48th Thessaloniki International Film Festival
It would not be an overstatement to note that each passing day marks the end and the simultaneous beginning of a film festival, somewhere around the world. The 48th Thessaloniki International Film Festival may have said its goodbyes to its thousands of movie-goers, industry professionals, artists, press members and part-time employees on Sunday, November 25th but in Film Festivals.com, I counted at least a hundred more festivals that open in December from Mexico to Rome. Do the new digital technologies, which make it easier for someone to become a filmmaker, and the plethora of festivals, where each new cinematic voice may aspire to find an audience and subsequently raise the necessary capital for the next best thing, help the progress of the seventh art? I don’t think so and neither do the members of this year’s TIFF jury, who, disappointed by the mediocre selection of the International Programme, observed that it is wrong to encourage everyone to make films and stressed the importance of education, more education, training and meticulous planning before embarking on the adventure we call cinema.
The TIFF’s unique position in the Balkans and Southeastern Europe makes the Greek festival one of the most important film events for young and independent cinematic voices worldwide – considering that the basic criterion for the international competition section is that the film is the first or second feature of the director – and its programme of gigantic proportions is a testament of its acceptance and influence, even though problems do arise from the overabundance of films and side events. The 48th TIFF was, once again, overflowing with 230 films (features and shorts) divided in too many different sections: International programme, John Sayles Retrospective, Tribute to New Spanish Cinema, Tribute to William Klein, Independence Days, Tribute to Mikio Naruse, Greek Films 2007, Balkan Survey + Tribute to Nae Caranfil, Focus: Contemporary Wars, Balkan Fund, Greek Tributes, Guests. Seven simultaneous screenings in seven small (in proportion to the current size of the festival) theatres prevents everyone from even having the smallest taste from each section.
However, it should be noted that despite the organisational setbacks (delays, overbooking, lack of coordination and information), as well as the general mediocrity in the international competition program, which did include a couple of film ‘gems,’ the audience of Thessaloniki once again filled the theatres and participated actively to what has been labelled as one of the most important celebrations of film in Europe.
Opening Ceremony: 48 years have passed and it’s always the same fever
Paraphrasing the words of the great Ingmar Bergman, whose 60 years of film experience did not manage to reduce his sentiments towards the film medium, the 48th International Film Festival of Thessaloniki, forever dedicated to new directors and new experiences invited us along with its director, Mrs Despoina Mouzaki, to “become citizens of the worlds the cinema leads us to.” The opening ceremony of the festival, more austere and less time-consuming than last year’s, was outshined by the thoughts of Bergman, proving one more time that the cinema is a lifelong passion that governs the lives of those few creators whose vision gives birth to an intense range of emotions to a global audience, taking film a step further at the same time.
Wong Kar Wai’s first feature length English-language film, My Blueberry Nights, which opened also the last Cannes Film Festival signaled the beginning of the ten-day TIFF and although the director could not attend the screening, we had the pleasure of watching one of his stars, David Strathairn, present the film to the audience. Despite the international lukewarm reviews, I enjoyed the “American” Kar Wai’s subtle yet powerful and deeply moving film and emerged into the love story which slowly developed between a radiant Jude Law, a quite convincing Norah Jones and the culmination of their discontinuous love affair with one of the best on-screen kisses ever to grace the silver screen.
The Czech director Jiri Menzel, one of the leading figures of the Czech New Wave of the 1960s, along with Milos Forman, presided over the seven-member International Jury, called to judge the films of the International Competition section and to award the Golden and Silver Alexanders, (37,000 and 22,000 Euros respectively). The six members included the Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel, also a jury member in the Cannes Film Festival in 2006, the Malaysian director / producer / actress Yasmin Ahmad, the American producers Michael Fitzgerald, (his credits include The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Colour Me Kubrick, both in 2005) and Fred Roos (best known for his cooperation with Francis Ford Coppola in Godfather II and Apocalypse Now), the Romanian director/screenwriter Nae Caranfil, and the Greek poet / university professor Olga Broumas.
International Competition: an exceptional one-take in the Columbian jungle, and a frozen yet inspiring Indian taste
Fourteen films from Colombia to India competed for the Golden Alexander. I didn’t mind the lack of a thematic axis that could have tied the films together and provide a subject for deeper investigation into the future of cinema. What did bother me was the obvious lack of fresh cinematic voices and what seemed to me an impromptu and rather hasty gathering of films which had to comprise a festival’s international section. However, as is always the case, there were films which attracted both the audience and the critics’ attention, whose filmmakers deserve praise and encouragement. Those few films are after all, what makes each film festival worthwhile and make viewers anticipate and renew their date for next’s year celebration. So, without further ado, here is my top-six from the 48th TIFF.
Colombia / Greece / USA: PVC-1
A native of Thessaloniki, 29-year-old Spiros Stathoulopoulos filmed by far the best and most innovative film of the festival if not of the year. PVC-1 is an 81-minute single take, inspired by the true story of a Colombian woman in May 2000, who was fitted with a PVC collar-bomb and struggled to free herself with the help of her husband, her children and the police. What is extraordinary in Stathopoulos’ effort is that the action is not confined to a room or even an apartment – as is the case in Hitchcock’s The Rope (1948), which did however include a few cuts – but takes place in the Colombian jungle. We first watch the villains’ violent attack on the family in an isolated house and then witness the excruciating journey of the mother, the father, and their daughter to a meeting place with the police a few kilometres away. The family crosses rivers, climbs hills, runs and covers quite a long distance and Stathopoulos never loses his target or makes a mistake. The suspense he manages to create is only surpassed by his ability to convey the socio-political climate of a whole country by simply focusing on the interaction among a few characters and one specific event: the desperate efforts of Jairo, an uneducated yet altruistic policeman to disarm the bomb wrapped around Dona Elvia’s head. And yet the film is not devoid of humorous moments which made the whole theatre burst out laughing, providing the necessary outlet for the drama that was unfolding. PVC-1 is a perfect balance of comedy and tragedy in a single take full of heart, know-how and most certainly exhaustive rehearsals, that makes a lot of the fancy, hi-tech blockbusters seem ordinary and without heart.
I have one word for India’s entry Frozen. Captivating. The director Shivajee Chandrabhushan and the screenwriter/photographer Shanker Raman, created breathtaking images in their black and white exploration of life at an isolated mountain village of the Himalayas. A young girl, Lasya, spends her life with her father, who makes apricot jam and struggles to keep up with the new technologies that have made him obsolete. One day, the army invades their territory for reasons that are never explained, and sets camp, interfering with the family’s slow pace and their already established and harmonious co-existence with nature. Chandrabhushan pays attention to each shot and with the help of the photographer, the result is a combination of captivating images of landscapes and people taken from different angles and connoting so much more than a trifle dialogue could ever manage to capture. Frozen’s slow rhythm only adds to the story and is necessary in order to let the eye of the spectator rest on the places and people and comprehend an almost forgotten lifestyle which relies on man’s interaction with nature, and which does not ask for much but gives a lot in return. Even though the director talked about how difficult it was to find distributors for his film, since the Indian public clings to Bollywood’s mega stars, I believe the TIFF will help Frozen’s initiation to new markets.
Mexico: Year of the Nail
It seems that sometimes the apple does fall under the tree and Jonas Cuaron, the son of Alfonso Cuaron proved it with Year of the Nail. The young Cuaron took a year off and spent it photographing everything around him. A year later, trying to find new ways of making cinema, he grouped the photos into sequences and decided to narrate a fictional story based on the photos of his brother, his girlfriend, his grandfather, his cousins. He then added dialogue, sounds and music and the result was the story of the 14-year-old Diego who falls in love with the 22-year-old “gringa” Molly. I have to admit that the first ten minutes of the film made me uneasy as the very nature of cinema implies movement and not static images put together. However, as time went by I found myself deeply involved in the story, waiting to see whether the impetuous and lovesick Diego would finally invent the right way to have the girls of his dreams. The inner dialogues of Diego and Molly are filled with their most intimate thoughts recalling the way Annie Hall and Alvy Singer never actually said what they really thought in Allen’s ‘nervous’ romance of 1977. The Mexican teenager is as focused on his adolescent sexual hormones as in discovering his favourite parts of the female body and his lines provoke laughter and sweet nostalgia for the innocent youth, while Molly’s preoccupations are more centred towards her life goals and her need to discover herself through her parents deteriorating relationship. Cuaron told us that he was influenced by Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) but his effort was different in the choice of narrative voice and that his photos were already taken before a script was actually written.
Germany: Elli Makra – 42277 Wuppertal
The German entry to the International Competition section came from the Greek director Athanasios Karanikolas who directed Elli Makra – 42277 Wuppertal, the story of a Greek immigrant woman, Elli, in contemporary Germany. Exhausted both physically and mentally by a job she hates and finally rejects and by a violent ex-husband, who keeps reappearing just to torment her, she craves to return to Greece hoping her motherland will make all the struggle and pain go away. The ‘dirty’ photograph which imbues the film, the humble dwelling of Elli in the immigrant neighborhood and the heavy clouds that never abandon the sky in the German city, seem to suppress the protagonist’s glimmer of hope for a better future. Karanikolas focuses more on sentiments rather than action as his camera follows Elli dressing in her wardrobe, in the Red Cross where she exchanges clothes for ‘new’ second-hand ones, in her sister’s almost dilapidated tavern and observes her everyday actions trying to convey the feeling of silent despair and discouragement, feelings that follow a vast majority of immigrants who set out for a better life only to find themselves in a graver predicament than the one they faced in their motherland.
Vasermil was Israel’s entry to the International Competition and the film which opened the section. Mushon Salmona’s first feature follows the lives of three street kids in the Israeli city of Beersheba. Adiel is an Ethiopian immigrant who struggles to be accepted by his fellow students; Dima is a Russian teenager with an unemployed father, who sells drugs in order to save money and move to Germany for a better future; and Shlomi is an Israeli who tries to make it as a football player. They all come from broken homes and they all show signs of sensitivity and compassion when they are at home and seem tough and rough when they interact with other people outside the family nest. Football is the link which brings the three together. Vasermil, the name of the football stadium becomes the symbol of freedom from prejudice, the symbol of a better life the three kids ought to have in the first place. Based on research for a documentary in 2003, Salmona had trouble finding the money for his film as his story touched subjects the Israeli culture tries to avoid, if not hide entirely. His choice to hire non professional actors does not even show, as the kids’ remarkable authenticity intensifies the drama they go through. Vasermil won the Wolgin Award at the Jerusalem International Film Festival.
Poland: Wednesday, Thursday Morning
Wednesday, Thursday Morning, the Polish entry written and directed by Grzegorz Pacek is a more sober take on Linklater’s Before Sunrise. Mateo, a young Polish student is run over by a taxi and at the hospital he is spotted by a beautiful young girl (Joanna Kulig who won the debutante award at the Polish Film Festival) who decides, for reasons which will be revealed at the end, to follow him in the streets of Warsaw. The day is September 1st, the celebration of the Polish uprising against the Nazis and the young couple passes along the many memorials which are scattered in the city. Grzegorz Pacek, a well-known and respected documentarian, places a modern love story in the context of a historical event of great cultural importance for his fellow citizens with a view to showing how modern people are themselves “soldiers” fighting with battles they already know they cannot win. The nice photography and the dexterous rhythmical editing are exhilarating and complement the story beautifully, even though the shaky camera becomes tiring at times.
John & Jim: Two Americans in Thessaloniki
John Malkovich on Being John Malkovich
Sunday 18th November, 10 o’clock in the morning. An already restless audience composed of students, fans, and cinephiles await the arrival of one of the most important actors of our time to present a master class. At 11 am sharp, the actor enters the room along with the producer Russell Smith and is genuinely surprised at the turnout he faces. Malkovich and Smith came to the 48th TIFF mainly to promote Jason Reitman’s dark comedy Juno, which they produced, so the actor talked about independent productions in the States and stressed that “it’s a difficult time for a certain kind of movie” and that his production company “doesn’t fit in very well into the industry” exactly because he is drawn to stories Hollywood does not seem eager to invest in. However, he does not plan to retire from big blockbusters and admits that there are talented people he works with, such as the “extremely bright, enthusiastic and innovative” Robert Zemeckis, who directed Malkovich in the recent film Beowulf. Finally, the actor talked about the new digital world and underlined that he is optimistic with the advent of new technologies “since creative people will have the opportunity to do creative things.”
Jim Gianopulos. 20th Century’s Fox President is Greek.
The crowd at Jim Gianopulos’ master class may have been smaller than Malkovich’s but in no way did it diminish the importance of the Co-Chairman and President of 20th century Fox Films’ visit to the festival. Gianopulos, who has been at the helm of the studio since 1994 and is also member of the Board of Governors of the AMPAS as well as director of the American Film Institute, is responsible for such films as Titanic, Mrs Doubtfire, Full Monty, Fight Club, Castaway, Braveheart, Sideways, Mr and Mrs Smith, Moulin Rouge, The Devil Wears Prada, Borat – the list could go on – the Greek Jim Gianopulos spoke Greek and revealed his secrets of the trade admitting there are no recipes for success except for the tremendous hard work which is needed in order to put together the best group of professionals before making any film. “Creative energy and enormous resources” are the main ingredients of a blockbuster but even if you have this combination you cannot guarantee the audience will be as enthusiastic in its reception. A cheerful and full of humorous lines Gianopulos shared many stories of both successes and bombs (including two stories about Buz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet and Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris) and even talked about his relationship with the owner of 20th Century Fox, the Australian Rupert Murdoch, disclosing that even though the two have different political views, Murdoch does not interfere with Gianopulos’ executive decisions and is only interested at the box-office outcome. Smiling, the CEO of the studio summarised his relationship with Murdoch stating that “if the results are good, he doesn’t have a lot of questions, and if the results are not good, I don’t have a lot of answers.”
Danny Glover and John Sayle’s Honeydripper
I could not have completed this report without mentioning one of the most touching events of the festival. Danny Glover, the American actor and activist came to Thessaloniki to receive an honorary Golden Alexander and to attend the screening of John Sayle’s last film, Honeydripper, in which he is the main protagonist. The moment he set foot in the Olympion theatre, the audience gave him a standing ovation which lasted for a few minutes, surprising the actor himself who won the hearts and minds of the Greek spectators with his modesty, his easy-going temperament, his politeness and his lovable personality. The same reception awaited the film that ensued the brief ceremony with John Sayles and his producer Maggie Renzi thanking the festival, Thessaloniki and its citizens for the John Sayles Retrospective which included sixteen films of the “father of the American Independent Cinema.”
Golden Alexander: The Red Awn, by Shangjun Cai, China.
Silver Alexander: PVC-1, by Spiros Stathoulopoulos, Producers Spiros Stathoulopoulos, Jason Hall, Colombia / Greece / USA.
Best Director Award: Veiko Ounpuu for Autumn Ball, Estonia.
Best Screenplay Award: Thanos Anastopoulos and Vassilis Raissis for
Correction, by Thanos Anastopoulos, Greece.
Best Actress Award: Anna Lalasidou for Elli Makra – 42277 Wuppertal, by Athanasios Karanikolas, Germany.
Best Actor Award: Alberto Sornoza for PVC-1, by Spiros Stathoulopoulos, Colombia / Greece / USA
Artistic Achievement Award: Jonas Cuaron, for The Year of The Nail, Mexico
FIPRESCI Award (International Federation of Film Critics): PVC-1 by Spiros Stathoulopoulos, Colombia / Greece / USA
FISCHER PUBLIC CHOICE AWARDS: PVC-1 by Spiros Stathoulopoulos, Colombia / Greece / USA