Letter from Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki’s 45th Film Festivalis a celebration of mainly Greek filmmakers and a number of foreign artists of the moving image. The oldest festival of its kind in the country has enjoyed a steady growth in scale, in numbers of admissions and guests, in reputation and in media coverage. This year there was something for every taste: drama, comedy, award-winning art films, romance, science fiction, documentaries, a Balkan film fiesta, films by contemporary masters, New French and Russian Cinema, and most exciting of all, the selection – by Dimitris Eipides – of New Horizons in its 13th year. Sure enough there was also some sleazy trash, and a number of «mockumentaries» as well. Yet all in all, it was an interesting event, although Greek production was having one of its weakest years. According to custom, there was no question of a more or less rigorous selection, as all Greek productions that had been realized during the last 12 months could compete for the – open-handed and charitable – money awards. The Greek Film Center, financed with a budget that has shrunk from 5.5 million euros to 4.5 million this year, is almost the sole producer in the country. It presented 19 films in this year’s program. All in all, the Greek films showed that the cross-fertilization between western and eastern film language is gaining acceptance. But what is «film language,» anyway? A declaration, a statement, a pronouncement or a special form of communication? It certainly looks like some sort of a language set apart for special uses; for film, something that uses direct images. During a panel discussion centered on American independent filmmaking, jury member Alexander Payne said of the Thessaloniki film event: «Smaller festivals like this one are trying to keep the language of cinema alive.» How? Once again we saw well-known mannerisms, blank and affectless dialogue, use of children and dogs to underwrite an mood of ingenuous virtuousness. Yet what is cinema after all? There was a lot of sophisticated terminology at this festival. Quoting the late French classical director Rene Claire, Payne said that cinema is «Today, seen with the eyes of today,» which I admit I did not exactly get. And how can we judge films – to tackle still another highbrow issue? «We can’t!» was the straightforward answer that Miklos Jancso, the Hungarian jury president, gave. Originally, the precise question was: «How can we judge films and the young?» Traditionally, the business of film is conducted at parties, at least at important, big film festivals such as those held in Berlin, Venice or Cannes. In Thessaloniki, there were a lot of parties thrown almost every night. In all probability there was no (serious) business done here, but all the same the festival was a good excuse to party and to schmooze with the actors and directors. Plus, Thessalonians got to meet other interesting Thessalonians, which is essential too. The most popular party was the big annual New Horizons event held this year at the weirdly named «It’s Only» club. The principal cosmetic innovation, or perhaps retrogression, was the reintroduction after 30 years of the habitually casual dress code of the 1970s. Or I might be wrong. The Greek movie of the year, «Brides» – about young women searching for a husband and a better life in the USA – will probably receive several prizes at today’s ceremony for Greek films only. «Brides» director Pantelis Voulgaris declared while in Thessaloniki that he has always been inspired by diaspora Greeks. «I wonder what their life is like far from familiar images, scents, faces,» he said. All Greeks should also wonder what life would be like here today without US aid to Greece and Turkey half a century ago. (A short history lesson: Strangely, after World War II, Greece had been treated chiefly as Britain’s affair, although the British were chiefly responsible for the loss of our country to the Axis powers in 1941 [described by Evelyn Waugh in «Officers and Gentlemen»]. As in Voulgaris’s film, set after the disastrous defeat in Smyrna in 1922, Greece after World War II was in a desperate economic mess and the Greeks caught in a civil war between the newly restored royal government and the former resistance forces led by Greek communists. Without what later became known as the Truman Doctrine, we would now be hardly better off than Albania.) Speaking of Albania, it sent to this year’s festival a film called «Moonless Night» – also about emigration and very well directed by 46-year-old Artan Minarolli. «Cinema is dead!» was one of the most striking remarks heard during the last fortnight. It was pronounced by Peter Greenaway, who has worshipers even in Greece, choreographer Lia Meletopoulou being one I know. «Until otherwise contradicted, Tulse Luper is associated with a life history of 92 suitcases, and since 92 is the atomic number of uranium, we can make that fact significant,» the filmmaker also pronounced. His semi-biographical ‘Tulse Luper Suitcases’ filled the Festival’s main venue Olympion for three nights. Film is not only dead but can represent death. «It’s a funereal art!» Spanish director Victor Erice («Poetry and Light») sighed. «It captures lives. Life disappears, but cinema shows it… When you see a film with an actor who has died, everyone lives again for us spectators, using the same words, doing the same movements as when they were alive.» Abbas Kiarostami, the grand master of the Iranian cinema, was here too, for the fourth time. When at a press conference festival director Michel Dimopoulos asked him why so many of his films were set in cars, he responded that he likes cars. «I spend at least three-four hours a day in my car. It’s a good place to concentrate and to communicate when you sit side by side with someone, not looking at each other’s eyes; you commune better.» «Ten,» his last film shown this year at Cannes, was shot entirely within the confines of a taxi, where various women, including a prostitute, spoke about their lives. He did not go on to explain that his real liberation is the digital camera; that was on some other occasion. Last night, there was an awards gala, and the film shown was «The House of Flying Dragons,» another eye-popping Chinese cult hit, with martial-arts and head-spinning fights. The director Zhang Yimou is a former Chinese insurgent himself.