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

Attending the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which celebrated its fifty-seventh edition between November 3rd and 13th 2016, you couldn’t help but be struck by the liberating broadness of the event’s surrounding horizons. On one level, that’s simply a happy accident of geography. The festival’s physical location and layout combines qualities of intimacy and immensity as effectively and enjoyably as any of its main international peers. Situated within a few minutes’ leisurely walk of each other, Thessaloniki’s six main screens—from the showcase Olympion Theatre on Aristotelous Square to the excellent facilities located in the nearby converted warehouses at the regenerated port of Thessaloniki—look out onto the beautiful Gulf of Thérmai. The latter forms an appropriately widescreen backdrop for the festival’s varied proceedings.

Scenery aside, however, it’s the notable curatorial care and choreography behind Thessaloniki that made the festival’s latest edition such a cosmopolitan and educative experience. Not content simply with screening nearly 180 features, Thessaloniki’s organizers assisted attendees confronting the navigational dilemmas posed by this cinematic heft by deftly arranging the program into no fewer than fourteen distinct strands (or twenty-two, if one counts the eight subsections of the impressively substantial Greek section of the event). A comparative lack of closed press show screenings (only thirty-five films in the 2016 edition of Thessaloniki had one attached) also helped to concentrate the mind. In attempting to take full advantage of the festival’s generous offer of five free public screening tickets per day for accredited delegates, the program’s division into detailed thematic categories assisted greatly in the process of making inevitably subjective decisions about what not to miss and what to regretfully pass over. Moreover, Thessaloniki’s privileging of public screening opportunities over press-only equivalents also paid marked social and emotional dividends. There seemed to be no such thing as a sparsely attended screening at this festival. It was inspiring to participate within Thessaloniki’s bravura demonstration of the fact that substantial and enthusiastic audiences exist for contemporary world cinema in all its guises, if only enough opportunities can be provided for such people and such pictures to congregate in the same darkened room.

Gastón Solnicki’s Kékszakállú.

Seventeen features were shown in Thessaloniki’s 2016 International Competition section. Sensitive, and often unsparing, portrayals of discontented, disorientated youth emerged as a keynote of the International Competition features that we viewed. Pick of the bunch was Kékszakállú, director Gastón Solnicki’s audaciously (and justifiably) confident fiction feature debut. Loosely inspired by Béla Bartók’s 1911 opera Bluebeard’s Castle, Solnicki’s serial portrait of young girls on the threshold of adulthood in present-day Argentina is distinguished by a fantastically enterprising and expressive use of a diverse range of found locations. The latter vividly connote both the private anxiety and alienation experienced by the film’s protagonists and the pervasive malaise afflicting a highly unequal and divided national society still processing the convulsions of the extreme financial crisis undergone at the new millennium’s outset.

William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth.

A similarly stylized take on the consequences of wilfully rigid social stratification was to the fore in another International Competition standout, English director William Oldroyd’s feature debut, Lady Macbeth. Oldroyd coolly subverts the fusty conventions of British costume drama, adding emotional cruelty to the crinoline via a tale of frustrated, resentful nineteenth-century English mercantile domesticity that deliberately incurs as many debts to Chandler and Hammett as it does to Austen or Eliot: The Footman Always Knocks Twice, if you will.

Less cinematically ambitious, but comparably emotionally sensitive explorations of young adult confusion proliferated elsewhere in the International Competition. Danish filmmaker Rasmus Heisterberg swapped his screenwriter’s pen (A Royal Affair) for the director’s chair with In the Blood, the alcohol-and-drug-soused story of Simon, a confused early-twenty-something trainee medic whose professional concern for other people’s health and well-being is matched by personal inability to prioritize and protect his own during what is possibly the last summer of an artificially extended adolescence. Elsewhere, Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s The Stopover, a French/Greek co-production that won Best Screenplay in the 2016 Un Certain Regard section of Cannes, also focuses its attention on young adult protagonists caught in a temporary limbo. Central characters Aurore and Marine are female French soldiers on an officially enforced, purportedly decompressing stopover on Cyprus as they journey home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The Coulins’ work explores the extent to which Western powers attempt to exploit digital and virtual technologies as tools with which to sanitize war’s psychological aftermath as well as its physical execution; it also underscores the extent to which the figure of the traumatized returning veteran in popular film culture is most often a profoundly (and one-sidedly) gendered ideological construction.

Rasmus Heisterberg’s In the Blood.

Open Horizons, Thessaloniki’s largest section in 2016 (thirty-nine films shown within it), underscored the festival’s position as a hub bringing a broad range of global cinema to Greek and European audiences and industry practitioners. Notwithstanding admirably accomplished, low-budget social realist examinations of the harsh realities of present-day rural life such as British writer/director Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling and Italian filmmaker Ronny Trocker’s The Eremites, our most memorable viewing experiences within Open Horizons hailed from beyond Europe’s shores. That said, it was only by sampling both European and non-European entries within Open Horizons that a unifying theme comparable to that of young adult experience within the International Competition became visible within this section of the 2016 Thessaloniki program: a collective concern with nonmetropolitan, and frequently deprived, cultures and social experiences.

Christopher Murray’s The Blind Christ.

The Blind Christ

Chilean writer/director Christopher Murray’s The Blind Christ represented a particularly striking instance of this wider current within Thessaloniki’s most recent edition. Michael, a devout young Christian, attempts to salve the excruciating pain of wholesale socioeconomic abandonment—both his own and that of the communities he visits during a heroically hopeful but doomed pilgrimage through rural Chile—by professing sincere belief in the possibility of divine intervention prosecuting a miraculous redemption of collective poverty and monotony. Compared to Murray’s courageously unremitting tragic realism, Kim Nguygen applies a more emollient, but undeniably clever and commercially attractive, magic-realist approach in Two Lovers and a Bear. Arctic small-town comedy steadily gives way to something more tonally complex in Nguyen’s tale of young lovers attempting to escape personal pasts that leave them as ceaselessly exposed in one way as their home town’s extreme northern latitude does in another.

Vatche Boulghourjian’s Tramontane.

Other Open Horizons films hailing from very different parts of the world also explored closely related thematic territory, often relating the latter to physically and/or culturally marginalized topographies. Vatche Boulghourjian’s Tramontane, for example, imaginatively cross-fertilizes emotionally involving melodrama and mystery elements with a thoughtful national allegory. Lead protagonist Rabih, a young, talented, blind Lebanese musician, discovers that he cannot travel abroad to perform because his official ID card is forged and he cannot therefore apply for a passport. Rabih’s investigation into the vexed question of his parentage and the circumstances of his birth leads him to various parts of Lebanon and into the country’s ongoing attempts to process and/or repress its own history in the quarter-century or so since the end of the Lebanese Civil War. Elsewhere, Wolf and Sheep (shown earlier in 2016 as part of Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes) represents the culmination of a years-long labor of love for young Afghan writer/director Shahrbanoo Sadat. Shot on stunning locations in remote rural Afghanistan, Sadat’s film partially (and deliberately) inhabits local oral tradition and folk belief rather than representing such phenomena from a calculatedly distanced, exoticizing perspective.

Shahrbanoo Sadat’s Wolf and Sheep.

Wolf and Sheep

Wolf and Sheep’s festival travels (it also showed at London in October 2016) prior to screening at Thessaloniki illustrates another central plank of the latter’s status as a major global cinema hub for audiences from Greece and much further afield. Refreshingly free from first-screening-only fetishism, and alongside the numerous European or World Premieres that it offers, Thessaloniki also acts as a valuable opportunity for seasoned festivalgoers to access an impressively large number of the most widely discussed and garlanded features screened at other major film festivals around the world in recent months. The desire to synthesize and reflect on key cultural and critical trends visible within the soon-to-end global festival calendar cycle manifests itself across various sections of the Thessaloniki program. Certain of the International Competition and Open Horizons features discussed above, for example, screened at other important festivals earlier in 2016. However, Thessaloniki’s distinctive position as an opportunity to catch up with, and draw conclusions about, the annual festival calendar is most visible of all in the former’s Special Screenings section.

The thirteen films present as Special Screenings at Thessaloniki in 2016 constituted a number that proved anything but unlucky. The Dardenne brothers’ The Unknown Girl, Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, and Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation were possibly the most widely trailed entries in this section, but other films in it more than held their own. Set in present-day Mexico, Amat Escalante’s The Untamed, which took the Silver Lion at Venice in 2016, puts a distinctive mix of nuanced social observation and seemingly generic fantasy and science-fiction elements to profoundly disquieting ends within its study of the psychic and social anxieties that sexual identity and desire are boundlessly capable of provoking. Elsewhere, Slovakian feature The Teacher, directed by Jan Hřebejk, offered a depressingly timely (albeit early 1980s-set) satire mocking a corrupt Soviet regime’s self-centred attempts to exert overbearing political influence far beyond its own national borders.

Amat Escalante’s The Untamed.

But as well as expending considerable energy in order to bring the best of new world cinema to Greece, Thessaloniki also represents the most important film festival with a dedicated mission to bring new Greek cinema to the world. With thirty-one features shown, the festival’s Greek Film strand was second in size only to its Open Horizons counterpart. As with any festival that actively embraces the challenge of promoting and fostering its home nation’s film industry, some of the choices of indigenous films screened possibly performed important local cultural and political functions rather than introducing seminal new works to the international festival and distribution circuits. At first sight, for example, films such as Clio Fanouraki’s Xamou or Sotiris Tsafoulias’s The Other Me seemed to offer technically proficient, but essentially unremarkable, Greek variants on the culture-clash comedy and serial killer movie respectively. Stop to ponder a little longer, however, and both films provided a fascinatingly suggestive portrait of the extent to which Greece’s recent social and political problems, not to mention the country’s longer-term experience of periods of political corruption and oppression, are being collectively worked through by local artists and audiences even within the most commercially focused, genre-driven areas of contemporary Greek film culture.

Moreover, the Greek section of Thessaloniki’s 2016 program also introduced (or consolidated the emergence of) some highly promising new local directorial voices on the international festival circuit. Possibly the biggest native success in that regard was Park, writer/director Sofia Exarchou’s impressive debut feature shot with a range of nonprofessional teenage actors around the abandoned Olympic Village in Athens. While some commentators have been understandably quick to align Exarchou with the purported Greek New Wave and Greek Weird Wave cinematic movements, to our eye at least, her work seems shaped by a broader range of cinematic influences and reference points. Park’s principled investment in the symbolic, emotional and political potential of apparently unprepossessing found locations and nonprofessional actors brings to mind the work of Ken Loach, while the film’s depiction of young adults severely cauterized by economic and emotional lack recalls some of the Dardennes’ earlier features, most notably Rosetta.

Sofia Exarchou’s Park.

Finally, Park’s intensely visceral quality (a consequence of the film’s pronounced thematic interest in sexual and other transient forms of self-abandonment and -forgetting) will interest and engage many of those who admire Andrea Arnold’s filmmaking. Alongside Park, we also wish to make special mention of writer/director Christos Pitharas’s debut feature Bliss as an example of work from a new Greek directorial voice to look out for. An intelligently structured and shot claustrophobic character study of a young woman whose psychological turmoil makes it increasingly hard for her to distinguish between real life and self-persecuting fantasy, the painstaking set and color design that distinguish Bliss were reminiscent of the comparable qualities of Gastón Solnicki’s already-mentioned Kékszakállú.

With any film festival as diverse and extensive as Thessaloniki’s fifty-seventh edition was, there is only so much justice that any short overview can do to the sum total of what the organizers offered up for their audience. Due to constraints of space, this review has left entire and important strands within this year’s Thessaloniki program untouched. It’s worth remembering, for example, that Thessaloniki offers an important window not only onto contemporary Greek cinema specifically, but also contemporary filmmaking from across the wider Balkan region more generally.

Within the festival’s twelve-film-strong Balkan Survey section, for instance, Radu Jude followed up his 2015 Berlin Silver Bear-winning Aferim! with Scarred Hearts, a moving adaptation of writer M. Blecher’s semiautobiographical novel written about the latter’s struggle with bone tuberculosis towards the end of his short life. The Balkan presence at this year’s festival was also strengthened by a comprehensive eleven-film retrospective on the career of Turkish director Zeki Demirkubuz. Two further directorial retrospectives, one covering the work of Philippe Grandrieux and the other showcasing that of Leonardo Favio, offered audiences further chances to celebrate cinematic figures and achievements from both the relatively near and the relatively distant cinematic past. Going by the evidence of what Thessaloniki offered its audience over ten consistently engaging, surprising and diverse days in late 2016, the festival is destined to remain an important global point of reference within the future of film culture and criticism for many years to come.

For more information on the Thessaloniki Film Festival, click here.

Jonathan Murray, a Cineaste contributing writer, teaches film and visual culture at the Edinburgh College of Art.

Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 2