Presenting the ‘best of the new’

In the past 48 years, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which begins this Friday and runs to November 25, has blossomed from a domestic event geared at local industry to a regional force of international stature. Last year the TIFF featured 230 films and sold 153,000 tickets. Some 100 members of the international press followed the event, and it was attended by about 500 industry representatives from around the globe. Sponsorships, which account for one-third of the festival’s budget, have risen by approximately 20 percent this year. These are no mean figures under any standards, especially for a country the size of Greece. TIFF director Despina Mouzaki shared some of her insights into what has made this festival the success that it is, and what will propel it in the future. How would you define the role of the festival? The festival is not limiting its scope to national or regional ambitions. A word however can only convey intentions, but I believe that the Thessaloniki «International» Film Festival has managed to make these intentions a very successful reality. Our goal has always been to become an event of greater international appeal, a film festival that has something new and exciting to offer on the already crowded map of the festival circuit. Year by year this quality of the festival as a grounds of discovery and launching pad of new and noteworthy talent to an appreciative audience and industry crowd, is becoming more evident and solid. On the other hand, a festival like ours cannot discard the obvious geographical and cultural advantage it has in the greater area of the Balkans, an area where for some time now an important cinematic boom has been taking place. The TIFF was one of the first festivals in the world to take note of it, to spotlight and to nurture it, and it continues to do so with vigor. Last but not least, let’s not forget that the festival is firstly and mostly a Greek film festival, therefore Greek filmmakers and Greek films always are and always will be the central point of the festival’s existence. Our role is definitely to bring forth the «best of the new» and to encourage a discussion between the most active and interesting parts of the cinematic spectrum. Does the local film industry show an active interest and participation in the festival? The festival and the local film industry have a bond that goes back 48 years, therefore the interest and participation is a given. For the duration of the festival, the Greek film community moves en masse to Thessaloniki and the pulse of the national cinema scene is taken yearly at the screenings, meetings, talks and deals that take place here. The State Cinema Awards (held on the last day of the festival) is by far the most anticipated event of the year by the film community. How does the festival contribute to local film production? For years, the festival was mostly a showcase of the year’s output, a festival where local films competed against each other for awards and recognition. Changing the festival to an international event and broadening the focus to include the most thought-provoking, forward-thinking works of filmmakers from around the world was undeniably a great contribution to opening new horizons for Greek filmmakers. Moreover, since I was appointed the TIFF’s director, we have planned and implemented a wide range of development activities, such as Crossroads, Agora and Salonica Studio, reinforced existing one’s such the Balkan Fund, and put them all under the auspices of the Industry Center. What is the festival’s regional role in the Balkans? Thessaloniki is by far the most important festival in the Balkans, and being here is something of a privilege, but also a big responsibility. The city itself plays a key role in the development of the Balkans, Southeast Europe and the Mediterranean; therefore we feel that the festival should play a similar role in the cultural development of the area. Have the festival’s pitching forums and markets been a success? A lot of films that have won awards or slots at big festivals around the world began their journey here in Thessaloniki, or have benefited from their participation in our script-development activities. Jasmila Zbanic’s «Grbavica,» which won the Golden Bear at Berlin last year, Cristian Nemescu’s Un Certain Regard award-winner «California Dreamin’,» to name just a few, were among the films that were developed with the help of the TIFF. What can we look forward to this year that is different from other years? The year 2007 is my third at the helm of the TIFF. Many changes have been made over the two previous years, changes that reshaped and rejuvenated the festival. New sections were added, a digital competition was instituted, and the developing activities that we discussed earlier began. Change is vital to an organization that strives to be cutting-edge, but I feel that Thessaloniki has achieved a good balance that we now have to fine-tune and improve. I think that this year’s selection is one of the strongest in the festival’s history, fully capitalizing on the dynamic of the two previous years. How do you respond to criticism that the festival has become too large in size and scope? I believe that this criticism emanates from those who used to think of the TIFF as a festival of mostly local interest and scope, a notion that is clearly a thing of the past. The TIFF has managed to gain a place among the elite of the world’s festivals, on the way to becoming a sought-after destination for filmmakers and movies, while managing at the same time to keep a distinct identity, focusing mainly on up-and-coming directors making their first or second film, a festival that is looking out for the future of cinema. The rise in attendance, the growing interest of the industry, public and press both in Greece and abroad are clear signs that the festival is moving in the right direction. What are the festival’s relations with the city of Thessaloniki like? Thessaloniki, a vibrant, joyous city is an ideal host to the energetic spirit of the TIFF. The bond between the city and the festival goes way back, but the relationship was renewed when the international character of the festival came in effect. For the 10 days that the festival takes place, the city becomes host to thousands of guests that contribute to its economy as well as spreading the good word about the city once the festival is over.