Licna DisciplinaLate 1960, Northern Greece: the Thessaloniki Film Festival is launched, and my father, aged 27, emigrates to Australia. Late 2009: the Thessaloniki festival celebrates its 50th edition, and I re-locate from Australia to Greece.

As a cinephile living in Melbourne, for years I was enamoured with European film culture and festivals such as Cannes and Rotterdam, but only from afar. Last year, 2008, was the first time I actually travelled to Europe, attending the 14th Athens International Film Festival and the 53rd Cork Film Festival. That experience has paved the way for my current foray into Europe.

European film culture speaks to me. I understand the language of the Nouvelle Vague, the dynamics of Italian neo-realism, the ingenuity of the New German Cinema. I love the French “new extremity”, I marvel at Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira and Pedro Costa, and I still smile at Buñuel. Eastern European cinema has never appealed to me though, but that’s okay. And Greek cinema? More than anything, I feel for it. Then again, it’s personal, even though I was never really that “Greek” when I was living in Melbourne.

Attending the 14th Athens International Film Festival last year was like swimming in the ocean after years of admiring it from the safety of the shore. Is this an unfair analogy to make? Is this putting down the country that after all housed me and nurtured my love of cinema for years? Not at all. Australia is a young country after all, it hasn’t got the heritage that Greece or France has. At the underground or independent level, it has an excellent artistic output; at the mainstream level, it is severely wanting. It is a civilised country, politically correct, the climate is good, things work – but sometimes that ain’t enough.

At the Athens International Film Festival (AIFF henceforth) last year, I saw madmen take over Q&A sessions, I heard festival programmers talking in Greek, French and English all at once, I felt arrogance pouring out of everyone (filmmakers, the audience, the festival organisers) – in a word, there was a clear and passionate engagement with cinema that everyone seemed to have. The Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) is a far bigger festival, with more adventurous programming, but when its audience sits through a Kim Ki-duk or Philippe Grandrieux film in a polite and orderly fashion, then walks out and sips on a latte, clearly unaffected by the film – well, what is that worth?

AIFF is a developing festival, this year’s 15th incarnation highlighting the fact that it now needs to push for more. Its moniker is actually “Opening Nights – the Athens International Film Festival”, and this stems from the fact that its original aim was to simply act as a preview facility for upcoming theatrical releases. In recent years it has been developing into a more conventional, i.e. serious, film festival, programming more independent work (unlikely to be released) and retrospective programs. Its main problem currently seems to be infrastructure (too few staff) and (I’m guessing) funding. It is only a medium-sized festival in terms of numbers of films and sessions, every day kicking off only in the early evening. It is a popular festival, Athenians flocking to it in large numbers, so it is ripe for expansion.

The 15th AIFF occurred between September 16 and 27, amongst a great buzz about the local cinema, the “Greek New Wave” as Artistic Director Orestis Andreadakis puts it in the festival’s catalogue. But the festival fudged this buzz, by not screening one of the Greek films at the Opening Night session, instead opting for the facile English coming-of-age tale An Education (dir. Lone Scherfig). Equally safe was the Closing Night film, Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces), by director Pedro Almodóvar, who now seems to be coasting after a wonderful period where he upped the ante. And there were any number of other audience-friendly commercial films programmed by the festival: Taking Woodstock (dir. Ang Lee), The Informant (dir. Steven Soderbergh), Julie & Julia (dir. Nora Ephron), Mary and Max (dir. Adam Elliot).

I caught a number of other commercial titles, ones for the arthouse market, and actually derived some pleasure from them: Louise-Michel (dirs. Gustave de Kervern & Benoît Delépine), an anarchist feel-good film about two oddball characters; Adventureland (dir. Greg Mottola), a charming, well-acted character piece; and Darbareye Elly (About Elly, dir. Asghar Farhadi), an engaging but ultimately overcooked Iranian drama. It must be said however that the festival programmed too many of these type of middle-brow “indie” films.

In this context, Pedro Costa’s Ne Change Rien stood out like a flaming beacon. Precisely because of its dark, sculpted images and ethereal, haunting sounds. A documentary, a meditation, an observation, an experiment, call it what you will, it is a beautiful film about the actress/singer Jeanne Balibar, recording, rehearsing, performing her songs. Minimal but never abstract, the film is hyper-real and dream-like at the same time. A welcome addition to the oeuvre of one of the world’s most interesting directors currently.

MacunaimaAnd there were some more good films to be found in the margins. Somewhat arbitrarily, but I like this kind of strategy, there was a “Cult Retrospective” strand featuring 20 or so titles that had little in common with each other. It was here that I saw Macunaíma, a Brazilian film from 1969, directed by Joaquim Pedro de Andrade. Probably, as the catalogue note outlines, an allegory on Brazilian life and politics, it is nonetheless enjoyable at surface level, as a colourful, zany, free-narrative anarchist piece, like a wonderful marriage of Buñuel and Jerry Lewis. Hands down the film of the festival.

Actual retrospectives of auteurs at the festival: Zbigniew Rybczynski, Jørgen Leth and Sion Sono. All three directors were at the festival to present and discuss their films. I caught some of the titles from the first two directors. Rybczynski is a video artist primarily, interested in effects. Some of the short films, such as Take Five (1972), are like “entertaining avant-garde”, if I may use such a conjunction, but other of his films are like scientific studies, very cold. Leth is also somewhat scientific in his approach, which, again, strangles the life out of his subjects. Den umulige time (The Impossible Hour, 1975), about cyclist Ole Ritter’s attempt at a cycling record, doesn’t quite have the poetry and mystery of, for example, Werner Herzog’s similar films of the time. But Kinesisk bordtennis (Chinese Ping-Pong, 1972), a shorter and simpler film, focused more on the play rather than the player, is enjoyable.

DogtoothLast but not least, oh certainly not least, the Greek films at the festival. This was actually the first time Greek audiences could see the lauded titles Kynodontas (Dogtooth, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos), Strella (dir. Panos H. Koutras) and Akadimia Platonos (Plato’s Academy, dir. Fillipos Tsitos), which screened at, respectively, Cannes, Berlin, Locarno. I felt the full-house audience for Dogtooth didn’t quite know what to make of it, but were there to bear witness anyway. I myself let the film wash over me with its severe arthouse style, and very much enjoyed it, but I also knew it was a problematic film, as it is far too close in form and content to several of Michael Haneke’s films. This mars the film badly actually, and puts pressure on the director for a decent follow-up.

The other Greek films: Plato’s Academy is an engaging little dry comedy about racism, that, unfortunately, is racist in itself (in the way it postulates an inherent negative connotation to the designation “Albanian”); Strella I didn’t get to see; To kako – Stin epohi ton iroon (Evil – In the Time of Heroes, dir. Yorgos Noussias) is a cracking zombie film with some nice twists in it and certainly has a great energy to it, though ultimately it’s part of its genre, nothing genre-bending; and, the best Greek film I saw, the short Madonna Calls Fassbinder, by Dimitri Athanitis, a demented TV soap parody with a wicked sense of humour.

This disparate group of films hardly constitutes a “New Wave” I would suggest, but at least some of these films are making an impression on film festivals worldwide, and this can perhaps open a door for the appreciation of Greek cinema, as Greek films have not travelled too well over the years (apart from Angelopoulos obviously, and a few other titles here and there).

It’s been a strange year for Greek cinema actually. On top of this recognition of certain titles in international film festivals, many Greek producers and directors have banded together politically this year under the name “Filmmakers of Greece” (FoG) to protest against the lack of implementation of a 1988 government law regarding box office revenue. This has resulted in a boycott of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival (TIFF), which each year screens all the Greek feature films made in the past 12 months, and which also hosts the State Film Awards. So, in this year’s celebratory 50th edition of the festival, the Greek films were missing. Well, most of them. Greeks being Greeks, some directors were against the boycott, so their films still screened at TIFF, as well as a couple of international co-productions, and several digital features.

Elvis' Last SongAgain, these films are a disparate bunch: Ama de se Thelei (A Matter of Luck, dir. Vassilis Nemeas) shares the same dry, philosophical humour as Plato’s Academy, but is ultimately a conventional concoction; I Diathiki tou Ierea Ioanni Melie (The Will of Father Jean Meslier, dir. Dimitris Kollatos) is a rigorous study of Catholic questioning, but very uncinematic; Mikres Exegerseis (Small Revolts, dir. Kyriakos Katzourakis) is a fine drama about domestic abuse, with a great central performance by Katia Gerou; Horevontas ston Pago (Dancing on Ice, dir. Stavros Ioannou) is a lifeless portrait of three Eastern Bloc women trying to cross into Greece; To Telefteo Tragoudi tou Elvis (Elvis’ Last Song, dir. Vassilis Raisis) is a fun and touching story of 20-something relationships, with a great sense of music.

TIFF is a wonderful festival overall: not overlong (10 days), but still packed with lots to see; not pretentious or showy, but still able to pull off excellent honorary ceremonies for its main guests; not intellectual, but still able to conduct good Masterclasses with its guests. The festival is also blessed with great venues: on the one hand the beautiful Olympion Theatre, and on the other a dedicated pier with various converted warehouses, which creates a magical “city within a city” feel.

The Opening Ceremony, wanting to celebrate the festival’s 50th anniversary in style, had some great lighting effects, a wonderful MC, a haunting projection on the façade of the theatre (which was transmitted via video into the auditorium), but also a cheesy 3D presentation, and a film – Soul Kitchen by Fatih Akin – that is simply a feel-good comedy with little going for it artistically. The Closing Ceremony unfortunately had a reprise of the 3D presentation, but otherwise was a well-executed ceremony handing out the festival’s awards.

Firstly and foremostly, great kudos to the festival for the “Experimental Forum” section, a veritable festival-within-the-festival, masterfully orchestrated by programmer Vassilis Bourikas. The Forum consisted of 11 sessions, plus several side-bar events, with Bourikas himself introducing and discussing all the works with great knowledge and passion. He writes in the program notes: “To flout the protocol of the mainstream is no real challenge for a section that deals with the Avant-Garde. To understand what is unconventional and truly vanguard within its own structures is much more important today for Experimental Film.” And indeed, this Forum was a treasure-trove of unexpected delights, works distinctly individual in their own right, but works that also challenge notions of cinema, narrative, form.

Litany of Happy PeopleThe core of the program was five sessions of Yugoslav work, spanning the years 1960 to 1985, short works from amateur filmmakers, and also those with more professional aspirations, many of them fostered by certain “kino clubs” that existed at the time. And what films these are – their energy is palpable, films of resistance and psychodrama and great experimentation with cinema form. Kako su me prvi put fotografisali (The First Photo of Me Ever Taken, dir. Milenko Jovanović, 1971) is one frame long, which is a conceit, a gimmick, but it also works, and is daring to boot; Licna Disciplina (Personal Discipline, dirs. Miroslav-Bata Petrović & Julijana Terek, 1983) is a half-hour tour-de-force, a subversive scream featuring a woman shaving her head and displaying it on the streets; Drugovi i Drugarice (Friends, dir. Slobodan Mičić, 1985), a late addition to the program, is a punk-philosophical manifesto, wild collage editing capturing the mood of the times; Zdravi ljudi za razonodu (Litany of Happy People, dir. Karpo Godina, 1969-71) is a folk-musical gallery of multi-ethnic faces and places, at once joyful and teasing – the stand-out film of the entire festival for me; Arme Leute (Poor People, dir. Vlado Kristl, 1963) is a fascinating “performance” piece (as existential parable) featuring a group of uniformly-clad men running and jumping; the list goes on – too many highlights to mention.

One of the Yugoslav filmmakers, the Serbian Ljubomir Šimunić, was given an entire session to himself: four films totalling an hour, all the films made in the 1970s on 8mm. And, commendably, the festival screened the films in their original format. Pression (1970-75) and Gerdy, Ziocesta Vjestica (Gerdy, the Wicked Witch, 1973-76) are richly visual films, Šimunić employing up to three (four even?) superimpositions at times, without things getting messy, and the combination with American radio playing disco, funk and psychedelia makes for distinctive cinema indeed; Summer Dreams (1976-78) is an unrestrained expression of the director’s voyeurism, as he surreptitiously films bikini-clad (and naked) girls from his beach cabin window, living up to his motto “The art melts into erection”; and Sta slavicu ocekuje u zivotu (Slavica’s Expected Life Traps, 1978) has Šimunić present at his friends’ party, with his camera of course, and, of course, he proceeds to up-skirt the females – a delirious home movie cum orgiastic feast.

Tweets Ladies of PasadenaThe Experimental Forum ventured away from Yugoslavia as well, and this eclectic programming served it very well. For a start, that menacing American actor Timothy Carey got a guernsey with a whacky skit-comedy Tweet’s Ladies of Pasadena (directed by Carey himself, 1970), which is a complete delight. Also: Italian theatre director Carmelo Bene was represented by two of his feature films, Nostra signora dei turchi (Our Lady of the Turks, 1968) and Salomè (1972), which I found very unappealing and uncinematic. A program of Jeff Keen films, a program of classic avant-garde films (for kids!), a Harun Farocki film, a stunning expanded cinema show by French trio Metamkine, and a “Derailed Cinema” program projected inside the Thessaloniki train station rounded things out nicely.

The importance of retrospective packages cannot be underestimated, and luckily for us cinephiles many festivals these days have a number of retrospective sessions, counterbalancing the at times absolute dross of new releases. TIFF this year had a comprehensive package of Werner Herzog’s films – again, a little festival-within-the-festival, if you were a Herzog fan. There was also quite a full retrospective of the works of the Serbian Goran Paskaljević.

Speaking of the devil, there were plenty of new films of course, and it was impossible to fail to notice that most of the good ones were in the strand labelled “Independence Days”, programmed by Lefteris Adamidis. The highlights: Bruno Dumont’s new film Hadewijch, a typically solid rendering of a young girl’s existential intensity by this most stirring director of “the primal”; Beeswax (dir. Andrew Bujalski) and Alexander the Last (dir. Joe Swanberg), two new entries in the so-called “mumblecore” American indie genre, and they are indeed impressive works, pushing naturalism into a distinctive terrain; Morfiy (Morphia, dir. Alexey Balabanov) has a somewhat unattractive gothic patina, but enough shocks along the way to keep one interested; and Madeo (Mother, dir. Bong Joon-ho) has a mainstream, commercial sensibility, but is still enjoyable thanks to a great performance by Kim Hye-ja as the driven mother.

SewerAlso under the umbrella of Independence Days, was a strand “Philippines Rising”, comprising 15 or so titles from the past few years, from a variety of directors, films that have been sweeping the world’s major film festivals in a genuine “New Wave” of cinema, albeit in digital form. I must admit I’m a newcomer to this cinema, so I was curious to check some titles out. I saw: Imburnal (Sewer, dir. Sherad Anthony Sanchez, 2008), a beautifully metaphysical 3.5 hour epic that reminded me of Apichatpong Weerasethakul no less; The Muzzled Horse of an Engineer in Search of Mechanical Saddles (dir. Khavn de la Cruz, 2008), with live music by The Brockas, a film at once exciting, perverse, silly, mundane; Walang alaala ang mga paru-paro (Butterflies Have No Memories, dir. Lav Diaz, 2009), a calm, assured, realistic study of a group of people facing tough times; and Tirador (Slingshot, Brillante Mendoza, 2007), a more frenetic, frayed type of realism, and somehow ineffective because of that.

This year’s TIFF posed (through its logo/presentation) the question “Why cinema now?” For me, that question was answered with the special screening “From 1 to 50: The 50th TIFF meets the 1st week of Greek cinema”, where Greek director Nikos Koundouros presented a reprise screening of his film The River (1960), one of four feature films programmed at the very first “TIFF”, in September 1960. Koundouros, now 83, was re-united with a number of his crew members from The River, including the noted director Costas Ferris, and they all re-lived the time with some revealing anecdotes. The session also honoured a number of people who inspired and organised the festival in its first few years.

Why cinema now? Because it is our chosen medium, not for art, but for the transmission of “life”, our lives, experiences, feelings, thoughts. One day, when we too are 83, we will look back and wonder at the marvel of our endeavours. In 1960 there was The River, in 2009 Dogtooth, and fifty more years from now: more great cinema, perhaps in a technical form unimaginable to us today, but nevertheless a form of “cinema”.

And I also have no doubt that film festivals will continue to be staged, as we now know them. The challenge for these two major Greek film festivals is clear: TIFF needs to continue being an important festival for Balkan cinema and experimental cinema, at the same time avoiding Hollywood glitz, whilst AIFF needs to ween itself off commercial releases and carve a particular niche for itself in the world of film festivals. The future looks rosy for both.

Athens International Film Festival
16-27 September, 2009
Festival website: http://www.aiff.gr/

Thessaloniki International Film Festival
13-22 November, 2009
Festival website: http://tiff.filmfestival.gr