The Thessaloniki International Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Jonathan Murray

The Thessaloniki International Film Festival’s fifty-ninth edition took place November 1–11, 2018, and offered attendees the kind of cinematically cosmopolitan yet culturally aware program for which the event is justly celebrated. The Festival’s six main screens, all located within a convenient walk of each other along the city’s central stretch of seafront, showcased contemporary cinema from the local (as always, new Greek and Balkan cinemas formed a keynote element of proceedings) to the global. Taken together, for example, the festival’s opening and closing films, Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Shoplifters and Lukas Dhont’s Girl, encapsulated Thessaloniki’s preferred identity and remit perfectly. This is a proudly European festival possessed of an internationalist outlook, an annual cultural event that celebrates cinema’s capacity to explore and illuminate any number of pressing social issues and debates

Richard Billingham’s Ray & Liz (Richard Ashton and Ella Smith).

2018’s International Competition saw the festival’s Golden Alexander Award for Best Feature won by British photographer Richard Billingham’s Ray & Liz. This movie offers an affectionate yet unsettling—or, perhaps better, an unsettlingly affectionate—autobiographical portrait of growing up within a poverty-stricken and emotionally dysfunctional family in 1980s England. Like Billingham’s earlier photographic work, his debut feature combines familiar elements of modern British visual culture (social realism’s documentary eye for detail, for instance) with a less-often-seen native ability to locate surreal beauty inside of social squalor. A distinctive combination of realist and surrealist elements also marked another International Competition standout and major award-winner, Phuttipong Aroonpheng’s Manta Ray. Aroonpheng’s work gained the Special Jury’s Bronze Alexander Award for Best Director and the Best Artistic Achievement Award for Nawarophaat Rungphiboonsophit’s cinematography. The documentary veracity of Manta Ray’s portrait of small-scale fishing in present-day Thailand swiftly and suddenly opens out into compelling fable-like territory, through the story of one man’s selfless rescue and subsequent adoption of a mysteriously injured mute.  

Phuttipong Aroonpheng’s debut feature about small-scale fishing, Manta Ray.

Jakob Cedergren in Gustav Möller’s The Guilty.

Other thought-provoking thematic continuities were discernible within the 2018 International Competition. One such was an emphasis on commercial elements of contemporary Scandinavian cinema. Gustav Möller’s The Guilty, for example, understandably took home the International Competition’s Audience Award and the Festival’s Best Actor Award (won by Jakob Cedergren) for its taught, single-location, and more or less single-performance updating of the long-established police procedural strain of Nordic crime fiction, filmic or otherwise. Möller’s ingeniously gripping tale of a desk-bound policeman trying to prevent a crime with only the evidence of an anonymous phone caller to go on is an impressive example of low-budget European filmmaking attaining genuine commercial heft. Elsewhere, screenwriter Isabella Eklöf’s directorial debut, Holiday, offered a coolly nuanced, feminist reining in of the more lurid elements of the Scandi-pulp aesthetic pioneered by a filmmaker like Nicolas Winding Refn. Eklöf’s other major credit in this year’s festival was as co-writer of Border, an ingenious, exuberantly likeable repurposing of Scandinavian troll mythology into an allegorical exploration of present-day European anxieties around ideas of cultural diversity, difference, and belonging.

Finally, the International Competition also heavily featured films that explore adolescent and young adult identities, not to mention the ways in which these are often shaped by the experience of growing up within particular social and/or cultural contexts. The best of these was Meryem Benm’Barek-Aloïsi’s Sofia, which won the FIPRESCI Jury Award to add to its previous Best Screenplay prize in the 2018 Un Certain Regard section of Cannes. Sofia’s screenplay deftly combines a moving personal focus (a twenty-year-old Moroccan woman faces familial ostracization after giving birth out of wedlock) with a wider-ranging societal analysis (the reaction of different family members illustrate the tensions between traditional and emergent moral codes within modern-day Morocco). Elsewhere, Etienne Kallos’s The Harvesters tackled closely related themes as they manifest within the rural Afrikaans community of modern-day South Africa. Finally, if traditional familial structures and expectations are what most oppress the young protagonists of Sofia and The Harvesters, it is the relative absence of these (or rather, the absence of relatives) that most exposes the eponymous central protagonist of Zhou Zhou’s Meili, a downbeat portrait of the social and psychological fallout from an increasingly casualized and consumerist contemporary Chinese economy.

Maha Alemi as the title character in Meryem Benm’barek’s Sofia.

The 2018 festival’s Open Horizons (and the smaller Open Horizons: Another Take) strands fulfilled their traditional role as a bulwark of Thessaloniki’s annual offering. In addition to comprising one of its largest strands, Open Horizons allows Thessaloniki to position itself as a global hub on the international festival circuit. As such, any overly rigorous attempt to categorize would therefore do a disservice to this section’s deliberately eclectic and continent-hopping selection strategy. One noticeable affinity with this year’s International Competition, however, involved a preponderance of features that tell the stories of young adult protagonists. Some of these movies offered an informative chance to sample elements of the current cinematic mainstream in their respective countries of origin. Vincent Mariette’s Les Fauves, for example, plays out like Val Lewton’s Cat People restructured in order to fit the tastes of contemporary naturalism. Mariette’s movie also features a charismatic and (for such a young actor) distinctively contained lead performance from Lily-Rose Depp, who is surely a new French cinematic star-in-the-making. From Russia, Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto was a highly likable ensemble piece that celebrates the emergence (and steadily increasing impact) of Western-influenced rock music and subcultures within the USSR during the latter’s final decade of existence. More tonally provocative was Justin Amorim’s Adelaide, a self-consciously lurid examination of the corrosive effects of contemporary celebrity and reality TV cultures in present-day Portugal. On one hand, Amorim’s movie convincingly and enjoyably captures the decadent ambience of its protagonists’ lives. But on the other, the movie also flirts heedlessly close to being seduced by that very same thing.

Several other of 2018’s Open Horizons explorations of youth were more closely aligned with various strands of independent filmmaking practice. Many of these were American: Friday’s Child by A. J. Edwards, twice an editor for Terrence Malick, recalled the latter’s early-career focus on underprivileged adolescents. While Edwards reproduces elements of Malick’s trademark poetic existentialism, he also departs from his mentor’s example by effectively harnessing the former to a propulsive narrative style. Although equally American Indie in both conception and execution, Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen was an altogether sunnier affair. This is so both literally and figuratively: Moselle’s movie follows and celebrates the bonding, bust-ups, and coming back together of a group of teenage female skaters during a single New York summer. Richard Linklater’s affectionate portraits of freewheeling youth in a warm climate spring to mind, and not in a way that disadvantages Moselle’s equally immersive and enjoyable work.

Elsewhere within this aspect of Open Horizons, a far more sober note was struck by Darya Zhuk’s Crystal Swan. Unlike Skate Kitchen, this is a movie in which a young heroine’s subcultural affiliations and aspirations do not bring either companionship or the route map for her imminent journey into full adulthood. Zhuk’s movie is affecting and original in its use of mid-1990s House Music as a metaphor through which to comprehend the cruelly thwarted dreams of many of the first generation to grow up after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Finally, Subabeh Mortezai’s impressive Joy singlehandedly encapsulated the continent-hopping internationalism of the entire Open Horizons strand, exploring as it does the predicament of Nigerian women who fall victim to sex trafficking schemes that respective African and European authorities could do far more to contest—and support the blameless female victims of.

Thessaloniki’s internationalist interests and impulses were also well to fore in the festival’s annual Special Screening strand. As always, the special screenings illustrated Thessaloniki’s impressive industry connections and offered attendees a valuable opportunity to take in many of the 2018 global festival circuit’s biggest successes. Within a crowded and prestigious field that encompassed the likes of Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), Matteo Garrone (Dogman), Debra Granik (Leave No Trace), and Mia Hansen-Love (Maya), the standout for Cineaste was László Nemes’s Sunset. In several immediately obvious ways, Nemes’s movie turns its face to the past: a visually teeming portrait of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s internal corruption and incipient chaos on the eve of WWI, Sunset also recalls the technical mastery of various state-supported strains of Eastern European cinema (to Cineaste’s mind, Wojciech Has’s The Hourglass Sanatorium felt an especially close companion piece). In addition, however, Nemes’s penetrating eye for the peculiarly fissile quality of any historical moment during which the complacency of established political power provokes an inchoately angry populist response renders his film a disturbing parable for the situation of large swathes of present-day Europe, the nation of Hungary most definitely included.

Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians.

Sunset’s welcome presence at Thessaloniki was a reminder of another of the festival’s signature priorities, namely, to showcase the best of new southeastern European cinema in general and new Greek filmmaking in particular. The 2018 edition didn’t disappoint in either regard. Ten features screened in the festival’s annual Balkan Survey section. Among these, Cineaste caught two Romanian works: Ionana Uricaru’s Lemonade and Radu Jude’s “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians. If Uricaru’s movie highlights the economic and emotional vulnerability of the present-day Hungarian diaspora, Jude’s provides a flavour of some of the things that diaspora may be choosing to leave behind in the first place. I Do Not Care’s comic cynicism focuses on state attempts to censor a theatrical attempt to publicly commemorate the full complexity of Romania’s role within World War II and the latter’s relation to modern-day anti-Semitism. In this, the remit of Jude’s film chimed closely with that of one of the 2018 Festival’s numerous retrospective strands: Before the Wave Breaks surveyed key works of Romanian cinema produced during the twentieth century’s last three decades.

As might be expected, Thessaloniki’s Greek offering was even more generous yet. Twelve new Greek features formed the centrepiece of the annual Greek Film Festival strand. These were supplemented by an extensive retrospective of Greek queer cinema between the late 1960s and the present, and by the presence of several new Greek works across the Festival’s other major strands. The latter cluster of movies reminds us that Thessaloniki always brings Greek film into active dialogue with wider global currents rather than passively setting the former alongside the latter. For that reason, Cineaste’s sampling of the domestic contribution to the 2018 Festival tended to focus on those movies that made their way into the International Competition or Open Horizons. Marios Piperides’s popular Smuggling Hendrix, for example, exemplified the extent to which even Greek cinema’s most avowedly mainstream tributaries often still tackle many of the most contentious events and legacies of the nation’s modern history. Piperides’s film highlights the enduring scars left by the 1974 partitioning of Cyprus via the comic tale of a dog-owner’s increasingly fraught attempts to reunite with the eponymous Hendrix, a pet who strays across the island’s militarized internal border.

Greek director Nikos Labôt’s feature debut, Her Job.

Elsewhere, Nikos Labôt’s impressive feature debut, Her Job, applied many of the analytical yet humanistic social realist methods of filmmakers like Ken Loach or the Dardenne brothers to the distinctive situation of post-Crash Greece. Deliberately simple and streamlined, Labôt’s film follows the story of a housewife who finds significantly more than just the basic means of economic sustenance when she takes on a low-paid cleaning job at a recently opened shopping mall. Finally, Steve Krikris’s The Waiter was a technically accomplished and commercially attractive proposition that has yet to enjoy the widely traveled international festival life that its Thessaloniki premiere appeared to promise. Krikris’s work amusingly fuses local (Yorgos Lanthimos) and external (the Coen brothers) strains of contemporary cinematic deadpan in its story of an order-obsessed, semireclusive man whose life changes radically with the a new neighbor’s unexpected arrival.

The particular human sensation that lies at the heart of The Waiter’s narrative—the potential of encounters with others to change our personal situation and perspective in ways that are often remarkably wide-ranging—offers as good a metaphor as any to describe the experience of attending the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. Remarkably well attended by local citizens as well as visiting film industry habitués, the 2018 edition offered a considered and comprehensive curatorial snapshot of current cinematic practice, both local and global. Going by its current form, Thessaloniki is an event to be wholeheartedly recommended to prospective visitors from all parts of the world in this or any other given year.

For information on the next Thessaloniki International Film Festival, visit here.

Jonathan Murray teaches film and visual culture at the Edinburgh College of Art.

Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 4