FESTIVALS: Grecian Delights; 42nd Thessaloniki's Programming Smarts, from "Gas Attack" to Orgasmic Cinema
by Paul Power
(indieWIRE/ 11.28.01) — With new film festivals still continuing to sprout up around the globe, an event marking its tenth anniversary is notable. When it’s celebrating its 42nd year, it is a testament to an avid local audience, convivial atmosphere and, of course, canny programming. The International Thessaloniki Film Festival (November 9 – 18), held in the Northern Greece coastal city, has been the pre-eminent film festival in the Balkan region.
Like the city itself, which after centuries as Greece’s second capital was essentially rebuilt after an earthquake early last century, the festival spread its wings ten years ago, adding “international” to its title and scope. Michel Demapoulos, who’s been festival director since its name-change and international focus, has overseen its transformation, while maintaining a delicate balancing act as director of the premier festival venue for Greek films. By law, the festival is mandated to show all Greek films produced that year, which this time round led to a glut of 32 local titles.
The Greek films on display tended to fall into two broad camps: comedy (mainly of the slapstick variety) and intense meditations on life, love, and nationality — often a welcome relief from the jaded “edgy” titles favored by festival circuit critics: heavy on dialogue and exploring themes of Hellenic identity. (This year there were at least three films examining the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and the effects on those who were displaced from their homes.)
Of 154 features and 47 shorts screened, the jury, lead by John Boorman, judged 16 features in international competition. Fatmir Koci won the Golden Alexander (plus a cash prize of $32,000) for “Tirana Year Zero,” a road movie set in ravaged post-war Albania, while the beautifully observed and well-acted black comedy “Hatouna Mehuheret” (“Late Marriage”), a clear audience favorite as well, earned writer-director Dover Kosashvili both the Silver Alexander Special Jury Award (plus $20,000) and the Best Screenplay Award.
In its prepared statement, the jury declared that: “On the whole, content was stronger than form and there was an absence of poetic cinema [and] while many of the male characters were weak, feckless or alcoholic, the women were full of fire, intelligence and love, thus accurately reflecting society today.”
The former statement was true among the competition films, where simple, often near-verite storytelling, particularly in Srdan Golubic‘s “Absolute Zero” (Yugoslavia), Cristi Puiu‘s “Stuff and Dough” (Romania) and Koci’s “Tirana Year Zero” (Albania) allowed films to explain the current lawless predicaments of their countries. However, outside of the competition entries, there was a level of wanton sexual violence that this writer has never seen so much of at a single event, with works such as Claire Denis‘ ludicrous “Trouble Every Day,” a thinly veiled excuse for a gorefest, Ulrich Seidl‘s powerful and dispassionate look at the arid lives of Austrians in “Hundstage” (“Dog Days”), or Michael Haneke‘s “La Pianiste,” which is at least an intelligent exploration of the dangerous results of masochistic excesses.
Other jury awards went to Hsiao Ya-Chuan for “Ming Dai Ahui Zhu” (“Mirror Image”) (Best Director and Artistic Achievement) and, as the jury couldn’t agree on the acting awards, Mayu Ozawa (in Eiji Okuda‘s “Shoujyo“) and Ronit Elkabetz (“Hatouna Mehuheret“) shared honors for best actress while Alexandru Papadopol (Cristi Puiu‘s “Marfa Si Banii“) and Vuk Kostic (Srdan Golubovic’s “Apsolutnih Sto”) were co-winners as best actor.
John Gianvito‘s “The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein” was the only U.S. entry in competition. The micro-budgeted, intensely penetrating film follows three New Mexico residents before, during, and in the aftermath of the Gulf War — a woman whose two children are murdered when Iraq invades Kuwait since they have the surname Hussein, a teenage conscientious objector to the Gulf War, and a disillusioned returned vet (played by an actual Gulf veteran who suffered the same racial jibes and taunts that his Latino character recounts in the film, where his colleagues joked about mistaking him for an Arab.)
Gianvito interviewed 50 veterans for his film — all except two had some form of problems, either physical, or more often, suffering from Gulf War Syndrome. “Although there are three stories here, the mad songs are the background noise to the film, not those of one specific person,” he told indieWIRE. “Essentially, it’s a metaphor for the utterly senseless destruction of innocents.”
“I hope it heightens peoples’ sensitivity about the jingoistic rhetoric and fervor that erupts whenever this country goes to war. I want to reawaken the gravity of peoples’ awareness of what went on during those two months and the profound human misery we were responsible for and was kept from our eyes.” This important film — which intersperses the stories with documentary footage of an Arab musician’s Gulf War concert in Boston — is more a lament for the altered lives of those who remained or returned from the war and sought to pick up their lives, but takes on a new significance in the light of current events.
While Gianvito has captured the zeitgeist through the echo of the last U.S. conflict, the festival had timely reminders of what was happening literally as the films were screening. Mohsen Makhmalbaf‘s “Khandahar” is a deeply moving account of an Afghan woman, desperate to return from Iran to prevent her despairing sister from killing herself at the next lunar eclipse. The chattle-like nature of the women and the amputee legacy of the country’s landmines provided some of the most memorable imagery seen all week. Kenny Glenaan‘s “Gas Attack” was an eerily prescient docu-drama giving a fictional account of an anthrax attack on a group of Glasgow-based Kurdish refugees.
“We tried to make it feel like a documentary, like reportage,” Glenaan told
indieWIRE. “The camera is always behind the action, so it’s always unfolding for the four characters first.” Glenaan and his production team sat down two years ago and asked themselves “what would we be worried about in two years’ time?” They decided to do a film on a biological attack against some of Britain’s immigrants who face constant harassment in their impoverished new communities. “We took as the basis of the film the Tokyo gas attacks and the London nail-bomber and took it to its extreme to see what would happen.” The result is a chilling account of mismanagement and incompetence and the gaping realization that an attack of this nature could happen anytime, anywhere.
Orgasmic Cinema was the title of a new late-night screening series of animation, experimental and underground shorts. “We were given total carte blanche by Michel Demopoulos,” said Athina Rachel Tsangari, co-curator of this sidebar event with fellow CinemaTexas colleague, Spencer Parsons. “This is a festival that has no connection with experimental film, but wanted to get some. Through some populist stuff, we were able to get to show some purer cinematic experiments.” Three programs of shorts ranging from the art-porn of Jacob Pander‘s “The Operation” to Bryan Boyce‘s hilarious Bush-meets-Teletubbies spoof “State of the Union” garnered some of the most enthusiastic and raucous audiences of this, or any festival. All of the films screened have been shown at CinemaTexas, but, says Tsangari, “It’s not the Best of CinemaTexas; it’s more like the Greatest Hits.” Parsons adds, “Grossout, personal, and excessively formalist films all meet up in these midnight screenings, which has informed all of CinemaTexas’ screenings.”
Other sidebars at the festival included New Argentinian Cinema, a Balkan Survey, U.S. Independents, and the continually challenging New Horizons section, where films such as Catherine Breillat‘s “Breve Traversee” (her new musing on sexuality, yet more bittersweet than her usual caustic treatments), sit alongside Disney‘s “Atlantis” and a mini spotlight on the works of Stanley Kwan. The passion of the organizers for the festival is clear in the program; the passion of locals for their films is evident in the high attendance (up 7% from last year).
In an area of Greece, which has served as the crucible for both the conquests of Alexander the Great and some of the nation’s great drama, the International Thessaloniki Film Festival continues both proud traditions.
[Paul Power is editor of docs-in-progress.com.]