CULTURE

A film festival and its prospects

THESSALONIKI – Bigger and brighter than ever before, the 47th Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which drew to a close yesterday, has created a need for reflection. Is the TIFF trying to come up to par with other festivals around Europe (along with the financial cost this entails), or is it happy to settle for becoming one of the most influential and significant film festivals in the Balkans? The Balkan identity of the festival and of the city that hosts it is not only undisputed, but for many, it is also the festival’s highest card. After all, film festivals in Europe abound (and among the many, Europe also has the greats), but a serious, comprehensive representation of the very rich Balkan cinematic tradition is a more elusive undertaking that few festivals in the region either care to or succeed in achieving. And herein lies one of the TIFF’s core strengths, because becoming a leader in the Balkans is not only a very viable goal, but because a rapprochement between Greek and other Balkan film industry players and artists can only help nourish the ailing Greek film industry. Dimitris Kerkinos, curator of the successful out-of-competition Balkan Survey section of the festival that brought together 12 films from the region as well as a comprehensive tribute to Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is a staunch supporter of the TIFF’s Balkan identity. «For years, the Balkans were exotic to Greeks even though they were neighbors. I want to see Greeks overcoming their prejudices about the Balkans, to see that we have common characteristics, common problems,» he said in an interview with Kathimerini English Edition. Kerkinos became interested in cinema while researching his doctoral thesis in social anthropology at the film archive of Havana, Cuba, before going on to study film. He began working at the TIFF in 1999 and in the Balkan Survey in 2001, traveling to two or three festivals – from Cannes to Istanbul to Zagreb and Sarajevo – every year to glean material for the Balkan Survey. «When we say Balkan cinema, we are opening a big subject for debate on whether such a thing really exists. But I personally see many common characteristics that create this regional cinema,» said Kerkinos. Common themes running through the Balkan Survey are historical memory, the legacy of communism and civil war, and the individual’s struggle to define his or her role in a changing society. These are human stories told with sensitivity and humor. Kerkinos’s selection this year has been especially fruitful as it marries films by veteran and emerging Balkan directors from the entire region, highlighting not just the diversity of production between countries but between generations as well. «This is the first year that we have veteran filmmakers in the Balkan Survey, such as Rajko Grlic and Kujtim Cashku,» said Kerkinos. «The selection of films is always based on thematic and artistic originality. I am most interested in films that highlight the social conditions of their countries,» he explained. «Despite the fact that we are neighbors, Greeks know very little about the Balkan countries’ societies and by extension, their cinema. They may know the famous veteran directors, but they don’t know the new directors. Now, I am starting to see the audience recognizing filmmakers that have appeared at the festival before,» he added. There is no shortage of material to learn from in Balkan cinema, as several gems in this year’s Balkan Survey have illustrated, from established directors such as Grlic with «Border Post» (a surprising co-production of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia, the UK, Hungary and France) and Cashku with «Magic Eye» (Albania/Germany), to emerging directors such as Corneliu Porumboiu, who presented the wonderful comedy-drama «12:08 East of Bucharest.» «Balkan countries have a very clear cinematic identity, which I am not very sure Greece has. When you see a Romanian film, you know it’s a Romanian film. With Greek films, it’s impossible to tell, because we do a bit of everything,» said Kerkinos. As Balkan films become more extroverted in an environment of EU rapprochement and display a greater quality of production, they are also experiencing a rising interest from Western Europe. And while this opening of Balkan cinema bodes well for the filmmakers of the region, there is also a fear that directors will begin compromising the national identity of their films in order to appeal to a wider, Western European audience. «Inevitably, the opening to the West will influence film production,» said Kerkinos. «My fear is that Balkan cinema will become commercialized. I don’t want to see the themes of films changing for the sake of funding. What I do know is that many festivals in Europe have begun introducing Balkan sections and more Western European countries are taking an interest in joint productions with Balkan filmmakers. For the past two years at Cannes the Golden Camera award has gone to a Romanian film.» Demand for Balkan films, and especially premieres, in Europe’s festivals is on the rise, according to Kerkinos, and filmmakers in the region are looking to the bigger establishments to present their films. At the TIFF, the Balkan Survey offers much-needed coverage and support but no cash prizes, and this may very well lead to a weakening of entries in the coming years and by effect a decline in what appears to be a growing interest in Balkan culture in Greece. The role of Thessaloniki How does the TIFF measure up to other festivals in the Balkans? «The Thessaloniki International Film Festival is certainly better organized and wealthier than most,» said Dimitris Kerkinos. «It also has a well-established tradition as an international festival, since 1992. Guests often tell me how surprised they are at the organization of the festival and the services. Also, our program is a good one and one of our greatest assets is the pier complex, because everything is concentrated in one place. «There are also a lot of events organized to bring professionals together. The Balkan Fund has helped a lot. For example, the film ‘Grbavica’ (directed by Jasmila Zbanic and presented this year in the Balkan Survey) began here in Thessaloniki with funding from the festival, and went on to win the Golden Bear in Berlin. We also have the Crossroads program, which is aimed at facilitating co-productions in the Balkans and the broader Mediterranean region, and Balkan Works in Progress, where industry professionals can see projects that are still in production.»