Letter from Thessaloniki

Last week, as Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis called once more on the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to abandon its intransigence in the name dispute with Greece and cooperate to find a way out of the impasse if it wishes to be taken seriously as a potential member of NATO, in another tough game for a top spot, Thessaloniki’s basketball club Aris lost to Lietyvos Rytas in Lithuania. The sad score was 77-70. Meanwhile the International Film Festival, already in its 48th year, was launched two days ago. Despite its efforts under the previous, undoubtedly more inspired management to present itself as highbrow and serious, this film festival has done its best under the present administration to put on a little glitter. Sadly, without great success. With more than 500 film festivals around the world, it seems especially hard to compete, say, with the oldest one of all. The Venice festival has been running since 1932 – and the best reason for going to Venice to watch films (of all things) is that any reason for going to Venice is a good one. Or take overcrowded Cannes with its exclusive grand spectacles, its fits of celebrity misbehavior and most importantly its exclusivity. Even next to the somewhat provincially minded Berlin and its Berlinale, where total attendance runs at over 500,000, Thessaloniki appears to be a poor relative. And although juvenile and youthful in character, it can by no means compare to Robert Redford’s inspiration which is the Sundance Film Festival, Utah, the mecca of independent filmmakers. No, Thessaloniki cannot possibly make its name with the discovery of some Blair Witch Project, since all films have been screened somewhere else before arriving here. It is not even Slamdance or Slamdunk or Lapdance, Nodance or whatever similar festival. Unable to attract visitors from further afield, apart some film-loving fanatics from the capital and the Greek provinces, Thessaloniki often appears as nothing more than schmoozing parties for the locals. Yet the film festival gets bigger every year, with special sections for independent films, foreign and documentary films, digital films, new media, and an amazing schedule of seminars and symposia. In recent years it has been accused of gigantism. With the name issue still unresolved, the capital of Macedonia, Thessaloniki, is this year hosting a film from the FYR of Macedonia. Confusing, no? In the program «Balkan Survey,» the non-mainstream film «Upside Down,» according to its director Igor Ivanov (34), is a co-production with Croatia and Serbia. As Ivanov said in an interview in Karlovy Vary, where it was screened at the film festival there, «the audience and the critics gave it epithets of «dark,» «cruel,» «uncompromising,» «a return to expressionism» and «black wave.» All this makes me really happy, because it is giving «Upside Down» some sort of exclusivity; no one is dealing with the narrative or geographic component as so often happens. A title that sounds as characteristic as the hot-cold relations between our two neighboring countries. (Oh yes, Karlovy Vary is another major film festival in July. Older people know this charming baroque spa by its German name: Karlsbad. Back in 1946, the state sponsored the first hard Stalinist festival here.) «Upside Down» is the story of Jan Ludvik, a circus performer who leaves the circus and goes back to the place from where he was expelled. Fourteen Greek movies – all produced in the last 12 months – will be screened in Thessaloniki. Remarkably, there has been very little market research into modern Greek cinema audiences. However recent box-office figures show that once again and after decades – in fact since the 1960s – local audiences prefer to watch Greek productions. But unlike previous generations, young audiences are turning their back on sophisticated Angelopoulos-like arid intellectual epics choked with philosophical allusion and cloying nostalgic melodramas on the nation’s multi-faceted historical misfortune. Yiannis Smaragdis’s «El Greco,» which will also be shown in the Greek section of the festival has already worked miracles in terms of box-office figures. So far, the film has sold more than 565,000 tickets. Olga Malea’s «First Time Godfather,» based on a story by Nicos Papandreou, has attracted 189,000 viewers and is going strong. «Two of the three Greek films that have opened are currently in the box office top five. Judging from the figures, it seems that audiences are eager to watch Greek films, when the latter are aimed at movie theaters, as opposed to being screened at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival,» notes Kathimerini’s film critic Panayiotis Panagopoulos. With tickets that are inexpensive and a typical program of imported must-sees, each November Thessaloniki takes on the atmosphere of a youth hostel, as backpacking movie fans from nearby universities descend on the most accessible of Greek festivals. If anything, it’s fun.