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Thessaloniki Sees a Regime Change; Spotlights Newcomers

Thessaloniki Sees a Regime Change; Spotlights Newcomers

“I don’t believe in God, but I believe in John Huston,” Patrice Chereau noted last Tuesday in Thessaloniki, a northeastern port-city in Greece at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

At the modest honorary ceremony celebrating Chereau’s career and spotlighting his latest effort, “Gabrielle“–a mostly entertaining talkathon about a wife (Isabelle Huppert) who nearly cheats on her priggish spouse (Pascal Greggory) in 1912 Paris–the renowned director succinctly formulated a slogan suitable for the 46th rendition of Greece’s main movie festival.

In fact, in the nearly 30 films I viewed over 7 days, the Lord failed to appear even once. Meanwhile, a youthful celluloid fanaticism was apparent everywhere, both on and off the screen. Since the festival mainly focuses on first- and second-time directors, plus with Thessaloniki boasting a student population of over 60,000, this adolescent vigor was not to be unexpected.

The main activity of the fest takes place on a port thrusting into an inlet of the Aegean Sea. Here, there are five film theaters (including the John Cassavetes), a market place, plus a superb video library where you can watch festival offerings on huge plasma screens. Other venues, including the cavernous Cine Olympion, are within walking distance.

Boasting by one count 257 features and shorts, this year’s rather choice offerings were surprisingly pulled together in half a year. According to Variety‘s Melanie Goodfellow, “Greece’s center-right government ended [former festival director Michel Demopoulos‘] 13-year tenure in April, replacing him with producer Despina Mouzaki as part of a sweeping reform program aimed at revitalizing the country’s state-backed film institution.”

As a newbie to this fest, unable to make any comparisons to previous years, all I can say is, that except for the consistently grey weather, Mouzaki’s freshman effort was a bona fide success.

Taking a break from attending nearly every press conference, introducing directors at screenings, and hosting late night dinners, the attractive, petite, leather-jacketed Mouzaki took indieWIRE to lunch to set matters straight.

“I was appointed right before the Cannes Film Festival,” she noted over a Greek salad. “So I flew directly to Cannes. Then it was very difficult to put together the program. Quite a large program. It was also important get a very good jury. I think we did.”

Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now“) headed the jury and included director Lodge Kerrigan (“Keane“) and producer Ulrich Felsberg (“Buena Vista Social Club“) among others.

“I’m a producer,” Mouzaki pronounced, “so it’s always been my job being in difficult situations and trying to come up with solutions. I think I’ve managed so far to have a good organization.”

As for the national press, “everybody was anxious to see the lineup,” Mouzaki smiled wearily. “What would happen to the festival? they wondered. But today, for example, a big journalist on the largest newspaper said it was a better festival. But in general there was a lot of criticism right before anyone knew what I was doing. Remember this has been a festival that’s been around for nearly half a century, and it’s a festival that’s had a lot of success. So I have had to live up to that reputation.”

And Mouzaki feels she’s succeeded in bringing in more buyers, directors, actors and crowds. She claims the attendance is up 50% over last year with a huge rise in attendees in their early twenties.

Her only admitted failure was not booking “Brokeback Mountain.” The gay cowboy saga’s distributor “insisted Thessaloniki is a conservative society, which I think is wrong. But he really thought it would be bad for the career of the movie. He wanted to open it in Athens, which is more progressive. But the audience here is young and open. I think it’s a big mistake. I wanted it as my opening film.”

Aiding Mouzaki was Letteris Adamidis, director of the Independence Days slate “dedicated to independent cinema throughout the world.” His aims: “New alternatives on every level–aesthetic, narrative, political and geographic–and a steady focus on directors who have never been presented to Greek audiences before,” including the likes of Miranda July (“Me and You and Everyone We Know“), Georgina Riedel (“How the Garcia Girls Spent their Summer“), and Andrew Bujalski (“Mutual Appreciation“).

His task was apparently rather difficult. Besides the short time he had to pull together his section, Adamidis bluntly noted in his catalogue copy that getting superior films was an almost Sisyphean task in a “difficult and rather mediocre year for discoveries.”

In his ceiling-less office that begged for soundproofing, Adamidis explained, “I mean this was a difficult year for world cinema. There weren’t enough movies from countries like Argentina or even France. I mean France was a big disappointment this year. It was difficult to find something worth discovering. Generally, it wasn’t a good year for young directors. We saw many good films in festivals, but they were made by well-known directors, especially in Cannes. It was the old guard. But I think that we managed to compile a very interesting selection in order to introduce some talents.”

But was Adamidis going for a certain balance among countries and genres?

“No. No. It just happens,” the 36-year-old instructed. “I don’t think there is a recipe. ‘You take two gay, one lesbian, two from Thailand, one from Turkistan, and you mix them.’ It doesn’t work that way. For example, it was also a mediocre year for gay and lesbian cinema, in which I’m very interested. We didn’t find many good movies worth seeing, but I would suggest for someone to see “Masahista” (The Masseur). It’s a film from the Philippines. It’s not just a gay film, but it’s of gay interest… You know, from the period of new queer cinema in the early ’90s, [the genre] has gone down [in quality]. Now it seems that gay and lesbian cinema has spread to the mainstream so maybe there’s no need for it any more.”

At the Industry Centre, two buildings down, Andrew Chang was looking for acquisitions for TLA Releasing, plus features for the Philadelphia Film Festival and the Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. One of his few bright moments was watching Layia Yourgou‘s “Liubi,” a love story between a Russian girl and a Greek boy. He was far less thrilled with another Greek offering, Eleni Alexandraki‘s “The Woman Who Missed Home.” Here a middle-aged villager allows a younger man to row her away from her much older husband in the search for a new life. Along the way, there are stories within stories, and names upon names, creating mass incomprehension among foreign viewers.

Michael Voon of Films Philos was savoring some coffee nearby: “I’m just here to see what the latest Greek cinema is and other European fare. I plan to catch up on stuff that I haven’t seen at other festivals. Hopefully, I will find something to distribute in the States [as well as] see new promising directors that I haven’t exposed to before.” He added, “Thessaloniki is better for me because there’s less competition [in the market], and we’re a smaller company so we don’t have to fight over things.”

Back at the Festival Centre, which is housed in a huge warehouse, director Ramin Bahrani was pushing “Man Push Cart,” his superb paean to Italian neorealism. “We were in Venice, London, and Marrakech, but this is great. It’s huge to be in the competition. In my mind, in Europe, Thessaloniki is one of the most important places to go if you’re a first- or second-time filmmaker. It’s very big honor for me.” And it was since his film walked away with the Best Actor Award and the James Audience Award, which was worth 3,000 euros.

His “Man Push Cart” is a devastating tale chronicling a former Pakistani rock star’s days as a widower who peddles coffee on Manhattan streets. His dream is to be able to purchase his own pushcart so he can eventually earn enough to buy an apartment where he can raise his son. Beautifully acted and directed, with top-notch cinematography by Michael Simmonds, this effort transforms one soul’s grief and despair into a luminous journey.

Michael Winterbottom was also in town for a retrospective and a screening of his “Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” quite possibly the best film about filmmaking since Truffaut‘s “Day for Night.” Wearing a tasteful black knit shirt that only cost him five pounds, the Brit tried to argue that being considered a world-class director hasn’t changed him. “The idea that somehow things get simpler just because you made a few films doesn’t really apply.” Being a father has had a greater impact on him. “Yes, I’m very mature now. Obviously, it’s a huge factor.” He also noted that the buffoonish Tristam isn’t a reflection on Tony Blair, and that his next film is “The Road to Guantanamo,” a look at the Tipton Three, a trio of innocent British Muslims imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for two years.

Also of note is the Hungarian Roland Vranik‘s “Fekete Kefe,” (Black Brush) an often hilarious tale of four pals, who are hired to clean some chimneys, but instead acquire a goat who eats their winning lottery ticket. The quartet then steals a luxury auto from some Hare Krishna-types, and… Well, why spoil it for you?

From Denmark comes a truly vicious black comedy, Anders Thomas Jensen‘s “Adams’s Apples,” a modern-day take on Job. Here a neo-Nazi is forced to work at a vicarage after being released from prison. He, with a photo of Hitler on his dresser, promises to make an apple pie to display his salvation, but instead tries to make the minister-in-charge lose his abnormal faith in God… ripe for an American remake.

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson‘s “Adam & Paul” is a top-notch, comic, drugged-out buddy caper incorporating a tribute to Laurel and Hardy. This will be an easy sale over here. Imagine a less-populated “Trainspotting.”

A scene from Nikos Nikolaidis’ “Zero Years,” which screened at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

For those into soft-core porn, Nikos Nikolaidis‘ “The Zero Years” is a futuristic tale where four luscious women are government-controlled prostitutes forced to sadistically beat up their clientele. When not working, the ladies crack eggs over each other’s breasts and rub the yolks in, or get raped by invisible children, or have unsuccessful pregnancies every few weeks with blood scattering everywhere. There’s also lots of vomiting… surprisingly only on the screen.

Emmanuelle Bercot‘s convincingly acted, intermittently impressive saga, “Backstage,” focuses on a 16-year-old, neurotic female fan (Isild Le Besco) who’s trying to become part of the posse of France’s answer to Madonna (Emmanuelle Seigner), an equally psychotic personality. When the two collide, the only thing that’s missing is a Kabbalah bracelet.

A hometown offering, Kyriakos Katzourakis‘ “Sweet Memory” is an incomprehensible mess that is still visually of interest. A woman who hasn’t seen her half brother in 25 years returns to Greece from Russia. She’s raped along the way, befriends a little boy and an American saxophonist, and discovers her sibling is a drug addict who doesn’t want to see her. The notes explain that a text by Genet is somehow involved, but I missed that part.

Alexy Guerman, Jr. has to be one of the great finds of the fest. His “Garpastum” (Latin for football) is sensationally cast, helmed, written and shot. The only problem is that the young director slows down the film with an endless flow of soccer games that are at times more numbing than enlightening. The story is of two brothers in the St. Petersburg of 1914, who discover sex, love, and violence as their country nears war.

Edo Bertoglio‘s documentary, “Face Addict,” revisits his pals who inhabited New York’s downtown scene in the ’70s. Many of them became druggies, some escaped to the hinterlands, while others like Debbie Harry, John Lurie, and Victor Bockris achieved a fame of sorts. Sadly, the film focuses on the unsympathetic heroin addict/artist Walter Steding and is narrated by the monotone director. Only when Steding’s parents are interviewed does the film enter “Crumb” territory and momentarily come alive.

Worth seeing because you can’t believe it was ever conceived is Yannis Diamandopoulos‘s “True Blue,” easily the worst gay film released this decade. It starts with a young tot cutting his hand. Soon he’s wearing his mother’s clothing and makeup, getting beat up at school, realizing he’s gay, becoming a dancer and then a choreographer, then a drag star, then a transsexual, and eventually stabbing his mother to death in a baby ward. The plot’s only slightly better than the thesping and helming.

On the plus side are Constantine Giannaris‘ enveloping “Hostage” (an Albanian hijacks a busload of Greeks); Menios Ditsas‘ “Unplanned” (a frightening look at the life of the Gypsy community in Greece); Alberto Rodriguez‘s “7 Virgins” (a hard-hitting tale of everything that goes wrong when a Spanish teen is let out of a reformatory for 48 hours to attend his brother’s wedding); Bouli Lanners‘ “Ultranova” (Belgium’s answer to Hal Hartley); Ahmed Imamovic‘s “Go West” (a gay male couple–one Serb, one Muslim–to escape brutal murder by the Serbs in Sarajevo make believe they are a heterosexual couple. They are so convincing, they’re forced to get married); Turkey’s Kutlag Ataman‘s “2 Girls” (one of the best films of the festival; here two teenage girlfriends–one a pre-lesbian; the other a nymphet–nearly pulverize each other emotionally over a few days); and bound to hit international shores is Carlos Reygadas‘s unforgettable “Battle in Heaven” (an overweight Mexican couple kidnap a baby that dies; guilt, explicit sex, and murder follow).

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