LEANNESS AND RESILIENCE: 55th Thessaloniki International Film Festival
Financially leaner than during the previous post-crisis years, the 55th Thessaloniki International Film Festival continued to successfully serve its key aim of offering a varied, challenging and engaging programme of independent films from around the world to audiences in Greece’s second-largest city.i It also presented the most expansive programme of Greek films for years, celebrating the centenary of Greek cinema by screening a total of 36 features, of which 20 were voted online from a selection of 200 films from the past. Aside from marking the appearance of the first Greek feature-length film Golfo in 1914, the Greek programme also reflected the dynamism and international recognition of Greek cinema in the last five years. This renewed emphasis on the projection of national production foregrounds questions about the primary role of the festival: is it predominantly a space for nurturing and promoting Greek talent, or rather a Greece-based site for international discoveries? One also wonders whether the behind-the-scenes, but widely reported, tensions among the festival’s artistic director, Dimitris Eipides (whose term in office was extended by another three years in September) and the president of its board of governors, film director Yannis Smaragdis, have in any way been connected to this shift in emphasis, and whether the increased presence of Greek cinema will remain a more permanent feature of future festival editions.ii
Micro-politics and speculation aside, the 55th edition of the festival offered audiences a rich programme, consisting of fourteen features in the international competition (films by new directors); 58 films in the non-competitive sections ‘Open Horizons’, ’Currents’ and ‘Special Screenings’ that showcase independent films from the film festival circuit; 22 features and/or programmes of shorts from the ‘Balkan Survey’ section; as well as tributes to directors Roy Andersson, Kornél Mundruczó and Ramin Bahrani – and, last but not least, the Polish-German star known as Fassbinder’s ‘muse’, Hanna Schygulla. Even if world premieres are now rare in Thessaloniki, the audience has the chance to see for the first – and in some cases only – time in Greece, an excellent selection of independent films from around the world, including some of the top awarded films at festivals such as Cannes and Venice.
And it is, indeed, in Thessaloniki that I saw this year’s Palme d’ Or winner, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s mesmerising Winter Sleep, which despite its three-and-a-quarter hour duration, long dialogues, claustrophobic settings and slow pace managed to keep me alert and intrigued throughout the late-night screening. Set in a boutique hotel in Cappadocia, this is a Chekhov and Bergman-inspired study of character, focused mainly on the hotel’s owner, a middle-aged intellectual and retired actor, who lives there with his almost estranged much younger wife and divorced sister. The tensions among the three characters and with the impoverished locals are mainly conveyed through banal and excruciating dialogues that conceal more than reveal, slowly building up a broader picture of frustrated relationships, self-delusions, and social inequalities. With the exception of two explicit moments of conflict, little happens on the surface. Departing from the visual stylisation of his previous films, Ceylan here focuses mainly on indoor spaces and dialogues, foregrounding interiority and entrapment, and only sparsely displaying the spectacular location of Cappadocia. This is a very powerful film that stayed with me as caught myself, long after it ended, thinking about the plight of the characters, the unresolved tensions and the masterful way in which it was all put together.
Winter Sleep was shown as part of TIFF’s Balkan Survey non-competitive section (programmed by Dimitris Kerkinos). In its 21st edition now, this year’s selection suggested that cinema from the ex-communist Balkan countries and Turkey is going from strength to strength. This section’s audience award went to the Kosovo-German co-production Three Windows and a Hanging, directed by Isa Qosja, a film that exposes patriarchal oppression in Kosovo, as it manifests itself during the unwelcome revelation of the rape of four village women during the war. Beautifully shot by Gökhan Tiryaki (the cinematographer of Winter Sleep and other films by Ceylan too), the film deals with a bleak topic but is not bereft of humour, such as in the opening and closing sequences that show three elderly men arguing under a tree. The film exposes the plight of the rape victims whose husbands and broader male community refuses to acknowledge it, considering the sexual violation of their women as a dent to their honour. Emotionally engaging, culturally revealing and visually beautiful the film does not focus on assigning blame, but aims instead to subtly suggest the possibility of positive change.
Films from the ex-Yugoslavia were well represented in the Balkan section. The European premiere of Zvonimir Juric’s Croatian-Slovenian co-production The Reaper was almost the story of the Kosovar film told in reverse. Focusing on the marginalized figure of an ex-soldier previously imprisoned for rape, the film opens questions about the possibilities of redemption, while keeping us engaged with both suspenseful and naturalistic sequences, and inviting us to an ambivalent process of identification with the central character. Another (predominantly) Croatian film, Ognjen Svilicic’s These are the Rules (co-produced by Croatia, France, Serbia, and FYROM) was based loosely on a true story of the unmotivated beating and consequent death of a young man in 2008. The film focuses on the story of the parents who stoically and with quiet desperation deal with the abrupt demise of their teenage son, and exposes the way in which a series of explicit and implicit social rules and bureaucratic processes leaves them unable to seek justice and understanding.
But it was the tribute to Serbian director Želimir Žilnik that brought particular attention to the cinema of the ex-Yugoslavia, as seven of his feature films and two programmes of shorts were screened – most of which for the first time in Greece. Žilnik is the only remaining active filmmaker of the ‘Yugoslav Black Wave’, the iconoclastic film movement of the 1960s and early 1970s that combined formal experimentation, dark humour and socio-political critique, and included filmmakers such as Dušan Makavejev and Aleksandar Petrović. Žilnik’s Golden Bear winner at the 1969 Berlin Film Festival, Early Works, shot in late 1968 just after the Soviet invasion in Czechoslovakia, celebrates youthful energy and utopian hope as found in Marx and Engels’s humanist early writings, but also expresses the disillusionment at the failure of these ideals to bring about the desired social change. Formally inventive and playful, with evident influences by Godard, Early Works remains fresh, intriguing, and, despite belonging to a particular socio-political moment, continuously relevant.
Žilnik’s films in the years that followed demonstrated his commitment to cinema as a means of raising socio-political awareness. His extensive experimentation with form, that included mixing documentary with fiction, was the result of the search for the most effective way to convey certain ideas and explore situations in the light of budgetary and other restraints. In his 14-minute Black Film (1971), Žilnik finds ten homeless people in the streets of Novi Sad and takes them to stay at his two-bedroom flat with his wife and young child. He then goes out in the streets to ask people what they think should be done about the homeless – a problem denied by the state – foregrounding both the ability of cinema to highlight social issues, but also its inability to resolve any of them. In Inventory (1975), a single static long take showing the staircase of an apartment block in Germany allows one by one its inhabitants to say something to camera. As almost all participants are immigrants, this 9-minute film is a very revealing snapshot of a little represented at the time social phenomenon. In the medium-length (43 mins) Tito’s Second Time among the Serbs (1995), an actor dressed up as Tito mixes with people in the streets of Belgrade, inviting them to talk to him. At a time when the war was raging (but never shown or mentioned), the film records this happening and registers the people’s conflicting (and self-deluding) responses to the deceased communist leader.
But this year Balkan cinema was also represented in the International Competition with the Bulgarian-Greek co-production The Lesson (Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov), where it won both the ‘Bronze Alexander for originality and innovation’ and the ‘Best Screenplay’ awards. This was a brilliantly suspenseful, tightly dramatized, naturalistically set and acted exploration of the inhumane consequences of financial despondency, and the moral dilemmas it opens up. The film is focused around the character of a teacher in a primary school in a small town in Bulgaria who discovers that someone from her class has been stealing money, and tries to teach them a lesson of civic responsibility; however, financial problems triggered by her own husband’s irresponsibility exponentially worsen and push her to perform an extreme – but rewarding – action. This leads her to question the values upon which she based her initial drive to punish the child. The Lesson is a low budget film that achieves its effect through a tightly organised script and excellent performance by the central actor (Margita Gosheva). It is the balance of plausible detail with the effective use of generic elements – such as the use of suspense and the caper-like denouement – that works so well and manages to trigger both compassion and entertainment.
The Lesson was one of two films in the International Competition that had benefitted from a Greek partner in co-production, suggesting the fruitfulness of such transnational collaborations especially when there is no attempt to compromise the content of a story by forced quotas. With post-production made in Greece, but the story, setting, actors and main creative contributors based in Bulgaria, The Lesson is culturally Bulgarian, just as Modris (Juris Kursietis) is culturally Latvian. Based on real-life events, this is the story of a troubled young man from a broken family that falls through the cracks of too-rigid-a-judicial-system. A Latvian/German/Greek co-production Modris is a subtle and touching film that does not offer redemption, but certainly allows for hope.
The two main awards of the International Competition went to Mexican Perpetual Sadness (Jorge Perez Solano) and Israeli Next to Her (Asaf Korman). (The latter won the ‘Works in Progress’ award in Thessaloniki last year, offering it a full post-production package in Greece.) Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy won the ‘Best Director’ award with his bold The Tribe, set in a boarding school for the deaf-and-mute in Kiev, Ukraine, and presented without subtitles. Formally innovative in its experimentation with silent cinema, the film unrelentingly depicts a very harsh community and offers no concessions for political correctness. Similar in its focus on young people with disabilities, this time in a special class in a mainstream school in Russia, Ivan I. Tverdovsky’s Corrections Class is more nuanced in its depiction of characters and situations, allowing some optimism – despite the undoubtedly bleak turn of events before the fantasy ending. The 25-year old director won both the audience award for the International competition and the ‘Human Values’ Award (of the Hellenic Parliament TV Channel).
Two Greek films participated in the International Competition – the World Premiere of Yannis Fagras’s Forget me Not, and Yannis Veslemes’s Norway, that premiered in Karlovy-Vary in July.iii Despite budgetary constraints, Fagras’s ‘handmade film’ – in its director’s words – was all shot on location in Alaska and New Orleans in 35 mm. A labour of love and a personal movie, this internal and symbolic Odyssey is admirable for its ambition, if, at times, rather cryptic on the level of action. Five more Greek films that had their Greek premiere in Thessaloniki were part of the Greek section’s ‘Main Selection’ with newcomer Manos Karystinos’s Dark Illusion gaining the audience award for this section. As part of the centenary celebrations, nine more Greek films from 2014 that had already premiered in Greece, and, in some cases, have been released in cinemas, were also shown. These included Panos Koutras’s Xenia, Yannis Ekonomides’s Stratos – both of which premiered in Berlin – and Syllas Tzoumerkas’s A Blast – that opened in Locarno – all of three of which are European co-productions, thus enhancing their chances for visibility and circulation beyond Greece. There were also a couple of programmes of award-winning shorts from the Drama Film Festival, as well as the 20 Greek films selected by the audience, that included a number of gems from the past, including Tzavellas’s Counterfeit Coin (the most voted film), Cacoyannis’s Stella, Alexandrakis’s A Neighbourhood Named ‘The Dream’, Angelopoulos’s The Travelling Players, Marketaki’s The Price of Love and others – but also some surprise inclusions and omissions. I treated myself to a screening of Koundouros’s The Ogre of Athens, which unsurprisingly I found lasting the test of time.
As before, this festival experience was rich and rewarding. Apart from the above, I also made a somewhat belated personal discovery of Ramin Bahrani’s films, all of whose five features and five shorts were shown in Thessaloniki as part of the tribute to his work. Starring Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, the only film of his I saw, At Any Price (2012), is a very simply told story, that powerfully exposes and critiques the foundations of patriarchy and aggressive capitalism. I will look out for more of the American filmmaker’s work in the future. And it was, indeed, a delight to see and hear Hanna Schygulla, who used the opportunity of her honouring in Thessaloniki, not only to present some of the lesser-known aspects of her work, including her short films and her singing, but also to send a message against extremism and chauvinism, implicitly relevant to post-crisis Greece.
i This year’s budget was around 700,000 Euros, that is, an approximate 40% reduction from last year. But its capacity increased from 90% in 2013 to 96% in 2014, with 85,000 admissions for 279 screenings. (Source: TIFF)
ii For relevant news reports, see: http://flix.gr/news/fail-o-giannhs-smaragdhs-proedros-toy-festibal-the.html; http://flix.gr/news/dimitris-eipides-thessaloniki-film-festival.html; http://flix.gr/news/thessaloniki-film-festival-honorary-awards.html; http://www.flix.gr/news/eak-deltio-tipou-gfc-tiff.html. All accessed on 9 November 2014.
iii For a brief discussion of Norway and the other Greek films at the Karlovy-Vary IFF, see http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/comment/festivals/checkpoint-karlovy-vary-2014