I am easily distracted: of the three retrospective sidebars at the 12th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, hands down the Joris Ivens proved irresistible (apologies to Andrzej Fidyk and Krzysztof Kieslowksi). But a double feature of Borinage (34) and The Spanish Earth (37) turned out to be uncannily prescient. The earlier film, made in response to the deplorable living conditions brought on by a 1932 Belgian miner’s strike, features remarkable footage of a confrontation between estranged labor and the authorities. While wandering the streets between screenings a few days later I saw Greek riot police shadowing a large crowd of angry but civil protesters. The masses were demonstrating against the government’s so-called austerity measures. (Note to self: riot police do not always appreciate having their photos taken.)

Strife, civil and otherwise, is the bread and butter of documentary, so the spectral presence of Ivens, not to mention the people marching in the street, set an appropriate tone. Nothing I saw in Thessaloniki approached the majesty of the Dutch master—but that’s a little like saying no one paints like Vermeer. There was plenty of small-scale artistry to go around and, aptly, a fair amount had a specifically Greek point of view.

First case study: Andreas Loukakos’s Leros: Freedom Is Curative examined the emotional scars left by a now-abandoned psychiatric clinic. The place was a veritable Shutter Island. The archival material the director weaved into his where-are-they-now? narrative added impact to the psycho-shock: in found footage borrowed from an earlier documentary we see naked, babbling, mentally-ill people drifting about a grotesquely unsanitary asylum, seemingly left to supervise themselves. Loukako’s account follows the present-day reintegration of a handful of former inmates back into society. Thankfully, the process appears to be going well. One reason for that success is both unnerving yet absurdly reassuring: the only thing that seems to separate the insane from the rest of us isn’t just the luxury of clean clothes but the simple fact of wearing them.

Anthi Daoundaki’s Women in Black had a similar focus on social outsiders, but the director’s subjects were not afflicted by dementia but by both age and, the film’s defining stricture, widowhood. In the mountains of Crete, ensconced in the foothills, a micro-community of five elderly women without men eke out their not-so-golden years. Again, resiliency becomes the order of the day: the oldest and wisest recounts a tale of an arranged relationship in which she—the eternal rebel—actually liked the man she was set up with. But, of course, that man is long gone.

Continuing the island/isolation theme (this is, after all, an Aegean festival), Milos Revisited, by Nick Alpandakis, takes its name from . . . the island of Milos. Back in the mid-Fifties, a gentleman named Agathocles Cypriotis was hired as executive director of a mineral-mining company, the island’s chief employer. Cypriotis, also a Super-8 buff, shot miles of footage capturing everyone and everything around him. The company mysteriously relocated the beloved boss from the island, but some five decades later Alpandakis returned to the island with the films to show to the surviving inhabitants and documented their reactions. The new film uses multiscreen montage to convey empathetic nostalgia: the present-day subjects are seen side by side with their former selves—some delighted by the memories, others taken aback by what time has wrought.

Another example from the alone-together micro-genre is Pierre-Olivier François & Pierre Bourgeois’s A Barrel Full of Dreams. Somewhere in deepest Siberia lies Khanty-Mansiysk, a frozen expanse that periodically thaws, unleashing clouds of bloodthirsty mosquitoes. In addition to the pests, it’s also home to 60 percent of Russia’s oil reserves, a fact that spawned an improbable mini city practically overnight. Workers flock to it for the incomparable standard of living—factoring out the inhospitable location, freezing temperatures, and insect infestation. In a truly surreal scene, a high-ranking bureaucrat arranges for his favorite band, Deep Purple, to be flown in to play an official function—clearly demonstrating the out-of-whack value system (and disposable cash) operative in the city. In any event, anyone who sees this film will contemplate, in a momentary lapse of reason, relocating to Siberia.

Foreigners exploring Thessaloniki will no doubt come across one of the odd, red-tiled, dome structures scattered throughout the city. Inside, a novice might think that the awe-inspiring sanctum they’ve stumbled upon is some sort of ancient religious temple. They are, in fact, bathhouses. The example, in my case, turned out to be the Ottoman period Bey Hammam, aka Paradise Bath, built by Sultan Murad II in 1444. (I picked up a brochure.) Curiosity piqued, I made a point of seeing Peggy Vassiliou’s Hammam Memories, an essay film that posits the Hammam of Rhodes (circa 1700) as a nexus for political reconciliation. Interviews with ethnic representatives address the regional Greek, Turkish, and Jewish history of racism and genocide, and the way in which potentially explosive differences can be defused—inside a bathhouse. The recuperative power of the hammam, it seems, cleanses all. Vassiliou intercuts this with historical re-creations—dream sequences produced in a misty-lens, almost soft-core fashion. Her slightly hokey aim is promotion of a why-can’t-we-just-get-along-with-our-clothes-off philosophy. There are obviously far worse political platforms.

The curative power of sex was also a theme in Bi the Way, a film, by Brittany Blockman and Josephine Decker, that owed a bit too much to the MTV/Real World aesthetic. It began well, with contagious energy, and followed the trials and tribulations of a group of young folk who the directors envision as part of a new sexual revolution. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t seem to have actually listened to the commentary provided by their own veteran correspondents—including Michael Musto and Dan Savage. Savage shrugs off the whole bisexual phenomenon as a normal part of youthful confusion. Give them time, he says, and any so-called bisexual will eventually come to both their senses and their true, most likely homosexual, preferences. In any event, props must go to the clear audience favorite: the 10-year-old son of (now) gay-director Jonathan Caouette. He candidly informs his family and peers that he hasn’t made up his mind—but can’t wait to get busy when he’s old enough to sort things out.

(Insert inappropriate underage-sex segue here.) While working with a tribe of New Guinea cannibals, scientist D. Carleton Gajdusek discovered the prion, an elusive protein particle that allows for the transmission of Mad Cow disease. The research earned him a Nobel Prize. Some of Gajdusek’s formidable friends, who also appear in the film The Genius and the Boys, include neurobiologist Oliver Sacks, HIV discoverer Robert Gallo, and Benoît Mandelbrot, the man who put the fractal in chaos theory. Over time, Gajdusek adopted an astonishing 57 children, all boys, many from the South Sea locales where he conducted his research. They were whisked away to a world of Washington, D.C. affluence, where the public assumed the scientist was being incredibly benevolent. Then came allegations of pedophilia. Worse, Gajdusek not only admitted to the acts, but argued that in light of cultural relativism, he had done no wrong.

The Genius and the Boys turns up the heat as director Bosse Lindquist goes head to head with Gajdusek. The scientist rages at the director, clearly regarding him as part of the naïve and dull-witted world that has condemned him. (Actually, not exactly: Lindquist, during a post-screening Q&A, professed that his film had failed on one major level. By not making Gajdusek more likable!) If, as Gajdusek claims, his sexuality and his science are inextricably linked, a thorny proposition remains: if you forbid the former, you will not receive the benefits of the latter.

In further news from the good-scientist bad-scientist front: Dow Chemical and Dole Food have been prosecuted for the havoc their pesticides have wrought in South America, in particular a product known as Nemagon which causes sterility in males, and was banned in the U.S. in 1977. Nicaraguan produce workers are still forced to use it. Fredrik Gertten’s Bananas!* follows the activities of one Juan “Accidentes” Dominguez, a high-profile personal-injury lawyer based in Southern California who becomes embroiled in the worker’s lawsuit against the multinational. Weirdly, there’s much humor in the film (mostly provided by the unintentionally comic Dominguez, the type of lawyer who advertises on buses and billboards), but many unpleasant facts come to light, the nastiest of which have already resulted in additional lawsuits—against the filmmaker. Which only goes to show Gertten must be doing something right.

One of the most disturbing double features in Thessaloniki—and, paradoxically, one of the most genuinely uplifting—involved the pairing of Aslak Danbolt’s Martin the Ghost with Alexander Gutman’s 17 August. The former concerns one of the young director’s best friends, who is permanently paralyzed—a state of affairs brought about by a DUI accident that also killed another person. Gutman’s film examines, with near microscopic intensity, a day in the life in a Russian prison-slash-hellhole. Intuitively following the precepts of Pascal’s Wager, he prays to a god he clearly doesn’t believe in.

Both films present life as prison, literally, metaphorically—and lyrically. And both have moments of near miraculous joy: for Martin, it involves a routine, one that probably repeats itself everyday, in which his nurse playfully asks if he would like to go for a gratuitous spin in his harness—the device that maneuvers his crippled body in and out of bed. Suspended in the air, rotating in what looks like a weightless state, a look of sheer delight comes across his poor brain-damaged face.

For the Russian prisoner, the moment concerns a conversation he has with a spider he shares his cell with. A fly has appeared—but to no avail. The one-way dialogue goes something like this: “Some are waiting for death. But here death runs away. Death is running away from me. Hee hee! Hee hee! Spider, you’re going to starve to death here. I’m not a fly! Your lunch flew away. Hee hee!” It’s the funniest thing in the world.

Postscript: TDF, being a doc fest, tends toward the mellow, especially in terms of audience. So it was a bit surprising when a sell-out crowd materialized for Chantal Lasbats’s The Tunnel Dwellers of New York. Shut out, I tried again the next day only to find an even longer line (clearly, the local university had spread the buzz). I requested a DVD. This disquieting film, co-produced with the Sundance Channel, brings new meaning to an “in-depth look.” New York City sits on some 18 strata of underground space that in turn holds hundreds of abandoned subway stations and a dizzying array of shadowy nooks and crannies—void spaces that provide shelter for the homeless. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to drop out completely, this would be a good place to start. “I don’t mind the trains; I don’t mind the rats,” explains one inhabitant. “It’s the people that I don’t like.” Food? As plentiful as urban garbage. Laundry? Simply throw it away and scrounge for replacements. A shower, however, is the most abstract of concepts. Perhaps that’s why the undergrads were so fascinated.