46th International Film Festival of Thessaloniki, Greece: (TIFF 18 – 27, November 2005)
The Festival of Daring Young Filmmakers
A Brief Identity of the Festival
The most important Greek film festival welcomed its international audience on Friday the 18th at the “Olympion” Theatre, marking a new era with a new president, the actor George Corraface (A Touch of Spice, 2003, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, 1992) and a new director, the producer Despina Mouzaki (A Touch of Spice, 2003), Peppermint, 1999), who must work hard to live up to the legacy left by the former director Michel Dimopoulos, who helped resurrect the festival during his long term.
Indeed, this year’s festival signaled a new departure as two new institutions were introduced to help the artistic creation come into contact with the factors of materialization, promotion and distribution: the Crossroads Co-production Forum and the Agora Film Market.
More than 200 films divided into 7 main sections (International Competition, Greek Films 2005, Independence Days, Balkan Survey, Tributes to Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Patrice Cherau, Vittorio Storaro and Michael Winterbottom and National Cinemas focusing on Mexico, Denmark and Ireland), the side-bar events, the masterclasses, the round table discussions and the endless honorary ceremonies, were more than enough to satisfy even the most difficult cinematic taste. However, this filmic abundance has its drawbacks, namely the impossibility of seeing everything, and the difficulty of arranging to see the films that interest you the most. Less films with more screenings would certainly make it easier for the audience, both moviegoers and professionals, to enjoy the festival without having to run like mad from one theater to another!
International Competition Jury
This year’s 46th IFF of Thessaloniki had the pleasure of welcoming the cinematographer Vittorio Storaro as the President of the International Competition Jury. He was accompanied by the German producer of Buena Vista Social Club, Urlich Felsberg, the actor and stage director Sotigui Kouyaté, the American director Lodge Kerrigan, the French actress Natacha Regnier, the Greek director Antoinetta Angelidi and the Mexican film critic Leonardo Garcia Chiao. Their job was to choose among the 14 films which competed for the Golden Alexander.
Two acrobats hanging from the roof of the “Olympion” theatre held a wide red ribbon which was cut by a third acrobat, symbolizing the official start of the festival. However, despite this extravaganza one could not say the ceremony went by without a hitch. Let us just note that when the director of the opening film L’ Enfer, Danis Tanovic, went on stage there was no interpreter to translate the few lines he spoke in English. This awkward situation caused a great deal of embarrassment to the two well-known Greek actors who presented the ceremony, but also to the new director Mrs. Mouzaki, who saw the festival starting on the wrong foot.
L’ Enfer, in a way, set the tone of what was to follow in the next ten days. Dramas, dramas, and… more dramas, at least in the international section of the festival, which we will be reviewing later on. L’ Enfer is actually the second part of a trilogy envisaged by the late Kieslowski and his scriptwriter Krzystof Piesiewicz and is loosely based on Dante’s Enfer. Dealing with the games between destiny and free will, it follows the lives of three alienated sisters (Emmanuelle Béart, Karin Viard, Marie Gillain) haunted by a dreadful family secret. Even though you get the feeling that you have seen this all before, the excellent cinematography and the bold direction of the young filmmaker of No Man’s Land promises a fruitful filmic future.
International Competition: Let’s Welcome People… of a Lesser God
The International section of the festival makes as its focal point the encouragement and promotion of young filmmakers from all over the world. Which is why only first or second feature films by directors are accepted. This ensures the festival’s character as one which promotes new ideas and is not afraid to embrace unknowns and provide them with a full theatre. Let us not forget that despite the organizational problems, the 6 small venues of the festival are always sold out and it is impossible to get a ticket if you happen to decide to see a film an hour or so before its projection.
The 14 films of the section come from different parts of the world. However, they did share some things in common. Most of these new directors focused on common thematic lines: alienated characters, immigrants, or poor young individuals in search of an identity, riches, love, or a sense of belonging somewhere. A young emigrant in Santiago, a poor 16-year-old obsessed with a pop idol, a 32-year-old man trying to start life anew after committing a crime of compassion, a has-been from Pakistan “pushing a cart” in the States in order to survive, and a near autistic public servant who is totally controlled by his wife in a poor Mexican city. These are the heroes of some of the films featured in the International section.
I cannot say that the majority of the films impressed me. However, since these filmmakers are just starting their way into the vast unknown of international cinema, I could not help but be somewhat lenient, and tried to approach them as objectively as possible..
The film which inaugurated the competition section was Play by the Chilean director Alicia Scherson, which follows the lives of Cristina and Tristan in Santiago. Cristina is a nurse and takes care of an elderly Hungarian man. Her only distraction is the video games she plays in her free time and the occasional flirtations with a local gardener. Tristan is one of the lucky ones, leading a charmed life until his gorgeous wife decides to leave him for another man. His life starts to fall apart and when Cristina finds his lost briefcase she finds a new and more interesting distraction. Having in her possession all of Tristan’s personal goods, she follows him and his wife, while at the same time continuing her monotonous existence until… The film is beautifully photographed in a city which is colorful and gay, mixing the characters’ inner solitude with some ingenious humor. Nevertheless, most of the time the film offers nothing more than awkward silences and an ambiguous ending in keeping with the weak narrative line.
More problematic is Backstage by the French director Emmanuelle Bercot, who narrates the story of 16-year-old Lucie, whose obsession with a pop idol (Lauren) is her only means of escaping the boredom of life in a small French town. By some sort of mistake or a miraculous twist of fate Lucie manages to enter Lauren’s entourage and starts sharing her hotel suite. It’s clear from the beginning that Lucie suffers from a psychosis which makes her do unthinkable things, while at the same time Lauren, wonderfully interpreted by Emmanuelle Seigner as a completely distraught star tortured by a devastating love affair, seems to cling onto Lucie for inexplicable reasons. The rest of the events unfold as inexplicably as the beginning and after the first half hour of the film, the repetition and the silly, easily foreseen plot twists left me unimpressed.
Les États Nordiques by Quebecois Denis Côté was the first digitally shot film allowed to enter the competition section, and marked the director’s first feature film. The film’s hero Christian (Christian LeBlanc) leads a miserable existence with a mother on life support. One day he decides to end their mutual agony and commits euthanasia. He then embarks on a long journey and finds himself in the small town of Radisson, an artificially constructed community 1500km north of Montreal. Slowly but steadily he has to settle into a new environment and start from square one. Not only does he need to fit in, but he needs to ruminate on the consequences of his action. His story is interweaved with documentary scenes of the actual residents of Radisson talking about euthanasia, their hobbies, and life in their isolated town. Using euthanasia as a pretext to send his hero away from the city, Côté manages to demonstrate, not without some problems, a sincere effort with a distinct cinematic style.
Black Brush by the Hungarian Roland Vranik and the enthusiastically accepted Man Push Cart by Iranian-born, New York educated Ramin Bahrani follow the lives of social outcasts in Budapest and New York respectively. Both directors aim at depicting the terrible consequences of the capitalist system and the loss of human dignity. Bahrani met his protagonist Ahmad in Brooklyn while working on his film. After hanging out with him for a year, he incorporated many of Ahmad’s stories into the script, and finished by actually writing the script for his friend.
The Mexican entry Sangre by Amat Escalante was also shot with people from the director’s neighbourhood. Escalante presents a couple, Diego and Blanca, who spend their days after work lying on the couch, watching soap operas or making love on the kitchen table. When Diego’s daughter from his previous marriage asks to move in with them, Diego finds himself caught between an envious wife and a daughter in desperate need of help. Many scenes were shot in real time, which confused and at points exasperated the audience. However, the director stated that his intention in shooting real time scenes was to convey to the actors the sensation of there being nothing or no one between the actor and the camera. The result is a tragicomic film that makes us laugh and think.
Interesting films continue to come from Asia, like Taiwan’s Falling…in Love by Wang Ming-Tai, a former assistant director to Tsai Ming-liang. In Falling…in Love Alan and Angel are a happy couple until Belle, a woman from a broken marriage, rents the room next to Angel’s. What Angel does not know is that Belle was Alan’s former lover. The two women become close fiends, without knowing they are in love with the same man. Interesting cinematography and soundtrack, a style close to Wong Kar-Wai, with flashbacks and flashforwards, and a bittersweet ending make Falling… in Love a festival must-see.
From China came the even better Grain in Ear by Zhang Lu. Director Lu follows the life of Cui, a poor woman of Korean ethnicity who lives in China, with a husband behind bars. Together with her young son she manages to make a living selling Korean-style pickles. Without a licence for this, she is always in danger of having her cart impounded. Luckily for her, police officer Wang likes her food and arranges for her to get a license. When she starts an affair with a married Korean, trouble appears because her lover’s wife reports Cui as a prostitute to the police. Inventive direction from a director we will definitely be hearing of again.
The Belgian director Fien Troch entered the competition with Someone Else’s Happiness, a part-mystery, part- soul searching story which reminded me of Lars von Trier’s Dogville. Like the latter film, the story unfolds in a little village, where the tragic loss of a child reveals that no one is wholly innocent and that all the residents share a certain complicity in the child’s death.
And the Winner is…
The Golden Alexander, along with a check of 37,000 euros, was awarded to the Belgian Someone Else’s Happiness and its director Fien Troch, who also won the Screenplay Award. The Silver Alexander (22,000 euros) went to Mexico and Sangre and the Best Director Award was shared between the Hungarian Roland Vranik for Black Brush and the French Emmanuelle Bercot for Backstage. The Best Actress Award was also shared between Ina Geerts (Someone Else’s Happiness) and Isild Le Besco (Backstage), while the amateur Ahmad Razvi (Man Push Cart) took home the Best Actor Award. Finally, the Artistic Achievement Award was given to Falling in… Love by Wang Ming–Tai.
For the End…
I could not finish this report without mentioning Francis Ford Coppola’s visit to our humble city of Thessaloniki, which had the honour of presenting a Golden Alexander to the director of the Godfather legacy, Apocalypse Now, and many other films. Francis Ford Coppola flew to us from Bucharest, where he is currently shooting his new film, to meet with his long time friends and collaborators Dean Tavoularis and Vittorio Storaro. “I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for giving me the chance to be here in front of this audience and be honored with my colleagues and most important collaborators, Dean Tavoularis and Vittorio Storaro. Without them my films would have been totally different,” said Coppola to a packed Olympion theatre. Coppola added, “Thessaloniki is a beautiful city with very polite and warm people and the food is delicious. Since I’m working in Bucharest I might be able to visit it again,” after which Coppola received a standing ovation which prompted him to invite the whole audience on stage!
That’s it… for the next 365 days the people of the festival will be working hard to prepare the 47th TIFF, as the 46th is already history. Changes do have to be made but the opportunity of watching many new, old, and rare films will always make the audience run like crazy to the theatres, a craziness which says a lot about people’s hunger for decent, sincere, authentic cinema. And, in the end, that is what really counts.