FESTIVALS: Greece is the Word; 41st Thessaloniki Spans the Globe
by Mark Rabinowitz
(indieWIRE/12.1.00) --In this most extraordinary of election seasons, it was a rare privilege to find myself out of the country, watching the election news as filtered through the eyes and ears of Greek TV, newspapers, and citizens. Needless to say George W. Bush's perceived intellectual deficiencies are fodder for many Greek newscasts, with many of them referring to him as an idiot and "dumb as a post." Not surprising after "Dubya" referred to this country of nearly 11 million people as "Grecians," instead of the correct "Greeks." However, none of the electoral "Durm und Strang" prevented me from having one of the best festival experiences in my 5 years in the biz at the 41st Thessaloniki Film Festival (Nov. 10 - 19).
When I go to a film festival, I expect that about 20% of the films will be from very good to excellent, about 30% will have something about them to warrant notice, and the remaining 50% will be utter crap. Maybe with a careful overview of the catalog and quick canvassing of colleagues who may have seen some films at previous fests, I can adjust these percentages upwards. But nothing prepared me for what I experienced in Thessaloniki this year.
In addition to the great films I saw this year, I also had some of the best (wild boar stew) and strangest (smoked camel, a flan-like dessert made from chicken) food of my life. The strength of the dollar against most European currencies makes travel to the continent quite economical, and nothing says that like going out for dinner in Greece. A huge meal with multiple courses and copious amounts of booze routinely cost in the range of $15-20/person. After the baklava and Greek coffee, we partied well into the night with the hip Greek youth, who seem dedicated to staying out late dancing to music as diverse as The Cramps, Ricky Nelson and Paul Anka.
Not having been to this festival before, I cannot compare to past editions, but I can say how it outshone my expectations in many ways. I assumed that Thessaloniki was a festival that, along with a large Greek and Balkan program, would program a handful of veteran US films that the Greek audience might not get a chance to see otherwise, and a large number of well-traveled European festival films. While the fest did indeed have many Greek, Balkan and Euro-fare, the US representation was quite limited.
In the competition section, there were only two US entries out of the total 14. David Gordon Green's stellar debut "George Washington" and Athina Rachel Tsangari's "The Slow Business of Going." A few other US pics were scattered throughout the various tribute sections, Jerry Schatzberg's "The Day the Ponies Come Back" had its European premiere and was widely panned by festival attendees, and Woody Allen's "Small Time Crooks" closed the fest.
Now let's get to some of the exceptional international fare served up by the festival. As I said earlier, my usual festival math went out the window, as I stumbled upon one film after another that wowed me on any number of levels. Of course, it's very possible that I was simply lucky.
One of the films at the top of everyone's list this year is Lou Ye's striking effort, "Suzhou River." Winner of a top prize at several festivals over the past year including Rotterdam's Golden Tiger Award, Lou's film (currently playing in limited release in the US) is as stirring and beautiful a film as I have seen this year. As this was the first film I saw in Thessaloniki, I was off to a rousing start. There's nothing quite like the feeling you get when you walk out of a film and realize that you've just been allowed to experience a true work of art.
Following close on the heels of "Suzhou River," I made the ten-minute journey to another theater to catch Baltasar Kormakur's debut feature, "101 Reykjavik." A horse of a different color, "101 Reykjavik" (a FIPRESCI prizewinner) is a gleeful tale of Hlynur, a young man of 28 who simply refuses to grow up. He lives with his mother and spends much of his days surfing on the Internet and his nights drinking with friends in bars and indulging in casual sexual encounters. Of course growing up is inevitable, and Hlynur's adulthood is pushed along by a visit from (and sexual encounter with) Victoria Abril, the local flamenco-dancing teacher who also turns out to be his mother's lover, as well as _rú_ur Vilhjálmsdóttir as Hofi, a doting on-again off-again girlfriend. Blur's Damon Albarn and former Sugarcubes vocalist Einar Orn Benediktsson create a wonderful, eclectic soundtrack as well as the music that can be heard playing on a bar's jukebox.
One of the great surprises of the festival was Fatih Akin's "Im Juli" ("In July"), a joy to behold on all levels. A romantic road picture, the film doesn't break new thematic ground as much as it perfects ground that we're familiar with. The film focuses on Moritz Bleibtreu ("Run Lola Run") as Daniel, a shy and clueless physics teacher trying to get from Hamburg to Istanbul in 7 days in order to meet Melek (Idil Uner), a woman with whom he has fallen in love with after spending only one platonic night together. Complicating this journey is the presence of Juli (the engaging Christiane Paul), a beautiful young street merchant who has fallen in love with Daniel after watching him from afar for weeks. She tells Daniel that she is also going to Istanbul for the summer, and the pair is off. Traveling from Germany to Istanbul by car, truck, boat and foot by driving, hitching and grand theft auto, the pair make their way across Europe both separately and together. The acting is excellent, and the trio of Paul, Uner and Branka Katic as a freewheeling woman Daniel meets on the road are easily some of the most beautiful trio of talented actors I've seen together in years. To be honest, I found myself so completely entranced by Paul's Juli that I would have stayed to watch her even if the film stank. Thankfully, it is a wonderful piece of filmmaking.
Two of the more striking films of the festival also could not be more different from each other in style and substance. Kim Kiduk's "The Isle" ("Seom") is a beautifully shot and directed South Korean film that is also the most disturbing film I've seen in years. Known around the festival circuit as "the fishhook film," "The Isle" takes suicide attempts and self-mutilation to new heights of originality. Suffice to say that while the film is brilliantly composed and is certainly interesting in many respects, it may just cause you to toss your cookies, over and over again. It's also one of the only films I can remember seeing that will certainly not get the "No animals were hurt in the making of this picture" disclaimer.
Makoto Shinozaki's competition film "Not Forgotten" ("Wasurerarenu-Hitobito"), on the other hand, is a gem to behold. Shinozaki's third film is a funny and moving film involving war and regret, life and death, and friendship. Oh yeah. And Cults. "Not Forgotten" uses those themes to tell several interwoven stories involving three generations of friends, lovers, family and neighbors, producing an emotional work of art that borders on the poetic without any hint of being cloying or manipulative. The cast includes the most appealing group of senior citizens since "Cocoon" and a marvelous climax straight out of Takeshi Kitano. Not surprising since the director shot a documentary called "Jam Session: Official Bootleg of Kikujiro" and is touted as being somewhat of a protégé of Kitano's.
Continuing on my theme of outstanding films, Lukas Moodysson's "Together," his follow-up to 1998's "Show Me Love" ("Fucking Amal"), is a thoughtful and beautiful second film from someone who is shoeing the hallmarks of a true master. When I was in Rotterdam at the beginning of this year, I saw "Show Me Love" in the original Swedish with Dutch subtitles. I loved every minute of it, even though I didn't understand a single word of dialog or subtitle, certainly one of the hallmarks of a true master director. Moodysson has crafted a thoughtful and touching story of Elisabeth, a suburban housewife who, in 1975 leaves her drunken husband after he hits her one too many times, and moves into a commune with her brother and his, for lack of a better word, hippy friends. Free love, leftist politics, pot and red wine abound, as Elisabeth, her children and her new friends adjust to living together in an ever-changing world.
My last outstanding film of the festival was Pawel Pawlikowski's UK wonder "The Last Resort," starring Dina Korzun and Paddy Considine ("A Room for Romeo Brass"). Not only did this film win the festival's acting awards for both Korzun and Considine, it also won the Golden Alexander, complete with a prize of over $30,000. This stirring film also won the FIPRESCI Prize "for its calm, cool and amusingly collected, utterly cinematic look at an urgent international reality," the plight of political refugees in Great Britain and elsewhere.
The other big winner in the festival's competition was "Lost Killers" by Georgian director Dito Tsintsadze ("On the Edge"), which won the Silver Alexander and its star Misel Matisevic who shared the best acting prize with Considine. For a complete list of winners, check out the festival web site: <www.filmfestival.gr/index_uk.html>.
One of the most distasteful moments I have ever witnessed at a film festival occurred on awards night. As a journalist attending the festival, I was privy to a list of the prizewinners, which was in my email inbox a short while before the awards ceremony. As I settled into my seat, I found myself between two directors of competition films. One who had won an award, Pawlikowski, and one who had not. As the rest of the audience was searching for a seat, a Greek journalist approached Pawlikowski and, before I could shut her up, told him that he had won the main prize and asked him what he was going to do with the money. In five short seconds, she had stolen a great moment in this artist's life. One which he will never get back.
That sour note aside, the 2000 Thessaloniki Film Festival was a highlight of my five plus years of attending these events, and yet another festival that I now feel a strong sense of attachment to, and will return to, year after year.
[Mark Rabinowitz is a freelance journalist and co-founder of indieWIRE.]