Letter from Thessaloniki

This is the season before Christmas, when the film scene in Thessaloniki breaks out in high-brow shows. Movies come in all shapes and sizes, and with all manner of intentions, agendas, and missions. For the 43rd year it’s, once again, Film Festival time. Containing the University of Thessaloniki, the University of Macedonia and institutes of higher education, the city is Greece’s largest university town. And that, probably more than anything else, explains its present-day charms and certainly its extraordinary number of cafes – indoor, outdoor, along the promenade, scattered through restored neighborhoods, with decor ranging from Art Nouveau to New Age. It also explains why most of the festival screenings were, at all times, sold out. Young people prevailed. And it will be mainly young people once again who will be mobilized (on a much larger scale than in Barcelona) in this town next June according to the members of the movement «Action Thessaloniki 2003,» who gathered here last weekend (among them representatives of the Communist parties in Denmark, Slovenia and Turkey and the Labor parties in Belgium, Turkey and Ireland) to coordinate actions throughout the Greek EU presidency and during the June 2003 EU Summit meeting in Thessaloniki and Halkidiki. It seems the time has come for Salonica to make common cause with Genoa. But this is only idle supposition. The six peaceable young actors from six well-aged European countries – all of them hopeful international stars that were catapulted joyously onto the stage of «Olympion» on Saturday night – were part of a sponsored program by European Film Promotion to battle against US film-globalization. A program called, not insignificantly, «Shooting Stars.» Incidentally, their presentation was followed by something more mature, almost moldy in fact: «Lily’s Story.» At the beginning of 73-year-old Roviros Manthoulis’s picture – probably the most unimpressive and complexly imagined Greek/foreign co-production of the year – a filmmaker is preparing a film that is doomed. Art has followed life here. In the early ’70s, while Greece was going through the military dictatorship, Melina Mercouri – living in Paris at the time – had the idea of making a film denouncing the junta. Manthoulis was to direct it. The film was never made. Now, «Lily’s Story» recounts the life of Greek intellectuals self-exiled to Paris and in an expatriate’s no-man’s-land. Threading its way through important and unimportant events, this incoherent and half-baked movie struggles without success to squeeze life into a frame. The public discussion after the screening proved – or so it appeared to me – that for the younger audience, words like junta and dictatorship are simply a used-up Kleenex. In time, all things merge. The story of an underground terrorist organization, plus a business tycoon just released from prison, of high-powered executives, go-getting judges and determined reporters would seem to offer a perfect star vehicle for Takis Papayiannidis, who directed «Secret November,» yet the unconvincing narrative did not allow him to shape a performance. Trying much too hard to be funny, Nikos Perakis’s film «The Bubble» tells the story of victims trapped in a plummeting stock market. But the actors don’t really click. A fascinating cinema verite documentary account of seven guards of archaeological sites in Greece was provided by Margarita Manda’s «Guardians of Time.» Stylized, cool, nasty fun is to be had in «Loser Takes All» by Nikos Nikolaidis. A forlorn man in his 40s finds a companion in a 19-year-old adolescent. A calm, sunny comedy from Katerina Evangelakou, «Think it Over,» targets the delusions of ordinary folk in the Greek provinces. As usual, films about troubled teens abounded. By turn earnest and whimsical, insightful and puerile, five 15-year-olds are the heroes of the daringly sophisticated road movie «The World Again» by Nikos Cornelios. That is to speak of just a few of the hundreds of films that have been shown in the last 10 days here. Contrary to rumors, and thanks to festivals containing after-midnight programs like «Orgasmic Cinema,» American independent film is not dead. Sadly, there was no written information provided by the festival on some of the «experimental» short films, which were interesting, if painful, to watch. I am referring, accusingly, to the undulating motion of rotoscoped animation – the result of drawing over a live-action image. A fire in 1917, the deportation of the Jewish community in the 1940s and an earthquake in 1978 did much to destroy the city’s multicultural character to the point where now, with the exception of events such as the yearly film festival, Thessaloniki for the most part looks like a typical product of unadventurous modern Greek urban and cultural planning. Some more notes on the Festival: Resistant to easy classification, Nikos Grammatikos’s interesting movie «The King» is about a man who decides to make a break with his shady past and clashes with his environment. Furthermore, «In the Shadow of Lemmy Caution,» by Nikos Zervos, is an astute tale of mystery, murder and revenge that has the inevitability and deliberate pace of a French film noir of the ’50s. However, my personal Thessaloniki favourites were the Mexican films by the mercurial Jaime Humberto Hermossiloas, and, of course, the film remarkable for its technical simplicity, «10/Ten» by Iranian Abbas Kiarostami – and not only because he shot it with a digital camera. I love digital cameras. As a matter of fact, I am using one myself for the series of documentaries we – myself and Pantelis Savvidis – are making for ET3 television on the new states of the EU. Now, with the end of the festival and all this art at our fingertips, we have to forcibly stop ourselves from getting lazy and forgetting what art cinema is. At least, for the near future.

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