Finding Ancient History (In Town) and Modern Conflicts (On Screen) In Thessaloniki
by Brian Brooks
Although Thessaloniki as a city is eclipsed by its bigger brethren, Athens, to the south, this ancient Greek city, which has its origins in the Neolithic Ages and today reigns as the capital of the Macedonian region, was once the second most important cultural center in the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Remnants of the city's long past are evident in ruins, monuments and in its charming Old Town area as well as a statue in honor of perhaps the area's most famous ruler, Alexander the Great. Perhaps fittingly, the legendary conqueror is now the subject of two dueling Hollywood features by Baz Luhrmann and Oliver Stone.
No doubt the two films, set to star Colin Farrell and Leonardo Di Caprio, will bring renewed 21st century fame to the Macedonian king. But I for one, only overheard one passing reference to the films currently at various stages of production while I was attending the recent International Thessaloniki Film Festival. This festival is resolutely, at least for now, a very international film festival with only minor heed given to Hollywood, although there was a surprise screening of Clint Eastwood's latest, "Mystic River" mid-way through the event.
Of the 14 films entered in the festival's international competition, only one, Vincent Gallo's controversial Cannes 2003 feature, "The Brown Bunny" vied for the festival's top prize, the Golden Alexander. This year, WWII-set Russian film "The Last Train" by Alexei German, Jr. took that top prize, while Italian pic "Il Dono" (The Gift) by Michelangelo Frammartino took the Silver Alexander. The awards were given out in a packed auditorium at the Olympian Theatre in Aristotelous Square in the heart of the city. Throngs of people crammed -- and I do mean crammed -- through the entrance of the Olympian ahead of the ceremony. Pandemonium at the door was actually quite typical throughout the festival as well, with queue control most definitely not a top planning priority.
Argentine director Celina Murga received the best director award for her film "Ana y Los Otros" (Ana and the Others) about an urban-sophisticate who returns to her provincial town. Greece, which not surprisingly featured prominently throughout the festival, took the prize for best screenplay, which was presented to Dimitris Indares for "Gamilia Narki" (Totally Married). Iran also featured fairly prominently during the fest. Director Ali Reza Amini received the award for artistic achievement from the Olympian stage to loud applause for his film, "Danehaye Rize Barf" (Tiny Snowflakes). Fellow Iranian director Jafar Panahi was in Thessaloniki to serve on the jury for the international competition and to tout his latest film, "Crimson Gold." Panahi held a somewhat intimate press conference at the festival headquarters earlier in the week, which as an American, was especially a treat since Iranian directors (and other filmmakers from so-called "rogue states") have routinely been banned from traveling to our "free" United States, especially under the current administration. Panahi, in fact, returned his Freedom of Expression Award given to him by the National Board of Review in the spring of 2001 in protest of his treatment at JFK Airport in which the director was chained to a bench while in transit from a flight from Hong Kong to Montevideo. Panahi was returned to Hong Kong.
Politics is an inevitable subject for any Iranian visiting abroad, and the first question from the assembled journalists touched on the subject of freedom in Iran. "I don't want to become a political director, that is not my intent," said Panahi through an interpreter. Nevertheless, he acknowledged the fact that because his films deal with social issues, the regime in Iran was afraid to release his films. "Crimson Gold" follows the life of a pizza delivery man who witnesses the privilege lived by a few in Tehran and experiences the hypocrisy of the system that keeps it in place.
"The [government's] policies have resulted in the disappearance of the middle class in Iran," commented Panahi on some of the underlying themes of his film. "Two social classes exist now, the impoverished and the economically well-off. The underclass is much larger." Touching on the issue of screening the film in Iran, Panahi said distributors and filmmakers around the world have petitioned the Iranian government to allow his films to screen, "but to no avail, not even screenings for a select number of people."
Dimitri Eipides, director of Thessaloniki's New Horizon sidebar, moderated the Panahi press conference, praising the director for his contribution to cinema. Eipides, who also does international programming for the Toronto International Film Festival, is a true advocate and supporter of independent film. This year, he programmed 35 independent productions from around the world. One particular film that seemed apropos was Julie Bertuccelli's Georgian-set "Since Otar Left." The day prior to the screening of the film I attended, CNN and BBC World gave live shots of that country's revolution, which removed its long-time president Edouard Shevardnadze. BBC World labeled the bloodless revolt the "Velvet Revolution," while rival CNN named it the "Rose Revolution" -- CNN must have won, because by the end of the week, BBC was using "Rose Revolution" as well). At any rate, the film captured the difficulty of life in the country with its moribund economy and unpredictable blackouts that has lead to a mass emigration by people seeking a better life in Europe.
In other programs, Georgian director Otar Iosseliani received a tribute at the festival. The filmmaker, who also chaired the jury for the international competition, had a retrospective of his work during the 10-day fest along with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, Portuguese director Jao Cesar Monteiro, who died earlier this year, and Greek director Nikos Panayotopoulos. Celebrated Canadian artist Michael Snow was also feted at the festival, presenting a collection of his films from his early work, "Wavelength" (1967) to his latest "Corpus Callosum" (2002). Eipides, who introduced Snow at a press conference, called the filmmaker "a revolutionary who took a camera and made art [whose] work changed the panoramic view of cinema." For his part, Snow praised the democratization of filmmaking. "The future of independent production is wide-open," he commented before a group of journalists. "Making and distributing [film] is becoming more and more owned by everybody."
For its part in promoting filmmaking, The International Thessaloniki Film Festival established a script development fund to promote film production from the Balkans region of Europe. Called the Balkan Fund Awards, the festival honored four projects for development financing. This year's winners include "Small Crime" by Christos Georgiou and Srdjan Koljevic (Cypus Greece and Serbia Montenegro), "The Journey" by Artan Minarolli (Albania), "Grbavica" by Jasmila Zbanich (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and "The Coat" by Kutlug Ataman (Turkey).
Funding may yet pose a challenge for Thessaloniki next year. The festival, which also organizes a documentary fest in March, may experience a cut in resources from the government, which is at pains to finance the upcoming Olympics in Athens, according to some staffers. If the crowded, and perhaps a bit unruly, audiences are any indication, however, Thessaloniki will again be the focus of Greece's greatest film event in 2004.