Letter from Thessaloniki
Through the accident of politics and because women may be the soft underbelly of the Taleban – and most probably the second front in Afghanistan – one interesting thing happened last weekend at the International Festival of Thessaloniki: The big event here was not the presence of the imperiously queenly Faye Dunaway, but the showing of an Iranian film by Mohsen Makhmalbaf with the significant title Kandahar. This is the exact name of the notorious Afghan city that is home to the Taleban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. This picture – which played on Saturday twice to full houses – addresses both the plight of Afghan women under the Taleban plus the accumulated misery of the Afghan people. Who knows what hidden thoughts lurk behind the shroud-like burka? local cinephile Pandelis Savvidis sighed, after this grim film with its Kafkaesque edge of terror. It was a work which complained most vigorously about the lack of gender rights. Greece means a lot to me, stated actress Faye Dunaway at a press conference. One of the most magnetic screen presences in years, she was in Thessaloniki as a guest of Thessaloniki’s 42nd Film Festival. The famous actress overcame her fear of flying as a result of the terrorist attacks on the United States and decided to come to Greece, saying that she knew of its civilization. If I was invited to go to France, I wouldn’t go, she elaborated. Responding to the question on what she would say to the young Afghan woman director participating in the film festival, the star replied that she would ask her what her political beliefs were and whether she was satisfied with the Taleban regime. Ms. Dunaway also affirmed that she would go to Afghanistan herself if this wouldn’t create further problems. Held for the first time in 1960 as a humble Week of Greek Cinema, this International Film Festival (with only first and second works by new directors) has become a venerable event for the city. For 10 days in mid-November, audiences numbering well over 70,000 attend screenings of more than 150 films in town and all over Northern Greece. This year, the International Competition section, programmed by the festival’s director, Michalis Demopoulos, is showing the startlingly high number of five films from the – almost destitute – Balkan countries. Founded by Dimitris Eipides and dedicated to the development of artists of independent vision and the exhibition of their new work, the New Horizons program is celebrating its 10th Anniversary in 2001. (The equivalent Sundance festival in the USA has just celebrated its 20th anniversary.) American independent films to be shown in this program include Bully, by yoga-practicing Larry Clark (Another Day in Paradise), Patrick Stettner’s The Business of Strangers (two businesswomen stuck in an airport hotel), Jesse Peretz’s improvisational film The Chateau, Miss Wonton by Meng Ong, In the Bedroom by Todd Field and L.I.E, a Michael Cuesta feature debut. The festival was opened by the politically prolific Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos with the blithe and skillful French romantic comedy, Va Savoir (Who Knows?) filmed by veteran Jacques Rivette – artistically still spry at 73. A graceful film only about half an hour too long. A record number of 25 Greek non-documentary films – all produced during the last 12 months – plus four coproductions and seven documentaries, backed by the Greek Film Center and private producers, will be screened this year at the festival. Their screening will entitle them to compete for the State Cinema Awards (with a cash prize) which will be handed out during a special ceremony the day following the festival’s international award ceremony on November 20. There is a lot of digital, blown-up video to be watched this year. Yet nothing looks more beautiful on screen than 35-millimeter film. Here are some notes on the Greek films shown over the weekend: Land and People (Gi kai anthropoi) by George Keramidiotis, which is an unpretentiously low-tech Day in the Country – a difficult documentary-like feature that for some (including myself) is one of the most interesting works in this festival. One Day in August (Dekapentavgoustos) by Constantinos Giannaris, where a six-character roundelay, a truckload of pure talent, takes a short vacation in the heat of an Athens summer. Original but messy, it is a minor work by a major director. Still Looking for Morphine (Pes sti morphini akoma tin psachno) by Yiannis Fagras, is a cozily anarchic piece in grainy black-and-white, about Greek youth who get stoned and grow their own weed. Excellently made. Warning: Contains strong language, minor violence and hardly any sexual situations. Shadow Play (To paichnidi tis skias) by Stavros Vidalis is involuntarily comic in its mixture of naive frankness and philosophical bemusement. Muddled. The Dance of the Horses (O horos ton alogon) by Christos Voupouras is a well-intentioned, most predictable documentary. Risotto, by Olga Malea, is a film with the feel of a TV issue sitcom, though it’s less accomplished than most of those. The Cistern (I akrovates tou kipou) by Christos Dimas tells the story of a group of teens in the Greek provinces in the 1970s who fumble their way toward adulthood. A moody story beautifully filmed. Unwitnessed Memories (Aviotes mnimes) by Athena Xenidou. It treats the Cyprus problem in so determinedly small-scale a fashion that the result is innocuousness. Although we are still at the beginning, participants here – producers, directors and actors – are overtly charged by the frenzy of awards campaigning and receiving, just like at the ancient Olympics, when tragedians were fierce competitors seeking the glory of the laurel wreath, plus the material benefits which flowed from victory. No, Olympia was not the end of the awards mania, as some may claim. Naysayers usually abound at this film festival. However, the buffet – hors d’oeuvres and wuerstchen and tyropitakia – at the opening night reception got rave reviews from all.