Letter from the Thessaloniki Film Festival

Among other things, when was the Golden Age of porn movies? It’s a phrase that conjures up sepia photos and a glorious page in Greek film history, more of which later. First, let’s talk about «The Good Old Naughty Days,» a documentary which was shown at the 44th Thessaloniki Film Festival late on Saturday evening, providing the mainly sophisticated, young audience with an instructive glimpse of an earlier erotic universe. The plots involved servants, schools, a cafe, voyeurism, a massage parlor, a dirty old man and a group of nuns (and their dog!). Sadly, this amusing compilation from 1920s French porn films wore thin fast, as pornography usually does. A day before this screening – on Friday – I was invited to a luncheon organized by the Consul General of the USA, Mr Alec Mally, and his actress wife Ioanna Gavakou-Mally. There, I met a third-generation Greek-American scholar, Dan Georgakas, a film historian and long-time editor of the magazine Cineaste. Grabbing the opportunity, I asked him whether he has ever heard of the – in all seriousness, very, very respectable Greek-American «Queen of Porn Cinema» in New York. He had, but he did not know the full details, which I bragged I did. So, here is the success story of a Salonica Jew in the land of the free. Mrs Bourlas – sorry, I forget her first name – was one of the over 50,000 Salonica Jews that were killed or dispersed during World War II – Thessaloniki has rightly been called «Madre de Israel.» Sephardic Jews, fleeing the Holy Inquisition in Spain, came here in the 15th century, settling in such large numbers that for a time the city was known as a «second Jerusalem» – until World War II, when the Jewish community was annihilated by the Nazi occupiers. When the Nazis captured Thessaloniki in April 1941, the Jews were still the second-largest community after the Greeks. The city was the world cultural capital of Sephardic («Spanish») Jewry. Out of a Jewish population of 56,000, 54,050 – 96.5 percent – were murdered at Auschwitz, Birkenau or Bergen-Belsen. Belonging to the very lucky ones, Mrs Bourlas went to the USA with her boy and girl – and survived. In order to do that, Ms Wilson – her second husband’s name – embraced Manhattan, strange and exotic as it was and still is, and started importing those completely innocuous, unsophisticated black-and-white Greek films of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Her big chance, however, came when the media started discussing the subject of film censorship – established in the USA in 1922 and later controlled by the industry’s very strict self-regulation. The burning question at the time was whether it was protecting the public, or was it rather a patronizing infringement of viewing rights? Whatever the case, Ms Wilson suddenly abandoned importing innocuous Greek cinematography and as markets became more liberal, she turned instead to Swedish erotica, which was developing a reputation worldwide of being very open-minded when it came to sex and nudity. Ground-breaking Swedish documentaries such as «This Nude World,» celebrating the age-old tradition of playing volleyball in your socks and absolutely nothing else, was one of the first European films she did purchase. And so Ms Wilson became rich. Very, very rich. When the Vietnam War was at its worst, porn films were at their best. At that time, the indomitable Ms Wilson started acquiring movie theaters along New York’s important Music City thoroughfare – on Eighth Avenue – the way other immigrants bought peanuts. That was exactly the time when the entirely respectable, bespectacled, white-haired lady got the well-deserved nickname of Queen of Porn. It was a good thing for her all this happened before baring one’s goods on screen could lead to instant stardom, and before the advent of Hollywoodianized sex, the way we know things now. Being a friend of her son, Daniel Bourlas, a very sophisticated filmmaker who was a pioneer of private TV in this country, I remember seeing her at the Cannes Film Festival, where she did her own kind of shopping at the Rue d’Antibes film market. She even persisted in working – seeing films – from her sick-bed at the American Hospital in Paris, after a heart attack she suffered. That was some 25 years ago. Sure enough, it is not because they were better or more innocent that we cling to our pasts, but because the theatrical elisions of memory give them the drama and meaning our amorphous and all-permissive present lacks. I wonder, am I getting old? Now, I was glad to hear from Dan Georgakas that some Greek-American filmmakers are planning to do a film on our good Ms Wilson from Thessaloniki. But I was annoyed to see that in his special issue on Greek Cinema that Georgakas gave to me, Nikos Koundouros (if not – for some – the best Greek film director, then the second- or third-best) was not even mentioned in its «Thumbnail History.» All in all, the 44th film festival went rather well – in theory. In practice, though, it still remains a third-rate international event without its own profile. After the unfortunate and costly big cultural event in 1977, Thessaloniki has remained a bit scruffy round the edges. Could it be assumed to be the fault, as some say, of a minister of culture – Evangelos Venizelos – who until recently has been elected here? Not coincidentally, I personally heard voices insisting that our local film festival is bending to the wind of change now also blowing through this city.