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Thessaloniki, Part II: “Fishes” and “Bees” Take Home Grecian Urn of Cash

Thessaloniki, Part II: "Fishes" and "Bees" Take Home Grecian Urn of Cash

Thessaloniki, Part II: "Fishes" and "Bees" Take Home Grecian
Urn of Cash

by Dave Ratzlow

This year’s 39th International Thessaloniki Film Festival once again
proved itself to be one of the Mediterranean’s most anticipated cultural
and cinematic events. Enthusiastic film lovers packed most screenings
of the ten day fest which closed last Sunday after showing more than 150
films. With a particular interest in the American independents,
including Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi” and Neil Labute’s “Your Friends and
,” the mostly young audience poured over the festival schedule,
studying its daily publications and spreading the buzz on good films
with the help of ubiquitous mobile phones.

On Sunday night, during a very dry ceremony that seemed like an
afterthought, the jury handed out awards in the International
Competition which is limited to first and second time filmmakers. The
grand prize, the Golden Alexander which carries a purse worth 12.5
million Drachmas (about US$45,000), went to “Fishes in August” directed
by Yoichiro Takahashi of Japan. Although a beautifully photographed
story about a sexually frustrated young man just out of high school, it
never really sinks its teeth into the inner lives of its characters.

The Silver Alexander worth about US $27,000 was shared by two films,
The Flight of the Bee” directed by Jamshed Usmanov of Tajikistan and
Byoung Hun Min of Korea, and “Buttoners” written and directed by Peter
Zelenka of the Czech Republic. “The Flight of the Bee,” the better of
the two films, follows a poor teacher as he digs a public toilet on his
own land to spite his pompous rich neighbor. The filmmakers artfully
use off-screen sound, voice over and music to tell a sweet, well-paced
tale of pride and social class.

Other awards included a Special Mention to “The Apple” directed by
Samira Makhmalbaf of Iran, and a Special Artistic Achievement Award to
Spring in my Hometown” directed by Kwangmo Lee of Korea. Constantine
Giannaris of Greece took home the Best Director Award for his MTV
influenced tale of immigrant youth, “From the Edge of the City.” The
Heineken Audience Choice Award went to shy-guy French farce “God’s Got
My Number
” directed by Bruno Podalydes who charmed festival staffers
late one night with games, card tricks and funny faces.

With a lot more glamour, pomp and circumstance, the Greek National
Awards were handed out on Monday evening. Theo Angelopoulos
unsurprisingly won first prize for his Cannes Palme d’Or winner,
Eternity and a Day.” Beyond Angelopoulos, most of the Greek films
screened by indieWIRE ranged from fair to bad. “Medusa” directed by
Yorgos Lazopoulos unnecessarily updates the Greek myth with a modern
“twist.” “The Photographers,” directed by 72-year-old institution Nikos
Koundouros (featured at the festival in a retrospective of his work) is
clunky, over-indulgent and dogmatic. “Shores of Twilight” and
second-place winner “From the Edge of the City,” both by young
directors, were the only films that seemed to rise above mediocrity.

To audiences and to the press, however, it was the American films that
generated the most interest. Good Machine brought several films to the
festival under the popular New Horizons section in a sidebar entitled
“In the Shadow of the Beast.” Todd Solondz’s “Happiness,” which will be
distributed in Greece by OVO Films, and Hilary Brougher’s “The Sticky
Fingers of Time
” were among the six films presented. Good Machine
Co-founder Ted Hope and Head of Production Anthony Bregman fascinated
members of the Greek press with indie film war stories in a press
conference dedicated to their company and the six films. In a country
where initial financing and legitimacy comes from an autonomous
government agency, the press was very interested in this indie film
powerhouse and asked questions about financing and international
collaborations. As New Horizons director, Dimitri Eipides put it, “We
are eager to forge contacts with a company who has in a short time been
successful without Hollywood or government money.”

Other American films that attracted a lot of attention were “Broken
Vessels” directed by Scott Ziehl, Lodge Kerrigan’s “Claire Dolan” which
will be distributed in Greece by Zenos Pictures, and Vincent Gallo’s
Buffalo 66” which had people waiting in the freezing rain to see it.
Amos Kollek’s recent domestically self-distributed “Sue” also screened
before a packed house with three people on every aisle step. “The
audience took awhile to warm up,” Hilary Brougher told indieWIRE about
her experience at the festival with “Sticky Fingers” (being distributed
in the U.S. by Strand Releasing). “But they soon got into it and seemed
very interested.”

Eipides said of Greek distributors acquiring American pictures, “We have
a great reputation. Atom Egoyan and Hal Hartley have both been
introduced to Greece through our festival. . ., but so far, no news of
distributors this year.”

Balkan filmmakers made an equally strong showing in a sidebar devoted to
the angst-filled films of that region. The best of which was “Last Stop
” by veteran Romanian director Lucien Pintilie (“The Oak”). The
film features an intense performance by Costel Cascaval who plays a
frustrated rebel without a cause. He falls in love with a waitress
(played adorably by Dorina Chiriac) the same day his draft notice
arrives in the mail. Also worth mentioning are “An Unexpected Walk,”
Francois Lunel’s rewarding yet technically inferior first feature about
a lovesick Bosnian soldier, and “The Wounds” a graphically violent film
directed by Srdjan Dragojevic about two young criminals trapped in the
moral vacuum during Yugoslavia’s war-torn years of the early 90’s. If
properly cultivated and distributed, the mostly realistic, anxious and
meditative films of the Balkan states have the potential to become as
influential as the Italian Neorealists.

Even without news of distribution, for the most part, the festival was a
success. Audiences were receptive to even the most difficult of films,
friendships and business contacts were made every day, and the staff was
very generous. If only Greece could transform its state-subsidized film
industry to create more of the kind of films it admires, Thessaloniki
could rise to the top tier among international film festivals.

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