Talking Heads - Citizen Queer: Overcoming trends and barriers on and off screen

The discussion “Talking Heads - Citizen Queer: Overcoming trends and barriers on and off screen” took place on Wednesday March 13th, at Pavlos Zannas theatre, as part of the new initiative of the Agora, Talking Heads, a series of speeches on current issues of the film industry.

Queer experiences represent a lot of storytelling and perspectives on and off screen. Their voices in the film industry are not pedagogical tools or checkboxes on diversity, but an authentic reflection of our society and its different intersecting identities, enriching the cinematic setting with their stories. Representation and inclusion are words we use, but what is the documentary film industry really like, and what needs to be done to create places where queer filmmakers feel safe to tell their authentic stories?

Thanos Stavropoulos, Agora Manager, introduced the discussion by welcoming people in the panel as well as Marion Schmidt, moderator from DAE (Documentary Association of Europe): “Good morning and welcome, it is my honour and privilege to moderate this discussion, thank you for your trust in the opening of Talking Heads, in a talk that aligns with the great tribute of the Festival, Citizen Queer. We are at a historic juncture in Greece, with the legalization of same-sex marriage." Afterwards, he added: "Unfortunately, we are aware of the transphobic attacks that took place a few days ago, in the square in front of us, which were followed by a gathering in solidarity, which was also attended by many participants of the Festival.”

The panelists:

Fatih Abay - diversity and inclusion executive, European Film Academy 

Panagiotis Evangelidis - director, writer

Gugi Gumilang - Program Director, In-Docs & Program Curator, Hot Docs

Rico Johnson Sinclair - Skills & training director, Warner Bros. Discovery, programmer, writer

Iris Zachmanidi - director

The first speaker was Mr. Evangelidis, who will be awarded with the Golden Alexander at the 26th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival for his overall contribution to cinema. "I didn't become a documentary filmmaker by choice, even today I don't consider myself as such," he said. "I shifted to cinema through literature because writing wasn't enough for me. There was an immediate connection between this need and the documentary. Fiction was no longer enough for me. I wanted to meet real people. I realised that through the making of these documentaries, I somehow transformed these people and placed them in my own fantasy world. When you have 100 hours of material, you make a choice about what to light up and what to leave out. Nothing was predetermined; I learned everything by doing it and watching my documentaries at a later time." Then, replying to a question about why he shoots his documentaries mainly abroad, he said: "In general, some people interest me and trigger me, light my way, set my mind on fire and comfort me. In Greece, homophobia is deeply rooted. The Greeks do not want to be exposed. I love working with Greeks because language is a great facilitator. Homophobia is the real reason I don't make personal stories with Greeks."

Iris Zachmanidi, director, then took the floor: "My contribution to the LGBTQI+ begins at the time described by Iossif Vardakis in his documentary about AKOE, when I was still studying at the Stavrakos Film School, long before the creation of a film school at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. I loved working on films because I started a new journey every few months. It was a male-dominated environment. I take action in Rainbow Seniors, a group for the rights of the LGBTQI+ community, and next year we will inaugurate a shelter for people in the community in Athens, in collaboration with the Municipality of Athens."

At this point, Rico Johnson-Sinclair, a programmer and writer from the UK, as well as special advisor to this year's big tribute Citizen Queer, spoke about the importance of the stance in relation to issues of positionality, as well as the establishment of a code of ethics in the film industry: "We have to ask ourselves if all the effort and resources invested in a film get back and give voice to the communities that the film is about." He said there is a term described as curatorial justice: "Some people make choices based on a historic, golden period of cinema, which may have had racist or homophobic elements. After all, the course of the film follows the course set by the industry. Sometimes this course goes against the community needs".

Gugi Gumilang, program director from In-Docs, carried on the conversation and agreed on the importance of positionality and spoke about the film industry in Asia: "It's very refreshing to give voice to the community. At In-Docs we strive to create an open culture and give creators space to do what they wish for. We are always closely monitored by the government and sometimes we don't get subsidies. Documentary is a medium that the government doesn't like." He also stressed the importance of creating a code of conduct for the entire film industry.

Marion Schmidt then gave the floor to Fatih Abay, diversity and inclusion executive from the European Film Academy, who looked back briefly on the Academy's history: "Since the Academy was founded in the 80s, a lot has changed. We have expanded and added new perspectives from many European countries, especially Eastern Europe." He mentioned the term "glocalization", a mix of global & local concepts that describes the way we handle a global phenomenon with local, practical solutions. "Documentaries are more diverse than fiction, and we try to apply that diversity to films." Finally, he also highlighted the importance of creating a code of conduct, a common policy for the film industry.

Panayotis Evangelidis added that it is very important to facilitate the procedures for creators: "I refuse funding; money creates responsibilities, deadlines and obligations. I wonder if there is a way to speed up procedures for creators so that they do not get lost in bureaucracy. Especially in documentaries, you can't wait six months, a mountain in America or a bridge in Asia will always be there, but a person is constantly changing." Fatih Abay agreed by saying that knowledge, whether about cinema itself or the way industry works, is not communicated fast enough. Therefore, there should be a holistic approach to the way knowledge is produced and communicated in the film industry. Rico Johnson-Sinclair stressed that not everyone can afford not to get funding, for many make cinema for a living: "More films mean more money, and more money means more freedom for the creator." Iris Zachmanidi said that in the Greek film industry there is no code of conduct, with the exception of the RDI.

At this point, Mr. Evangelidis underlined that the most important thing in the documentary is the relationship you have with people: "It is the human act of exchange, for me it is the consolation of my soul. I don't extract anything from them, they need someone to hear and understand them. My reward is the relationship with them – maybe even a Golden Alexander." Iris Zachmanidis also agreed and underlined the importance of honesty in the art of documentary, because "otherwise you do not show real characters".

Director Iossif Vardakis stressed the importance of understanding between creators and members of the industry, the reason why it is necessary to bridge the communication gap, Fatih Abay agreed on the existence of the communication gap: "The people who give the subsidies do not go to the cinema; there is no education in this industry." Finally, Yorgos Krassakopoulos, the Festival's Head of Program, said: "The way the society will be forced to accept something as the law of the state, the same way the film industry will be forced to adapt in case it will be forced to do so." At this point, Rico Johnson-Sinclair replied that "it shouldn't be our job, as marginalised communities, to create a proper code of conduct. That's the industry's job."