The 50th anniversary of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which concluded on Sunday, was a mix of triumph and controversy. With more than 250 features and shorts screened from around the world and numerous film-related art exhibits and other parallel events, the festival commemorated the remarkable milestone of serving cinephilia for half a century in the northern port city in Greece.
As temperatures hovered around 70° F festival goers took advantage of the balmy weather to throng to sidewalk cafés, but no matter, as many sold-out shows were filled beyond capacity, with theater stairs used as seating.
Not everyone was celebrating, though. More than 200 Greek directors, producers, and screenwriters boycotted the government-supported event in protest of outdated film funding laws and charges of favoritism in the Greek State Awards. The group withdrew 52 films from the festival and thereby forced the cancellation of state awards that select winners from the Greek films in the program.
The protesting group, which originally convened in March and call themselves Filmmakers of Greece (FoG), held a “Greek Film Week” in Athens that preceded the festival and highlighted acclaimed films from the past year such as “Dogtooth” by Yorgos Lanthimos, which premiered at Cannes.
At the festival’s commencement, in response to the boycott, the new culture and tourism minister announced that he would prepare a bill to support filmmakers and local production. The 10-day event kicked-off with “Soul Kitchen,” by Turkish-German festival favorite filmmaker Fatih Akin who DJ’d the opening night party for the third year in a row, to a youthful crowd drawn from the city’s numerous students who make up ten percent of the city’s 1.2 million population.
Legendary German director Werner Herzog was the attending luminary in this year’s edition of the festival, with a comprehensive retrospective of his work-- including rarely seen television projects-- culminating in the presentation of his two new films, “Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans” and “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.”
As befits a filmmaker who has worked in unusual environments, from Antarctica to the jungles of Peru, the festival staged a parallel multimedia exhibit in the Ice Chambers on the docks, a former fish-storage warehouse with many architectural details intact. Named for the debut feature he shot on the island of Kos in 1968, “Signs of Life,” the standout show included stills taken by Lena Herzog on her husband’s recent films, as well as companion projections and videos. The original exhibit was created for a traditional gallery space by the Italian Cinema Museum in Turin, and reformatted for Thessaloniki.
Another notable highlight was a tribute to Pink Eiga (“pink film”). This Japanese genre of erotic film from the 1960s often used sexual fantasies as allegories for leftist political themes. The titles say it all: “Gushing Prayer: A 15-Year-Old Prostitute,” “Woods are Wet,” and “Beauty’s Exotic Dance: Torture!”
Looking towards the future, the festival initiated various gatherings aimed to address “the exact issues proposed by both present and absent Greek filmmakers,” according to the festival’s dynamic director, Despina Mouzaki. Invited guest Sid Ganis, former president of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, held court on the governing of the Oscar awards, and filmmakers, industry professionals, and moviegoers aired their feelings in an impassioned discussion on Greek cinema today.
Mouzaki said it was her hope that most of the contentious issues would be resolved by next November, and that all Greek filmmakers would be on board with the festival’s new policies. Until then, “We are open to contribute with all our resources to the discussion.”
Five Films To Watch From Thessaloniki
1. “The Happiest Girl in the World” is more openly entertaining than many of the films from the current Romanian new wave of social realism. The well-executed work by new director Radu Jude follows an adolescent girl who wins a car from an orange juice company and must participate in a testimonial commercial, but family squabbles threaten to undermine the deal. Hilarious yet believable, the film addresses the universal conflicts of teenagers and their parents while subtly addressing the manipulative power of advertising.
2. Malaysian director Ho Yuhang based “At the End of Daybreak” on a true crime he read in the newspapers. The story concerns the relationship of a young man and his underage girlfriend, both struggling with difficult family relationships. When their parents discover the love affair, their worlds come apart. The film features spectacular visuals shot on HD.
3. An impossible love between a Muslim holy man and his Catholic neighbor in Istanbul becomes further complicated when a neighborhood bookseller comes into their lives in “Wrong Rosary” by first time Turkish director Mahmut Fazil Coşkun. Nicely scripted and shot in a milky palette, the film captures the essence of desire deferred. In a modern environment of antiquated amenities that seem appropriate for the old-time values of the characters, gentle humor and light suspense keep the film engaging.
4. Charismatic new star Harold Torres plays Andrés, a young man attempting to cross the Tijuana border into the United States in “Northless” the first fiction feature by Mexican documentary maker, Rigoberto Perezcano. Andrés is determined to make the trip despite his attraction to a local girl and offers of steady work by an older woman who has designs on him. The two women overlook their mutual jealousy and work together to hide him in cargo, in a startling solution to his predicament. The story brings a clear-eyed humanity to the controversial subject of border crossing.
5. The theme of border crossing is captured again in “Honeymoons” by Serbian auteur Goran Paskaljević. Parallel stories follow a Serbian and an Albanian couple on their journeys to immigrate to Western Europe, with controlling families behind them and nightmarish bureaucracy and racism ahead. Paskaljević’s frequent close-ups are spectacular living portraits punctuating long takes such as the lively wedding scenes, in this drama by a master with a 40-year body of work. The film is the first Serbian-Albanian co-production.
Check out the winners of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival here.