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The Greek Economy Be Damned: Optimism Prevails at the 53rd Thessaloniki International Film Festival

The Greek Economy Be Damned: Optimism Prevails at the 53rd Thessaloniki International Film Festival

Even with the elimination of cash prizes, Grecian austerity did not rule the 53rd annual Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

The late master Theo Angelopoulos was honored with a number of tributes and screenings to mark nearly five decades of work cut short by his death in January from a speeding motorcycle. Aki Kaurismaki (“Le Havre”), Bahman Ghobadi (“Rhino Season”), Cristian Mungiu (“Beyond the Hills”), and Andreas Dresen (“Stopped on Track”) all attended with recent and older work.  

Thessaloniki did much to honor Greece’s filmmaking tradition; highlights included a concert co-organized by the festival and the Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra of “Music and songs for the films of Theo Angelopoulos” starring the director’s regular composer, Eleni Karaindrou, as well as a tribute screening of Angelopoulos’ four-hour, politically charged “The Travelling Players” — a film shot when Greece’s dictatorship was still under power in 1973-4 and only released once the country returned to democratic rule.

Constantine Giannaris, who received a tribute for his body of work and screened “Man at Sea” at last year’s festival, was in town for meetings for his next project,“Kalashnikov,” a story of nihilistic Greek teenagers, that he expects will be funded by Eurimages, MEDIA, and Arte. His socially conscious career was born in the new queer cinema movement of the UK in the 1980s. He then moved back to Greece in the 1990s to tackle controversial stories of immigration.  

“In this economy, new filmmakers are making low-budget digital films with one or two friends who work for a percent. They use private equity or sell some of their grandmother’s land,” the filmmaker said. “It’s a good school for young filmmakers.”

New director Ektoras Lygizos is getting such an education. One of two Greek films in the international competition, his “Boy Eating the Bird’s Food,” follows a starving, unemployed young man who struggles to survive and care for his pet canary. The character study is shot largely in close-up on a handheld camera.  Riveting and visceral, actor Yannis Papadopoulos appears in every scene and becomes increasingly feral and desperate as he devolves into a beast. His trajectory can be viewed as a projection of the Greek crisis. Lygizos makes a living teaching drama and directing classical plays.  

Unlike some of his peers who are seeking Australia, Germany, or the UK for more opportunity, he says,  “I want to stay and tell stories about this society—past, present, and future. There is just too much material here to leave.”

Constantina Voulgaris, director of “A.C.A.B. All Cats are Brilliant,” echoes the sentiment.  “I don’t want to leave Greece because the politics are intense and the situation is interesting.  I wouldn’t want to miss that,” she says.

The charming “A.C.A.B.” follows Electra, a 30ish Athenian artist, in her daily travels as she participates in protests, visits her boyfriend in jail, argues with her middle class parents, and earns a living as a babysitter. The film was made with no budget after promised Greek Film Center and Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERT) funds did not come through. Actors were given gas money to get to the set and otherwise were not paid. Voulgaris maintains a modest lifestyle, directs cooking DVDs, and is working on a documentary on Greece’s leftist Syriza party. She is the daughter of filmmaker Pantelis Voulgaris and sister of musician Alexander “The Boy” Voulgaris, whose experimental short “Higuita,” also screened in the festival’s Greek lineup.

“Higuita” was paired with “The Capsule,” a short by Athina Rachel Tsangari that is evocative of Jan Svankmajer and Pina Bausch. Commissioned by art collector Dakis Jaonnaou, the film traces a group of young women in avant-garde fashion as they follow mysterious rituals in a mansion on the island of Hydra.  

Tsangari began making films at the University of Texas at Austin, where she learned the “American indie film state of mind” of low-budget filmmaking, improvising and relying on friends, as exemplified by her award winning, “Attenberg” which co-stars Yorgos Lanthimos director of “Dogtooth,” a film she produced. She received finishing funds for her last film from Christos Constantakopoulos, a wealthy producer from a well-respected shipping family, who has supported a number of Greek films on the recent festival circuit.  His current project is Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight,” which was shot in August in the Peloponnese region of Greece. Tsangari is a co-producer and Yannis Papadopoulos of “Boy Eating the Bird’s Food” and Adriane Labed of “Attenberg” are featured performers.

At the 2004 Greek Olympics, which some speculate triggered the country’s decline, Tsangari worked on the creative team for the opening and closing ceremonies.  She continues to make a living as a projection artist for commercial and art events, since filmmaking has not yet supplied an income.

Tsangari is philosophical about her home country. “Greek cinema is not indulging in the demoralizing state of society.  There is melancholia. There is betrayal. There is also a sense of desperation with unemployment due to reach 30%,” she says. “But art and cinema thrive in the moment of collapse and it is our mission to be the mirrors of our society.”

Other Greek filmmakers spoke to the political climate of the day. With his usual rigor, auteur Costa Gavras presented a hard reality in “Capital,” an engaging international boardroom drama that follows Gad Elmaleh as a former Goldman Sachs executive whose ascent to CEO of a French bank includes an eroding code of ethics. His rape of an Ethiopian model stands in for the banking industry’s rape of ordinary citizens. Incidents of backstabbing, deception, and greed are all based on true events vetted by Gavras, and imply that the corrupt capitalist system will never change.  

On the flip side, fairytale-like “Papadopoulos & Sons” injects hopefulness and spirit to a dire situation. First-time filmmaker Marcus Markou is a British playwright and Internet entrepreneur of Cypriot descent. His film follows a reserved business tycoon in London who loses his wealth in a financial crisis, and through painful reinvention, discovers the joy in scaling down and running a fish-and-chips shop with his family. Stephen Dillane and former festival president Georges Corraface play estranged brothers who band together in the enterprise. The hilarious film was selected as a special screening for Members of the European Parliament in Brussels this week and could serve as a reminder that Greek people will persevere through austerity.

After 10 days and 173 films, Saturday’s closing ceremony awarded the Golden Alexander top honor sans cash to “A Hijacking” by Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm.  The thriller tells the tale of a Danish freighter that is taken hostage by Somali pirates who demand ransom from the Copenhagen shipping company. Most importantly: A European Union grant ensures that the festival will continue through next year.  

Follow Rania Richardson on Twitter: https://twitter.com/WeekofWonders

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