Letter from Thessaloniki

To start at the beginning, some weeks ago the Ministry of Culture abruptly changed the Thessaloniki Film Festival’s management, provoking widespread reaction in the local and international press. Recently in this city, we witnessed some events that neatly illustrated how our society is suffering not only from a decline in civility, but also – worse – from a lack of political correctness as well. Last week, film director Pantelis Voulgaris resigned from Thessaloniki’s International Film Festival helm, denouncing in a letter «…the unprecedented war that unfortunately was instigated or tolerated by the previous management of the festival.» Promptly, the festival’s former president, the renowned Theo Angelopoulos, responded to the charges saying, «I am sorry because Pantelis Voulgaris lost his nerve and is taking as a personal affront an international reaction to the about-turn of an exceptionally successful institution, by common consent, into a local event.» In a similar case, on April 21 the board of the Thessaloniki Opera was brusquely, although not unexpectedly, informed of a change at the top by a mere phone call. On the Athens end was a minor public servant from the Culture Ministry. Similar changes, especially in cultural positions, happen all the time and all over the world – albeit with much more tact. In every other respectable country, except for Greece, there is a considerable period of time for transition. And also there is, usually, some kind of a letter of thanks for the work done. Modes of politically correct civility should be a subject of concern for Greece. In different cases, a letter such as the one former festival director Michel Demopoulos sent from the Cannes Film Festival saying, «…Before my true friend Pantelis Voulgaris discovers dark conspiracies, let him ponder two things: 1) If he thinks that I and Angelopoulos are capable of such cheap tricks as he alludes to in his letter; and 2) if he believes that all the people around the world who signed the protest can have been guided and manipulated,» could give rise to further offensive acts. Furthermore, what seems to be desirable here is some form of government action to encourage more socially appropriate modes of speech, especially when the subject ranges from subtle pressure to direct coercion. And this especially when it comes from a ministry with the word «culture» on its stationery. Would it hurt any Greek ministry’s political agenda too much to include a simple «thank you» in their dispatches? On the other hand, great news has come to Thessaloniki residents, who have been anxiously awaiting a solution to the city’s tragic traffic problems, via the announcement of the underwater artery linking the western with the eastern part of the city. According to a statement made last week by the Ministry of Land Planning, Environment and Public Works, the project (6.5 kilometers long, of which 2.5km will be tunnels) will be completed in 48 months. «Now, there is something really useful,» a political columnist at the Balkan Bar – a popular hangout for the local press – remarked. «Film festivals are nowadays at a dead end, and in fact quite unnecessary. And they also cost too much. Wouldn’t it be much better to put that money in the underwater road project ?» (Let’s remember that the money the state is spending for this project amounts to 66.5 million euros, while the rest will be covered by the consortium named Thermaiki Odos, which consists of Hellenic Technodomiki, Aktor, Boskalis International, Archirodon group and Themeliodomi. It will be able to exploit the project for 30 years. Note that the consortium proposed the highest possible toll price of 93 euro cents.) «You are forgetting that film festivals, with the serious aim of promoting film production, are indispensable, especially at times when the cinema is in crisis,» intervened an ardent cinephile. A third chimed in: «Naturally, what happens with all those complimentary DVDs we are flooded with is… Well, as cinema is today in competition with many other leisure time activities which deter people from visiting a film theater, it is important for international cinema to use festivals for publicity purposes. One should not underestimate this possibility…» Thank God, no. In search of a new morality and a different content and aesthetic content, today’s Greek cinema directors are the topics of discussion during and after a festival in Thessaloniki. Yet film festivals are not only of cultural and idealistic significance; they also have significant commercial value. The idea of appealing to a small coterie of intellectuals is rejected by most film artists today. Instead, they want to attract a wide public once more. The Greek films of the 1950s and ’60s – regarded as the golden age of cinema but often dismissed as commercial movies to distinguish them from the later ‘quality arthouse cinema’ – are currently enjoying a revival. Yet in today’s popular culture, a void is revealed by the endless parade of comic-strip characters, car chases, superheroes and explosions that is currently the norm. A friend who just loves the new, dazzlingly aerated style said the other day that we have entered an age of «visual rapture,» when entering a underwater highway is an experience equal to both «The Matrix» and «X-Men.» Still, there will always be films made for discerning audiences who think seriously about a film’s theme, story or performance. Thessaloniki’s International Film Festival, which continues its path under the new director, Despina Mouzaki, who stepped into the shoes of a highly popular Michel Demopoulos, suggests a possibility.