45th Thessaloniki Fest Offers a Thanksgiving Feast of Cinema
by Wendy Mitchell
If only it didn't fall during Thanksgiving week, Greece's Thessaloniki International Film Festival could easily earn a place on the "must-attend" list of festivals. The fest's 45th edition ran November 19-28 with strong crowds and nearly impeccable programming -- the only thing missing was a lot of U.S. industry types who were too busy carving turkeys. Thessaloniki seems to be doing just fine without many Yanks in attendance -- it's just a shame more Americans don't take advantage of this festival (and this vibrant Greek city) -- it could provide the perfect festival stop during the lull between AFM and Sundance.
Logistically, the festival is almost perfect -- its state-of-the-art venues are all located within a five-minute walk of each other, hotels for visitors, and the scenic port area. Thessaloniki is a large, cosmopolitan city (second only to Athens) that offers plenty of amenities, culture, terrific dining and nightlife... but yet the festival also feels like it makes a big impact in the city, not getting lost as festivals in many big cities tend to. It was large enough to feel like a major event but small enough that you knew you could run into a familiar face at festival venues each day. The only logistical problem were unruly, large crowds -- it's great if the festival can sell out screenings, but they need to find a way to have orderly crowd control (I learned the hard way after almost getting squashed on opening night and then having tp crowd in for a space on the floor during the film).
Because the rest of the world doesn't really care about Turkey Day, there were loads of impressive guests in town -- Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, Spanish director Victor Erice, and British helmer Peter Greenaway were all here for several days and gave individual master classes (open to the public, for free!). Alexander Payne came to serve on the jury, Todd Solondz stopped in town to present "Palindromes," Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa attended for his retrospective, Austrian director Gotz Spielmann presented several of his films, including the fantastic "Antares," French actress Isabelle Huppert came to receive an honor, and dozens more guests could be seen mingling at festival events. The public was welcome at interesting press conferences at the festival's main warehouse hangout, like the one when Todd Verow, Solondz, and Spielmann talked about the difference between sex and pornography. Or a rather cranky Kiarostami who said "I ought not judge my own films," or a matter-of-fact Isabelle Huppert, who said she only chooses roles based on her collaborators: "The only criteria for me is the director," she said.
As with any festival of this size (showing almost 200 films, most of them feature-length), one person can't really make a dent in the selections. I saw over 25 films but still missed out on most of the retrospectives. Perhaps I got lucky with my choices, but among the dozens of films I saw, I'd easily recommend most of them, and I saw a few truly brilliant works. The highlight for me was the competition film "Temporada de Patos" (Duck Season) by first-time director Fernando Eimbcke from Mexico. The film was a nuanced story of two 14-year-old boys, Moko and Flama, who spend a lazy Sunday afternoon playing video games... until the power goes out and they have to turn their attention away from the TV. They bond with a neighbor girl who comes to borrow their oven, and they torment a pizza delivery man who shows up one minute late. The plot may sound trifling, but there were some deeper themes at play, although they were handled with an impeccably light touch. Even the choice to shoot the film in black and white was the perfect touch. This film was easily one of the highlights of not only this festival, but also of my moviegoing year.
In competition, the Golden Alexander went to Mohsen Amiryousefi's "Khab E Talkh" (Bitter Dream) from Iran, which also claimed the audience award. The Silver Alexander was split by Marina Razbezhkina's "Vremia Zhatvy" (The Harvest Time) from Russia and "Una De Dos" (One or the Other) by Alejo Taube from Argentina. Fernando Eimbcke won best director for "Duck Season," best screenplay went to Gonzalo Delgado Galiana, Juan Pablo Rebella, and Pablo Stoll for "Whisky," Simon Abkarian was named best actor for "To Take a Wife," and Mirella Pascual was named best actress for "Whisky." The artistic achievement award went to "The Harvest Time" and a special mention went to Ahmet Ulucay's "Boats out of Watermelon Rinds" from Turkey. The FIPRESCI prize went to Liu Fendou's Chinese drama "The Green Hat," and the FIPRSCI jury also recognized Greek film "Delivery" by Nikos Panayotopoulos.
This year's Greek program was large, but I wasn't impressed with the few Greek films that I saw. I tried the two Greek films in the international competition; one of them, "Like Chef, Like God" was a broad-humored, rambling comedy that didn't seem to belong in competition, but the other, Timon Koulmasis' "Before the Night," was a poetic and artful look at the choices made by three headstrong women in different times and places. I also somewhat guiltily enjoyed Yorgos Panoussopoulos' "Testosterone," about a sailor who returns to a small Greek island and discovers he's the only man being pursued by horny women. The film doesn't really transcend that premise, but it was well-done and enjoyable. The Greek selection "Don't Go," an amateur production shot in Thessaloniki, was clichéd and even more amateur than expected; maybe I just didn't get it, because it did capture the audience award for Greek film. Among other Greek titles, the Greek Film Critics Association award went to "CCTV" by Vasilis Katsikis and to "Alithini Zoi" (Real Life) by Panos Koutras. The Greek Union of Film, Television, and Audiovisual Technicians gave its prize to "Nyfes" (Brides) by Pantelis Voulgaris. "Brides" also took many top awards at the Greek State Cinema Awards.
State officials are pressuring the festival to become "more Greek" in coming years, which would really be a shame because its international programming is so strong -- and by showing more than 30 Greek films and promoting them heavily, what more can this festival do without sacrificing its international reputation? One step they've already taken is to add a midnight series of Greek features that are works-in-progress.
While I wasn't overwhelmed by the Greek films, I saw some mindblowing works in the Balkan Survey section, celebrating its 10th year at the festival. Pjer Zalica's "Days and Hours," a competition entry from Bosnia and Herzegovina, should be on every festival programmer's wish list for 2005. The film is a quiet story of a man who goes to fix the hot water heater for his elderly aunt and uncle and is forced to spend the night after his car breaks down. The plot obviously isn't action-packed, but there are a lot of emotional layers explored as the family deals with the aftermath of a son's death in the war. Zalica, who directed festival hit "Fuse," again shows his nimble hand here... this simple story is one you'll ponder for days afterwards.
Goran Paskaljevic's "A Midwinter's Night Dream," was also devastating especially because of amazing performances by lead actor Lazar Ristovski and an ausistic young woman, Jovana Mitic. The film's about a tough Serbian ex-con who is softened when he meets a single mother and her autistic daughter. Another highlight was Srdan Vuletic's first feature, "Summer in the Golden Valley," which despite its pastoral title was a wickedly funny, fresh look at disaffected youth in Sarajevo. Yesim Ustaoglu's "Waiting for the Clouds," about an elderly Greek woman hiding her true identity in Turkey, and seeking to reunite with her brother who was expelled from Turkey in WWI.
I also sat in on a bit of the pitching of 12 projects the second Balkan Fund Workshop, which awards development funds to four script-stage films from the region. (Last year's inaugural winners are in various stages of production.) Balkan fund winners were Svetoslav Ovcharov's "The Only Love Affair Hemingway Did Not Write About" (Bulgaria); Handan Ipekci's "Hidden Faces" (Turkey); Aida Begic's "Snow" (Bosnia-Herzegovina); and Nikos Grammatikos' "The Hedgehog" (Greece). Sarajevo Film Festival co-production Market Cinelink awarded 25,00 euros each to Hanna Slak's "Tea" and Damjan Kojole's "The Dark Side of the Earth," both from Slovenia.
Dimitri Eipides, who programs Thessaloniki's March documentary festival and is well known for his work for the Toronto International Film Festival as well, programmed several dozen challenging international selections for the New Horizons section. Among these, Bahman Ghobadi's "Turtles Can Fly" was my favorite, a brilliant story about troubled young people in an Iraqi village as the U.S. invasion starts. I was also wowed by two English-language films in the section, Shane Meadows' "Dead Man's Shoes" and Pete Travis' "Omagh." Meadows' film, a world apart from his last work "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands," was an unsettling look at a brother seeking revenge on the drug dealers his retarded younger brother had been associating with. Paddy Considine, who co-wrote the script, gives the performance of his career as this vengeful man. "Omagh," co-written by Paul Greengrass of "Bloody Sunday," was a devastating look at the aftermath of a 1998 bomb set off by IRA dissidents in the town of Omagh.
The section was dedicated to slain Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh -- his film "Cool" had been slated to play in New Horizons before his murder. The film was an insightful and compelling look at juvenile delinquents, with some fabulous performances by its non-professional cast.
The New French Cinema sidebar included Lucile Hadzihalilovic's "Innocence" -- even though she's the girlfriend and collaborator of provocateur Gaspar Noe, her film had much less of a mean streak despite its eerie tone. The film explores the relationships of young girls living at a dance school. In the films from the new Argentine Cinema sidebar, I was charmed by Pablo Trapero's "The Rolling Family," a comedy about a dysfunctional family road tripping to a wedding.
Even the most ardent filmgoer needs a break from the cinemas, the video room, and the press conferences once in a while, and Thessaloniki also is a fantastic city to explore between films (too bad it was frigidly cold for a few days during festival week). The seafood tavernas are fantastic and there are an overwhelming number of nightlife options (filled in part by Thessaloniki's large student population). American guests were even invited to a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving if they were feeling homesick. The town boasts a number of museums, scenic squares, monuments such as the 15th-century White Tower, some great winding small streets for wandering aimlessly, or fashionable boutiques lining the main avenues. The festival also offered a day trip to nearby Vergina, the ancient Macedonian capital of Aegae, with palaces and tombs dating before Alexander the Great. Thankfully, Oliver Stone and Colin Farrell's messy take on Alexander was nowhere to be found on screen at the festival.