In a twist of fate, a film by a native of Thessaloniki garnered the most awards at Sunday night’s closing ceremony of the 48th Thessaloniki International Film Festival. “PVC-1,” directed by Spiros Stathoulopoulos, is a thriller made with one continuous 81-minute take, and earned the Silver Alexander, the audience award, and several other honors. The jury looked to China to award the festival’s Golden Alexander top prize to “The Red Awn,” a father-son drama directed by Shangjun Cai. Located in a northern port city on the Greek Aegean Sea, the festival continues to grow under the leadership of Despina Mouzaki, a whirlwind of energy with a charming, elegant demeanor. Variety recently named the 10-day event one of “50 Unmissable Fests” and The New York Times dubbed the city a counterculture center or “the Seattle of the Balkans.”
230 films from 40 countries screened in a dizzying array of sections such as the International Competition for first or second features, the Balkan Survey, selections of new and retrospective Greek Films, and Tributes to auteurs of worldwide renown, such as Mikio Naruse, a little known master of Japanese cinema.
Not surprising in a country with a tradition of striking workers, politically progressive auteur John Sayles was selected to receive an honorary Golden Alexander this year. Sayles and producer Maggie Renzi, his partner in work and life, sat down with me for a discussion in the lobby of the stately Electra Palace Hotel. They occasionally paused to say hello to the various festival brass and filmmakers who were also guests at the hotel.
“This is the first time John’s entire body of work is being screened,” Renzi said, referring the 16-film retrospective, “And they even gave them Greek subtitles.” In fact, all films have Greek subtitles projected beneath the screen, giving me practice in my Greek reading skills. “It’s the story of a man whose life is saved by rock n’ roll,” Sayles said of his new film, “Honeydripper,” which he is self-distributing.
Sayles conducted one of the daily Master Classes at the festival, as did his frequent collaborators David Straithairn and Chris Cooper, and also Danny Glover, star of “Honeydripper.” The group, along with the actors’ wives, were ever present at the festival that is refreshingly free of tabloid celebrities and the attendant paparazzi.
“I find American cinema very interesting and there are a lot of independent voices,” Mouzaki told me during a conversation squeezed in between her presence at almost every significant event. “I think there are more Americans than Europeans now. We want to include them and be inspired by them.” To that end, young American filmmakers such as Craig Zobel, Laura Dunn, and Alex Holdridge were invited to attend the festival with their current films.
It is no wonder that Mouzaki has a soft spot for American independents — as a graduate student she studied film production at Boston University and the MIT Media Lab. She happily reported that Sayles had secured European distribution for his new film at the festival’s Agora market, located in a commercial warehouse transformed into the Industry Centre. Buyers and sellers hold meetings in a huge glass room. The Centre also houses the Balkan Fund, Crossroads Co-Production Forum, and Salonica Studio for film students.
Besides the Sayles crowd, Master Classes were conducted by filmmakers Alfonso Cuaron, John Malkovich, Diego Luna, and Joe Swanberg, as well as Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman Jim Gianopulos who is of Greek descent. Like many popular events, these discussions brought out the worst of impatient attendees who aggressively jostled their way into the overflowing John Cassevetes Screening Room. In this city, art film audiences are not the rarified breed they are in the States. The locals here need their right of way, and even regularly drive their motor scooters through sidewalk crowds. In another cultural surprise, ringing cell phones and chatting marred a screening of Carlos Reygadas’ quiet, breathtaking, “Silent Light.”
In his Master Class, Cuaron tipped his hat to his fellow countryman, calling Reygadas the best Mexican filmmaker. Cuaron’s 26-year-old son Jonas was in town with his debut feature, “Year of the Nail,” in competition. Older patrons fled the theater as the credits rolled, but young attendees stayed to grill the young Cuaron on his technique during a Q&A. He shot a year’s worth of ordinary snapshots of day-to-day life, edited them down, and created a story of young love, voiced by family and friends. Perhaps to give the young filmmaker his own identity, his father neither appeared in the film nor attended his screening. The film won the Artistic Achievement Award.
Also dividing audiences by generation was “Valse Sentimentale,” a competition film from Greece. The love affair of two nihilistic artists has an amateur look, but perfectly captures the punk aesthetic of yore. Director Constantina Voulgari appeared as tortured as her leading character and needed to be coaxed to the stage to answer audience questions by an enthusiastic student crowd.
Is the punk genre having a resurgence? The 1976 seminal new wave/punk rock performance film, “The Blank Generation,” screened at the festival. Director Amos Poe also brought his new film, “Empire II,” inspired by Andy Warhol‘s 1964 eight-hour film of the “Empire.” Using a technique parallel to the young Cuaron’s, Poe set up a camera to shoot out his Manhattan window continuously for a year, and collapsed the time down to a three-hour film. The shell of a former Turkish bath stood in for a theater, with thrift store furniture set up to evoke an old TV room.
Smoking was allowed in the Poe installation, as in most venues other than theaters. In a country where almost half of all adults smoke cigarettes, visitors will find a smoker’s paradise at the festival. This year, at the request of international journalists, the organization instituted a ban on smoking in the pressroom.
Another highlight of the festival was “Correction,” a competition film from Greece that won Best Screenplay for director Thanos Anastopoulos and co-writer Vassilis Raissis. The internal journey of a homeless man just out of prison slowly unfolds to become a nuanced look at Albanian immigrants, as the film explores the definition of national identity.
“PVC-1,” the most lauded competition film by native son Stathoulopoulos, was shot in Colombia, where his family moved when he was seven. The Colombian-Greek co-production premiered at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes this year and is based on an actual event in which thieves attempted to extort millions from a family by placing an explosive pipe bomb around the mother’s neck. Anxious, invasive lensing by the 29-year-old filmmaker makes the viewer feel complicit in the crime as it plays out in real time, in this edge-of-your-seat thriller.
Polished and multilayered, “The Trap” from Serbia, directed Srdan Golubovic, was a standout in the Balkan Survey. Beautifully shot and well written, the classically told story follows a man in a moral downward spiral as he attempts to find the resources to pay for a lifesaving operation for his son. The story resonates as a metaphor for difficult choices made during wartime and how society is corrupted as a result.
“By now you know how to make a successful Romanian film,” said director Nae Caranfil in attendance for a retrospective of his work. “It has to be a small, minimalist slice of life, with very few narrative elements, and seemingly no screenwriting or director intervention, and you could swear that it’s real life,” he said, referring to the fashionable new wave of Romanian films like “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” that put Balkan film center stage.
Caranfil’s new work, “The Rest is Silence,” is a different genre altogether, overstuffed and sentimental. As Romania’s most expensive production to date, the slick tale fictionalizes the true story behind a silent film made a century ago.
In a bit of drama near the end of the festival, the press office issued a statement that Pablo Cruz, producer of Diego Luna’s boxer documentary “JC Chavez,” made off with the film print before its scheduled second screening in Thessaloniki, so it could run at festival in London. Festival organizers were up in arms over the breach, which wouldn’t have been remarkable had the 10-day event been as chaotic as some other festivals, and not as smooth and well run as it turned out to be.