Thessaloniki Film Festival
by Richard Porton

Annemarie Jacir's Salt of this Sea

Annemarie Jacir's Salt of this Sea

It’s now unthinkable that any film festival, whether in Hoboken, New Jersey or Bangkok, would hesitate to label itself “international”; no celebration of cinema would ever concede provincialism or claim that it merely caters to local needs. Yet the quandary remains that many festivals— to cite a few examples, Istanbul, Estonia’s “Black Nights Film Festival, Thessaloniki, even to a certain extent Toronto—see their mission as deftly oscillating between showcasing their national cinemas and shoring up local pride and solidifying their status as international events. These contradictory impulses often seem to stymie various festivals’ promotional agendas, which are often strenuously ignored by critics. At Thessaloniki, for example, although visiting journalists found a hefty catalog detailing 2008’s Greek cinema line up in their press bag, the lack of enthusiasm for contemporary Greek films meant that few foreigners possessed the courage to even savor one or two of the host country’s offerings. Being rather wary myself, I sampled only one Greek film at Thessaloniki--Lydia Carras’s documentary, My Life and Times— Michael Cacoyannis. A respectful portrait of one of the most distinguished living Greek filmmakers, Carras’s documentary is intermittently edifying but disconcertingly uncritical. Best known for his adaptations of Greek tragedy as well as the film version of Zorba the Greek, his most groundbreaking film probably remains Stella, a major early vehicle for Melina Mercouri and one of the seminal Greek films of the Fifties. My Life and Times is ultimately stymied by the overly reverential special pleading that often mars tributes to notable directors. Carras identifies the importance of both Stella andCacoyannis’s film of Euripides’ Electra. But, in a rather undiscriminating fashion, equal weight is given to Cacoyannis’ less artistically successful take on The Trojan Woman.Of course, when a documentary relies on its subject’s participation to shape an argument (not only is Cacoyannis interviewed extensively; the film functions as something like an authorized biography), critical detachment tends to go by the wayside.

What becomes abundantly clear after attending a number of festivals is that programming decisions involve a delicate process of calibration needed to meet the needs of both local cinephiles and international guests. At Thessaloniki, populist appeal was drummed up with several “master classes” with luminaries; Oliver Stone and screenwriter Diablo Cody drew the largest crowds. In truth, these sessions are of course more extended, largely uncritical Q and A love-fests, than “master classes” per se. Although I couldn’t navigate the crowds at the Stone event, it was easier to gain entry to Cody’s slightly less tumultuous master class. A woman of ample charm and little pretension, her casual presence and colloquial tone proved appealing for an audience peppered with Greek film students and aspiring screenwriters. Charm notwithstanding, it was slightly less clear why Cody, with her thin resume and rather facile storytelling skills, was deemed a master (an Oscar in the bag couldn’t have hurt, I suppose). Inserting the word “cool” into her patter at every opportunity, the woman responsible for Juno proved herself the most gung-ho overgrown teenager on the block. Aw-shucks likeability aside, it was rather satisfying to hear one slightly disgruntled audience member complain that Juno, although marketed as an “indie” film, was marred by rather stock Hollywood conventions. Perpetually cheery, Cody acknowledged the thrust of the question and merely pleaded guilty to commercial instincts and professed affection for happy endings. As hard as one tries, it’s difficult to dislike Diablo Cody.

Retrospectives devoted to Ousmane Sembene, Terence Davies, and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne were more serious cinephilic events—particularly since, with the exception of Moolaadé, Sembene’s films had never been screened in Greece. Thessaloniki should also be praised for publishing lavishly illustrated, and scholarly incisive, catalogs to accompany their annual retrospectives. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that an essay of mine is included in the Sembene catalog. But I’ve admired Thessaloniki’s bilingual catalogs for many years.)

The Dardenne Bros.’ retrospective was noteworthy for including several rarely screened early films—Falsch and You’re on My Mind. A decidedly minor film, Falsch proved intriguing for coming off like the antithesis of what is usually considered a prototypical Dardennes film. Aggressively theatrical in an unsatisfying sub-Brechtian fashion,Falsch is based on (what was at least at the time of the film’s release), an unproduced play by the Belgian playwright René Kalisky. Light years away from the revamped neorealism of La Promesse or Rosetta, the Dardennes’ distressingly heavy-handed stab at adapting Kalisky’s expressionist text is a Holocaust film rooted in second-notions of Jewish identity and survivor guilt instead of the rigors of lived experience. The film is nevertheless fascinating for evidence of how prominent directors tinkered with their style and made a major mid-career correction.

Festival sidebars often perform a pedagogical function. Inasmuch as a sidebar elucidates a particular theme or national cinema, the fact that individual films are occasionally weak is mitigated by the perspective gained by a broader perspective than the usual festival infatuation with key auteurs. Even while acknowledging that Thessaloniki’s “ Division and Unity: Cinema in the Middle East” sidebar was composed of an extremely uneven assortment of films, savvy programming decisions opened up a dialog between regional filmmakers that bridged superficially disparate stylistic and political sensibilities. For example, pairing Ari Folman’s acclaimed Waltz With Bashir with Annemarie Jacir’s somewhat less feted Salt of this Sea clarifies the links between an increasingly mature Israeli cinema and the films of the Palestinian diaspora. Both Folman’s autobiographical documentary on Israel’s Lebanese incursion and Jacir’s fictional musings on the agonies of Palestinian dispossession explore historical traumas in a fashion that is as much bound up with personal catharsis as it is with political edification. Despite any misgivings concerning Folman’s perhaps understandable decision to shed light on the Sabra and Shatila massacres from a rather narrow perspective that highlights Israeli befuddlement, his film derives much of its power from honestly reflecting his nation’s own historical amnesia within a hybrid genre that brilliantly fuses the brutality of fact with the hallucinatory reality of post-traumatic stress (and national self-delusion). Although Jacir’s film should, in theory, benefit from its passionate commitment to the Palestinian cause, she is a less assured filmmaker and her film is an uneasy mixture of tropes borrowed from many recent documentaries on the Palestinian crisis and half-hearted genre motifs. The plot is propelled by the Brooklyn born Soraya’s realization that her grandfather’s life savings were frozen in a Jaffa bank account in 1948. This memory of injustice leads the film into muddled terrain; Soraya teams up with a Palestinian acquaintance for an impromptu bank robbery to recover the expropriated funds and Salt of this Sea becomes an uneasy meld of Bonnie and Clyde and a more traditional political expose.

Thessaloniki always features a healthy assortment of films from the Balkans and Javor Gardev’s Zift, an extremely accomplished Bulgarian thriller, mines genre conventions with an enjoyably light touch. Shot in sumptuous black and white and a widescreen ratio, Gardev makes neo-noir conventions fresh by transposing hoary clichés—the hardened con sentenced to a prison term for a murder he didn’t commit, a poorly executed heist that goes seriously awry—into a startlingly new context. “The Moth,” Gardev’s macho but oddly clueless anti-hero, walks into prison briefly before the Communist coup of 1944. When he is finally released during the 1960s and pursued by a vengeful old crony, “The Moth” discovers that there is not much difference between the fascist Sofia of his former life on the streets and the totalitarian ambiance of Cold War Bulgaria. In fact, Sofia’s bleak urban topography with its creepily monumental Stalinist architecture (brilliantly captured by cinematographer Emil Christov), is virtually a character in its own right.

Compared to Zift’s relatively modest pleasures, the sprawling ambition of Haile Gerima’s Teza (featured in Thessaloniki’s adventurous “Independence Days” section) is both daunting and slightly exhausting. Despite atrocious acting, a ragged script replete with howlers, and seriously erratic direction, Teza’s flaws are frequently outweighed by its unabashed earnestness. Anberber, Gerima’s stolid protagonist, endures the indignities of racism in Cologne and, fueled by naïve idealism, returns to practice medicine in his native Ethiopia during the height of the Mengistu dictatorship of the 1990s. The mild-mannered Anberber, weaned on genteel academic Marxism in Germany, is sucked into the maelstrom of Mengistu’s “red terror”; loyal comrades quickly metamorphose into enemies of the people. These chilling sequences nearly compensate for some of the more amateurish German interludes that open the film. Unlikely to travel far beyond the festival circuit, Teza embodies many of the contradictions of the flawed festival film: altruistic but clunky, there is almost something endearing about its esthetic imperfections. And it is certainly heartening that festivals like Thessaloniki continue to highlight films that, while often far from masterpieces, defy the corporate imperatives that increasingly permeate contemporary film culture. 

To pre-order Dekalog 3, click here

Richard Porton has edited an anthology, Dekalog 3: On Film Festivals, to be published this spring by Wallflower Press.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste, Inc.