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Palestinian director Hana Elias’ “If These Stones Could Talk,” which follows a Palestinian man’s return to his homeland to restore his family’s ancestral garden, and Argentine filmmaker María Silvia Esteve’s “Mailin,” about a woman’s painful struggle to overcome her childhood trauma, took the top prizes at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival’s industry award ceremony Wednesday night.

During an emotionally charged conclusion to the festival’s Agora strand, in which several filmmakers voiced their strident support for Palestine and called for a ceasefire to the more than five-month-old Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, a tearful Elias took the stage alongside producer Asmahan Bkerat to receive the top prize in the Agora’s pitching forum, a €10,000 ($10,900) cash prize from the International Emerging Film Talents Assn. (IEFTA).

“This film’s been happening for a long time, and there’s no hope right now. But we’re so grateful for this award,” she said. “We’re grateful for everyone we’ve met here, and we want to see more Palestinian voices on stages like these. We want to see all of them given opportunities to come and pitch their stories. Palestinians are the ones who need to be telling their stories right now.

“I just like to remind everyone to remember this film, in this devastating moment, as we’re seeing people literally being ethnically cleansed and forced off their land and killed in the…thousands, we need to remember the beauty of the land that we’re trying to protect and the land that we’re trying to hold onto. The olive trees that are burned,” she continued. “This film is telling you that we love these olive trees. There’s a reason why we’re crying about them. There’s a reason why we won’t let them go. And I hope that comes through in this film. And with this award, we will make that happen.”

The director’s feature debut, “If These Stones Could Talk” is a deeply personal journey that follows Elias’ father and their family as they return to their Palestinian hometown of Shefa’Amr, where they work to restore their land and build a home in a search for belonging. There they continue to use agrarian practices that have existed for thousands of years, cultivating a garden that the director calls a testament to Palestinian steadfastness.

Describing the documentary as “an urgent story that must be championed,” the jury said in its statement: “Finding home, discovering where you belong and what that means to you, is a fundamental human need. By tending to your homeland, you nurture your family and nurture the right to your home. With warmth and authenticity, this project portrays a family’s relationship with both each other and their land in an intimate way.”

The top prize in the Docs in Progress section, the 2|35 Post-Production Company Award in post-production services, went to “Mailin,” from writer-director-producer Esteve, whose previous documentary, “Silvia,” premiered at IDFA in 2018. The film uses a collage of 2D animation and family archives to tell the story of a girl who for 15 years suffered abuse at the hands of a priest who was jailed and subsequently set free. Now fully grown, she reemerges from her pain to rewrite her story and teach her daughter the strength of new beginnings.

A visibly moved Esteve appeared with producer Alejandra López to accept the award. “I’m very thankful for this film, because through this film, I was able to meet this incredible woman who taught me that no matter the size of the injustice that is committed, no matter how terrible the world we live in, and no matter the cost of moving forward, we just have to speak up,” she said. “We need to move forward, and we need to speak for change. We need to change things, because that is the only reason we exist.”

Praising her director for “acknowledging the importance of breaking the silence,” López said: “Let’s all break the silence. Let’s not keep quiet. Let’s shout and let’s use every platform that we can to ask for a permanent ceasefire, to ask for justice.”

María Silvia Esteve’s “Mailin” won the top prize in the Docs in Progress section.
Courtesy of Hana Films

The ceremony wrapped an emotional week in Thessaloniki, which was shaken first by a horrific attack on a transgender couple, then by far-right threats to the premiere of Greek filmmaker Elina Psykou’s documentary “Stray Bodies” that forced local authorities to ban protests city-wide.

Festival leadership has been forced to defend itself against an outcry from political and religious figures over that film’s provocative poster, which depicts a bare-breasted pregnant woman nailed to a cross. Meanwhile, pro-Palestine filmmakers and supporters have staged a number of interventions throughout the week, with several calling out the festival for not taking a stronger position on the war in Gaza.

Opening the award ceremony, festival general director Elise Jalladeau gave an emphatic statement on behalf of her team’s commitment to creating an open and inclusive space for dialogue.

“Our goal is to ensure that professionals can exchange ideas and work in a safe place, a caring space, to encourage dialogue, and to listen to all voices, wherever they may come from,” she said. “Once again, we reject all forms of exclusion and intolerance, all acts of hatred and violence, [and remain] unshakeable against war and division, against bloodshed and the slaughter of innocent civilians. We want to remain a place of unity, and we will always stand up in favor of peace, coexistence, understanding and the bridging of differences.”

Here’s the complete list of winners of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival’s Agora awards:

Onassis Film Award: “Dark Waters,” Marianna Economou

Thessaloniki Pitching Forum Awards

IEFTA Award for Best Documentary in Development: “If These Stones Could Talk,” Hana Elias

ERT – Thessaloniki Pitching Forum Award: “Survivors,” Nina-Maria Paschalidou, Maria Louka

Eurodoc Award: “Mountain Cries,” Lavinia Xausa

Aylon Productions Digital Services Award: “Women Walk Home,” Stephanie Andreou

Beldocs Networking Award: “Lake,” Nikos Ziogas

Mediterranean Film Institute Doc Award: “Why the F*** Am I So Sad?,” Nela Märki

DOK Leipzig Accelerator Award: “Kafka in Belgrade,” Maša Nešković

Sunny Side of Doc Award: “Lake,” Nikos Ziogas

Docs in Progress Awards

2|35 Post-Production Main Award: “Mailin,” María Silvia Esteve

119 Marvila Studios Award: “Don’t Worry Sari!,” Sari Haragonics

Greek Film Center Award: “The Secrets of the Owl,” Eirini Vourloumis

Neaniko Plano Subtitling Award: “Happy You’re Here,” Lucas Habte

Agora Lab Awards

Crew United Prize: Smaro Papaevangelou

Guidance Award: “Exile(s),” Giorgos Iliopoulo

The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival runs March 7 – 17.

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