unspools in a small, poor city in northern Iran, where the inhabitants are possessed by a feverish dream to find the ancient Sassanid treasures that are believed to be buried in the ground.

Sarri takes special pride in Agora projects that return to Thessaloniki in later stages of their development, such as “Mighty Afrin” (pictured), from Greece’s Angelos Rallis, which took part in last year’s pitching forum and will return this year as part of the Docs in Progress section.

“We’re very happy when this continuation takes place,” she says. In an underfinanced region where many films often stall in the development stage, Sarri also stresses the Agora’s strong track record when it comes to seeing projects through to completion. “We’re very proud, because the majority of the films that we select are being made.”

Ten of the films premiering in the official selection of this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival have been presented at and supported by Agora Docs. Recent films to pass through en route to wider success include Turkish director Tarik Aktaş’ Locarno prize winner “Dead Horse Nebula,” Portuguese filmmaker Filipa César’s Berlin premiere “Spell Reel,” and director Mounia Meddour’s Algerian civil war drama “Papicha,” which premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section and was Algeria’s Oscar submission for best international film.

Though this year’s selection includes filmmakers representing 21 countries across Europe, Africa, North America and Asia, Sarri says the Agora is nevertheless committed to its roots.

“We always focus on this specific part of the world—the Balkans and the Mediterranean countries—and we try to have as many newcomers and directors as possible every year,” she says. “This is the most important role of the Agora: to try to find the talent in our region and bring it to the rest of the world.”

The full list of projects follows:

Thessaloniki Pitching Forum

Cadillac Dreams (Georgia, France)
Director: Elene Mikaberidze
Producer: Elene Margvelashvili (Parachute Films)
Co-producer: Baptiste Brunner (YN Productions)
Logline: An intimate exploration of the hopes and dreams of young people living on divided land. Following the daily life of her two young cousins and their friends, the director re-discovers her family home and aims to weave the link between a bitter history, a fragile present, but above all the future that these children imagine as beautiful.

Concrete Land (Canada, Jordan)
Director: Asmahan Bkerat
Producer: Sahar Yousefi (Nava Projects)
Co-producer: Bassam Alasad (Tabi360)
Logline: An intimate look at the life of a nomadic Bedouin family in its struggle to hold on to its traditional life under the pressures of urbanization. Their only wish as a family is to stay together, with their loyal eccentric pet sheep Badrya firmly by their side.

Depot-Vente (Sweden, Scotland)
Director: Cherine Karam
Producers: Ashley Smith, Clara Harris, Mario Adamson (Sisyfos Film Production)
Logline: In a scarred and collapsing Beirut, Depot-Vente, the vintage shop founded by Nawal Akl, is a safe haven. In her kitsch hangar, the atypical mother and business owner embraces youth in despair and mends both tired souls and discarded clothes.

Five Football Dreams (Jordan) (Doc Series)
Directors: Bassel Ghandour, Yassmina Karajah
Producer: Hashem Sabbagh (Football Dreams Holding)
Logline: Five teenage refugees are scouted at a refugee camp by a Brazilian football academy and offered an escape from their makeshift homes and a new lease on life in Brazil.

Forbidden (Romania)
Director-Producer: Anelise Salan (The L Studio)
Logline: A Romanian woman sues the State to be able to marry her girlfriend, a fact that complicates her life as a gay person for the first time.

Free Waters (Greece)
Director: Emilia Milou
Producer: Angelos Tsaousis (Filmografik Productions)
Logline: The dauntless residents of two small “Gaulish” villages in Greece and France resist the greedy conquerors in order to preserve their wonderful spring water.

Home Is Where the Films Are (Kosovo, Italy)
Director: More Raça
Producer: Sunaj Raça (N.SH. Arena)
Co-producer: Alfredo Federico
Logline: The story of refugee kids falling in love with cinema in a refugee camp.

Poison Diplomacy (France)
Director: Jennifer Deschamps
Producer: Valérie Montmartin (Little Big Story)
Logline: Russian poison is running through the veins of international diplomacy.

Post Love (France)
Director: Alexis Taillant
Producer: Nadège Labé (Wendigo Films)
Logline: Francis, Micheline, Yves and Maurice, elderly homosexuals, are fighting for the right to risk sex and love and try to create a place for their desires in society. The little gang dreams of a senior revolution, a mass uprising of the old.

Practices in Harmony (Hungary)
Director: Anna Kis
Producer: Lili Horvat, Dóra Csernátony (Poste Restante)
Logline: In our coming-of-age story we follow Domi, a 20-year-old outstanding cello talent. While striving to enter the gate of world fame, he has to face the pain that his journey towards perfection might put his all-important friendships at risk.

Second Generation (Spain, Greece)
Directors-Producers: Rodrigo Hernandez, Elpida Nikou (Muzungu Producciones)
Co-producers: Kellen Quinn (U.S.), Poh Si Teng (consulting producer, U.S.)
Logline: The story of Miriam and Gloria, 15-year-old West African girls born in Greece, who have the chance to lead their basketball team to the national championship, an achievement that would fundamentally change their lives.

Secrets of the Owl (Greece)
Director: Eirini Vourloumis
Producers: Leonidas Liambeys (Long Run Productions), Eirini Vourloumis
Logline: A visually driven documentary portrait of Athens, told through the lives of three taxi drivers. They transport us on a musical and personal journey through a city still struggling with the repercussions of the economic crisis and in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic.

The Right to Be Forgotten (Romania, Belgium)
Director: Adina Sădeanu
Producers: Αna Maria Pirvan, Adina Sădeanun (Axis Media Production)
Co-producers: Iva Tkalec, Val Grégoire (Squarefish)
Logline: The film explores the journey to justice and obliviousness of three women—Alexa, Mara and Alina—whose life was turned into hell due to years-long online attacks.

Waiting for the School Bus (Sweden)
Director: Hanna Heilborn
Producers: Elin Kamlert, Tobias Janson (executive producer) (Story AB)
Logline: A documentary about a Roma family living in the suburbs of Milan, and about a mother’s struggle to have the rights of her children met.

Agora Docs in Progress

Avaton (France)
Director: Irini Karayannopoulou
Co-director: Sandrine Cheyrol
Producer: Mathilde Delaunay (Barberousse Films)
Logline: Women have been denied entrance in Athos since the 11th century A.D. The autonomous monastic community of Northern Greece is the largest area on earth where access is reserved to men alone. Throughout Avaton, women of all ages and backgrounds discuss a place they have no access to and question the strict law that leads to their exclusion.

Before the Final Picture (Egypt)
Director-Producer: Aya Tallah Yusuf
Logline: The story of Samar and Sanaa; two friends slowly rebuilding their lives after suffering acid attacks, that left them disfigured and partially blind for life.

Bottlemen (Serbia, Slovenia)
Director: Nemanja Vojinović
Producer: Marija Stojnić, Nemanja Vojinović (RT DOBRE NADE)
Co-producers: Viva Videnović (URGH!, Set Sail Films)
Logline: Fifteen kilometers south of Belgrade, Serbia, on an archaeological site of the ancient Vinča civilization – a cradle of Neolithic Europe – lies the biggest landfill of the Balkans. Unsettled by an inextinguishable fire, this toxic land is the workplace of a group of plastic bottle collectors, called bottlemen. Through intimate portraits of its members, we follow the last days of this unlikely community before their jobs become obsolete.
Presented as a project in development at Docs in Thessaloniki 2018

Bukra (Portugal)
Director: Diana Antunes
Producer: Maria João Mayer, Marina Reino (associate producer) (Maria & Mayer)
Logline: Jenin witnessed a massacre in 2002 during the Second Attack (Intifada). The highest impact was felt at the Jenin refugee camp, housing 17,000 people in just one square kilometer. The grief and permanent oppression caused by the massacre gave birth to inspiring projects, as a form of resistance. Six real-life stories reveal the lives of those who believe they can peacefully make a difference, whether through art, speech, or strong actions.

Dream Factory (Iran, France)
Director: Hesam Eslami
Producer: Etienne de Ricaud (Caracteres Productions), Hesam Eslami (Aras Films)
Logline: In a small and poor city in northern Iran (Pol Sefid), all the inhabitants are possessed by a feverish dream—to find the ancient Sassanid treasures that are believed to be buried in the ground. Everyone is watching after everyone in this surreal microcosm, where anybody is a suspect. The more the judges and police struggle to apprehend the illegal diggers, the stronger this forbidden dream grows.

Jean Genet Our Father of the Flowers (Morocco, France)
Director: Dalila Ennadre
Producer: Lamia Chraibi (La Prod)
Co-producer: Lilya Ennadre (Laya Prod)
Logline: Larache, north Morocco. It is here that Jean Genet spent his last years. It is here that he is buried. Nowadays, the poet is legendary for the city’s inhabitants. Few knew him or read his books. But everyone has something to say about him. Simple, invisible people. They resemble the characters in his books and are now watching over his grave.

Mighty Afrin (Greece, France, Germany)
Director: Angelos Rallis
Producers: Maria del Mar Rodriguez Yebra, Angelos Rallis (AR Productions)
Co-Producer: Birgit Kemner (Manny Films), ERT, ZDF/ARTE
Logline: Along the mighty Brahmaputra river, a 12-year-old orphan girl named Afrin is treated as a burden by her abusive aunt. Year after year, Afrin’s home is ravaged by severe flooding and storms, which are becoming more extreme due to climate change. Threatened by the floods and a forced marriage, Afrin decides to regain control of her life and embarks on an epic, coming-of-age odyssey to find her father.
Presented as a project in development at Thessaloniki Pitching Forum 2020

Narrow Path to Happiness (Hungary, U.S.)
Director: Kata Oláh
Producer: Borbála Csukás (MAKABOR STUDIÓ Kft)
Co-producer: Marc Smolowitz (13th Gen)
Logline: Gergo and Lenard, a couple living in a remote Roma community, where being gay is considered an unforgivable sin, have a dream so absurd that it seems almost impossible: making a musical film based on their lives and true love. Moving to the capital and facing the liberal ways of thinking makes their journey towards their dream even more challenging.

Tilos Weddings (Greece)
Director-Producer: Panayotis Evangelidis
Logline: In 2008, the mayor of the small island of Tilos in the Aegean Sea agreed to perform the first gay and lesbian civil marriages ever done in Greece. And he did so despite the existing opposition and, in particular, the publicly expressed warning against it from Greece’s Attorney General. So, in June of the same year a lesbian and a gay couple were the first ever in Greece to celebrate their civil union. The film follows the story of these two civil marriages from material that was shot ad hoc at the time and also at the gay Pride of the same year, press conferences and other demonstrations concerning the same subject.

Ukraine Behind the Scenes (Ukraine)
Director: Vladyslav Vasylchenko
Producer: Aleksandra Kostina, Lukian Halkin (Bosonfilm)
Logline: There are 900 abandoned towns in Ukraine, which we have either forgotten or never heard of. But people are still living there. “Leftovers” embody the fantastic vitality of Ukrainians, who can dream of a better future even amidst a complete ruin. And, more importantly, they embody the future with their own hands with self-irony and a smile on their faces. Not depressed, but not without regret.

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