52nd Thessaloniki International Film Festival
by Jared Rapfogel

Sara Driver's  Sleepwalk

Sara Driver's Sleepwalk

Hugging the coast of the Thermaic Gulf in the troubled country’s northeast, Greece’s second city of Thessaloniki is graced by not one but two major annual festivals, one relatively young event (founded in 1999) in the spring devoted to documentary cinema, and the broader, more established Thessaloniki International Film Festival, founded in 1960 and taking place each fall. 2011 marked the second year since the appointment as director of the festival of Dimitri Eipides, a major figure on the international film-festival scene who founded the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (he remains the director of that event as well), and has been responsible since 1992 for the fall festival’s New Horizons section, the most adventurous, challenging component of a festival that also includes an International Competition section, as well as sections devoted to Greek cinema, Balkan cinema, experimental films, youth films, and short films. This year the festival took place against the grim backdrop of Greece’s recent economic and social woes, a topic that was much on people’s minds and that apparently posed a major challenge in attempting to pull the event together. But remarkably, this strain was not visible, and the festival was every bit as impressive as it has been in the past.

In addition, to the several components mentioned above, Thessaloniki presents retrospectives each year highlighting the work of particular filmmakers, with this year’s spotlight falling on Danish director Ole Christian Madsen, New York’s Sara Driver, the Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino, and Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl. I spent much of my time attending the Sara Driver and Ulrich Seidl screenings. One of the most talented members of the wave of independent narrative filmmakers that emerged in New York City in the 1980s and ‘90s, Sara Driver is responsible for a body of work that’s at once impressively varied and fully cohesive—each of her four films (three medium- or feature-length films and one short) is remarkable for revealing a different facet of her sensibility, and yet they are all suffused with her interest in the uncanny and the fantastic, in the blurring of reality and dream states, and with her predilection for mood and texture over plot. Though she hasn’t released a feature film since 1993’s When Pigs Fly, she has come back into the spotlight thanks to the near-miraculous rediscovery of her masterful debut film, You Are Not I (1981), a haunting adaptation of a story by Paul Bowles.

All the prints of this film appeared to be lost until 2008, when, in a stranger-than-fiction turn of events, a 16mm print surfaced in Tangier, among the belongings left behind by Bowles after his death. Newly restored, You Are Not I proves to be a fascinating example of 1980s American independent cinema—a proudly low-budget, resourceful piece of work, it immerses us in the inner world of its protagonist, Ethel, a schizophrenic young woman recently escaped from a mental hospital, as she wanders through the landscapes of rural New Jersey. As embodied by actress Suzanne Fletcher, her strange, deeply unsettling presence gives the film much of its uncanny force. Shot on location in New Jersey, with the participation of several important figures in the downtown NY scene of the time—including Driver’s longtime partner Jim Jarmusch, composer Phil Kline, and writer Luc Sante and artist Nan Goldin (both appearing here as actors)—You Are Not I is a unique, sui generis film that, in its never-more-than-implied but nonetheless profoundly creepy sense of psychological horror, reflects Driver’s fascination with the films Jacques Tourneur made for producer Val Lewton.

Driver’s other two features, Sleepwalk (1986) and When Pigs Fly, adopt a very different tone, similarly mysterious and uncanny but increasingly whimsical. Sleepwalk stars Suzanne Fletcher once again, this time as a New York computer typesetter who is enlisted by two shady figures to translate a Chinese manuscript that apparently holds some sort of precious secret. From the moment she accepts the job, strange things begin happening all around her. A low-key but lovely and moody film, Sleepwalk very much lives up to its title (one that could easily apply to any of Driver’s films)—a kind of trance film, it seems to take place (and to place viewers into) a state somewhere between waking and dreaming. And as if its tone isn’t ghostly enough, seen today it provides a tantalizing glimpse of a now-vanished New York City.

When Pigs Fly takes the ghostliness a step further, explicitly centering on two spirits who (gently) haunt the life of the protagonist, Marty, a charmingly disheveled, sad-sack jazz musician played by Alfred Molina. When his quasi-girlfriend (Maggie O’Neill) gifts him with an old chair, he finds that it comes with two ghosts, a young girl (Rachel Bella) and an older woman (Marianne Faithfull), and soon the four of them have formed a kind of family. Their mission to right the wrongs that led to the ghosts’ deaths becomes a cause that awakens Marty back to life, as well as a pretext for Driver to spin the sorts of nonnarrative moods and rhythms that she’s so adept at creating.

It’s hard to imagine a body of work more different tonally from Driver’s work than that of Ulrich Seidl. Seidl made his name with a series of films depicting various more or less unsavory, grimly depressing dimensions of Austrian society, from people with questionable relationships with their pets (Animal Love, 1995), and superficial, soulless, and drug-abusing models (Models, 1998), to immigrant news vendors (Good News, 1990). Though he’s generally considered to be a maker of documentaries who turned to fiction with Dog Days (2001) and Import/Export (2007), this narrative is anything but clear-cut, since his “documentaries” use many of the strategies of fiction filmmaking (the subjects indulge in extremely private behavior without ever acknowledging the camera), while his fiction films (especially the great Import/Export) are made with nonprofessional actors who are often introduced into unstaged situations.

In any case, Seidl is a fascinating case, both because of his distinctive approach and because his films veer back and forth between great perceptiveness and sensitivity on the one hand and a nihilistic, toxic sense of disgust on the other. The sense that Seidl is adopting a dubiously Olympian perspective and pinning his subjects to a wall like entomological specimens is never far off, but he has repeatedly proven himself capable of transcending this proclivity. At Thessaloniki I filled in some of the blanks in my exposure to Seidl’s work, catching up with one of his worst films—Models, which spends almost two hours rubbing our faces in the spiritual bankruptcy, moral corruption, and sheer awfulness of the lives of its three female model protagonists—but also with two very early TV films that find him at his best: The Bosom Friend (1997)—a portrait of a truly bizarre character, a socially awkward high-school math teacher who unashamedly incorporates into his lesson plans his obsession with the female bosom—and especially The Last Men (1994).

Ulrich Seidl's  The Bosom Friend

Ulrich Seidl's The Bosom Friend

The latter film concerns the phenomenon of lonely, often divorced Austrian men who shop for mail-order brides from Asia (mostly Thai and Filipino women). The sense of condescension and superiority that often mars Seidl’s work is certainly present here—the men he films are a sorry lot, their moaning about the dangerous, unacceptable independence of Austrian women vs. the laudable servitude of their Asian wives barely veiling their fragile egos and emotional vulnerability—but ultimately the film becomes surprisingly moving. Partly this is a result of focusing not only on the men but also on their new wives, who, without ever acknowledging it, are clearly willing to play the role of a loving and subservient wife to escape the dire economic situations they find themselves in at home. But even more importantly, Seidl ends up allowing his central protagonist, a divorced man living in the suburbs alone with his beloved body-building gear, to become surprisingly sympathetic. Unlike the other men depicted, this man is shopping for but hasn’t yet found his new wife. And Seidl widens the focus to acknowledge his fraught relationship with the daughter who he yearns in vain to connect with. Without pulling his punches in depicting the man as sexist, vain, and ridiculous, he conveys the full extent of his loneliness and emotional wounds in a way that makes him far more sympathetic and multidimensional than you initially think possible.

The Seidl retrospective was presented under the umbrella of the Open Horizons section, by far the largest and most far-ranging of the festival’s components, with fifty-five films from all over the world (in contrast to the International Competition’s selection of just fifteen films). Of the films I saw, the strongest were Ruben Östlund’s Play, Santiago Mitre’s The Student, the Dardenne brothers’ The Kid with a Bike, and the Open Horizons opening night film, Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Martha Marcy May Marlene depicts a young woman’s struggle to extricate herself psychologically and emotionally from the cult she has recently escaped from. Scrambling chronology, the film begins with her flight from the farm where the cult makes its headquarters to the lakeside house where her sister and her husband live. As the film progresses, it gradually fills in the blanks of Martha’s recent past—her enlistment into a seemingly utopian community which turns out to be founded on sexual exploitation and violence, and her growing sense of horror at what she has become involved in—while simultaneously revealing the depth of her paranoia regarding the cult, and, more interestingly, the extent of her unease in a conventional society that is less sinister but similarly questionable. The messianic, manipulative control exercised by the cult’s leader (a brilliant performance by John Hawkes) has left Martha traumatized, but the cult’s (ostensible) ethic of communal living, free loving, and off-the-grid existence has rendered her equally alienated from the superficial world she left behind. Martha Marcy May Marlene is not quite the movie it could have been—steering its material towards thriller territory it emphasizes creepiness and psychological horror over the deeper implications of the contrast between the two worlds it depicts. But if it pulls its punches to some extent, it’s nevertheless an impressive piece of work, displaying a command of pacing, composition, sound design, and acting that’s a rare commodity in contemporary American cinema. It’s disappointing that it’s content to remain an extremely accomplished and clever thriller, but as a thriller it’s genuinely unsettling.

It’s not immediately apparent, but Play has several things in common with Durkin’s film—thematically it too concerns psychological manipulation and intimidation, while its stylistic control is similarly both extremely impressive and perhaps excessively conspicuous. Inspired by an actual series of incidents that took place in Gothenburg, Sweden between 2006-08, Play dramatizes an extended encounter between three white children and a larger group of black youths who spend the day following them through Gothenburg, intimidating, bullying, and eventually robbing them. The crux of the film is the sophisticated method the boys use to terrorize their victims, one that involves the threat, but not the exercise, of violence, and which calls into play a whole matrix of role-playing, psychological games, and unacknowledged dimensions of race, class, and power dynamics. Östlund tells his story via long, unbroken sequence shots, with the camera most often motionless and the action moving into and out of the static frame, a choice that’s queasily effective on at least several different levels: the real-time nature of each scene relentlessly focuses our attention on the psychological dynamics at play in the boys’ bullying, while both the temporal unity and the frozen, unyielding compositions convey the sense of entrapment and panic that the victimized boys are experiencing. Östlund is dealing with extremely inflammatory material, and the lack of political correctness is admirable—risking charges of racism, he refuses to explain away or excuse the behavior of the black boys. Their own victimization in Swedish society is simply implied by the form their bullying takes, by the fact that the actual robbery comes across as almost an afterthought in a process that’s really more about asserting a sense of power and control, a kind of ritual unconsciously designed to compensate for their essential lack of power or status. This restraint is admirable, even if Play nevertheless comes across as an extremely chilly film, a deeply unsentimental, grim work made with a consummate control that seems reminiscent of the overdetermined quality of the films of Michael Haneke rather than reflective of the psychology of the bullies themselves.

Charting the growing political consciousness of Roque, a young university student in Buenos Aires, Santiago Mitre’s The Student is a confident, fast-paced, perceptive tale of Roque’s initiation into student politics, and his exposure to the power dynamics, self-interest, and betrayals he encounters as he rises through the ranks of leadership. Displaying a sure sense of its milieu, and a flair for characterization and pacing, The Student is a sharp dissection of the world of student politics, and of course an allegory of politics at all levels. If it ultimately falls a little short, it’s because it seems content to convey the impression of complicated ideological distinctions, strategic maneuvering, and intrigue, rather than actually letting us engage with coherent political debates—it creates a buzzing surface that sounds authentic but lacks real substance. Mitre seems more interested in the forms that student politics takes than in the nitty-gritty details, and while the form is important, without grounding it in genuine political context, the film comes off as more conceptualized than achieved, the characters illustrations of a thesis rather than full-bodied human beings with nuanced political convictions.

More successful was the latest film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, The Kid with a Bike, which centers on the tense, difficult relationship between Cyril, a young boy who is obsessed with finding the father who abandoned him at a children’s home, and Samantha, a hairdresser who lets him live with her rather than return to the children’s home, and who attempts to provide the love his natural father seems incapable of offering. The Dardenne brothers tell this inherently heartbreaking story with a typical lack of sentimentality or sugarcoating—while their films are usually compared to (and intentionally modeled after) those of Robert Bresson, The Kid with a Bike calls to mind Maurice Pialat’s great L’Enfance nue (Naked Childhood) (1968), another clear-eyed, unsentimental portrait of a troubled child whose deep need for affection expresses itself through destructive, antisocial behavior. Like the earlier film, The Kid with a Bike is all the more moving for depicting its young protagonist as temperamental, angry, and profoundly frustrating, a three-dimensional child with believably contradictory, violent, and uncontrollable impulses rather than a comfortingly false symbol of innocence.

Easily the best of the International Competition films I saw was Alejandro Landes’s Porfirio. In its minimalism, its long-take aesthetic, and its blurring of documentary and fiction, Porfirio closely resembles a form of filmmaking that’s very much in vogue today in the realm of art cinema. Aside from representing a very accomplished example of the form, it distinguishes itself in two major and interlinked ways—firstly in the film’s turn towards uncharacteristically dramatic events, and secondly in its emergence as a veritable docudrama, a recreation of a remarkable story starring its real-life protagonist. A portrait of Porfirio, an older Colombian man paralyzed from the waist down, the film starts out as a detailed, intimate record of his daily routine—his physical needs tended to by his son and by his neighbor and sometime lover, Porfirio’s days are spent selling minutes on his cell phone to his neighbors. What initially appears to be a very slow-paced but striking quasi-documentary centered on a remarkable “performance” from its protagonist, turns out to be an extremely unusual re-creation of a remarkable true story—without giving too much away, suffice it to say that Landes has taken a story that could’ve been fodder for a TV movie-of-the-week and made of it something more along the lines of a Lisandro Alonso or Apichatpong Weerasethakul film, deemphasizing the drama to focus on the physicality and the quotidian reality of his protagonist. Anchored by the unforgettable presence of Porfirio Ramirez Aldana, who devotes himself to the project with great dignity and unembarrassed candor, Porfirio is an extremely impressive fiction-feature debut, and the sort of movie that leaves you wanting to know much more about its own creation.

There was much more to the 52nd Thessaloniki Independent Film Festival than suggested above—sadly, I missed most of the Greek and Balkan films, as well as what appeared to be an excellent Experimental Forum (programmed by Vassily Bourikas). But what I did see demonstrated the admirable range and quality of Thessaloniki’s programming, even in a year that found the festival struggling against the consequences of the economic upheaval that has decimated the country. That this venerable, vital, and ambitious festival came off so successfully is a major testament to its organizers’ tireless efforts.

Jared Rapfogel is an Associate at Cineaste and a film programmer at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2