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Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival Kicks Off With Fernando Trueba Tribute, Screening Of Director’s ‘They Shot The Piano Player’

The 26th Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival (TiDF) is underway in the historic Greek port city, after an opening night ceremony that honored Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba.

Trueba, the Oscar-winning director of Belle Époque, received the festival’s honorary Golden Alexander, recognizing his contributions to cinema and culture. The honor was presented to him by Katerina Sakellaropoulou, president of Hellenic Republic, the first time a Greek head of state has launched the international event.

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“Great documentaries profoundly move us, broaden our understanding of the world, challenge our beliefs, prejudices, or our established assumptions,” President Sakellaropoulou said from the stage at the Olympion cinema. “An artistic portrayal of reality, or a creative handling of an otherwise unseen aspect of it, a poetic depiction of a documented truth, or a subjective documentation of some of its dimensions, documentary is a film genre requiring cultural sensitivity, journalistic integrity, moral rectitude, conceptual purity, and political discernment.”

Director Fernando Trueba receives the Golden Alexander from Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou.
Director Fernando Trueba receives the Golden Alexander from Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou.

Accepting the Golden Alexander, Trueba paid tribute to the host country. “Everything was born here in Greece,” he said, “from democracy and philosophy to the way we observe, comprehend, endure life through the coexistence of tragedy and comedy. You also came up with a very significant concept; that of hubris. We should never harm our neighbor; it is one of the most heinous sins we can commit. Unfortunately, however, the human species doesn’t learn from its mistakes.”

That last comment, about hubris, was a subtle acknowledgement of the theme of Trueba’s latest film, They Shot the Piano Player, which screened as part of the TiDF opening. The documentary revolves around the disappearance of the great Brazilian jazz pianist Franscisco Tenório Júnior, who went missing while on tour in Argentina in 1976, swept up in the right-wing coup. Trueba said the film “addresses the conflict between culture and violence, art and fascism. I think this is a very relevant issue.”

Director Fernando Trueba poses during the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival at Maria Cristina Hotel.
Director Fernando Trueba

The opening ceremony marked a return visit to Greece for Trueba, who shot his forthcoming narrative feature Haunted Heart in the Volos region between Athens and Thessaloniki. That film, a romantic thriller involving a love triangle, stars Matt Dillon, Aida Foch, and Juan Pablo Urrego. In addition to They Shot the Piano Player, TiDF is showcasing two other Trueba works – the documentary Calle 54 and the Oscar-nominated animated feature Chico & Rita, co-directed by Tono Errando and Javier Mariscal.

TiDF calls Trueba “one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of contemporary European cinema” and notes his achievements in other areas of entertainment: “[He] has an equally astounding career as a music producer under his belt, having won two Grammy Awards and four Latin Grammy Awards.”

'They Shot The Piano Player'
‘They Shot The Piano Player’

Music plays a central role in many of Trueba’s films, including They Shot the Piano Player, which he co-directed with Mariscal, the acclaimed visual artist. TiDF describes the film as a “neo-noir animated docudrama” (has any other film been thus described?), exploring the legacy and mysterious death of Tenório Júnior, who was killed at age 34. It’s believed that right-wing Argentine death squads grabbed him off the streets of Buenos Aires, assuming he was a leftist youth.

Tenório Júnior had been performing with his band in Uruguay when he got a last-minute invitation to play in Argentina. It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

'They Shot the Piano Player'
‘They Shot the Piano Player’

Tenório Júnior and his bandmates “were completely ignorant of what was going on at that time in Buenos Aires,” Trueba tells Deadline. “There was a war climate in the streets. Every day there were killings and bombings, people were kidnapped in the streets. And Tenório was taken clearly by mistake, but they tortured him during nine days before killing him.”

He adds, “It is a tragedy, but it shows at what point violence and all this war and all these things are so stupid, monstrous but arbitrary, completely senseless. It’s just the monumental stupidity of the human race killing people like that, as it happens every day now.”

'They Shot the Piano Player'
‘They Shot the Piano Player’

Trueba and Mariscal frame their story of Tenório Júnior with a fictional creation, an American journalist voiced by Jeff Goldblum who travels to Brazil to investigate the musician’s death. The actor himself is a gifted pianist. It was a cinematic reunion for Trueba and Goldblum, who worked together on the 1989 drama Twisted Obsession.

“He’s an old friend,” Trueba notes. “We did a movie together 30 years ago and we keep in touch. And from the very beginning I thought of him because I love his voice. The fact that he’s a pianist gave a supplementary sense to it.”

Trueba explains that Goldblum’s character in the documentary is essentially a stand-in for Trueba himself. Years ago, the filmmaker made his own pilgrimage to Brazil to interview more than 150 people who knew Tenório Júnior – family, friends, and musical collaborators including Milton Nascimento, Caetano Veloso, and João Gilberto. Those interviews are woven through They Shot the Piano Player, animated in dazzling visual style by Mariscal.

“It’s a kind of alter ego,” Trueba says of the character Goldblum plays. “He’s doing what I did and meeting the people that I met.”

Artist Javier Mariscal attends the red carpet during the "Gaudí Awards 2024" on February 04, 2024 in Barcelona, Spain.
Director/artist Javier Mariscal

Mariscal immersed himself in Bossa Nova music to prepare for creating the animation. “I tried to understand the feeling,” he tells Deadline. “Thanks to the animation we can give life again to Tenório, his recordings and recreate these moments. The colors [I used] in this space are like a dream, it’s like a remembrance. And with the colors I try to say, look at how happy and how nice and how complex and how good the feeling was between all these musicians.”

He adds, “Tenório is dead, but is not dead. We can listen and see how he played the piano and he was the leader of this [Bossa Nova movement]. They were such young people. It was a big explosion.”

As Sakellaropoulou, the Greek president, kicked off the Thessaloniki International Documentary Festival, she made reference to the significance of They Shot the Piano Player.

L-R Fernando Trueba, Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, TiDF Artistic Director Orestis Andreadakis
L-R Fernando Trueba, Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, TiDF Artistic Director Orestis Andreadakis

“It is particularly interesting that this essentially political film is being awarded within the framework of this year’s festival, which dedicates one of its many sections to the 50th anniversary since the restoration of Democracy in our homeland,” she observed. “This is yet another opportunity to assert our confidence in the only constitution in which there are no human beings trapped in discrimination and stereotypes, no limitations to freedom of expression, or deprivation of fundamental rights.”

Sakellaropoulou continued, “Being aware that democracy is a fragile concept, one we must endlessly cultivate, defend, and protect. I wish every success to the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. Throughout its 26 years of life, it has already offered a lot to this remarkable genre, as well as to the way we perceive reality. I am certain it will steadily carry on its prolific path.”

TiDF runs from March 7-17. Trueba’s Calle 54 screens tonight at the festival. Mariscal’s Chico & Rita screens on Saturday.

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