The 2017 Thessaloniki International Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Darragh O'Donoghue
When Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, and their fellow travelers developed an avant-garde cinema that at least partly defined itself against the dominant commercial industry—with its control over distribution channels and exhibition outlets, and its industrial deployment of stereotypical narratives and characters—they may not have foreseen where it would ultimately lead. After a peak period in the 1960s, when underground or experimental film rode the countercultural wave to achieve some visibility, a definite split occurred. Hollywood films were shown in cinemas and on TV, and were later available on home video; were promoted in mainstream advertising outlets and discussed in the mainstream media. Viewers bought a ticket to a film or a copy in one format or another. Underground or experimental cinema became known as artist’s films, and were shown in galleries, museums, and related cultural institutions (this made some sense, as most of these filmmakers were trained and continued to practice as fine artists). In the former model, the producer was the dominant figure, hiring or funding filmmakers. In the latter—and particularly from the 1990s on—it was the “curator,” as much of a huckster as the producer, but one with cultural capital rather than actual money to spend.
This cultural capitalism manifested itself in a global network of state, international, and commercially funded exhibition outlets. Like all professions, an exclusionary jargon developed, mostly derived from continental critical theory in garbled translation, which served to erect an invisible but very real barrier separating those who presented and contextualized these artist’s films, and those who did not. Those versed in this discourse are just as restrictive as the market in what they choose to promote. Whereas the Hollywood model utilizes a bottoms-up approach (tell us what you want, and we’ll give it to you in spades), the artist’s film operates from the top down (this is what you should want, we’ll give it to you whether you like it or not).
The art-house film slips uneasily between these two extremes. It has pretensions to the cultural legitimacy and critical longevity of the artist’s film, but depends on an infrastructure and economy of scale similar to that of Hollywood. As the moviegoing audience declined from its 1960s heyday, and it became more difficult to subsidize increasingly costly art-house films, many filmmakers began to drift to the welcoming gallery system for support. Several of these already had the aura of “Great Artist” conferred on them, notably Agnès Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, Chantal Akerman, and Abbas Kiarostami. This move coincided with the increasing acceptance of film as an art form that could be drawn into an art–historical narrative, with exhibitions on figures like Eisenstein and Hitchcock in art venues such as Modern Art Oxford and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
What has this dubious and philistine potted history got to do with the Thessaloniki Film Festival?! Well, there’s the rub. The film festival has traditionally been the one distinct platform for the art-house film, give or take a red carpet here and a bow tie there. Of course, most festivals act as showcases for critics and distributors in order to make this work commercially available around the world (Thessaloniki is no exception, with its extensive market or Agora), but, in theory, all the festival asks of its audiences is a catholic love of cinema and a willingness to explore. The fifty-eighth edition of TIFF, however, may be a sign of things to come—the apotheosis of the gallery as cultural arbiter, as it swallows up traditional cinema and cinephilia.
This is the second festival directed by Orestis Andreadakis, an art historian who has curated exhibitions and installations, including the Greek Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. The fourteen films in the TIFF International Competition were “curated” (not programmed!) because they fit an imposed theme (the festival, according to its catalogue, “decided this year to select a different way of selecting films, setting as its curatorial compass a complex, multifaceted concept”) purloined from a work of demanding French philosophy, Simone Weil’s posthumously published The Need for Roots (1949). A parallel exhibition, Taking Roots, invited artists to “respond” to the competition films, and was illustrated in a hardcover bilingual volume that called itself a “non-catalog” but otherwise functioned exactly like an art catalogue, full of windy texts written in “translates” [a term for texts that are awkwardly and literally or unidiomatically translated] that tell the struggling reader much about the contributors’ intellectual hobby horses and very little about the films and filmmakers that are their ostensible subject. Of course, the natural response to all this is to ignore it as irrelevant faff and get on with watching the films. Fine; but what if this art world discourse is defining—and deciding—what those films are, and, more importantly, what films do not conform to the current paradigm and therefore are not selected at all? As Andreadakis writes, “we invite you to see [the films in competition] as a singular conveyor of concealed ideas.”
Certainly, most of the new films I saw at the festival were weak, but my conservative preference for older and domestic work, as well as a policy of picking screenings at random, meant that I did not see enough to make a definitive judgement on overall quality. Of the two competition films I saw, one was conventional (Gilles Coulier’s male melodrama Cargo, about uncommunicative brothers in the port town of Ostend; it won the festival’s Best Screenplay Award), but one may have been a masterpiece. Closeness, by Sokurov protégé Kantemir Balagov, was a Romeo and Juliet-type narrative set in a Russian Jewish community in the Caucasus. Ilana (the extraordinary Darya Zhovner, who was awarded Best Actress) works happily with her mechanic father (Artem Tsypin); her relationship with her mother (Olga Dragunova) is more testy—and further tested when her brother is kidnapped, patriarchal succession is jeopardized, and Ilana is proposed as the ransom. The closeness of the title refers at once to the almost incestuous relationship Ilana shares with her father and brother; the intimacy of Artem Yemelyanov’s camerawork, making us feel uncommonly close to characters and locale, maneuvering through compositions lit warm or chilly by available light sources—it is the best use of DV cinematography since the early Dogme and Dardenne brothers films—and the apparently strong familial and communal ties within Jewish and Nard communities (the former of which proves illusory).
But “close” can also mean stifling or claustrophobic; the recurrent scenario of large groups squeezed into cramped interiors points to the gender-crossing and free-spirited Ilana’s ultimate lack of agency within her family and community. The film is not unproblematic: is the characterization of the mother misogynistic? Does the use of cliché (anti-Semitic atrocity videos and the Wandering Jew trope) problematize or problematically reinforce stereotypes about Muslims and Jews? I wish I had the enviable gift of those colleagues who can spot masterpieces at festivals instantly and with confidence. I am not even sure if I admired the film simply because it stood out from the general mediocrity, rather than for any intrinsic excellence. I do know that Closeness was the one new film that stayed with me after the festival.
Like most festivals, Thessaloniki organizes its films into themes, such as Open Horizons, Invisible Hands, Film Forward, and Round Midnight. Another theme running through the programming but not officially recognized as such might be called “Domesticated Sci-Fi”—films with sci-fi or speculative elements but rooted in everyday or historical narrative. The festival’s series of themes hints at this (far more suggestively than the Simone Weil curatorial stuff): a “real” Thessaloniki space, often one already mythologized by tourism, has a frame superimposed upon it, within which formulaic genre narratives (axe murder, bank robbery, romantic comedy, war film) are played out. The comic bathos in these fake scenes renders them “local” and “real” again. One of the genres invoked is the science-fiction movie.
Films that might have fit this putative strand included the charming but overlong Timeless Stories, co-written and directed by Vasilis Raisis (and winner of the Michael Cacoyannis Award for Best Greek Film), a story that follows a couple (played by different actors at different stages of the characters’ lives) across the temporal loop of their will-they, won’t-they relationship from childhood to middle age and back again—essentially Julio Medem-lite, or Looper rewritten by Richard Curtis; Michalis Giagkounidis’s 4 Days, where the young antiheroine watches reruns of Friends, works in an underpatronized café, freaks out her hairy stalker by coming on to him, takes photographs and molests invalids as a means of staving off millennial ennui, and causes ripples in the temporal fold, but the film is as dead as she is, so you hardly notice; Bob Byington’s Infinity Baby, which may be a “science-fiction comedy” about a company providing foster parents with infants who never grow up, but is essentially the same kind of lame, unambitious, conformist indie comedy that has characterized U.S. independent cinema for way too long—static, meticulously framed shots in pretentious black and white, amoral yet supposedly lovable characters played deadpan by the usual suspects (Kieran Culkin, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Kevin Corrigan), reciting apparently nihilistic but essentially soft-center dialogue, jangly indie music at the end, and a pretty good, if belated, Dick Cheney joke; and Petter Lennstrand’s loveably lo-fi Up in the Sky, shown in the Youth Screen section, about a young girl abandoned by overworked parents at a sinister recycling plant, who is reluctantly adopted by a reconstituted family of misfits and marginalized (mostly puppets) who are secretly building a rocket—it’s for anyone who has ever loved the Tintin moon adventures, books with resourceful heroines, narratives with oddball gangs, and the legendary episode of Angel where David Boreanaz turned into a Muppet. It also makes an interesting counterpart to another Swedish film about children cast adrift by their parents, Play (2011), shown as part of a Ruben Östlund retrospective.
The discovery of new and exciting cinema is the raison d’être of most festivals, but for me their great glory is their retrospective programming that honors emergent and overlooked filmmakers and cinemas. The one devoted to Hungarian writer/director Ildikó Enyedi was a revelation. The teenage girl–alien romance of First Love (2008) was actually made for a science-fiction festival, but it is My 20th Century (1989) that is a true masterpiece of “domesticated sci-fi” (or “magical realism”), and so much more. It is one of the great debuts in film history, as formally daring, visually inventive, and thematically complex as Citizen Kane. It sets the story of identical twin sisters (astonishing first-timer Dorotha Segda), separated in childhood, one becoming a courtesan, the other a political terrorist, against the history of inventions at the turn of the twentieth century. Here science is treated as a source of wonder, magic, fantasy, utopianism—framed by sequences centering on a morose Thomas Edison (Péter Andorai), creator of the light bulb and that light-powered art form, the motion picture. This black-and-white film (ha!) is charged with light flooding the darkness. But the force of this light depends on the darkness—the joy in and of the film depends on the shadows (the social constraints on women, for example, or the colonialism and scientific progress that will lead to the slaughter of World War I). Every sequence, every shot in this film is a mini-epic in itself—cinematography, composition, and sound shaped with an intensity across the entire film that is rare in the cinema. In its creation of an enclosed Mittel-European fictional world, and its aesthetic pastiche of early cinema, the film has also been a rich source for better-known, but not necessarily better, filmmakers such as Guy Maddin, Wes Anderson, and Miguel Gomes.
Another retrospective strand was devoted to the recently deceased French Resistant, concentration-camp escapee, poet, controversial theater director, and filmmaker Armand Gatti, whose gruelling Writing on the Wall may seem far removed from the frivolities of science fiction. In the middle of the Northern Ireland Troubles, a Derry youth workshop re-enacts the events surrounding the death of a soldier. In fact, Gatti’s “foreign eyes,” trying to involve a community marginalized, ignored, and/or demonized by mainstream media in both the U.K. and Ireland, was an attempt to imaginatively transform a conflict that by the mid-1980s was being fought with a serious lack of imagination. The then-state-of-the-art surveillance technology of British intelligence now looks like something out of 1960s sci-fi—Dr. Who or The Man from UNCLE—set to Radiophonic Workshop-style music; while the English spymaster expostulates and threatens at great and hyperarticulate length like a Bond villain.
Ida Lupino would also appear to be antipathetic to science fiction, domestic or otherwise. Her films are cherished for their frank, even brutal treatment of subjects and perspectives that were evaded or elided by Hollywood. A highlight of her retrospective was Outrage (1950). The opening credits and the rape scene itself seem to initiate a sadistic “game” of expectation between filmmaker and audience, whereby violence is expected, anticipated—and even desired. This, of course, is the pattern for traditional rape–revenge dramas, especially in 1970s (e.g., Death Wish), whereby rape and the victim are a pretext for male displays of vengeful violence.
What does this famously “strong” female director bring to such a scenario? By putting two narrative modes against each other—one “subjective,” one allegedly “objective”—Lupino honors the victim while critiquing the social, and, by extension, the viewer’s response to the crime. The first mode is the Expressionist fallout of the rape as experienced by Ann (Mala Powers)—through framing and sound design we share Ann’s fearfulness in the spaces she occupies, the threat in any interaction, the suspicion that, having been brutally “exposed” by her rape, she is now on show to everyone. The second narrative anticipates the famous coda of Psycho, wherein a psychiatrist tries to “tame” the unruly “case” of Norman Bates with psychobabble. This narrative is driven by self-appointed male “experts”—fiancé, father, policeman, priest, judge, an almost caricature roll-call of patriarchy’s enforcers—who at every stage know what is best for Ann.
The roots of Ann’s trauma precede the assault itself. Images of women that surround her—photographs of Ann as a May Queen, advertisements and magazine images, fine- art portraits and porcelain—subliminally inscribe an image of what the Ideal Woman should be. When crude reality shatters this ideal, Ann feels that she has failed; the gulf between the ideal and the real is too vast for her to conceptualize and she becomes shell-shocked, a good deal more so than the priest who was injured during the war, nearly losing his faith. Lupino had recently starred in—and is said to have directed several scenes of—Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. Outrage follows that masterpiece’s narrative arc—a traumatized urban dweller is spiritually healed by a confrontation with evil in the countryside. The ending of Lupino’s film, however, puts Ann on a bus back to the site of trauma from which she has spent much of the movie escaping. Ida Lupino was not in the business of easy answers or tidy resolutions.
The real coup of the festival was the From Words to Images: Balkan Literature and Cinema series of films that few self-proclaimed cinephiles will have heard of, never mind seen. They largely date from the 1960s to the 1980s, and most were made under harsh and corrupt communist regimes. Many place accepted heroes of socialist realism—farmers, peasants, soldiers, partisans—in bleak narratives of primitive passions in primeval landscapes. Stere Gulea’s Moromete Family (1987, Romania) is an epic rural family saga from Romania, powered by elaborate sequence shots. A patriarch cannot keep the farm going as a concern, cannot even educate his youngest child, and cannot prevent his embittered sons from violent Oedipal conflict followed by flight; surface naturalism is rent by dream, mysticism, and savage social satire. Metodi Andonov’s The Goat Horn (1972, Bulgaria) is a harrowing fable in the manner of Rashomon or The Virgin Spring; it begins with the elaborate (and gratuitously staged) gang rape and murder of a farmer’s wife in front of her daughter, and continues with prolonged incest and vengeance in dim interiors and provocatively idyllic natural settings. Ante Babaja’s The Birch Tree (1967, Yugoslavia), while sharing the rural setting of the earlier films, differs in the use of bright color, and, despite its subject of a young woman’s death in childbirth, is full of gaiety, laughter, song, and dance. It is the cinematic equivalent of a folk tale, charged with superstition, folk medicine, tall tales, wakes, ribald dialogue, holy fools, anthropomorphism, local costume, and pagan energies.
Unworthy of this company is Grant Gee’s Innocence of Memories: Orhan Pamuk’s Museum & Istanbul (2015). Its narrative was written by Pamuk, and it is the third part of the Nobel Prize winner’s multimedia artwork that comprises a novel (Museum of Innocence, 2008) and a museum in Istanbul filled with “real” objects attributed to the novel’s fictional characters. Now this film attempts to both continue the wearisome metafiction, and provide a Wizard of Oz-like revelation of its machinations. Unlike, say, Seán Ó Mórdha’s films about Joyce, Beckett, or Elizabeth Bowen, however, there is little attempt to engage audiovisually with the specificities of the literary source. Where the preceding films in the Balkan Survey strand were modernist fictions based on literary works, and produced directly under communism, Innocence is a “documentary/essay” that inserts readings from Pamuk’s novel into a metatextual hodgepodge. Though adapted from books, the earlier films were hard-won artifacts or time capsules engaged with the cultural, geographical, and historical circumstances that produced them; Innocence is merely a dilettante’s travelogue through a book, the kind of bland internationalizing, romantic fiction with disposable po-mo trappings that, despite its promise of local specificity, can be transplanted with little difficulty to any place, any time—like Gee’s Identikit style of self-important tracking shots and slow dissolves. The film could be about W. G. Sebald, the London Review of Books, or Joy Division—Gee’s previous subjects. In this case, it just happens to be about Orhan Pamuk and Istanbul.
Stone Wedding (1973, Romania), by contrast, is one of the peaks of 1970s European cinema, and it is a disgrace that film history has found no place for it alongside, say, The Conformist, The Mother and the Whore, or Jeanne Dielman. It comprises two stories, “Stone” and “Wedding,” directed by two different directors, in two very different but complementary tones, sharing settings and motifs. “Stone,” directed by Mircea Veroiu, shows a widow trying to save her dying daughter, and starts out as another slice of Balkan rural miserablism. Its realist components, however—Sisyphean, back-breaking work; dismal, mausoleum-like interiors where the only men loom from photographs; bleak, unforgiving landscapes—are shot through with surrealism. This is not the contemporary ersatz fantasy of Wojciech Has or Alejandro Jodorowsky, but the “everyday” surrealism of Luis Buñuel or Jan Svankmajer, a surrealism that unearths the marvelous in the real, sees the banal anew, and decenters human vision, giving animals and objects the same intensity of “gaze.” This section is rich in unforgettable images—a teenage invalid on a lakeside swing, looking at an abandoned lighthouse, while an obsolete pram with two creepy dolls stands behind her; a doll in communion or bridal dress hanging outside a shop like a convicted criminal; sacred Byzantine images re-emerging under whitewashed shutters and gables; a blind, malnourished white horse standing stock still on a rickety wooden bridge; or a ring-fenced graveyard with crazy paving in a back garden. Foregrounds have the harsh clarity of a medieval woodcut, backgrounds airless like giant back projections; canted or aerial shots make those backgrounds tilt or spill into the foreground, disorienting all sense of space.
Dan Pita’s “Wedding” is more like one of the blacker Czech New Wave comedies. An army deserter joins an itinerant musician to play at a wedding feast. One astonishing scene is shot like an early Edison film—during the musicians’ first performance, they are suddenly, joyously bathed in a burst of sunlight. Later, the deserter puts on the abandoned bridal veil and sings a haunting ballad while his companion escapes with the bride, and the humiliated husband gathers volunteers to execute mob justice. In fact, the entire film is a sort of modernist ballad opera, with Transylvanian songs fused with folk imagery—similar to what Paradjanov had been doing a few years earlier in Georgia, Armenia, and the Ukraine, but with far less faith in the ability of culture and spirituality to transform grim Cold War reality.
If it had been based on a work of literature, Nikos Papatakis’s The Photograph (1986) would have made a worthier entry in this series than Gee’s primer. It is similarly concerned with harsh, sun-parched, rural settings, community violence, rigid social hierarchies, and the relationship of the past to the present. As it happens, it was one of ten films chosen by Dogtooth screenwriter Efthymis Filippou (his other favorites were more conventional, including works by Kubrick, Haneke, Chabrol, Coppola, Scorsese, and Fassbinder). An Ethiopian-born Greek mostly based in France, Papatakis continues to be best known for his extradirectorial achievements—his nightclub La Rose Rouge was a legendary postwar haunt for the Parisian intelligentsia, launching the careers of Juliette Greco, among others; he produced Jean Genet’s exquisite and often-banned short Un Chant d’Amour (1950); he was married to French actress Anouk Aimée and dated singer Nico; he was active in the anticolonial National Liberation Front during the Algerian War, obliging him to move to New York, where he helped fund the reshoots for Cassavetes’s Shadows (1958–1959; he cameos as the passerby who pesters Lelia Goldoni in the cinema lobby). His own body of work as a director awaits general rediscovery, but be warned—it is difficult, visceral, and focused on bodies in extremis, with close links to ritual, performance art, sadomasochistic practices, the Theatre of the Absurd and the Theatre of Cruelty. Gloria Mundi (1976), for example, is almost unwatchable for the violence inflicted on its protagonist (played by Papatakis’s second wife, Olga Karlatos), often by herself.
The filming in Greece of Les Pâtres du Désordre (1967) was interrupted by the Colonels’ coup, which led to a regime of oppression and torture more virulent than anything Papatakis could stage. The apparently more muted Photograph responds to that state terror twenty years later by focusing on the theme of deceit. Two hoaxes are perpetrated on the central character, illiterate émigré Gerasimos (Christos Tsagas), who becomes a hapless Greek Everyman figure. First, a blustering capitalist pockets the remittances Gerasimos sends from Paris to his long-dead foster parents in Greece. When Ilias (Aris Retsos)—recently released from two and a half years’ solitary confinement by the junta as the son of a communist, and still so traumatized that he speaks to himself at night, his method for keeping “sane” in prison—discovers this subterfuge, he travels to Paris to inform his relative. When Ilias accidentally drops the photograph of a famous singer, he impulsively claims it to be of his sister. Gerasimos falls in love and determines to marry this sister, a situation Ilias ruthlessly exploits, beginning a long, painful process of dismantling Gerasimos’s identity. The latter’s deluded spiritual growth is offset by a systematic stripping of his material assets and, ultimately, his own person. Papatakis’s Greece is conveyed by dim, often chiaroscuro lighting wherein black interiors almost swallow up the inhabitants; by hushed voices and tense silences; and by slow-paced scenes with sudden, even slapstick spasms of violence. The apparently naturalistic surface is frequently broken with expressionistic editing and subjective shots. The Photograph is, like all Papatakis’s work, shattering.
These retrospectives prove that the best film programmers do not sell a theoretical or conceptual bill of goods or make audiences feel intellectually inferior. With passion and hard-won expertise, they seek out gaps and forgotten corners in the landscape of cinema history, and report back so that we are all enriched. At its best—as in these retrospectives—Thessaloniki still does this. The history of cinema is in safe hands; it is the present and future we have to worry about.
For information on the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, visit here.
Darragh O’Donoghue, a Cineaste contributing writer, works as an archivist at Tate Britain in London.
Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 2