All eyes were on Greece as the focus of a world economy in turmoil. But on November 4, just hours after news that the country faced a decision to accept a European Union bailout or default on its debt, the 52nd edition of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival raised its curtain with Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” and kicked off a 9 day event virtually removed from the country’s unrest.
As the second city of Greece, Thessaloniki (aka Salonika) is somewhat buffered from the chaos affecting the political capital of Athens. According to festival director Dimitri Eipides, the crisis is less visible in university hub Thessaloniki where 10% of the population is made up of youthful students.
“You see shops shut down because the marketplace is doing badly, but at night people go out for a drink and there is happiness and fun. Athens doesn’t have this. It’s very gloomy and people are visibly angry, with demonstrations, strikes, and protests on a daily basis,” he said.
“Film and the arts are necessary at times of crisis,” he continued, “Because they’re the best antidote to suffering– we need to fantasize or visualize another world. We need the optimism of culture. Our programs are concentrated on independent cinema by young directors, and some have loud voices and clear visions of a world that’s developing, a positive new world. Almost all of our films deal with the problems of daily life in different countries, but they seem to project an energy out of this oppression and anticipate change.”
Socio-political themes were evident in most of the features in this narrative film festival, as guided by Eipides. Now in his second year as director, he also helms Thessaloniki’s springtime documentary festival that he himself established 13 years ago. He said it’s still too soon to see fiction films that tackle the subject of the Greek crisis, as the cycle from production to festival is usually 2 to 3 years. The first films to deal with the subject will probably be nonfiction.
No money for the festival came from the debt-riddled state. It was primarily funded with EU monies, with allocation for the next 2 years. To mount the festival on a stricter budget, Eipides persuaded a reduced staff to work harder and accept salary cuts. Programmers had to pass on a few films from distributors that required high rental fees, but many companies were supportive and waived their fees. Some extras were noticeably reduced or eliminated – masterclasses, a daily festival newspaper, the outdoor iconic steel silhouettes – but in general, the event proceeded as it has, with slightly fewer films and screenings.
Looking to the future, Eipides noted, “This is an ancient country that has survived everything – wars, occupation, total destruction. It’s always managed to bloom again. It might take another 10 or 15 years, but we have to adjust to a new reality and be ready to accept what will come.”
Eight Films to Watch from Thessaloniki:
“The Fire,” by German filmmaker Brigitte Maria Bertele follows Judith (Maja Shone in a stunning performance) as she transforms from luminous to haunting. After being raped by a man she meets at a dance club, she stops at nothing to bring the attacker to justice. The story was mined from real-life experiences of violence against women, in a characteristic trajectory of their emotions.
“Tollbooth,” by Tolga Karacelik from Turkey, is an hilarious work that chronicles the life of a repressed man whose fantasies intrude on his pedestrian days, as he cares for his aging father, he rebuffs a neighbor, and is reassigned from a busy tollbooth to an isolated one 3 hours away from home.
“Play,” by Ruben Ostlund from Sweden, is a highly provocative film that keeps its audience off balance with shifting views of prejudice and racism. Based on a true story of cell phone robberies in Gothenburg from 2006 to 2008, the film follows a group of black boys who taunt and pressure a group of white and Asian boys into participating in their scam.
“Ok, Enough, Goodbye,” from United Arab Emirates/Lebanon, by Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia, follows a 40-year-old man in Tripoli still living with his elderly mother, much to her consternation. When she leaves him, he breaks out of his lonely existence, befriending a mischievous boy, a prostitute, and an Ethiopian maid. Compelling and uplifting, the film suggests that male extended adolescence is not just an American phenomenon.
“Elena,” by Andrey Zvyagintsev from Russia, displays spectacular filmmaking with the tale of the middle aged second wife to an elderly man. She petitions him for money to support her layabout son while he believes his responsibility is to provide for his own wayward daughter, in a riveting interplay of money and power.
“Land of Oblivion,” by Israeli filmmaker Michale Boganim, is set in Pripyat, Ukraine, the city abandoned in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986. The story follows a woman who remains in the area after her wedding on that tragic day, and explores the emotional and physical landscape of the locale.
“Donkeys” by Mexican filmmaker Odin Salazar Flores, is a stylistic marvel, though the narrative could have been more absorbing. Set in 1940s Mexico, the film perfectly imitates the filmmaking fashion of that era, in the account of a rural boy making his way through the world with the help of the spirits, after his father is killed.
“Alps,” by Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, is in the same experimental theater style as his Oscar nominated “Dogtooth.” “Alps” opened in Greece prior to the festival so was ineligible for the official lineup, but screened in the festival’s Agora Film Market. The intriguing and amusing tale has a small group of people easing the grief of families by acting in the role of their deceased loved ones. With a story so oddball, and humor so deadpan, only knowing audiences will be too baffled to laugh.
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