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DISPATCH FROM THESSALONIKI: Greek Festival Celebrates Mythmakers

DISPATCH FROM THESSALONIKI: Greek Festival Celebrates Mythmakers

On a clear day from Thessaloniki’s seaside one can just barely make out the dark shape of Mt. Olympus across the Gulf of Thermaikos, where the Greek Gods roamed in Ancient times. Two thousand years later, on a pier jutting out into the silvery Aegean Sea, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival has made a home where it can celebrate the mythology of modern cinema. For Killer Film‘s Christine Vachon who chaired this year’s international competition jury, “part of the draw of coming to Thessaloniki was being in someplace beautiful.” Against such a striking backdrop, and offering world class hospitality, audiences who are both passionate and thoughtful in their appreciation of film, and awards totaling over 130,000 euros, Thessaloniki should be on every independent filmmakers map of the film festival world.

With over 300 films and 1000 foreign guests passing through during its ten day run, the festival offers a rich treasure chest of film offerings. Despina Mouzaki, the director of the festival hopes that “this festival can become a meeting place for not just filmmakers from the Mediterranean basin, but as a place where the rest of the world can discover the cinema of our region.” The festival is driven by two principle objectives: to discover and promote new talent through an International Competition that is open only to first and second time directors, and to promote film production in the Mediterranean Basin through programs such as the Balkan Fund, the Crossroads Co-Production Forum, and the Agora Film Market. While the industry and co-production components of the festival have continued to grow in importance over the last two years, the festival continues to be anchored by the rabid cinemania of Thessalonikans whose love of film leads to 100% standing room only screenings throughout the festival… and sometimes mobs at theatre doors that you have to wade through like a character in a ’50s neorealist film.

Honored with major career restrospectives at the festival were international auteur Wim Wenders and Czech wizard Jan Svankmajer. Wenders seemed omnipresent at the festival, participating in two separate master classes, several Q&As, a special awards ceremony in his honor, as well as a reception for and exhibition of his and his wife Donata’s film photography chronicling many of Wender’s film productions. Wenders noted, “I’ve been to my share of film festivals and this is one of the ones I’ve enjoyed the most. It is purely about films.” Wenders took advantage of his visit to Greece to travel in this land where “many of our earliest stories come from.” He recounted, “I was going to Athens and the driver mentioned that we were passing the village where Aristotle was born. It sent chills down my spine.” After a decade long sojourn in the United States, Wenders has recently returned to Berlin, and is currently preparing to shoot his first German film in many years. His feelings about participating in the festival were summed up when he said, “The festival is in its 47th year. Where have I been for the first 46? I will definitely be back.”

A highlight of the festival were the series of Master Classes that were free and open to the public. A world class group of filmmakers which included Wenders, Walter Salles, Jan Svankmajer, Chen Kaige, Christine Vachon, Costa Gavras, Lili Taylor, and others entered into a dialogue with the Greek public over the course of the festival. One of the most popular was the master class by Wenders and Salles on the theme of the road movie, a genre that has independently driven each of these filmmakers. The discussion culminated in a special sneak preview of the documentary that Salles is making as part of his preparation to go into production on the long-gestating adaptation of Kerouac‘s On the Road.

One unique aspect of this year’s festival was a number of major art exhibits mounted in conjunction with the retrospectives of not just Wenders but Svankmajer and Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylon as well. Svankmajer’s stunning ‘cabinet of wonders’ in particular created an interesting lens through which to then view his film work, and one can only hope that it will make its way to the U.S. for a tour soon.

The timing of Thessaloniki’s festival during Thanksgiving week resulted in a noticeable scarcity of Americans in attendance at the festival. One refreshing side effect of this is that it helps the festival sidestep the industry frenzy that characterizes other events. In recent years, the festival has instituted a special Thanksgiving dinner for its American guests, and this year those who gave thanks together included American director Paul Gordon, writer Nick Flynn, Lili Taylor, “Taxidermia” producer Gabor Varadi, who came to express solidarity with his American colleagues, and others.

Wim Wenders in a rare quiet moment at the festival. Photo by Hugo Perez.

Among the films in competition this year, Julia Loktev‘s “Day Night Day Night” was much talked about. The film tells the story of a 19 year-old girl preparing to become a suicide bomber in Times Square for a nameless, faceless cause. It moves with a quiet intensity towards the moment of detonation and takes an unexpected twist in its last act. While Gerardo Naranjo‘s “Drama/Mex” (also in competition) doesn’t attain the same level as “Amores Perros” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” it heralds in a promising new voice in the recent Mexican new wave. Interwoven stories are set against the backdrop of a once fabled Acapulco, now decayed into a seedy playground. One of the most striking films not in competition this year was Gyorgy Palfi‘s “Taxidermia,” a visceral dark fantasy that chronicles Hungary in the 20th century through three generations of unfortunate Hungarian men. Imagine Gilliam, Svankmajer, early John Waters, and Kafka melding into one story involving fiery orgasms, competitive eating contests, and taxidermy, and you might begin to imagine what this visually stunning film achieves. It is not for the faint of heart.

No festival is without its flaws and controversies, and this year many critics in attendance felt that the line-up for the International Competition was weaker than in previous years. Additionally, the controversial shake-up which resulted in a change of leadership prior to last year’s festival continues to reverberate with some in the Greek film community prompting one Greek presenter at the closing awards ceremony to comment the festival has grown too large for its own good (the word used by the simultaneous translator was ‘hydrocephalic’). Others felt that while growing pains are inevitable, it was necessary for the direction of the festival to break from its past for it to become a truly international festival.

Outside of the festival, the city of Thessaloniki itself had a lot to offer foreign guests from the savory Greek cuisine, to the seaside promenade along the Gulf of Thermaikos, to the festive nightlife which begins at midnight and continues into the dawn at times recalling scenes from Fellini‘s “La Dolce Vita.” Being an ancient land, there is also access to a variety of historical and archaeological sites, and visiting filmmakers should not miss the opportunity to visit the tomb of Phillip II, father of Alexander the Great, which is located in Vergina to the North of Thessaloniki.

The festival’s last weekend culminated in a performance by Juliette Lewis and the Licks at the converted Mylos warehouse. While skaters rocked the giant skate ramp outside, festival attendees and two thousand Thessalonikans rocked to the pop-rock groove of the highly energetic Lewis who pranced, twirled and leapt across the stage bedecked in her signature feather headdress.

On closing night, an overflow crowd at the Odeon movie palace gathered for the awards ceremony. The night’s big winner was Kim Tae-yong‘s quietly lyrical “Family Ties” which received not only this year’s Golden Alexander award but several other awards as well. Iranian director Mona Zandi Haghighi‘s “Asre Jomeh” (On a Friday Afternoon) received the Silver Alexander. A slow paced and difficult film to watch, it aspires to comment on Iranian society’s oppressive treatment of unwed mothers. The night’s other big winner was recent festival favorite Karim Ainouz‘ “Suely in the Sky,” which received the FIPRESCI Artistic Achievement Award for an international film. “Suely in the Sky” is the intimate and beautifully composed story of an unwed mother who decides to raffle herself for ‘one night in paradise’ in order to raise money to escape her small town existence. The FIPRESCI artistic achievement award for a Greek film went to Angeliki Antoniou‘s “Eduart,” the tale of a young man who leaves his country to achieve his aspiration to become a rockstar only to commit murder and be imprisoned on the road to redemption. In a separate ceremony, “Eduart” also received this year’s State Film Award for best Greek Fiction narrative.

After a week of breathing in the Aegean breeze, dipping in and out of standing room only screenings, alternately sipping wine and espressos late into the night with an international assembly of filmmakers and cieneastes, it is hard to sum up the Thessaloniki esperience. Lili Taylor was asked how she would describe the festival using just one word. After a moment of reflection, she answered “Celebration.”

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