Called the gateway to the Balkans, the city of Thessaloniki (aka Salonica) is perfectly situated in southeastern Europe to host the region's key film event, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which kicked off November 13. This northern port city in Greece is in close proximity to countries with burgeoning local cinemas from Croatia, Romania, Serbia, Turkey and more.
Multi-hyphenated co-productions are not uncommon here, as with "The Hourglass" from Serbia-Hungary-Montenegro. This surrealistic film directed by Szabolcs Tolnai features extraordinary cinematography and sound, and is one of fourteen films in the international competition programmed by dynamo festival director, Despina Mouzaki. Prizes to be awarded at the November 23 closing ceremony will include Golden and Silver Alexanders and a number of other awards, for a total of 84,000 euros (approx. $105,000).
Writer Michael Ondaatje, best known for the novel that inspired the film, "The English Patient," is presiding over the competition jury. According to Ondaatje, "It's exhilarating to celebrate first and second-time filmmakers from all parts of the world." Jury members include "Juno" screenwriter Diablo Cody, Argentine producer Lita Stantic, and actress Emilie Dequenne who made her debut in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's "Rosetta."
Luc Dardenne came to town to accept an award for both brothers, and to accompany a full retrospective of their fiction films, including little-seen "Falsch" (1986) and "You're on My Mind" (1992). On Saturday Dardenne held court for a Master Class, a popular festival feature that allows filmmakers and associates to expound on their area of expertise. Diablo Cody and Cyprus-born British cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos ("Mamma Mia!"), followed Dardenne with Master Classes, as did directors Takeshi Kitano and Oliver Stone, who received honors at their screenings of "Achilles and the Tortoise" and "W.," respectively.
Late night musical performances have festival goers dancing into the night. On Tuesday evening Bosnian director Emir Kusturica ("Black Cat, White Cat") performed with his No Smoking Band. In an unexpected turn of events, Oliver Stone got on stage to join Kusturica for a duet, to the delight of the crowds.
To support local filmmaking, the festival includes panoramas of Greek work in a variety of genres. This year two documentaries take on the life story of a major figure in Greek popular culture-- director Michael Cacoyanni ("Zorba the Greek," "Iphigeneia") and composer Manos Hadjidakis (staple taverna tune, "Never on Sunday").
Now in its fourth year, the Agora Film Market runs concurrently with the festival, for area filmmakers to network with agents, distributors, and programmers. Other initiatives to support the region include the Balkan Fund for script development. A 2004 recipient of this grant, Aida Begic's debut feature, "Snow," won a prize at Cannes earlier this year and screens in the festival's Balkan Survey. The Bosnia-Herzegovina-French-German-Iranian co-production recounts the story of a young woman and her fellow villagers trying to survive in a frozen, war-ravaged community.
Of interest to film students and cineastes are the sophisticated publications in both Greek and English, that accompany film sections. This years offerings include, "Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne," "Ousmane Sembene," and "Manos Zakharias, the Traveller of Memory."
With two local universities, a substantial portion of attendees are young. In fact, students comprise ten percent of the city's 1.2 million population. It's not surprising that academic interest and scholarly focus get emphasized over late-night negotiations and red carpets. This makes Thessaloniki ahead of the curve in a period of global economic crisis and back-to-basics movement. The atmosphere here is a satisfying one of artistic significance and heft, not a carnival of gossip and paparazzi.