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Thessaloniki International Film Festival Asks: Do Filmmakers Like Being Classified?

Thessaloniki International Film Festival Asks: Do Filmmakers Like Being Classified?

Unusually warm weather brightened the mood at the 54th Thessaloniki International Film Festival, now operating like a scrappy independent film production, due to crippling austerity in Greece. From Nov. 1-10, a program of 150 films from 54 countries distracted audiences from the debt riddled state outside theater walls, in the northern port city, a cosmopolitan hub second to Athens.

Opening and closing selections hailed from the US, but each had a connection to Greece.  Vampire romance “Only Lovers Left Alive,” by Jim Jarmusch, was produced by Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, and closing family road trip “Nebraska,” starring Bruce Dern, was directed by Alexander Payne, who is Greek-American.

In addition to excitement around the presence of Jarmusch and Payne, there was significant interest in the work from Greece.  Despite or because of the country’s deprivations, new Greek cinema is flourishing, and receiving accolades from around the globe.  Still, the concept of a Greek New Wave was a topic for debate.  An artistic inquiry threaded its way throughout the 10-day event:  Are film movements and classifications a good thing or are they limiting? 

“The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas” by Elina Psykou already had a pedigree when it screened at the festival, with a top works-in-progress prize from Karlovy Vary and other international honors.  It follows an aging TV anchorman who stages his own kidnapping in a desperate attempt to salvage his career with a ratings-boosting comeback.  Pyskou’s fresh take makes her a director to watch along with Alexandros Avranas, who was the talk of the town with “Miss Violence,” a squirm inducing story of incest.  Avranas won the best director Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival for the ersatz horror film, in which a family of victims passively accept their fate.

Both films have been called part of the Greek Weird Wave, a tongue-in-cheek alternative to the term Greek New Wave, but also, a label for a small group of odd films.

“Dogtooth” by Yorgos Lanthimos spurred the Greek Weird Wave when it won a prize in Cannes in 2009 and received worldwide recognition.  “Alps,” the follow up by Lanthimos, along with Athina Rachel Tsangari’s “Attenberg,” cemented the unconventional style.  These engineered films draw from a pool of characteristics such as formal rigor, strict composition, designed physicality, tidy environments, and flat dialogue.  There are insular, patriarchal families with unique rules, peculiar psychology, bizarre sexual practices, and game-like situations.  Odd or surreal stories give the films a quality of experimental theater.  The topsy-turvy world depicted may be a metaphor for Greece in a state of crisis.

Shoestring budgets are a given.  Costs are kept low by hiring friends and sharing or interchanging casts and crews.  These collaborations would explain similarities in the work.  Or, perhaps, the filmmakers are all drinking from the same well.  Other films associated with the movement are “L,””Unfair World,” and “Boy Eating the Bird’s Food,” but the list expands with alternate criteria.

Avranas, Lanthimos, and Tsangari vocally oppose categorization.  People don’t like being classified, and filmmakers are no different when it comes to being placed in a group or movement.  They see themselves as unique and don’t want to be judged together, especially in a category that they didn’t organize themselves.  “I reject those labels on the back of the success of 2.5 films.  Enough with the labels!” said Avranas at a press conference for his film.

“It might have something to do with the Greek personality– they want to be individualists so they deny being part of a group,” said “Nebraska” DP Phedon Papamichael half-jokingly, on the phone from Los Angeles.  The Greek-born cinematographer generally believes that being part of a movement is a good thing.

“During the French New Wave, directors were up against a rigid, established system of making films that didn’t allow for much creative, alternative filmmaking, so it was helpful to have an identity.  In the long run, they changed the industry,” he said.  “The only danger now, is if every Greek filmmaker tries to copy that style because it’s found international success.”

Plenty of new Greek films fall outside the parameters of the new style, and the festival screened work with a more traditional bent, often plainly commenting on society’s ills.  But since they don’t fit into the Weird (or just New) Wave, will these films get their just recognition?  Surely, quality stands out no matter what the type.  In “Wild Duck” by Yannis Sakaridis, a phone hacker’s investigation leads to the discovery of a carcinogenic cellular network hidden in a residential apartment, and evidence of unbridled telecommunications surveillance.  Despite a solid narrative, the conventional approach feels outmoded in comparison to the film’s higher profile compatriots.

The festival’s Balkan Survey celebrated its 20th anniversary with a selection of highlights from past iterations, including– as an early champion of post-Communist Romanian cinema–  Corneliu Porumboiu’s “12:08 East of Bucharest” and “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” by Cristi Puiu. The Romanian New Wave label has united the country’s films with a standout identity for more than 10 years. 

Festival juror and producer Ada Solomon said at a press conference, “Speaking from my experience in Romania, it is important to take advantage of the attention some films draw, because it doesn’t last very long.  In 2013, around 22 Romanian feature films were candidates for the Cannes Festival. Not all of them are masterpieces of course, nor are the filmmakers well-known, but the fact remains that these films travel abroad, carrying the voice of their makers.”

The international jury, headed by Payne, awarded the top Golden Alexander prize to “The Golden Cage” by Diego Quemada-Diez.  The film emerged from a current hotbed of Mexican cinema that Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (helpfully known by the catchy moniker,  “The Three Amigos”) galvanized in the previous decade.  It follows a group of teenagers on a dangerous journey from Guatemala through Mexico, on their way to freedom up north, and also won best director, audience, and human values awards. 

Festival jurors agreed that a few countries in Latin America are the next hot spots.  Will a new “movement” arise?   In addition to those represented in the international competition– Mexico: “The Golden Cage,” Venezuela: “Bad Hair” by Mariana Rondon and Chile: “The Devil’s Liquor” by Ignacio Rodriguez–  other nations to watch are Colombia, El Salvador, and Peru.

Argentina, though, has had decades of solid filmmaking.  New directors may be seeking to distinguish themselves from their forebears in three films that could be called “Argentine Mumblecore.” “Leones,” by Jazmin Lopez, “Night” by Leonardo Brzezicki, and Matias Pineiro’s “Viola” relay low-fi stories of  youth, adrift.  They address a new generation of audiences, but there is no name to the movement, if in fact there is one.

New Wave or no wave at all– which is better?  Do film movements benefit their filmmakers?  It’s anyone’s guess how many cineastes are uniquely attracted to the “weird” subset of recent Greek movies.  And how many more of them will be made?  No artist wants to be dismissed for prejudiced assumptions based on their colleagues’ work.  Nevertheless, a cinematic association gains attention and support through screening series, discussion, academic analysis, and the creation of community.  The tag of a new movement gives the work an identifiable mark as an exciting nexus of filmmaking. 

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

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