FESTIVALS: 40th Thessaloniki Takes "Shower," Also Awards "Garage" and "Traffic"
by Stephen Garrett
Nestled at the foot of the Balkans and firmly planted under the sentinel gaze of Mt. Olympus, the International Thessaloniki Film Festival (Nov. 12-21) confirms Greece as a seriously cinephilic country with major ambitions to provide its audiences with the best in movie selections from the global festival circuit as well as a showcase to nurture first- and second-time directors. Thessaloniki, its host city, may be a northern industrial port town with most of its daylight obscured by heavy fogs that hug the coast, but it's also home to Greece's largest university and as such is inundated with a young, vibrant population open to intellectual and cultural stimulation.
This year's festival wrapped up its 40th anniversary by awarding its top prize, the Golden Alexander, to Zhang Yang's "Shower," a sweetly sentimental family drama revolving around a Chinese bathhouse; the film also won the Dewar's Audience Award for Best Foreign Film. The Silver Alexander, Thessaloniki's Special Jury Award, went to the unflinching Argentine torture film "Garage Olimpo," by Marco Bechis, which also won the FIPRESCI Prize for best film in competition. British filmmaker Justin Kerrigan won Best Director for his joyously playful rave-scene romantic comedy "Human Traffic," and also nabbed the inaugural Europa Cinema Award, given only to European films.
The awards also come with a purse: Zhang took home 12.5 million drachmas (about $39,000) for the Golden Alexander, while Bechis won 7.5 million drachmas (about $23,000) for the Silver Alexander. Kerrigan's Europa Award entitled him to 10,000 Euros (about $10,100) towards his Greek distributor in order to help promote the film locally.
Best Screenplay was shared between Atef Hetata for his Egyptian film "Closed Doors" and Laurent Cantet and Gilles Marchand for Cantet's French drama "Human Resources." Sawsan Badr won Best Actress for "Closed Doors," and Jean Pierre Darroussin won Best Actor for his role as the manic-depressive father in Christine Carriere's "Qui Plume La Lune." The Artistic Achievement Award went to Sasa Gedeon's beguiling comedy "Return of the Idiot," and American actor Paddy Connor and cinematographer Terry Stacey won special mention for their work in Ed Radtke's moving road trip drama "The Dream Catcher." The FIPRESCI Prize for a film outside of competition went to German director Fred Kelemen's "Abendland," and the FIPRESCI jury awarded a special mention to Dimos Avdeliotis' Greek film "The Spring Gathering."
During its first 33 years, the Thessaloniki Film Fest celebrated strictly domestic fare, spotlighting the merits of Greek cinema exclusively. But since 1992, the festival, under the guiding hands of festival director Michel Demopoulos, has widened its scope to include international films as well as to instigate a competition for new filmmakers. New this year are facilities designed especially for the festival in a series of handsomely converted warehouses conveniently located on one of the city's active tanker piers and just a short walk from the festival's opulent main screening rooms at the Olympion duplex a few blocks into town. Modernizing its ticket-buying policy has also streamlined the public's ability to see the films, resulting in a gradual growth in attendance which this year reached a record high number, up by 33% from last year, as well as causing consistently sold-out screenings during most of the week.
Despite its age, the festival feels very young and shows it, only able to draw a handful of international cinema stars such as actors Catherine Deneuve and Marisa Paredes, and director Abbas Kiarostami. Pedro Almodovar, who was being honored with a retrospective of his work, declined to come, sending a note that explained, "I cannot master my time." But its intimate size and setting also makes its attendees pleasantly approachable and warmly received by its enthusiastic audiences. Kiarostami, accepting an honorary Golden Alexander award before a screening of his latest film, "The Wind Will Carry Us," gushed to the crowds his admiration for Thessaloniki and noted it was the fourth time one of his films was being shown there.
Unfortunately, its spotlight of international competition films strained for quality, letting in such dubious entries as Carl Bessai's "Johnny," a risible, maudlin effort that was Dogma 95-inspired but officially rejected by Lars Von Trier; and Ole Christian Madsen's "Pizza King," a sort of Danish "Mean Streets" about alienated Pakistanis and Arabs living in the world's whitest culture. Also peppering the competition films were forgettable fare like Urszula Urbaniak's Polish entry "The Junction," Panos Karkanevatos' Greek film "Earth and Water" and frankly weak choices like award-winners "Qui Plume La Lune" and "Garage Olimpo."
Still, the competition did unearth jewels like Alejandro Springall's charming and disarming Mexican film "Santitos," which was overlooked at its Sundance world premiere earlier this year, a dark comedy about a woman driven into prostitution to find her missing daughter. Kosta Kapakas' Greek coming-of-age comedy "Peppermint," about kissin' cousins and their eventual incestuous desires was another notable entrant.
Tributes dotted the festival with aplomb, such as a fifteen-film retrospective of the past twenty years of Portuguese cinema, including Manuel de Oliviera's four-hour 1978 leviathan "Amor de Perdicao" and more intriguing choices like Joao Botelho's 1988 "Tempos Dificeis" and Pedro Coasta's 1989 "O Sangue." Also honored was Italian screenwriter Tonio Guerra with special screenings of Antonioni's "Blow Up" and Fellini's "And the Ship Sails On." But easily the most interesting tribute, at least from an American perspective was the Balkan Survey of films, giving rare cultural insight into recent political turmoil in Yugoslavia, Slovenia, Albania, and Bulgaria, as well as a spotlight on Yugoslavian director Srdjan Karanovic.
Thessaloniki's strength was felt mostly in this kind of fare, giving an international platform to films that rarely make it outside of Eastern Europe. The films' cinematic scope ranged from Djordje Milosavlejevic's absurdist black comedy "Wheels," in which a man confused for a serial killer accidentally ends up killing a half-dozen people himself; to Janez Burger's college slacker picture "Idle Running," reminiscent of the wry, laid-back but politically-tinged comedies of 1960s Polish cinema. But most politically potent was Karanovic's work, particularly "A Film with No Name" (1988), in which a filmmaker struggles to make a movie about a real-life Serb and Albanian in love in ethnically explosive Kosovo.
The strength of the festival's programming was in its "New Horizons" selection, programmed with impeccable taste by Toronto programmer Dmitri Eipides with films that had already made their debuts in festivals like Sundance, Rotterdam, Cannes, Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. Special screenings unspooled this year's hits like "Romance," "The War Zone," "Felicia's Journey," "The Color of Heaven," "Human Traffic," "Shower," "The Dream Catcher," "Following," "Seventeen Years," "A Pornographic Affair," "Luna Papa," "L'Humanité," "Emporte-Moi," "Return of the Idiot," and "Beau Travail." Eipides also offered compelling sidebar series like his "3X3" selection of a certain filmmaker's trio of films, which this year focused on directors Lea Pool, Claire Denis, Allison Anders, and Ildigo Enyedi, giving film lovers a chance to catch up on earlier, less available movies like Denis' "Man No Run" and Anders' "Border Radio."
A special spotlight on Israeli director Amos Gitai gave festgoers a chance to see "Devarim" and "Yom Yom," the two earlier films in his "City Trilogy" which last spring culminated in the Cannes premiere of the much-heralded "Kadosh." Additional sidebars on New French Cinema, New German Cinema, and American Independents showed strong titles like "1999 Madeleine," "Abendland," and "La Ciudad."
Overall, the tenor of the festival was ebullient goodwill, as party after ouzo-soaked party capped each night and showed just how much the Greeks love to celebrate their films as watch them. Slight American resentment hovered over Thessaloniki in anti-Clinton graffiti and protest posters throughout town that painted a Hitler moustache on the president many called the "Butcher of the Balkans," who stopped into Athens a few days before the festival closed for a riot-inspiring visit. All in all, though, Thessaloniki proved an inspired haven for the sort of cultural exchange that film so uniquely provides throughout the world.