The 2008 Thessaloniki International Film Festival
by Dan Georgakas
Only a few film festivals serve as genuine international showcases that can catapult a film to worldwide visibility. With the number of festivals around the world multiplying rapidly, the majority, by necessity, must have narrower national or film niche mandates. Since its onset, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival has focused on the artistic rather than commercial dimensions of film with special attention to first and second features. Closely linked to this mandate is the support given to regional cinema by cosponsoring script development via the Balkan Film Fund, presenting new productions in the annual Balkan Survey, and offering the Crossroads Co-Production Forum for Mediterranean and Balkan films. The festival’s efforts to enrich the national film culture in Greece, increasingly have gone beyond simply presenting new Greek films and retrospectives.
Eleven master classes were presented at the most recent festival by world renowned actors, directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, and producers. That the majority of presenters were not directors was a subtle reminder to the director-centered Greek film public of the collaborative aspects of filmmaking. Topics addressed ranged from the problematics associated with making low-budget indies to the thinking that pervades Hollywood. Constantine Giannaris, for example, spoke about the making, early in his career, of a documentary that examined the relationship between Constantine Cavafy’s poetry and his sexuality. Discussing an entirely different kind of filmmaking, Jim Gianopulos, head of Fox Entertainment, spoke about the financing and planning for blockbusters like Titanic and Moulin Rouge, commercial flops like Solaris and Master and Commander, and unconventional hits like The Full Monty and Borat. In regard to the latter two films, Gianopulos explained that Fox invests in such projects only when it thinks the subject matter or format cannot be found on television.
Four round-table discussions had an equally wide range of interests. The topics addressed were contemporary Spanish cinema, the work of film archivists, film criticism on the Internet, and the possible role of cinema in the elimination of violence against women. The Just Talking sessions chaired by Angelike Contis every afternoon at 5:00 were more informal. Most participants were involved with first or second works being screened at the festival. They chatted with one another and took questions from the audience on how they had overcome various obstacles to get their films made and distributed. Like the events already mentioned and the daily press conferences, the Just Talking sessions were free of charge and open to the general public.
Giving permanent expression to some of the festival retrospectives were a number of bilingual (Greek and English) publications. Of particularly high quality was a book simply titled John Sayles edited by Konstantinos Kontovrakis and Despina Mouzaki, the festival director. A variety of interviews, critical pieces, essays by Sayles, and excellent treatments of each of his sixteen features make it the single best source on Sayles available anywhere. Three titles were added to the ongoing Film Pad pamphlet series: Spanish Cinema in the New Century: A Contemporary Look; The Films of Nae Caranfil; and In a Dark Passage: Film Noir in Greek Cinema. The writing in some of these pamphlets is a bit florid at times, but all succeed in delivering considerable insights into their topics. The Greek film noir essays are the first extended comments in English on the culture that produced classic Greek noirs such as Murder Backstage (1960) and The Man on the Train (1958).
The response to these efforts to broaden film culture in Greece was quite strong. Students from Thessaloniki’s Artistotle University, the only Greek university that offers a formal course of study in film, make up the bulk of the festival’s audience. Many screenings were totally sold out, but students often elected to stand in the back of the theater or sit on the staircases. Particularly popular with younger festivalgoers was the Greek Digital Wave section. Unlike last year’s presentations, most of the digital work presented was by experienced filmmakers such as Lucia Rikaki and Tassos Boulmetis.
Despite numerous tributes and the educational outreach just noted, the festival has not been diverted from its core mission of presenting first and second features. One of the most remarkable of these was PVC-1, a Colombian-Greek-U.S. production that won four awards, including a People’s Choice Prize. The director/coscriptwriter of this Spanish-language film is Greek-born Spiros Stathoulopoulos, who grew up in Colombia but has now established a film company in Los Angeles. PVC-1 is shot in one continuous take and deals with a woman in Colombia who is forced into a collar bomb by criminals seeking ransom. Despite a poorly acted first ten minutes, the film is far more successful in developing a coherent story with compelling characters than the famed one-take Russian Ark (2002). Two other impressive debut features were from Iran and China, Hana Makhmalbof’s Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame and Cal Shangjun’s The Red Awn. Buddha focuses on a six-year-old Afghan girl living beneath the statues of the Buddha destroyed by the Taliban as she confronts obstacles in her quest for literacy. The Red Awn, which won the Golden Alexander, follows the quest of a man, who has returned to his hometown after a five-year absence to reclaim the affection of a son who has had him officially declared dead by the local ministry.
Among the new Greek productions, the lavish El Greco, which has broken all domestic attendance records, is a sure bet to please international audiences attracted to films that deal with the lives of famous painters. Also capable of finding an international audience is First Time Godfather, a warmhearted spoof of political dynasties that has a delightful ecological twist. The script is based on a novel by Nikos Papandreou (son and grandson of two Greek prime ministers and brother of the leader of Greece’s major opposition party) and direction is by the prolific Olga Malea. A finely honed script cowritten by director Thanos Anastopoulos also distinguishes Correction, an intense drama concerning the murder of an Albanian immigrant by a Greek. Unfortunately, Correction assumes knowledge of contemporary Greek life that may make it somewhat impenetrable for non-Greek audiences.
Thessaloniki, which will soon be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, remains steadfast in its dedication to remaining both an international site for filmmakers at the onset of their careers and a leading force in Greek cultural life. Having set a new attendance record in 2007, the festival seems to have more public support in Greece than ever before.