55th Thessaloniki International Film Festival 1914–2014: 100 Years of Greek Cinema
October 31–November 9, 2014
Aristotelous Square in the heart of the city of Thessaloniki is home to the Olympion movie theater and the Pavlos Zannas Cinema five floors above it (the latter named for the founder of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, or TIFF). There, large stray dogs roam among the pigeons, curl up, and doze; the more aggressive and adventurous ones chase after cars at night. They strut along the Thermaic Gulf waterfront, sniffing street vendor stalls hawking sesame seed-coated koulouri, and entering the dock warehouse area enlivened by temporary festival headquarters and four bustling cinemas with names memorializing Greek-American auteur John Cassavetes, actor-director Stavros Tornes, and director-screenwriters Tonia Marketaki and Frida Liappa. American independent filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, whose work was featured in the 2014 festival’s Tribute section, was inspired to make a short film about Thessaloniki’s canine denizens during a previous visit to the city for the 46th Thessaloniki International Film Festival with his breakout feature Man Push Cart (2005), which won two TIFF prizes, including a treasured Audience Award. A proponent of the endurance of cinephilia, Bahrani emphasized the humanizing cultural importance of film festivals and audiences and impassioned and thoughtfully observed cinema and criticism during his 2014 return visit to Thessaloniki.
In a Greek economy metaphorically gone to the dogs in the wake of financial crisis and government debt, the fifty-fifth installment of TIFF, the Greek cinema centennial edition, was marked by a determination to keep film culture alive. De-glammed and downscaled budget-wise in recent years, the festival felt celebratory despite fiscal restraint, as a wedding of an international festival with an emphasis on independent filmmaking from the Balkan region and a showcase of Greek cinema on its one-hundredth anniversary. It is the dog’s tooth and bite—or more precisely, excitement about bracingly inventive low-budget crisis-era Greek films like Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth (2009)—that drew me to this festival in Northern Greece/Macedonia/Southeastern Europe. Reemphasizing Greek cinema with more extensive screenings, the 55th TIFF returned to its roots, as the festival originated as a week of Greek cinema in 1960. It has included an international competition since 1992, and vies with the younger Sarajevo Film Festival for the status of premier film event in the region. Thessaloniki also hosts a separate documentary film festival in the spring, heading into its seventeenth installment in 2015.
TIFF is largely narrative-centric, with few world premieres of international films. The festival opener, the Hungarian-Swedish-German co-production White God (2014, directed by Kornél Mundruczó) came with preexisting laurels from the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, the Prix Un Certain Regard, and the “Palm Dog” for its impressive canine cast. Technically stunning (particularly with regard to the direction of the dog performances and use of special effects), White God’s girl-and-her-dog fable, referencing Samuel Fuller’s White Dog (1982) without its specific trenchant social criticism, is generically and tonally ambiguous, shuttling between family melodrama, coming-of-age story, and full-on dog attack horror. Mundruczó’s audacity was also demonstrated by earlier outings like his grim junkie sex-healer musical Johanna (2005), also shown in Thessaloniki as part of the director’s Tribute program. In addition to recognizing early and mid-career talent like Bahrani and Mundruczó, the Tribute section traversed generations by honoring dynamic septuagenarians like Swedish director Roy Andersson—who, like Mundruczó, sent a videotaped greeting for his closing night film, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), Venice Golden Lion winner for best film.
Thirty-six Greek films were screened at the 55th TIFF, an eclectic twenty of these selected from a list of two hundred titles via an online poll. These included, finally, Dogtooth, a film that was not shown at the 50th Thessaloniki Festival in 2009 because of a mass filmmaker boycott of the festival that year in protest of state film policy. This year, dissenting views seemed more of an amorphous undercurrent. A few Greek filmmakers I spoke with were cautious about publicly expressing discontent with state organizations, and several Greek critics I met were skeptical about local films that had not already been validated by festivals abroad. A handful of honorary award speeches and press screenings were met with heckling for expressions of conservative patriotism or anti-governmental stridency.
The warmly received Little England (2013) was Best Film winner at the 2014 Hellenic Film Academy Awards and won the Golden Goblet Award for Best Feature Film at the Shanghai International Film Festival, and is Greece’s submission this year for the Best Foreign Language Film for the (American) Academy Awards. Directed by Pantelis Voulgaris with a screenplay adapted by his wife Ioanna Karystiani from her Greek National Book Award–winning novel, the film represents a return to more traditional heritage fare. As Greek women filmmakers were relatively underrepresented at Thessaloniki, it was intriguing to also view The Price of Love (1983); written and directed by the late Tonia Marketaki and set in nineteenth-century Corfu, this is another historically minded women’s film with thematic parallels—love, money, family, marriage, and societal expectations—but with an arguably more feminist outlook. Two years on from the death of Greece’s most acclaimed filmmaker, Theo Angelopoulos, his widow and the producer of six of his films, Phoebe Economopoulos, introduced the exquisitely constructed and politically astute The Travelling Players (1975) to a fairly small audience, wistfully recalling the crowded inaugural screening of the movie in Greece. The screening was followed by prolonged applause—multiple times. The film won the International Film Critics Award at Cannes in 1975, as well as a sweep of awards from the Greek Critics Association Awards at the TIFF. (Economopoulos later informed me that securing Region 1 DVD distribution of all of Angelopoulos’s films in North America is a desirable but currently logistically and emotionally daunting goal.)
One downfall of the popular poll approach to selecting the best films from the past century of Greek cinema is that almost all those chosen were from the past decade (only one film from the 1930s, and three from the 1950s). The implication is that poll-takers were somehow not invested in, or did not know, the earlier titles; and this resulted in programming lacunae. To the festival’s credit, Social Decay (1932, directed by Stelios Tatasopoulos) was given special treatment with live musical accompaniment. As an external resource, the nearby Cinema Museum of Thessaloniki creates a cogent narrative of Greek cinema from its pre-cinematic beginnings, through chronologically organized exhibition rooms complete with voiced-over video, archival footage, film clips, movie artifacts, computer touch screens with hypertextual information, wall text, and bilingual pamphlet materials. The museum’s version of the Greek film story reiterates struggle throughout history to express distinct themes, voices, and audiovisual vocabulary.
The remaining Greek films shown in Thessaloniki were from 2014, with two Greek titles in the International Competition section. Standouts included the ambitious and risk-taking Norway, Polk, and Forget Me Not. Norway (written and directed by Yiannis Veslemes, who also was responsible for the music, production design, and art direction) a stylishly bizarre disco vampire film set in 1980s Athens, proved a crowd-pleaser and a Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique (FIPRESCI) jury favorite, winning in the Greek Films 2014 category. World premiere Polk (co-directed and co-scripted by Nikos Nikolopoulos and Vladimiros Nikolouzos, who also share credits for cinematography, editing, and art direction) challenged the audience with its mesmerizing exploration of time and memory. (At the premiere, the long and beautiful single-take opening-shot sunset over water was met with an audibly mixed audience reaction of appreciation and frustration.) Polk was recognized with a FIPRESCI special mention award for its highly imaginative approach to history, literature, and film language; and it deserves a global festival and distribution life after its Thessaloniki debut. In addition to its meticulous artistry, Polk is also noteworthy for its local relevance, revisiting the mysterious murder of American journalist George Washington Polk in Thessaloniki during the Greek Civil War in 1948. A ten-year labor of love and a follow up to an award-winning feature debut, Forget Me Not (directed and scripted by Yannis Fagras) is a rather awe-inspiring road—and, mainly, sea—movie shot mostly in Alaska and the Bering Strait. While Fagras’s earlier film, Still Looking for Morphine (2001) was a DIY digital trailblazer in Greece (included in Thessaloniki’s Greek cinema tribute), Forget Me Not is a masterful 35mm filmmaking odyssey that, given the small crew and remote locations, feels singularly personal and perilous.
Taking this year’s Greek Film Critics Association Award in Thessaloniki after an earlier showing in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Greek, German, and Cypriot co-production Stratos (2014, written and directed by Cyprus-born Yannis Economides) is an accomplished noir with a lived-in lead performance by veteran Greek actor Vangelis Mourikis as the world-weary hit man. Another film that benefitted from co-financing is the Latvian/German/Greek Modris (2014, written and directed by Juris Kursietis), a drama about a gambling-addicted teen, with a particularly affecting denouement. (An apt counterpart is Croatian writer/director Ognjen Sviličić’s heartbreaking 2014 film These Are the Rules, a co-production of Croatia/France/Serbia/Republic of Macedonia, a study of parental grief and resignation, inspired by real-life events involving teen crime and loss.) The Bulgarian/Greek The Lesson (2014), co-directed and co-scripted by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, crafts an ingeniously gripping tale, sparked by a newspaper headline about a provincial schoolteacher (perfectly played by Margita Gosheva) on the brink of financial ruin and driven to desperation. The Lesson premiered at Toronto and won the Best Screenplay award and the Bronze Alexander special jury award for originality and innovation at Thessaloniki.
Virtuoso manipulation of silence and/or stillness were hallmarks of the shockingly brutal Ukrainian youth drama The Tribe (2014), its dialogue entirely in sign language without subtitles, which was well received at Cannes and singled out for Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s direction by Thessaloniki’s international jury, and the extraordinary black-and-white tableaux vivants of Estonian filmmaker Martti Helde’s Siberia-set In the Crosswind (2014), winning an Artistic Achievement award at Thessaloniki after a Toronto debut.
I found the Thessaloniki’s Balkan Survey program amazingly rich, and deeply appreciated the immersive opportunity to dive into Serbian filmmaker Želimir Žilnik’s wise and socially committed fictional realism through career-spanning programs of his shorts and features. The Balkan Shorts program was also qualitatively excellent, with three live-action narratives from Romania, and one apiece from Serbia and Turkey, as well as a Croatian animation. Turkey/Germany co-productions previously shown in Berlin and Venice respectively—The Lamb (2014, written and directed by London-based Kutluğ Ataman, recently a top prize winner at the 51st Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival in Turkey) and Sivas (2014, written and directed by first-time filmmaker Kaan Müjdeci)—were disparate, though both sharply realized, neo-neorealist portraits of Eastern Anatolian boyhood. The former film nudges more gently though dark humor and magical cinematography by Feza Caldiran, and the latter is blood-bathed in rite-of-passage dog fighting.
Programmed at Thessaloniki as a special screening, Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin’s The Cut (2014, Germany/France/Italy/The Netherlands/Poland/Canada/Turkey), ambitiously confronts the Armenian genocide, but is marred by awkward English dialogue and an uneven and sprawling script. In terms of falling short of expectations, I also have to confess that I was not as moved by Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s claustrophobic Winter Sleep (2014, Turkey/France/Germany), winner of the Palme d’Or and FIPRESCI prize at Cannes, as I was by the stunning Three Windows and a Hanging (2014, directed by Isa Qosja), also shot by Winter Sleep’s cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki. As pointed out to me by Cineuropa’s Domenico La Porta at the Creative Europe session at the Agora industry market, this Kosovo/Germany co-production can be seen as one key example of successful small nation cinematic production during economically challenging times. Exploring with great sensitivity the aftermath of wartime rapes, gender politics, and silencing of victims in a rural village, Three Windows and a Hanging won the Fischer Audience Award for a film in the Balkan section at Thessaloniki, and is Kosovo’s first-ever entry to the Academy Awards.
Anne Ciecko is an associate professor of international cinema in the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.