Letter from Thessaloniki

For 10 days, the 46th Thessaloniki International Film Festival has offered some 200-plus films – Greek films, foreign films, tributes, independent movies and various retrospectives. Since its budget has now tripled, the festival also offers master classes and round-table discussions. It all seems like so much work! So how much is too much? Some film buffs in Thessaloniki believe that too many movies does more harm than good. As one ardent festival-goer said, «Because there was so much to consume, I did not enjoy films so much as I did before, when there were less of them.» I wanted to keep up with the festival, so I succumbed and saw so many films that my memory of them is now blurred. Surviving so many exuberant programs means applying this tactic: Watch the first 15 minutes and you’ve seen it all. Yet the young people guarding the entrances to film showings in Thessaloniki had obviously different guidelines from TIFF’s new team – Festival President Georges Corraface, a well-known Greek-French actor, and Festival Director Despina Mouzaki, known as a sometime-producer. Would-be filmgoers were repeatedly told: «You cannot go in! The film has started!» or «No! There is a presentation! You have to wait!» I would try reasoning with them: «But I am from the press. It is this exact talk I want to follow!» Sometimes this helped. There are those who maintain that too much organization, rather than the lack of it, is upending our society. Unlike the Cannes or Berlin film festivals, the Thessaloniki Film Festival has never housed a market. But Thessaloniki has ambitions to become the essential festival for buyers and sellers in the Balkans, at least. This plan hinges on third-party sponsorship to pick up marketing costs. To make that happen, the festival needs to put the right people in the right posts – someone like Atalanti Siaga, who presided over the PR department for 10 years and then disappeared. How else can you promote the offerings in this festival? Now, you walk into a unknown movie by chance and then realize that, hey, it’s actually good! The word of the offerings needs to get out. More promotion should have been given to films such as «Go West» by Ahmed Imamovic, a Bosnian Muslim. I had not heard of this film, but I was still under the spell of Bosnia-Herzegovina due to a recent visit. I had gone to Sarajevo for a most exciting theater festival and left impressed by how a country long associated with war and destruction is now emerging as a place where young Muslims are trying to cultivate a new and exciting culture. «Go West» is also the title of the classic 1940 Marx Brothers comedy about a rodeo, but the Bosnian film is nothing like an old Western. The new movie is a sensitive film that tells the tender story of a gay couple – a Muslim and a Serb – who flee ethnic cleansing by pretending to be a married heterosexual couple. The story is told without any explicit scenes which might upset our homophobic society. «We like to joke that it’s a film about Romeo and Romeo,» joked the film’s producer, Samir Smajic. Homosexuality is one of the great taboos of a predominantly Islamic Bosnian society. It has been always been hidden. «So people don’t know how to react when it comes to the surface. They feel threatened,» a young student told me in Sarajevo. I was told there were death threats against the director and his 9-year-old son. Ever since that horrid transvestite in Fellini’s «La Dolce Vita» predicted 45 years ago that everyone would be homosexual by the year 2000, gay and lesbian moviegoers have been anticipating the mass screen outing. This hasn’t happened, of course, but the coming-out movie seems to be maturing and emerging as a category of its own. Yiannis Diamantopoulos’s «True Blue» is the story of Giorgos (Nikos Nanouris) who, after working as a dancer in Paris, takes extreme turns in his life. He prostitutes himself, has a sex-change operation, and gets involved in a tragic mother-murder (the mother is played by an excellent Rania Economidou). Greeks also approach their sexual conquests in the same way as Bosnians. We both tend to do it with a blustery wholeness, a take-no-prisoners rage that can only lead to destruction or perhaps catharsis. That shows in «True Blue» and «Go West.» On Friday the State Theater of Northern Greece presented its most ambitious production this season – Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz’s play «Operetta» – the grotesque parabolic «Operetta» is about history and revolutions of the 20th century. Written in the 1960s, «Operetta» has been used here with all possible stereotypes as a – secret – weapon against Soviet lies. For its time, it is a truly political play, yet it seems hardly comprehensible after 1989. Nowadays young people hardly look east for inspiration in revolution, as was the case when the Iron Curtain still existed. The director is Vassilis Nikolaidis. Actors Vera Krouska (who gives a virtuoso performance), Angelos Papadimitriou, Yiannis Siamsiaris and Tassos Yiannopoulos have the leading roles. So maybe Thessaloniki’s film festival is no Sundance, home to probably the most innovative of film festivals. It is also no Budapest festival, where one can see some of the best modern performances of our time. But it is our home.

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