Obscure Observers: The Thessaloniki International Film Festival
by Adrian Martin
If there is a cliché sure to hound every cinephile until the day that she or he dies, it is the hoary old line about we poor souls doomed to “spend our lives in darkened rooms.” Whether due to wobbly mistranslation or poetic inspiration, this cliché received a welcome détournement in the pages of the daily news magazine accompanying the fiftieth Thessaloniki International Film Festival (TIFF): there, a panel session organized by the Pan-Hellenic Union of Film Critics was touted (in English) as a glimpse into the mysterious lives of “obscure observers.” So now it is no longer the rooms that are dark, but ourselves!
Curiously, the very first film I saw on arriving in Thessaloniki set this lyrically obscure tone. I, like many professional moviegoers, like to pick my private “opening film” at a festival, usually in silent, spiritual opposition to the official, gala Opening Night choice. In this case, there was no contest: Fatih Akin’s dreadful Soul Kitchen (confirming the sad decline of this once-interesting filmmaker, even if it whipped the crowd to a feel-good frenzy) could not hold a candle to Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), a soulful, eerie documentary about deaf and blind people that kicked off the complete Werner Herzog retrospective.
This was my first time in Thessaloniki. It is hard not to be swept up by the bustling, enthusiastic atmosphere up and down the pier where many screenings—plus several art exhibitions—take place simultaneously. Further down a long road resembling the location of Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007)—huge docked shops overlooking old railway tracks—TIFF also had its new market activities in swing: there, amid the endless, bubbling stream of buyers and producers, seemed the right place to catch Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, Serge Bromberg’s and Ruxandra Medrea’s gossipy, slightly forced, but always fascinating documentary on (and partial reconstitution of) Clouzot’s unfinished project L’Enfer (Torment) from 1964.
But it was in the Experimental Forum curated by Vassily Bourikas—only in its second year at TIFF—that the real jewels were to be found. I am not exaggerating when I declare that one big reason for me to make the trip from Melbourne to Thessaloniki was the opportunity to see, at last, two films by the Italian writer-actor-director Carmelo Bene (1937-2002)—a legend in parts of Europe, but almost completely unknown in the English-speaking world. Our Lady of the Turks (1968) and Salomé (1972) would strain any critic’s powers of verbal description: standard-issue words like “operatic,” “camp,” “delirious,” or “excessive” do not even come close to capturing the full-on, multichannel intensity of these extraordinary works. Bene may be the only figure in twentieth-century art who could simultaneously project a Welles-like ego big and charismatic enough to burst the screen, and also embody poststructuralist ideas of the death of the author through the constant splitting and multiplication of his celluloid-self.
The largest part of the Experimental Program was devoted to a meticulously researched collection of short films made within the “kinoklub” network of the former Yugoslavia from the late Fifties through to the early Eighties. Stars like Dusan Makavejev were omitted by Bourikas for the sake of plumbing the depth of work rarely screened and little recorded—such as Karpo Godina’s Litany of Happy People (1969-71), a short, blackly ironic gem so perfect it had the audience cheering. One major revelation was a series of shorts by Ljubomir Šimunić, several of which proceed from a faintly fetishistic recording of the banalities of daily life (family dinners, weekends at the beach) to the full-blown appropriation of scenes from hardcore porn movies occurring in similarly mundane settings!
Another key TIFF programmer, Lefteris Adamidis, is in charge of independent cinema. As it happened, his 2009 choices, like Bourikas’s, tended to the carnivalesque. Case in point: there should be a Mad Dogs and Englishmen-style “rock tour” documentary made about the contemporary film festival circuit equivalent of Joe Cocker and his traveling troupe: I mean that close-knit band of Philippine filmmakers that includes Lav Diaz, Raya Martin, and Khavn De La Cruz. In the minds of many, this newest of national “new cinemas” is exemplified by the long, minimalist, demanding, sometimes cryptic films of Diaz (his eight-hour Melancholia was screened), Martin (Independencia shows him moving further into an ironic and highly artificial mise-en-scène of his country’s history), or Sherad Anthony Sanchez (whose brilliant Imburnal impressed the hardcore cinephiles). But just as representative is, on the one hand, the more conventional neorealist drama of Adolfo Alix Jr.’s Adela, or, on the other hand, the prodigious work of Khavn, whose defiantly vulgar, proudly sloppy “shot in a day” digital features (such as his latest, The Muzzled Horse of an Engineer in Search of Mechanical Saddles) sometimes come with a loud, improvised, live musical accompaniment by an ensemble named The Brockas—featuring every Philippine filmmaker (and their friend, or even pet) who cares to make a noise or intervention of any sort.
When in the mood for esthetic restraint and control, I visit the French selection. Rumor has it that, due to declining health, 36 vues du Pic Saint Loup (Around a Small Mountain) will be Jacques Rivette’s final film. It is miniature but not minor Rivette; this circus-set story of aging, of remembering and forgetting, of being liberated from past trauma, is almost unbearably poignant. Already inscribed in cinema history as “Rivette’s shortest,” it is also his smallest in scope: has any film worked over, so minutely and inventively, such a tiny patch of turf? Like Resnais, Rivette aims for the big brass ring of Jean Renoir’s old age, devil-may-care lightness, and just makes it before the whole fragile artifice vanishes into thin air. At least it got the gala treatment from festival director Despina Mouzaki, who honored Jane Birkin with a lifetime achievement award—in response to which she confessed that her luggage had gone missing en route from Paris, and all her clothes were borrowed from TIFF staff!
It is too easy to praise, or dismiss, the work of Bruno Dumont by defaulting to pat discussions of his Bressonian style, provocative subject matter, amoral gaze, etc. I suspect there is something quite unique in his method, and Hadewijch is the most refined expression of it to date. This oddly bewitching, cagily calm tale of a religiously obsessed teenage girl (Julie Sokolowski) who, step by inexorable step, finds herself falling under the influence of Islamic terrorists, is no “social issue” telemovie. Dumont’s deepest subject is the alienness of everybody and everything: the typical Parisian high bourgeois household, as a world unto itself, is just as strange and fascinating to him as any “exotic” religion or fanatical ideology. Dumont’s films sometimes exude an air of dandified indifference (Houellebecq-style); in Hadewijch, however, some welcome passion is stirring.
What is that maddening pop Muzak, and who is that not-young-looking woman (Kim Hye-ja) swaying, a little idiotically, in a field in the precredits sequence of Bong Joon-ho’s Mother? And why—as the film’s title superimposes itself on the screen—is this woman now looking out at us, her hand cupped near her heart? It takes around 130 absolutely breathtaking minutes for answers to those screwy questions to finally arrive—and when they do, you know you’ve seen a masterpiece.
Bong, although regularly feted on the festival circuit and blessed with some commercial success in his home country of Korea, seems to me an underrated director. Once again, he deftly interweaves various genres in Mother: a weird kind of investigative thriller, often tending to the comically surreal, morphs into a true “woman’s melodrama” that can stand comparison with Max Ophuls’s The Reckless Moment (1949)—in no small part due to Kim’s magnetic performance as a mother doing every crazy, dangerous thing she has to do to clear her disabled son of a murder rap.
Another tremendous Korean actor, Bae Doo-na, gamely takes the role of an inflatable sex toy in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s very odd Air Doll. Adapted from a well-known manga by Yoshiie Goda, it unfolds the juxtaposition this director has virtually made his signature: the grotty bleakness of daily, urban life in Japan (all the lonely people, where do they all come from?) rubs up against syrupy Amélie-type whimsy heavily laid on—an uneasy combo admirably summed up in a climactic overhead shot of the discarded, lifeless doll out with the trash in the early morning light, which an onlooking child finds unaccountably “beautiful”! Likewise, Wizard of Oz-style pathos around the doll’s growing humanity (perfectly communicated by Bae) is almost canceled out by a high degree of perversity (shall I ever forget the sight of the doll, postsex, scrubbing out her own detachable vagina?).
In contrast to the drawcard names of Bong, Kore-eda, or Bae, a Korean film with too little festival-circuit buzz to accompany it—by the first day of 2010, IMDb was still “awaiting five votes” before chalking up its scorecard—is Missing Person, written and directed by Seo Lee. A sensation at last year’s Jeonju Festival (partly because the director fought much resistance to get it made), it is a bleak, relentless allegory of the socially dispossessed and abused taking psychotic revenge against their unlovely middle-class “masters.” Politically direct, stylistically raw, and extremely powerful, it resembles Abel Ferrara’s cinema on a good day.
2009 was a rocky year for the Greek film industry. An ultimatum to the Karamanlis government (before the recent electoral success of George Papandreou) from the association Filmmakers of Greece demanded financial assistance for the industry through a revision of the previously toothless Greek film law—or else the key short, feature, and documentary productions of the year would be withdrawn from the State Film Awards that are held annually at TIFF. But nothing has yet happened at the governmental level in response to this crisis (and, given further blows to the national economy revealed in late December, progress is unlikely to be made soon). Result: most of the Greek production slate of 2009 was missing from TIFF. And what remained were—more or less—the dregs, although a spotlight on digital feature production was still possible.
I saw three of the local films on offer in this diminished national selection. One was unbearably bad, another was hilariously bad, and the third was among the most intriguing films of the festival. Angelos Spartalis’s Wishes was a cutesy digital number, again in the mode of Amélie (four guardian angels work in a cinema and contrive various magical events—one angel would have been quite enough). Fatal Relationship, a glorified soap opera telemovie by veteran director Ericos Andreou, drew a gang of local critics at the press screening who were ready with their poison pens to transcribe, between communal howls of derisive laughter, every ridiculous line of dialog. (Such as this one delivered by the hunky, bare-chested Communist-in-hiding hero: “You see this cigarette? It’s burning, and so am I.”)
Kyriakos Katzourakis’s Small Revolts, however, gripped this viewer with its unsubtle but persuasive earnestness. A howl against the patriarchal oppression of women, it drew on simple reflexive devices—such as rehearsals for a play—to spice up the churning life-and-death melodrama of a wife driven to A Winter Tan-style flights of resistant amour fou. And, although I never want to see him use the old “our characters continue walking down the road of life” concluding shot again, I will be keeping an eye out in future for Katzourakis.
In Thessaloniki in November, even a guided museum tour becomes a cinephilic experience. Interrupting his expert patter on ancient artifacts in silver, our erudite, strolling pedagogue suddenly asked us: “Do you know Oliver Stone’s Alexander? A very bad movie! And when Mr. Stone took this very same tour last year, I told him so. He was not at all happy.” So that’s one more film culture cliché proven true: everyone’s a critic.
Adrian Martin is Associate Professor and Head of Film and Television Studies, Monash University (Melbourne), and Co-Editor of Rouge (www.rouge.com.au).
For more information on the Thessaloniki International Film festival, visit
Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Magazine, Inc.