The 54th Thessaloniki International Film Festival
by Dennis West

Illegal Iranian immigrants face entrapment in Kaveh Bakhtiari's powerful documentary Stop-over

Illegal Iranian immigrants face entrapment in Kaveh Bakhtiari's powerful documentary Stop-over

The 54th edition of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival unfolded smoothly—as far as this first-time visitor could ascertain—November 1st–10th in spite of Greece’s ongoing economic crisis, which has featured six straight years of recession, soaring unemployment, and a bottomless government-debt quagmire. I sensed that for many foreign visitors, the consistently sunny, unseasonably warm weather during the festival somehow seemed to hold the crisis at bay. And then there was the stunning setting: a city poised between the Balkans and the Mediterranean, Asia and Europe—a city so rich in history that one can during a leisurely morning walk view ancient Roman ruins, such as the Agora (forum), or those of the Ottoman Empire, such as the Turkish baths known as hamams. And all festivalgoers were drawn to the city’s spectacular waterfront, where many of the screenings and other activities were held in old remodeled warehouses on a dock jutting out into a beautiful bay in the Aegean Sea. Across the bay rises Mount Olympus, Greece’s highest mountain and the home of the gods in Greek mythology. Cinephiles may recall this dock and the bay as key motifs in Theo Angelopoulos’s Landscape in the Mist. In between screenings, I two or three times caught the sunset from the end of the dock—a huge orange sphere descending into the inkiness of a slight cloud cover hovering over the dark water. The image is so striking that it graced the official festival poster as well as the cover of the meticulously produced and information-laden bilingual festival catalogue.

But the persistent economic crisis, day after day of shirt-sleeve weather, spectacularly colorful sunsets, and history at one’s fingertips could not deter festivalgoers, who turned out in droves to see what was on offer: one hundred fifty independent films from fifty-four countries. I do not recall attending a single public screening that did not appear to be completely sold out; frequently, the aisles overflowed with eager young spectators with nowhere else to sit. In his remarks at the closing ceremony, Festival Director Dimitri Eipides summed up: “Moviegoers warmly embraced the festival: theatres were packed, at over ninety percent capacity, while many screenings were sold out.”

Independent world cinema has long been the hallmark of the Thessaloniki Festival; and, tellingly, one of the warehouse cinemas on the dock bears the name of American cineaste John Cassavetes, one of the pioneers of independent cinema as well as a person of Greek descent. In his welcoming remarks in the festival catalogue, Eipides stressed the importance of this tendency in contemporary cinema: “Today, more than ever before, the festival is charting its course using the compass of independent cinema. A cinema which has always paved the way for new images and perceptions, by subverting established prejudices and approaches, and by determining future trends and practices.”

This, certainly, was a fair characterization of the cinema showcased in a generally strong international competitive selection of fourteen recent first or second fiction features directed by young filmmakers from around the world. Latin American works dominated this selection; and the festival’s big prize-winner was the Mexican-Spanish co-production The Golden Cage, directed and co-written by Diego Quemada-Díez. This road movie rather predictably follows the adventures and misadventures of a diverse group of disadvantaged teenage Guatemalan indocumentados journeying north through Central America and Mexico on their way to the supposedly promised land of El Norte. At the closing night ceremony, Quemada-Díez and The Golden Cage remarkably made off with the following bag full of prizes: best film, best director, the audience award, and a “human values” award bestowed by the Greek Parliament. I was much less enthusiastic about this well-intentioned film, since its artistic success is modest and its narrative terrain already well tread in previous fiction features such as Gregory Nava’s El Norte, Robert M. Young’sAlambrista!, and, more recently, Cary Fukunaga’s Sin nombre.

In the housing projects of Caracas, a boy with "Afro hair" dreams of becoming famous in Mariana Rondón's Bad Hair

In the housing projects of Caracas, a boy with "Afro hair" dreams of becoming famous in Mariana Rondón's Bad Hair

For seldom-tread narrative terrain in cinema, let us turn to a stronger Latin American film in competition, the Venezuelan Bad Hair, written and directed by Mariana Rondón. This engaging character study is set in the crowded and noisy housing projects of Caracas, where a young, too-busy, single mother struggles to take back her job as a security guard while also putting food on the table for her baby and a nine-year-old, strikingly beautiful son. Junior is a lad of mixed race heritage who preens before any available mirror, obsessed with straightening his curly “Afro hair” in the hopes of someday becoming a celebrated pop singer. He appears to be the impressionable victim of television advertising and other popular-culture imagery that celebrates the appeal of straight hair. Rondón deliberately leaves open-ended the question of his sexual orientation: he may or may not be gay.

In a contemporary working-class, multiracial context seldom convincingly depicted on film, Rondón succeeds in presenting well-rounded and believable characters realistically possessed of traits that could be construed as both positive and negative. Take the mother, for instance. She is a determined, working-class woman willing to do what it takes (even bedding the boss) in order to get her regular job back; but, presumably because of her psychological-cultural-educational background, she is distressingly homophobic and unable to fathom her son’s seemingly bewildering emotional development as he grows towards adolescence. Rondón’s script occasionally falters, as in the unconvincing setting up of a heterosexual sex scene to be witnessed by the son; but the acting is strong, and we do not soon forget these characters and their problems. Bad Hair deservedly captured a special jury award “for originality and innovation” as well as the FIPRESCI or International Critics Prize.

Bad Hair, which had previously swept the top prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival in September, has already ignited a firestorm of controversy in Rondón’s native country in part because of the film’s prickly theme of homophobia and also because of the director’s widely publicized comments in interviews concerning her dismally pessimistic assessment of certain pressing social problems in Venezuela today, such as violence and the lack of security for citizens in the streets, political polarization during the regime of Hugo Chávez and in the current period of poschavismo, and society’s tolerance for homophobia and its intolerance in general. And, sounding much like an activist, Rondón has repeatedly characterized Bad Hair as “a film opposing intolerance.”

Another top film in competition, the Chilean The Devil’s Liquor, is also a moving character study, this time of an old man, a city dweller and small-time businessman, who is set in his ways to the point that he cannot conceive of a life for himself that does not involve persisting in his outmoded, unsanitary, off-the-books home-brew enterprise—in spite of a real estate developer’s offer to purchase the business premises for a mind-boggling sum. This is director and co-screenwriter Ignacio Rodríguez’s opera prima; and it reveals an assured young filmmaker capable of using generally conventional camera and editing techniques in the service of a spare, realist style that keeps the focus on the characters. The film’s superb art direction, by Romina Lorca, leaves room for subtle symbolism (e.g., the “old Chile” versus the “new Chile”) while it immerses spectators in the dusty, moldy, semi-abandoned, and decaying factory grounds to the point where they may wish to brush off their clothing upon leaving the theater. Jaime Vadell captured the best actor prize, ex aequo, for his role as the stubborn old liquor monger deteriorating nearly as fast as the factory grounds and the ancient brewing and bottling equipment around him. Rodríguez informed me, incidentally, that the conception of this memorable character was very freely inspired by his maternal grandfather.

The ex aequo best actor prize was shared with the sad-eyed, jowly, stony-faced, and heavily mustachioed Christos Stergioglou, for his role as a successful TV personality and celebrity seeking to boost his ratings and his income by faking his own kidnapping in the darkly satiric The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas, a memorable first work written and directed by the Greek Elina Psykou. The filmmaker creatively uses space—a large abandoned luxury hotel in the off-season—and mixes genre expectations—thriller, psychological drama, black comedy, horror, musical—to follow the protagonist’s slow descent into madness as the hotel’s many blaring TV screens lead him to understand as the weeks go by just how little Antonis Paraskevas is really missed by society. The motif of the abandoned hotel taken over by the off-kilter protagonist works well for showcasing his deteriorating mental condition, as in the unforgettable image of him become a solitary human-hamster at his exercise wheel: busily paddling a paddleboat erratically going nowhere in the murky, debris-ridden waters of a half-drained swimming pool. Cinephiles have been quick to signal Kubrick’s The Shining as an apparent source of inspiration for the filmmaker. And Greek critics have underscored The Eternal Return’s relation to the nation’s current financial crisis: for instance, the desperate Paraskevas stages his kidnapping with the intent of obtaining large sums of money to pay off his many suffocating debts; and the mode of production of the film itself—largely self-financed—directly relates to the nation’s economic insolvency. This was the best Greek film I encountered at the festival, and it captured the FIPRESCI Prize for the top work in the Greek selection.

The meaty Open Horizons selection at Thessaloniki is well known for presenting high-quality and frequently edgy recent fiction and nonfiction features from around the world in a noncompetitive context. Unfortunately, my first film scheduled in this program disappointed. Argentine screenwriter-director Mateo Bendesky’s minimalist video diary In Here proved an undistinguished exercise in navel gazing with little significant payoff in terms of artistry, insight into character, or whatever.

Given this setback, I resolved to return to the festival catalogue and read in advance and more carefully the notes, where I noticed one film in Open Horizons mentioned specifically by name in Eipides’ opening remarks: “But there is also another kind of bravery that the Festival will be honoring this year with the screening of the documentary Stop-over, which addresses the situation of immigrants who become trapped in the country [i.e., Greece] through which they have entered the European Union.” It is highly unusual for a festival director in her/his welcoming remarks in a catalogue to single out a specific film by name for high praise, so I resolved not to miss this work, which did not disappoint.

The powerful Swiss-French co-production Stop-over is the first feature-length documentary directed by the Iranian-born Kaveh Bakhtiari, who movingly follows the unenviable plight of a group of mostly Iranian immigrants living together in the same cramped apartment in Athens. They have all illegally entered the European Union via Greece but are then “stuck” in that country with few resources to help them on their way to their final destination, be it Norway or elsewhere. The film offers a thorough look at the pitiful options available to individuals in this grim situation: arrest and indefinite imprisonment; deportation back to Iran, where death may be imminent; traffic in stolen documents and human smuggling as means to enter another country; and physically demanding hunger striking as a desperate ploy to publicize one’s plight.

Festival publicity labeled the subject matter of Stop-over a “burning topic,” and a special round- table discussion entitled Wrong Destination was organized in order to examine it. Discussants noted the geographically key crossroads position of Greece, poised as it is along migration routes from East to West; and most participants seemed pessimistic in terms of whether Greece can, in the near future, satisfactorily resolve the thorny moral-economic-political problem of “illegal immigration.” In organizing this highly publicized roundtable, the festival seemed to be acting in solidarity with immigrants by signaling that although Greeks may complain about their on-going economic crisis, the fate of many noncitizens in Greece is often far darker.

Thessaloniki has long been known for its focus on Balkan cinema, and this year was no exception. The Balkan Survey program presented the most important films produced in the region in the past year, such as Romanian screenwriter-director Corneliu Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, which may represent many a nostalgic cinephile’s dream project: a sly, one-of-a-kind exercise in self reflexivity, the long-take aesthetic, and movie-talk and other talk all shot on actual 35mm film in fewer than—count them—twenty shots. In addition, an impressive retrospective was mounted as an “anniversary tribute” in order to showcase the best in Balkan cinema—think Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu—programmed by the festival in its last twenty editions. Enlightening essays on these films were published in the beautifully produced bilingual publication Balkan Survey: 1994–2013, edited by Dimitris Kerkinos. This booklet includes a wealth of information on the 360 Balkan films programmed by the festival during this twenty-year period.

Other programs included a showcase of seven new fiction features from Argentina, a country that has recently recovered from a profound sociopolitical and economic crisis and now produces approximately one hundred feature-length films per year. A special screening of all ten segments of the made-for-TV dramatic series TheDecalogue, by the Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieslowski, was on offer; and, in an attention-grabbing publicity gambit, the author of the catalogue notes on this work assured readers that “The Decalogue has been listed as a film of the highest moral values and is recommended even by The Vatican.” Though I am aware of the high critical esteem in which The Decalogue is held, regrettably, my packed schedule of screenings did not allow me time to follow this particular Vatican recommendation.

Two contemporary French filmmakers, who both attended the festival, were honored with tributes and retrospectives of their work: Alain Guiraudie and Claire Simon. The latter is a multifaceted cineaste who has worked as an actress, editor, screenwriter, cinematographer, and director of both fiction and nonfiction films. I was able to see Simon’s latest work Gare du Nord, which she directed using both amateur and professional actors. The following is my superficial impression of the film, since the multitudinous public screening I attended offered no subtitles (other than Greek ones) or simultaneous interpretation and my comprehension of oral French is so-so, particularly when confronted with the variety of challenging accents routinely cropping up in this talky narrative.

French star Nicole Garcia plays a professor who develops a relationship with a sociology student (Reda Kateb) in Claire Simon's Gare du Nord

French star Nicole Garcia plays a professor who develops a relationship with a sociology student (Reda Kateb) in Claire Simon's Gare du Nord

The storied Parisian train station Gare du Nord provides the setting for this hybrid fictional-documentary work that features vignettes of isolated and self-contained actions as well as the criss-crossing of characters and narrative threads that weave together traditional plot lines, such as strangers meeting and falling in love or the search for a missing child. Reportedly all the scenes were actually filmed in the Gare du Nord, which Simon characterized in her press conference as “the largest public space in France;” and she succeeds in offering a snappily paced, almost documentary-like portrait of that place of arrival and departure with all its hurried business, its hubbub, its mystery, and its oh-so-varied denizens, who range from a middle-aged professor—played by French star Nicole Garcia—suffering from prolonged illness and loneliness to an angry and violent man, a nonnative speaker of French, inexplicably intent on destroying a boutique peddling sexy lingerie. One of the principal characters is a beur sociology student conducting a survey; and by the end of the film we sense that Simon herself is an artist-sociologist provocatively serving up in the Gare du Nord a potpourri of the principal social themes roiling French society today—immigration, alienated and marginalized minority youth, racism, access to education, violence, et al. I have now put on my “to see” list Simon’s Human Geography (2011-2012), which is routinely billed as a complimentary work to Gare du Nord as it is a documentary set in the same train station.

Seated on the end of the dock in the late afternoon light on the festival’s last day, I made this summary notation of my Thessaloniki Festival experience in my notebook: “I have seen no great films at this festival but plenty of artistically and socially engaging ones. World independent cinema—from Chile to the Balkans and beyond—is currently alive and well thanks in large part to the recent democratization of filmmaking practices due to the economics of the digital revolution and thanks to a robust film festival circuit that shows such work. And Thessaloniki has proven itself a warmly hospitable and, indeed, an essential stop on that circuit.”

That same afternoon, in the street in front of my hotel, the economic crisis marched on in a peaceful—even many children participated—and long-running demonstration that featured apparently thousands of concerned citizens. When I, a film-festival-addled foreigner, enquired about the concerns of the protestors, I was informed that the march opposed Hellas Gold, a Greek subsidiary of the Canadian firm Eldorado Gold. My subsequent research revealed an Agence France-Presse estimate that put the number of marchers at more than five thousand. The socioeconomic issues involved seem to epitomize the current, difficult Greek quandary in the era of globalization: protestors claim a new gold mining operation will poison local groundwater supplies with arsenic, lead, and mercury; yet the government downplays environmental concerns and responds that the operation will provide hundreds of new jobs which in turn will drive down the nation’s debilitating unemployment rate of twenty-seven percent. Which all goes to show that in the era of globalization, sorting out just who is the victim and who the victimizer can be a challenging proposition.

Dennis West is a Contributing Editor at Cineaste.

For more information on the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, click here.

Copyright © 2014 by Cineaste, Inc.