The 2014 Thessaloniki International Film Festival
by Jared Rapfogel
Though the Thessaloniki International Film Festival can’t lay claim to the glamour, the high-profile premieres, or the celebrity guests of festivals such as Cannes, Toronto, the Berlinale, or the Venice Biennale, it distinguishes itself by its breadth, its combination of festival-circuit highlights and lesser-known fare, its well-chosen director retrospectives, and an annual focus on Balkan cinema—not to mention its location in a city of enormous character, vibrancy, and historical fascination. Among the most multicultural of ancient cities, with a rich history of Greek, Muslim, and Jewish culture, Thessaloniki is today a dynamic, energetic, and gritty city, despite the hardships Greece continues to endure. Indeed, one of the festival’s most impressive feats in recent years has simply been to maintain its scale, high quality, and sheer festiveness in the face of the economic challenges generated by the ongoing financial and social crisis in the country at large.
From the evidence of my own (always necessarily limited) sampling of the festival’s lineup, this year’s event was distinguished more by the relatively high-profile selections—auteur films such as the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night, Mathias Pineiro’s The Princess of France, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, and, the closing night selection, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence—and by the focus on the great and undersung Serbian filmmaker Zelimir Zilnik, than by the more meat-and-potatoes fare that made up the bulk of the festival. When I tried experimenting with unknown quantities, I tended to come away disappointed or worse: to take a few examples, the Greek films Norway(Yiannis Veslemes) and Polk (Nikos Nikolopoulos and Vladimiros Nikolouzos), and the dialogue-free Test (Alexander Kott), were all major trials.
Norway is a profoundly obnoxious and grating vampire film whose central conceit—an undead protagonist who is more aging rock ‘n’ roller and junkie than elegant Prince of Darkness—and whose self-enamored cleverness reeked of a student-film sensibility. Polk is a far more ambitious piece of work, an experimental meditation on the 1948 murder of American journalist George Polk, which took place in Thessaloniki and remains shrouded in mystery. Reporting on the civil war in Greece, Polk had criticized both sides in the conflict and in particular had accused Greek officials of embezzling U.S. aid money. None of this is remotely comprehensible from the film though, which eschews even the slightest transmission of information for portentous, zombie-like monologues and dialogues, stultifying sub-Borgesian game-playing, and surrealism of the most labored variety (such as a recurring sequence of Polk seated alone in a hotel dining room, stuffing his face with peas and lobster and sweating profusely). I was scandalized by the clearly reactionary woman who loudly huffed and puffed her way through the ten-minute opening shot of the sun setting over the Thessaloniki port—which would prove to be the highpoint of the film—but soon found myself coming uncomfortably close to adopting her attitude (though of course by that time she was long gone). The challenging question of which of these two films was worse could only come down to whether or not you prefer your cinematic mediocrity low-brow or high.
Test, on the other hand, demonstrated (as if it needed demonstrating) that there’s something even worse: middlebrow mediocrity. Set among a community of farmers in what is today Kazakhstan, Test is dialogue-free, a feature that motivated me to see it (I anticipated an experiential, interiorized drama) but that proved to be part and parcel of its problems. The film eschews dialogue not because it focuses on characters in isolation, or because its situations are ones in which dialogue is extraneous, but rather because its vision of its rural protagonists is one of such picturesque remove, such mealy-minded, condescending preciousness that to allow the characters to speak, to express themselves verbally, would endow them with a measure of autonomy, and would puncture the film’s sense of them as exotic, “simple,” nonthreatening manifestations of their landscape.
Though not without problems of its own, Charlie’s Country was a welcome antidote to Test, not only a showcase for aboriginal Australian actor David Gulpilil (who speaks plenty here), but based on his own screenplay. Gulpilil first came to stardom in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), and Charlie’s Country reunites him with Rolf de Heer, the director of his previous films The Tracker (2002) and Ten Canoes (2006). His screenplay represents an anguished exposé of the racism, double standards, and marginalization suffered by aboriginal men and women in Australia. Gulpilil gives a commanding, deeply committed performance as Charlie, who chafes against the stifling, circumscribed atmosphere of his aboriginal community, where living conditions are dire, opportunities are nearly nonexistent, and where Charlie yearns for the freedom and the increasingly vanished traditions of his ancestors. His attempt to claim a measure of freedom lands him in a hospital in the city, where his rebelliousness and independence bring even greater trouble. Charlie’s Country is far from perfect—de Heer’s craft leaves a great deal to be desired, with often obtrusive camerawork that underlines the dramatic and emotional substance to self-defeating ends, and rote, overinsistent music that is even more problematic. And I was mystified by the emphasis near the conclusion on the pride Charlie takes in having once performed for the Queen of England. Though apparently a detail taken from Gulpilil’s own biography, it’s a dubious element to include within a film that so powerfully explores the legacy of colonialist subjugation, and a dynamic that the film is not equipped to handle with any nuance. Nevertheless, Charlie’s Country is a worthy and revealing film that’s redeemed by Gulpilil’s power and conviction, and by the sense of anger that emerges, even as this anger sometimes seems at odds with the conventionality of the filmmaking.
Another film that was at once highly impressive and yet problematic was the Estonian film In the Crosswind, by Martti Helde, which depicts the mass deportations of tens of thousands of Estonians (to Siberia and elsewhere) that Stalin put into effect upon occupying the country in 1941. This tragic historical event, which primarily targeted Estonia’s political and cultural elite, and divided families, in many cases forever, is little known in the West today; based on actual letters from some of the victims of the purge, In the Crosswind is a fascinating film if only for calling attention to this historical phenomenon. Far from a conventional historical narrative, however, In the Crosswind depicts the events (in black and white) by means of frozen tableau, with dozens of actors remaining entirely still as Helde’s camera wends and weaves among them, in takes that last several minutes long. It’s a striking and admittedly haunting approach, and each shot is an enormously impressive feat of choreography, lighting, and mise en scène, not to mention of course the physical stamina demanded of the actors.
The tour-de-force nature of nearly every shot is a double-edged sword, however. The moment-by-moment technical accomplishment is so palpable that it threatens to overwhelm every other element of the film. This is held in check to some extent by the soundtrack, which is devoted to readings from the letters of the victims (the majority of them written by a particular young woman, and the others adapted and inserted to create the illusion of a single protagonist). These letters are eloquent and deeply moving, and they balance out the stylization of the imagery. But this imagery is nevertheless of such great technical achievement that it naturally calls a great deal of attention to itself. And it’s not always clear what effect is intended by the frozen tableau approach. The distancing effect is welcome, especially given the extravagantly emotional quality of the letters. And there’s an interestingly paradoxical dynamic put into play by the combination of the stillness, which conjures up a sense of distant memory, and the sense of the actors’ very palpable, three-dimensional presence (emphasized by the camera’s roaming among them, showing them, as it were, in the round). To my mind, however, this paradox was not entirely fruitful, the palpability of the actors cutting against the sense of memory, and their frozenness giving off a whiff of absurdity that’s surely not intentional (the tableau approach offers too great a temptation to watch for stray blinks, tremors, and so on…). Still, it’s undeniably an impressive achievement, a bold experiment, and an important reminder of a tragic event in twentieth-century history.
If going out on a limb brought only mixed rewards at this year’s festival, the safer bets paid off handsomely. Two Days, One Night has already been covered in these pages, but it’s worth calling special attention to the Dardenne brothers’ unwavering skill in deploying a deceptively naturalistic visual style and texture to smuggle their essentially melodramatic aims past audiences’ sophisticated defense mechanisms. The Dardenne brothers are famous for their handheld, documentary-like shooting style, an approach that critics both celebrate (praising its supposed realism and immediacy) and denigrate (considering it an empty, bad faith short cut to a sense of authenticity). What both these attitudes overlook is that the Dardenne brothers’ sensibility is in fact entirely divorced from “realism”—beneath the surface of the films’ “look” are stories that are profoundly stylized and frankly, unapologetically melodramatic.
The Dardennes traffic in moral parables, with a narrative simplicity (but a moral complexity) that are almost religious in nature. This approach is one that, presented undisguised, would almost certainly alienate modern audiences—the apparent surface naturalism is in fact a kind of smokescreen, drawing audiences in and leaving them vulnerable to melodramatic contrivances from which they would otherwise affect a sophisticated distance. At its most effective, this is simply a matter of playing the most emotional moments in a deceptively, disarmingly casual manner—throughout their work, certain moments or lines of dialogue will suddenly take on an entirely unexpected power, simply because the naturalistic approach leaves us unprepared (personally, I found myself moved to uncharacteristic tears by a single, almost entirely unemphasized line of dialogue at the very conclusion of Two Days, One Night—a line that most movies would have trumpeted forth with music cues, close-ups, and Oscar-bait line readings).
Two Days, One Night is a stark example of the Dardenne brothers’ strategy, its visual style as “realistic” as ever, even as its structure is entirely, (almost) patently artificial: the heart of the film consists simply of a dozen encounters between the protagonist, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), and the various co-workers she must attempt to persuade to voluntarily forgo their bonuses so that she can keep her job. It’s a boldly repetitive, antinarrative structure—essentially a set of variations on a theme—designed to highlight the moral and ethical issues at play in Sandra’s plea to each of her co-workers, rather than a conventional dramatic momentum. But of course the beauty of the Dardennes’ craft is that, atop this schematic, conceptually bold but, one would think, dramatically unpromising structure, they’re able to construct a film of great urgency, psychological perception, sociological texture, and even suspense.
Two Days, One Night was not the only highlight of the festival to mimic the style of a documentary in order to depict a highly stylized, even absurd story. A true “whatsit”, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq casts the eponymous French writer—a figure of great fame and equally great controversy (all the more so in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy)—as an exaggerated version of himself. Kidnapped by bumbling, inexperienced criminals and held for ransom, the comically sad sack and apparently unflappable Houellebecq unexpectedly takes to his new situation, enjoying the break from routine and the company of his criminal yet oddly hospitable captors. Though a slight and arguably overclever film, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq is nevertheless disarmingly winning, its humor profoundly deadpan and its pacing refreshingly loose. Despite the high-concept conceit, it devotes most of its running time to long, leisurely interactions between Houellebecq and his group of captors, scenes that play against the outrageousness of the situation and are fueled by Houellebecq’s bizarre performance, but that also beautifully capture a certain delight in conversation, an ease of sociability, that is a major feature of provincial France.
Notwithstanding all these valuable and interesting contemporary films, the greatest opportunity afforded by this year’s festival was the chance to see several rare works by veteran Serbian filmmaker Zelimir Zilnik. Lamentably little-known in the United States, despite a prolific career that has spanned almost fifty years and encompassed dozens of documentaries and fictional features, both short and feature length, Zilnik has created a body of work as impassioned, as radical, and as unflaggingly dedicated to revealing social and political injustice as any in the past half-century. Thessaloniki’s miniretrospective included his extraordinary early short films, as well as his 1969 feature film, Early Works, which perhaps remains his best-known work. But it focused on his films of the 1990s and 2000s, a godsend for those of us less familiar with this later work. The tribute amply demonstrated that Zilnik’s achievement does not lie primarily in the past—with works such as Fortress Europe (2000) and the series of films chronicling the life and itinerant wanderings of a charismatic Roma man, Kenedi [the films are Kenedi Goes Back Home (2003), Kenedi, Lost and Found (2005), and Kenedi Is Getting Married (2007)], it’s clear that Zilnik’s work is every bit as vital, relevant, and committed as ever.
Fortress Europe demonstrates Zilnik’s career-long preoccupation with marginalized peoples, as it lifts the veil on a (ca. 2000) Europe riddled with political and economic refugees, illegal immigration, refugee camps, and border police, and focuses both on the efforts of the authorities to seal their borders and on those of the refugees to escape their home countries. It also demonstrates Zilnik’s freedom in mixing fictional and documentary techniques (years before such hybrids were as ubiquitous among film festival fare as they’ve recently become): though the men and women who appear in the film are clearly not professional actors, Fortress Europe unhesitatingly and self-evidently encompasses re-creations, invented scenes, and ambiguous sequences, as well as apparently straight documentary passages. And Zilnik happily collapses these modes based on the demands of the moment: Fortress Europe focuses in large part on Artjom, a Russian man who is attempting to bring his daughter to Trieste, where her mother has settled, and for the most part Zilnik maintains the fiction of this storyline. But towards the end, in a sequence filmed in a transit camp for those awaiting deportation, Artjom becomes Zilnik’s surrogate, interviewing the residents of the camp about their lives as he wanders through the facility. What this flexible, constantly shifting filmic approach sacrifices in surface polish, logic, and consistency it amply compensates for in its immediacy, its versatility, and above all in the penetrating insights into a Europe whose preoccupation with security, borders, and nationalism comes at a terrible human cost.
The strategies that pervade Fortress Europe are very much in evidence in Zilnik’s extraordinary Kenedi films (at least in the first two; I missed and haven’t yet been able to see the concluding film, Kenedi Is Getting Married, which reportedly advances further into the realm of fiction). Once again, the boundaries between fiction and documentary are porous ones. While these films seem to exist predominantly in the realm of nonfiction, Kenedi is clearly much more than a passive documentary subject—there are numerous sequences in Kenedi Goes Back Home in which, thanks to the shot/counter-shot editing, the apparent invisibility of camera and crew, or the nature of the interactions, it’s clear that Zilnik is actively collaborating with the men and women he’s filming. And like Artjom, Kenedi himself pivots from apparent documentary subject to directorial surrogate.
Above all, what Kenedi Goes Back Home shares with Fortress Europe, is its status as a profoundly revealing, impassioned portrait of those communities that are left behind in modern Europe, in particular the Roma, who are perhaps the people who are most severely and openly discriminated against in the Western world. Kenedi Goes Back Home, as well as Kenedi, Lost and Found (in which Zilnik catches up with his “star” a couple years after the release of the first film), demonstrate the extent to which the stateless Roma are systematically denied equal status, equal opportunities, or even the ability to settle: Kenedi, perpetually itinerant, is caught between the hopeless, economically dire ghetto environment in which his family lives in Serbia and the constant harassment and inevitable expulsion he faces elsewhere in Europe. Kenedi Goes Back Home focuses in particular on the plight of those Roma who fled Serbia during the wars that devastated the region in the 1990s, and who were, in the early 2000s, being deported from their new homes despite having made lives there for many years (and even raised children with little-to-no knowledge of Serbia or the Serbian language).
Despite this grievously grim, tragic subject matter, the Kenedi films are vibrant works, thanks both to the energy and inventiveness of Zilnik’s cinema and to Kenedi’s great resilience and enormous charisma. A born performer, Kenedi is palpably delighted to be the center of these films’ attention, and he’s at once an entertaining and eloquent witness to his own experiences and to the lives of his fellow Roma.
The Zilnik tribute represented the best of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival in many ways—as a sign of their curatorial acumen in selecting such an important and largely neglected figure to celebrate (the other filmmakers to whom the festival paid tribute included Kornel Mundruczo, Roy Andersson, Ramin Bahrani, and Hanna Schygulla, all of them worthy of celebration), as an extension of their continuing focus on the cinema of the Balkans, and as a more general symbol of the festival’s devotion to filmmakers whose work is at once cinematically innovative and socially and politically vital.
Jared Rapfogel is a member of the Cineaste editorial board and film programmer at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.
For more information on the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, click here.
Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 2