47th Thessaloniki International Film Festival
Wenders, Salles, Gavras, and more
Is it the size that counts?
The International Film Festival of Thessaloniki completed its circle for the 47th time on Sunday, the 26th of November. During this ten day period Thessaloniki put on her best to welcome filmmakers, writers, artists, cineastes and the occasional curious tourist from all over the world. Two hundred and thirty-eight films in eight different main sections vied for the audience and industry’s attention (“International Competition,” “Out of Competition,” “Greek Films 2006,” “Digital Wave,” “Independence days,” “Focus on Teenage Lust/Teenage Angst,” “National Cinemas” and “Balkan Survey”). I tried in vain to form a representative personal schedule, in order not to miss the next “big thing.” Between the innumerable films, the retrospectives of Greek and foreign directors, the press conferences, the honorary and side-bar events, the exhibitions, the Balkan Fund, the first European screenwriting conference, not to mention the parties, there was no way to attend everything; let alone have a bite to eat, or more importantly sleep!
Nevertheless producer Despoina Mouzaki, the director of the festival, deserves our praise for succeeding to steer such a huge project. Her international connections, her individual strength and modesty, which make her accessible to everyone, guarantee her leadership despite the inevitable problems that arise in organising the unorganisable.
The Films: A Weekly Journal
The enormity of what used to be a small Greek festival led me to concentrate on the International Competition section, which proudly presented five world premieres from new talents, as the rules of the festival limit the entries to debut or second features. The five premieres were: the German Riding Up Front by Markus Herling, the South-Korean Family Ties by Tae-yong Kim, the Chinese Troublemakers by Cao Baoping, the Canadian The Point by Joshua Dorsey and the Iranian On a Friday Afternoon by Mona Zandi Haghighi.
My overall impression is that the films, which were picked by Mrs Mouzaki, were of better quality than last year’s, even though the 46th TIFF’s Golden Alexander, Someone Else’s Happiness, directed by Fien Troch, is Belgium’s entry for this year’s foreign language Oscar. The films varied thematically as they were made by filmmakers from different background and cultures. Nevertheless, strong female directors and characters constituted a common thread in the majority of them, which is something I was particularly pleased about as the role of women in the film industry both in front and behind the camera is too often overlooked.
Saturday: Brazil’s Suely in the Sky
The competition started with a Walter Salles production, Suely in the Sky, directed by Karim Aïnouz. Hermila, a beautiful 21-year old young woman, returns to her small village with her baby son. She is staying with her grandmother and young aunt waiting for her husband to return from Sao Paulo. She spends her time dancing and having fun with her friends until she realizes her husband won’t be joining his family. In need of money, she decides to raffle herself off for one time only to earn the money for a bus ticket that will take her away from a place where nothing ever happens. She changes her name to Suely (Sky), symbol of independence and liberty. Aïnouz’s second feature, which impressed at the section “Un Certain Regard” at this year’s Cannes film festival, focuses on the titular strong female character. The director stated that the choice of a central female heroine was a response to the lack of strong female characters in Brazilian and world cinema. Indeed, Suely in the Sky follows a woman torn between motherhood and her need for freedom and is worth analysing from a feminist perspective.
Sunday: Iceland’s Thicker Than Water
Iceland brought us Arni Olafur Asgeirsson’s directorial debut, the family drama Thicker Than Water. Pétur realizes that his first-born Örn is not his biological son. He abandons his wife Asta, who is expecting their second child, checks into a hotel and starts an affair with his young assistant. In the meantime, Asta doesn’t feel she has to provide him with any explanations. Judging from the applause in the theatre, it’s safe to assume that Thicker Than Water was received positively. The director seems clearly influenced by Ingmar Bergman, in the way he uses claustrophobic scenes to create a chamber drama. However, the script has some gaps as the three writers involved in the process failed to create a story solid enough to answer the questions it raises. Is the film’s subject forgiveness? Is truth vs. dishonesty the main point? Why have relationships reached this point of no return? Thicker Than Water is in a way saved by two factors: firstly, the excellent photography which combines an icy blue base to symbolize the dramatic conflict and despair, interrupted by a few scenes with a red base which allows for some warmth to enter the picture and the heroes’ hearts; and secondly, the wonderfully sensitive portrayal of Pétur, incarnated by Hilmar Johansson.
Monday: Mexico’s Drama/Mex
Gerardo Naranjo’s Drama/Mex is a comment on contemporary Mexican film production. A suicidal middle-aged bureaucrat, a pretty young woman between two lovers, and a teenager trying to find a sugar daddy, struggle to find their balance in an uneven world, all in the course of a day. Their stories interweave and go back and forth in time in the setting of today’s decadent Acapulco, a far cry from the once luxurious resort. Most of the scenes are shot in soft focus to give us the impression of doubt, ambiguity and insecurity. Naranjo’s intention was to parody the Mexican drama and the tradition of the cabaratera (Mexican melodramas focusing on prostitution). His idea was to take all these ridiculous dramas offered by the media, and attempt a more sincere approach, which Naranjo achieves by casting mainly amateur actors. Indeed, Naranjo’s choice of cast proves him right and in the end saves the film.
Tuesday: USA’s Day Night Day Night
One of the most impressive entries of the 47th TIFF was Day Night Day Night, by Julia Loktev, a Russian director who immigrated to the US at the age of nine. Loktev’s first feature documentary, Moment of Impact, won the Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival and the Best Documentary Award at Karlovy Vary. Loktev wrote the script for her first feature, Day Night Day Night, after reading a story in a Russian newspaper. The film follows the path of a 19-year-old woman who decides to become a suicide bomber in Times Square. We never learn the heroine’s name, nor her ethnicity or her beliefs. The second part of the film is shot on location in Times Square and is filled with suspense as the girl walks back and forth trying to decide whether or not to push the button and detonate the bomb she carries in her sack. Luisa Williams is a revelation in the role of the girl and carries the film on her shoulders. With almost no dialogue in the last hour of the film, Williams relies on her facial and body expressions to convey meaning. It would be wrong to assess Loktev’s effort as another post 9/11 cinematic comment on terrorism. Day Night Day Night is a film by a director who knows how to exploit her chosen medium, especially film’s visual possibilities. I am sure the 47th TIFF is not going to be the last time we hear of Julia Loktev.
Wednesday: Canadian’s The Point
I had to watch the Canadian entry sitting on the floor as I had missed the press projection and the theatre was completely packed, as is the case for almost every film during the fest. The Point, by Montreal-based film director Joshua Dorsey, presents the stories of frustrated teenagers living in a multiracial inner-city neighbourhood. The film’s style, with its raw depiction of events and documentary-like shooting, reminded me of Larry Clark’s Kids. Dorsey does not judge and his camera penetrates the lives of his protagonists, either behind half-open doors and barbed wires or simply by being next to the action, recording as a passive and non-judgemental participant. Without offering any shattering remark, The Point gives voice and image to today’s youth. Brief scenes succeed one another at high speed and show how neglected parental guidance leads to drugs, alcohol abuse, violence, criminal behaviour and sexual promiscuity, in a world where teenagers act and talk like adults, and adults don’t have a clue.
Thursday: Germany’s Riding up Front
Riding up Front by the German director/screenwriter Markus Herling was a welcome breath of fresh air in a filmic landscape fraught with violence, drug and verbal abuse, and absolute lack of hope. Herling, a self-taught filmmaker who has worked as an assistant to many professionals since he was 13, directed a patchwork film following the lives of five people in Berlin on Christmas Eve. Elke, a single mother, is determined to at least treat her two children to a meal in a restaurant. Werner tries to avoid the annual Christmas dinner with his son, because he has gone bankrupt and is filled with shame. Sieglinde wants to ride up with the conductor in the subway to send a video to her Nigerian godson. Alwin, a struggling actor, tries to land a small role, and Joseph drinks his sorrows after his break-up from his girlfriend, Maria. An alternative and more dramatic Love Actually, with influences from Magnolia and Truffaut’s sensibility and gentleness towards people and relationships, Riding Up Front is a tender and bittersweet film with real-life characters with whom you can identify. It is also impressive that Herling creates strong female characters who demonstrate strength and determination far more than the men in the film. The Christmas/holiday background accentuates the conflicts and serves to underline the film’s message, which is all about love, forgiveness and understanding.
Friday: South Korea’s Family Ties
South-Korean Kim Tae-yong’s second feature is an interesting and emotional story about family relationships, with injections of warmth and humour. Mira, a modest, single woman who runs a small restaurant, meets with her irresponsible brother Hyung-chul, who shows up after a five-year absence. He settles down at her place and is soon joined by his wife Mu-shin, a woman several years older than him. Soon after Mu-shin’s young stepdaughter also moves in. The characters are well-developed and the main themes of the film can affect viewers from every part of the world. Nevertheless, some judicious trimming of the film’s 114 minutes could have bonded the narrative threads more effectively.
International Competition Grand Jury
A group of seven prestigious members of the international film industry had the difficult task of choosing between the fourteen talented young filmmakers to award the Golden Alexander. The president of the jury, Christine Vachon, the American independent producer, known for her commitment to a cinema of quality, had the pleasure of being in the company of the following: the French director/producer Pierre Rissient, who has discovered and brought to the public’s attention filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Chen Kaige, and Hou Hsiao-hsien; the Brazilian Katia Lund, known for having co-directed City of God with Fernando Meirelles; the Spanish film critic/director and former director of the San Sebastian Film Festival, Diego Galan; the Danish scriptwriter/professor Mogens Rukov, also known as the “Dogma Doctor”; the young Chinese director/producer/actress Xu Jinglei, and the Greek stage director Lefteris Voyatzis, one of the most important stage artists in Greek theatre.
And the Golden Alexander goes to …
I usually disagree with the juries in almost every important occasion, from the Oscars to the Venice Film Festival and of course the TIFF. So, it was without surprise that the Golden Alexander accompanied by 37.000 euro-check went to the South-Korean Family Ties, which also won the Screenplay Award, along with the Brazilian Suely in the Sky. Family Ties was indeed a well-shot film, but I can’t help but wonder whether all this commotion about new Asian cinema had something to do with the indifference the jury showed towards the German or the American entries (Riding up Front and Day Night Day Night respectively). I simply hope that the journey taken by the films I appreciated the most were not affected by the jury’s possible bias. The Silver Alexander (22,000 euros) was awarded to the Iranian On a Friday Afternoon and the Best Director award landed at the hands of the Polish Slawomir Fabicki for Retrieval. The Best Actress Award was shared among the actresses of Family Ties, and the Best Actor went to Antoni Pawlicki in Retrieval. Finally the Artistic Achievement Award was given to Suely in the Sky, which also won the Fipresci award for a film in the International Competition Section.
Wenders and Gavras: Two Very Important Guests
One of the three ‘constructors’ of the New German Cinema, Wim Wenders, and one of the most important political filmmakers, Costa Gavras, added their international éclat to the festival. The first was honored through a 14-film retrospective and gave a joint master class with Walter Salles, which my students will never forget; and Costa Gavras was invited as screenwriter of Mon Colonel, directed by the French Laurent Herbiet.
A master class ‘on the road’
Wim Wenders and Walter Salles held their master class before such a dense and enthusiastic crowd that the angry voices of the many unfortunate people who could not enter the packed auditorium were heard long after the master class had started. Two directors from different continents, joined by their love for the road, kept the audience glued to their seats for more than two hours. Wenders noted that the first myth of the road was written by the Greek poet Omiros. The director’s historical flashback made stops at the Lumières Brothers and the genesis of cinema, as well as the subsequent change cinema brought to humanity since the planet started communicating through images. Wenders and Salles identified the camera with freedom and viewed the open horizon as the only answer. Wenders also stressed the importance of the documentary, which he considers as a prerequisite for every aspiring director. To validate his point, Salles showed the public a ten-minute excerpt of a documentary he shot, in order to proceed to the adaptation of a Jack Kerouac novel.
Gavras, The President and Mon Colonel
In the 47 years of the TIFF’s existence, Mon Colonel became the first film to attract the attention of the President of the Republic of Greece. Mr. Karolos Papoulias arrived in Thessaloniki to watch the film about the Algerian war of independence in 1956 and caused quite a stir with all the security measures that had to be taken. The always humble Costa Gavras, who adapted the Francis Zamboni novel and produced the film, presented first-time director Laurent Herbiet and the two protagonists, Olivier Gourmet and Robinson Stévenin. Mon Colonel traces the story of retired Colonel Duplan, who is murdered in the beginning of the film following his criticism of French officials on a television talk show. Duplan’s backstory is told through the diary of someone who served with him in Algeria, Lieutenant Rossi, which arrives in the hands of an army officer. Past crimes and painful memories are brought to light during the turbulent times between Algeria and France. The film distinguishes past and present with the use of black & white photography for the past sequences and color photography for the present. Beautifully shot and edited, it could easily stand as a European Schindler’s List, with a touch of Citizen Kane.
First Conference on European Screenwriting
The Danish screenwriter Mogens Rukov summarized the problems European writers face in one word: originality. In his master class, he said: ‘rules don’t limit us, they set us free.’ He also advised his young audience to avoid originality, keep their stories simple and follow the American paradigm.
Rukov was also a key speaker in the First Conference on European Screenwriting, which was held on Tuesday and Wednesday (21st-22nd November). The conference was a Balkan Fund Initiative in collaboration with the Federation of Screenwriters in Europe (FSE) hosted by the Thessaloniki International Film Festival and with support of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the FFA, the European Film Academy, LIRA, SACD, VG Wort, the Hellenic Audiovisual Institute and the Greek Film Centre.
The conference discussed issues of relevance to professional screenwriters in Europe, divided in three strands: the stories, the rights and the money. The conference was greeted by the President of the FSE and assistant professor of screenwriting at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Christina Kallas. Mrs Kallas was proud to present the President of the European Film Academy, the director Wim Wenders, who stressed the necessity of giving the writer back his identity which was lost during the years when the auteur theory prevailed. (A copy of the The European Screenwriters Manifesto is affixed at the end of this report.)
The festival which opened with Stephen Frears’ Queen on November 17, closed its curtain with Alain Resnais’ Private Fears in Public Places on Sunday, November 26. If we are to measure its success financially, then the results outweigh any of the usual negatives associated with a festival of such gigantic proportions. Not only did the ticket revenue increase by more than thirty per cent from last year, but the gains for the new films, the filmmakers, the industry members, the students and the general public were even greater. New directors had a chance to show their work, executives the pleasure to find raw talent, students to meet with their icons, and cineastes to watch films they would not normally see. When the festival began, I was wary of its enormity and determined to underline it in my report. However, as the days passed by, and I witnessed the packed theatres, the applause, the happy and sometimes angry faces in the audience, I realised something very important that had escaped me. The Thessaloniki International Film Festival is a celebration, characterized by the Greek spirit which is all about open hearts, smiles, fun, spontaneity and enthusiasm. The proximity of the venues created a circle in which people of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds met everyday, program in hand to see films, attend classes, discuss future ideas, have meetings with industry members, or simply drink coffee to overcome their hangovers or their sleepiness. And this kind of energy can only mean that the future of cinema is still ahead of us!
The European Screenwriters Manifesto
Stories are at the heart of humanity and are the repository of our diverse cultural heritage. They are told, retold and reinterpreted for new times by storytellers. Screenwriters are the storytellers of our time.
European writing talent should be trusted, encouraged and supported. The European film industries need to find ways to attract and keep its screenwriters in the cinema and in their craft.
We assert that:
1. The screenwriter is an author of the film, a primary creator of the audiovisual work.
2. The indiscriminate use of the possessory credit is unacceptable.
3. The moral rights of the screenwriter, especially the right to maintain the integrity of a work and to protect it from any distortion or misuse should be inalienable and should be fully honored in practice.
4. The screenwriter should receive fair payment for every form of exploitation of his work.
5. As author the screenwriter should be entitled to an involvement in the production process as well as in the promotion of the film and to be compensated for such work. As author he should be named in any publication accordingly, including festival catalogues, TV listing magazines and reviews.
We call on:
1. National governments and funding agencies to support screenwriters by focusing more energy and resources, whether in form of subsidy, tax breaks or investment schemes, on the development stage of film and television production and by funding writers directly.
2. Scholars and film critics to acknowledge the role of screenwriters, and universities, academies and training programmes to educate the next generations in accordance to the collaborative art of the medium and with respect towards the art and craft of screenwriting.
3. Festivals, film museums and other institutions to name the screenwriters in their programs and plan and screen film tributes to screenwriters just as they do to directors, actors and countries.
4. National and European law should acknowledge that the writer is an author of the film.
5. National and European law should ensure that screenwriters can organise, negotiate and contract collectively, in order to encourage and maintain the distinct cultural identities of each country and to seek means to facilitate the free movement of writers in and between all nations.
Distribute this manifesto to industry members and the press in our respective countries.
Campaign for the implementation of the agenda defined by this manifesto.
Seek the transition into national and European law of the legal changes demanded by this manifesto.
The President and the Board of the FSE, representing 21 guilds and 9.000 screenwriters all over Europe
Christina Kallas (President)
Sveinbjörn Baldvinsson (Vice President)