The 51st Thessaloniki International Film Festival
by Gary Crowdus

Michael Shaowanasai as Iron Pussy in The Adventure of Iron Pussy

Michael Shaowanasai as Iron Pussy in The Adventure of Iron Pussy

Like the rest of Greece, the Thessaloniki Film Festival has felt the economic crunch acutely. The festival’s budget was severely cut this year and the festival began under a cloud of uncertainty. The festival’s usually robust slate of special events and master classes had to be pared down and the festival selection committee was under some pressure to present a slate of respectable films that would help to maintain the event’s credibility and relevance in an economic climate, in which arts funding is at risk. Happily, festival director Dimitris Eipides and his staff were up to the challenge, presenting an excellent program and making some innovative changes to make the festival a more inclusive event. For example, students and the registered unemployed were allowed heavily discounted access to screenings during the day. While there were fewer prominent guests and galas than in previous years, by a lucky coincidence the festival decided to feature Apichatpong Weerasethakul shortly before he won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Thessaloniki featured a full retrospective of his work and the director was on hand at many screenings and at a fascinating master class.

One of the great pleasures of the retrospective was the chance to see all of Weerasethakul’s short films. The director is refreshingly open about his influences and revealing the process by which his esthetic evolved. The films range from formal experiments in structural film, to a simple paean to his boyfriend sleeping, taken, in the warm glow of the morning, with a cell-phone camera. His influences are extremely catholic. He cites Peter Kubelka’s flicker techniques as being an early influence, as well as his love of Thai radio soap operas, and his family and friends in his native village in Thailand. Having seen only his later feature films previously, I was most struck by Weerasethakul’s sense of humor. In his film, The Anthem, he sends up the patriotic salute to the king that is played before every film in Thailand, during which the audience is expected to stand. The Anthem, like many of his later films, is made up of two parts, a conversation among relatives in a house by the river, followed by a 360-degree shot of a public gymnasium shot to music. Weerasethakul said that during his anthem, the audience can just sit back and relax and enjoy the spectacle.

Another whimsical surprise was the early feature The Adventure of Iron Pussy (2003), a campy musical romp starring Michael Shaowanasai as Iron Pussy, a cross-dressing secret agent, involving political intrigue, love, betrayal, and family secrets revealed. Shaowanasai, who cowrote the film, is a famous drag queen in Thailand, who among other things is an advocate of women’s rights and opposes the Thai sex industry. I took the opportunity to see Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives again at the Thessaloniki. As someone who will likely succumb to kidney disease one day, I had difficulty with my first viewing of this film about a middle-aged man dying of acute kidney failure. The director’s own father died this way and Weerasethakul uses his father’s old medical equipment in the film. Along with magical-realist touches, where Uncle Boonmee is visited by apparitions of family and friends that he has lost, along with animal spirits and mythological creatures, the film is grounded in the harsh realities of dying as well. The second time around, during the film’s climactic sequences, where Boonmee’s life force slowly leaks out of him and he becomes one with nature around him—the sparkles of a cave wall and the mysterious depth of the Thai jungle—I was carried away by the film’s evocation of reincarnation and felt comforted. Such is the power of this great director, whose style is at once experimental and obtuse as well as deeply personal and warm.

Romanian Marian Crisan, who won the Best Director Prize at Thessaloniki, shares this humanist sensibility in his film Morgen (Morning), about a Romanian man, Nelu, who finds himself in a situation where he is forced to hide a Turkish refugee. The film takes place in a border town just on the Romanian side of the border with Hungary. Nelu goes fishing in Hungary nearly every week and throughout the film Crisan builds the idea that borders are an abstraction, jealously guarded by petty bureaucrats, but with no substantial meaning. Nelu works as a supermarket security guard, another pretend authority. When Behran, a Turk on his way to see his son in Germany, is accidentally left in Nelu’s town at his doorstep, Nelu is forced to take action and eventually decide whether he will follow the law or protect Behran. The film gently builds the relationship between the two men as Nelu’s preconceived notions about Turks and foreigners and the meaning of the law slowly evolve. The film’s satisfying climax is well earned and Crisan maintains a light touch throughout.

Another film about border crossing in the main competition was Iranian director Ebrahim Saeedi’s Mandoo, a film about a family of Kurds traveling with their sick father from Iraq to Iran. The entire film is shot from the point of view of the father looking at his family from the back of the van. The technique grows wearying quickly and, in contrast with Morgen, Saeedi pushes the scenario for every melodramatic ploy possible. While the film is timely and has a certain compelling immediacy, it is ultimately rather empty and sensationalistic. A much better film on Iraq and the wars in the gulf, was Mohammed Al-Daradji’s Iraq, War, Love, God and Madness, a documentary about the making of his feature film Dreams, a film he made in Baghdad in 2003, during the war. The documentary recounts both the hardships brought on by the bombing and nearly constant violence in the city as well as Daradji’s problems casting the female lead, both because of the danger involved in the shoot and traditional Islamic attitudes about women playing particular kinds of roles. The film masterfully evokes the awful tangle of issues—Western intervention, Islamic fundamentalism, the residue of Saddam’s brutality, and the economic legacy of colonialism—that make Iraq such a complex problem. Daradji was also the subject of a retrospective and was present at the festival as a juror.

Moving from the external to the internal, Thomas Vinterberg’s new film Submarino tells the tale of two brothers who suffer a great trauma as children. The film follows the two men into troubled adulthood and examines how they cope with family bonds, family responsibility, and finding some kind of redemption. As in his breakthrough film, The Celebration (1998), Vinterberg transcends what might be routine or trite material, with a breathtaking visual style and by eliciting wonderful performances from his actors. Gustav Fischer Kjærulff stands out as the older brother Martin. Zephyr by Turkish director Belma Ba������ offers a quieter view of family pathos from a daughter’s point of view. Zephyr is a young girl, living with her grandparents in a rural village in Eastern Turkey. Her mother, an international human rights worker, is seldom home and she is left to explore the beautiful countryside and dream of her mother’s return. Ba������’s slow and deliberate pace and gorgeous cinematography build toward the inevitable return of Zephyr’s mother and their confrontation.

From Greece, Ari Bafalouka’s Apnea tells the story of a young swimmer, Dimitri, who loses his girlfriend Elsa in a mysterious accident. The film uses holding one’s breath and life beneath and above the surface of the water as metaphors for memory and point of view. As the mystery unfolds and we see the story from both Dimitri’s and Elsa’s perspectives, new understandings and insights are revealed. Although the film, like many first films, suffers from excessive camera work, it tells an intriguing tale. Another film about self-discovery was the one that stayed with me longest from the entire festival, Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry. The film introduces us to a working-class grandmother, Mija, who works a menial job taking care of a shop owner’s infirm father and raising her grandson. She decides to take a poetry class, but finds that the everyday crises of life make it impossible for her to write even a line. Mija valiantly deals with the practical travails of life, but, much more movingly, goes on a journey of self-discovery, and desperately searches for meaning and morality in a world that seems devoid of them. Jeong-hee Yoon’s achingly brilliant portrayal of Mija holds the entire film together. Lee’s film is social critique, an exploration of the place of art in the world, and a profound meditation on modern life.

Thessaloniki featured a strong lineup of films, with special emphases on Greek and Balkan film as well as directors’ retrospectives, a series on young American filmmakers, and a robust experimental section as well. If this year is any indication of the kind of festival that can be mounted with a reduced budget, then Thessaloniki should be able to look forward optimistically to another half century, at the very least. The setting on the Adriatic coast, using the docks and the impressive Olympion Theater, will continue to charm and attract an international audience.

Jared Rapfogel is a member of the Cineaste editorial board and film programmer at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine