FESTIVAL: My Big Fat Greek Film Festival; Thessaloniki's 43rd Year
by Erin Torneo
(indieWIRE: 12.04.02) -- For a film festival reporter, it's a cliche to write about the festival you've just been to and call it the "best." But the debilitating bout of jet lag and frightful Olympic Air meal notwithstanding, I'd have to say that the 43rd International Film Festival of Thessaloniki was indeed the best thus far in my festival-going days. And the first thing you need to know about this 10-day festival, which ran from November 8-17, is that four days isn't enough. With guests ranging from Iranian-American video artist Shirin Neshat, to low-brow provocateurs Larry Clark and Ed Lachman (Clark stopped in Greece just before his headline-making trip to the London Film Festival), from Mexican director Jaime Humberto Hermosillo (his sensibility is best described as part Pedro Almodovar, part Francois Ozon, without the set dressing) to newcomer Dylan Kidd and the esteemed Abbas Kiarostami, in addition to the 160 films being screened, there was never a dull moment.
The festival is the cinematic event in Greece; at once an international competition offering cash prizes for contenders, a showcase of world cinema favorites, a market for the burgeoning Greek film industry, as well as a major cultural event offering many ancillary programs to the cinema selection that all drive tourism to and elevate the profile of Thessaloniki. Some years back, the festival moved all its central functions to converted warehouses on the "Provlita" (or pier), which not only pay tribute to the commercial history of this northern port city, but also make it a triumph of efficiency for guests who might otherwise spend most of their days in dark rooms and the rest stumbling through what is actually "all Greek." These reclaimed buildings house the administrative offices, press operations (including a press conference hall, cafe, and a press room so smoky it could fell the White Tower if the historic coastal monument were any closer), two theaters, a video lending library where any festival title is available (sellouts and scheduling conflicts are inevitable in a festival of this size), and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Sixteen films competed in the international competition, and what marks TIFF, notes festival director Michel Demopoulos, is that those competition films are first- or second-time works. So despite the out-of-competition crowd-pleasers like "Bend it Beckham" and "Far From Heaven," which book-ended the festival, the competition films made for a bold, challenging selection of lesser seen work from places like Thailand, Slovenia, Palestine, and Korea. Members of the jury, led by president and festival tributee Marco Bellocchio, awarded two Asian films the Golden Alexander: Japan's "Women of Water," a magical realism-inspired love story, and Thailand's "Blissfully Yours," also a love story. "Bungalow," a German film about two brothers in a love triangle, took the Silver Alexander, and Mexican director Carlos Reygadas received directing honors for his "Japon." FIPRESCI, the international film critics body, also installed a jury and named Alice Nellis' hilarious and sad "Some Secrets" (Czech Republic/Slovak Republic) and Greece's own coming-of-age-in-the-'60s story "Hard Goodbyes: My Father" (Penny Panayotopoulou) as its top winners.
The success of TIFF's New Horizons program no doubt enabled the International Competition's commitment to new or emerging filmmakers. Curator Dimitri Eipides, also a programmer for Toronto, demonstrated his impeccable taste by culling some 35 films from the best of world cinema for New Horizons. Names likes Takeshi Kitano ("Dolls"), Claire Denis ("Friday Night"), Lukas Moodyson ("Lilja 4-Ever"), and Abbas Kiarostami ("10") quickly filled the theaters to capacity, the audience rounded out by young cineastes from the student population that floods the city in autumn to attend one of Thessaloniki's two universities.
This year, the festival also announced the formation of a Balkan script development fund. This fund may prove to be key to TIFF as it seeks an evolving presence on the European circuit outside the big guns of Cannes and Venice. The fund will mine a largely untapped geographical area of Southeast Europe, including Greece, Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, FYROM, Montenegro, Rumania, Serbia, Slovenia, and Turkey, a region it calls "historically one of the most explosive regions of modern day Europe." The fund seeks only feature-length fiction, and in exchange for grant money of up to 10,000 Euros, the festival will get the right to host the film's premiere, in addition to anticipating PR value for films that are completed in part with fund money and later make their way on the festival circuit. The festival already features a Balkan Survey, which screens several films from the region.
A surprising element of TIFF's 43rd year was the refreshing number of female directors represented in the programming, quickly discerned by glancing through the catalogue. Not surprising, however, was the strong presence of Iranian cinema. In particular, the realistic portrayal of women emerged as a trend, with films like Kiarostami's "10" and "I'm Taraneh, 15" which dealt with female protagonists and issues such as divorce, prostitution, and teenage pregnancy. Such subject matter, of course, still ignites massive censorship controversy. ("[Iranian censors] are asking me to cut about 40 percent of the film. Perhaps I should rename the film from '10' to '6,' joked Kiarostami during a press conference.) A riveting discussion of women in Iranian cinema, including jury member and actress Niki Karimi as well as actresses Mania Akbari ("10") and Tanareh Alisdousti ("I'm Tanareh, 15") followed on Saturday. In a related note, a New Horizons sidebar featured a retrospective of Iranian-born American artist Shirin Neshat. Neshat's lush imagistic video, photography, and film work, mostly exhibited Stateside in museums, explores the role of women in Islam. "Glimpses of Iran," a photo exhibit presented in conjunction with the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, offered festival goers dynamic visual insight into Iranian culture, including documentary and photojournalistic coverage of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq and abstract works, among them a triptych of barren trees in a snowy landscape by Kiarostami.
On the more experimental side, Thessaloniki inaugurated its festival-within-the-festival called "e-magic," which presented new media from artists like Jason Wishnow (newvenue.com), Lev Manovich, and Joe Davis that is created for and distributed on the Internet. The online festival will become competitive next year. In addition, for those urban wanderers seeking respite at 2 a.m., the Olympion Theater (in Aristotelous Square) hosted nightly screenings of avant-garde shorts called "Orgasmic Cinema." (And who wouldn't want to come?) Outside the theaters, TIFF offered an exhausting range of parties and trips, including an excursion to the archaelogical site of Vergina and a show featuring Finnish minimalist electronica stars Pan Sonic. The major cultural event not to be missed though, is the late-night New Horizons fete held at Mylos, a former mill turned multi-level nightclub. Up-and-coming actors from the European promotional program "Shooting Stars" danced despite the lack of any official dance floor and an 11:00 a.m. call time for a photo shoot the next morning. Some journalists even opted to go directly from the party to the airport