Letter from Thessaloniki

On a rainy Friday evening at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival’s (TIFF) main cinema, the Olympion, while golden glitter was ceremoniously tossed all over those of us below, everything was meticulously explained to us by several glitterati: silver-haired Deputy Culture Minister Petros Tatoulis, the dull mayor of Thessaloniki and the Minister of Thrace and Macedonia, whose name I forget. Furthermore, after some acrobatics, a young woman walked out onto the stage in what looked like a flashy tank top and a long golden brown taffeta black skirt. The new head of the festival, this time in its 46th year, Despina Mouzaki, began to lecture us on the traditional path to film history – the Greek path, of course, and asked viewers to contribute to collecting common reminiscences. With its busy, youthful vibe and, alas, many conventional characters, the overly ambitious TIFF is a natural setting for a multiethnic cultural manifestation. The European-like-art pretentious opening movie, «Hell,» shot in France, was by the Bosnian filmmaker Danis Tanovic, whose first feature, «No Man’s Land,» was a much applauded anti-war allegory. It is not incidental that today the most illustrious Balkan directors work far from their own countries: Kusturica, Manchevski and Paskalevic shuttle between Europe and the USA. Incidentally, speaking of war, I missed real Balkan action once again in Kosovo by choosing to attend the TIFF opening this time. My friend, TV journalist Pandelis Savidis, with whom I often collaborate, drove last Saturday to snow-covered Pristina. I thought for a moment to go with him. What the hell! After all, I feel more like a journalist than a film critic, although I started doing film reviews a long time ago. And last Friday, the group of Albanian militants calling themselves the Kosovo Independence Army announced that they are prepared to attack Pristina, if necessary. According to a statement from the KIA given to the Kosovo media: «It is very likely that the city of Pristina, whose institutions are under the control of the modern occupier, will be the target of our independence forces starting on Wednesday, November 23.» I was tempted, but Puccini’s «Turandot» lured me too. Well, of course, Pandelis Savidis would have to be back this coming Wednesday for his talk show on ET3, I calculated. That is exactly when the militants have warned of attack. But I could have stayed on to savor all the commotion, couldn’t I? Whatever. Despite warnings from the international community and divisions among Kosovo Albanians themselves, the Kosovo assembly is about ready, it is rumored, to reconfirm a resolution on independence for Kosovo. An act of insubordination to the US and the EU, everybody seems to take a stand on Kosovo. Or nearly everybody. The Balkan Fund, a script development fund for Southeastern Europe initiated in Thessaloniki does not even mention its name. Aspiring to support filmmaking in this corner of the world, the fund is about to distribute four 10,000-euro grants to four scripts. Oh yes, it’s the Balkans again! They have again come to some prominence in recent years, although sadly this is mainly due to negative news: political extremism, failing economies, cyanide spills and shooting of a decidedly non-cinematic kind. Since there can hardly be any doubt that this region will attract more attention in the future, this Balkan Fund affair is one of those ambitious collective projects to redefine the Balkans’ cultural space. Furthermore, this year there is quite an extensive Balkan Survey in the TIFF’s program, which all the same hardly promotes the idea of this region’s communality. There are films from Croatia («What’s a Man without a Moustache,» by H. Hribar), from Bosnia/Herzegovina («Go West» by Ahmed Imamovits) from Turkey («Toss Up» by Ugur Yucel) from Romania, Bulgaria and FYROM. Even a film from Slovenia («Gravehopping» by Jan Cvitkovic), a country that very much dislikes being put together with the rest of us Balkans. While this region, the Balkans, is stereotypically associated with violence and turbulence, its cinema’s attitude to violence is, thank heaven, not that of celebration. Oh yes, there is also that film by the Kosovar Isa Qosia, called «The Kukum,» as was announced in the official festival program, which avoids naming the cinematographer’s country. (May I remind that in a «Letter from Sarajevo» I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned a Kosovar «King Lear» with its director Fadil Hysaj, comparing his native country to the Britain of Lear’s time, which looks like today’s Kosovo.) One can only wonder what really defines the specificity and commonality of Balkan culture? Well, I guess some centuries of Ottoman occupation, what else? Good. So much about the TIFF now until next Monday. Although Thessaloniki has a relatively long history as a film festival city, it was not until recently that it also expanded into opera as well. Lately this city sparkled – sort of – as a showcase for the Balkan lyrical stage with Puccini’s last, unfinished work, «Turandot,» presented at Thessaloniki’s Concert Hall. This was a good, solid production, with fine singing from all the principals – Jennifer Wilson (US), Elena Kelesidi (Greece) and Dongwon Shin (Korea), as well as with Sotos Papoulkas, Dimitris Kavrakos and Constantinos Mavrogenis. With Nikos Athineos conducting, the Thessaloniki Municipal Orchestra produced quite a lusty sound. Hailing the emperor of a thousand suns, the large Thessaloniki Chorus, led by Mary Constantinidou, added to the spectacle of Turandot’s Chinese court and the three comic characters, Ping, Pang and Pong (Harris Adrianos, Dimitris Nalbandis and Yiannis Economou). In the opening film of the TIFF, Danis Tanovic’s «Hell,» a veiled family secret suggests more than a hint of melodrama. In Puccini’s fairytale melodrama, three riddles have to be answered before everything develops into a happy ending. Coincidences occur.

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