Feature image: Forget Me Not
This year the Thessaloniki International Film Festival (TIFF) celebrated its 55th year of continuous existence as a national film competition, and its 22nd as an international festival with a competitive section for emerging directors. (1) It also coincided with the celebration of 100 years of Greek cinema. An impressive-sounding achievement for a country in the throes of a neo-liberal economic restructuring that has severely eroded its public institutions. However, not all is well in the state of the Greek film world. With great tenacity and steadfast determination, local filmmakers continue to collectively create an interesting body of feature films. But they are working in an increasingly insecure domestic financial arena, and despite the many success stories abroad and occasionally at home, the tensions and cracks surface at film events, including the Thessaloniki Festival, one of the oldest in the Balkans and a key player in Greece’s cinematic history. In the misty autumn mornings and chilly evenings of this northern city, many a local filmmaker’s dreams and hopes ride on the wave of a 90-minute screening and the reactions of audience, jury and critics.
TIFF’s precarious finances and operational difficulties were evident this year in the reduced number of guests, publications and events. The comparative budget figures over the last five years (8.488 million euros in 2009, and 1.350 for 2014) speak for themselves. These sums cover TIFF’s all year-round expenses, including the annual Documentary Festival. This year’s TIFF program was run on a budget of 700,000 euros and its realisation was in part due to the support it received from a number of foreign consulates and cultural institutions. To add to the Festival’s difficulties, this year coincided with a hiatus between the European Union’s six-year funding programs for member states, causing a further shortfall. The Festival Director Dimitris Eipidis spoke of “scrimping and saving” on all fronts in a tooth-and-nail fight to retain the Festival’s international profile and deliver films to its screens. And deliver it did, with 150 films from around the world in its distinctive sections, the International Competition, Open Horizons, Balkan Survey, Tributes, European Parliament’s LUX Prize, and Youth Screen. The Greek Film section included 36 films, boosted by 20 films celebrating its 100-year history.
To understand TIFF within the current Greek feature film landscape we need to keep in mind the changes that have occurred over the last five years. Since 2010 when local filmmakers revolted on mass under the banner of “FoG” (Filmmakers of Greece), the old government sponsored film awards have been replaced by the Hellenic Film Academy Awards run by film practitioners themselves. (2) In many respects, TIFF has been hit simultaneously on a number of fronts: financial debt from the past (only recently cleared), continuous severe budget cuts, and a loss of its once prestigious and dominant role in the Greek cinema calendar. TIFF has emerged from the crisis years a damaged institution trying desperately to keep its distinctive role in the film culture of the country, and internationally.
A number of tensions can be discerned in public discourse on Greek cinema. One is the persistent feeling, and at times vocal complaint, that Greek films play second fiddle at TIFF to high-profile international entries. This is a conflicted argument however, which, while harking back to the hey-days of the Festival as a strictly national event, cannot but concede that today, more than ever before, Greek films need to compete both domestically and internationally. Another aspect to the tension is that in the last five years, Greek filmmakers often choose to release or premiere their films commercially or at alternate non-government funded festivals (e.g. Athens International Film Festival) and thus are technically excluded from competing in TIFF whose criteria include first or second film by director, and no release in Greece prior to the festival. This mix of tensions and changes often elicit rumblings and expressions of discontent. The diminishing number of entries in the Greek Films section in recent years has only reinforced the perception of a publicly-funded festival that neglects its domestic filmmakers. Added to this, is the fact that legislative reforms passed in 2010, and in part prompted by the lobbying of the FoGists, have not translated to more funds for filmmakers. In fact, many of the old problems of nepotism and government interference in public institutions continue under the New Democracy-PASOK coalition government. In the months leading up to TIFF, the Hellenic Film Academy and other industry guilds publicly exhorted the government to allow the directors of both TIFF and the main government film-funding and promotions body, the Greek Film Centre (GFC), to continue their work unhindered by interference from government-nominated board members. Their complaint was that in a period of economic crisis, just as Greek films are beginning to build a track-record, the filmmaking community desperately needs stable and supportive public film bodies. The sudden and autocratic closure of the public broadcaster ERT in 2013 was another blow to many filmmakers who were left high and dry with unpaid services and dishonoured contracts. For example, Panos Koutras’ Xenia was left in financial limbo in the middle of its shoot. With this background in mind, the numbers, achievements, trends, appearances and absences of Greek feature films at TIFF, take on added dimensions.
There were only seven Greek films premiering at TIFF this year, and of these, two were selected for the International Competition, the much-awaited Forget Me Not and Norway. As in earlier years, one suspects that the desire to bolster numbers in this section has resulted in a stretching of criteria and a willingness to include features of varying genres and categories (e.g. a number of films that traverse the border between theatre performance and cinema). This year, as a nod to the 100 years of Greek cinema, TIFF included nine Greek features already released prior to the Festival. This meant that the 2014 Greek films included a number of films that have already picked up international awards (e.g. Xenia, A Blast and Stratos). Also in the Greek Films section were 20 films which received the most votes out of 200 films posted on a TIFF website for the tribute “1914-2014: 100 years of Greek cinema”. Finally, in the same section, as in recent years, 16 award-winning short films were screened from the 2014 Short Film Festival in Drama.
While the 100-year tribute gave audiences the chance to see many classic Greek features, now firmly recognised as landmarks in cinema history, it lacked the breadth and curatorial thoroughness of the 45 films that toured the world 20 years ago under the title “CineMythology: A Retrospective of Greek Film”. The invitation to vote on the final 20, while participatory, suggests an ad hoc and popularist approach that doesn’t quite match the momentous occasion of a centenary of cinema history. The original list of 200 also received criticism for the absence of some significant films. Although the final 20 included many great films, the selection by popular vote also produced some strange results. For example, included was Pantelis Voulgaris’ recent feature Little England, which, while a film with high production values, is a broad-appeal romance that doesn’t have the cinematic originality of the director’s earlier films like Anna’s Engagement (1972)and Happy Day (1977). One suspects that many voters had either not seen these works or were influenced by their recent viewing of Little England and its accolades.
Of the seven Greek films premiering at TIFF, Manos Karystinos’ Dark Illusion, Yannis Veslemes’ Norway andYannis Fagras’ Forget Me Not stood out. Dark Illusion is a first feature by a young director exploring the theme of mental illness through the genre of the psychological thriller. Shot very tightly with minimal social context, the film doesn’t achieve anything of the razor-edged tension of a Vertigo. Still it does stake out an interesting, if not fully-explored, subject area in contemporary Greek film, and this with a certain youthful appeal. This may be the reason it won the audience Michael Cacoyannis Award in the Greek Films section, against much more accomplished films.
Veslemes’ Norway is a contemporary story about a free-spirited vampire Zano who dances his way through a strange underworld disco joint in Athens, while Aliki, an agent of a sinister military cast tries to convince him to sink his teeth into the Leader, a Methuselah-like figure, so the latter can achieve eternal life. With certain similarities to Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, it is an entertaining and often bleakly funny romp through a time-warped space that reeks sweetly of death, debauchery and addiction. The main character, played by the always intense and charismatic Vangelis Mourikis, stumbles through this world with absurdist quips and defiance of authority. His gruesome end comes with a stake through the heart after he stubbornly refuses to submit. The opening shots, intercut between a model railway set and a real train, create a playful cross over between prosaic and phantasmagorical reality. The film is inspired by the spoof horror lyrics of a 1984 rock song with the line “Norway descends on the Mediterranean”. A genre movie that expresses many of the cinema preferences of younger Greek audiences and directors, it will be interesting to see how well it travels overseas. It received the FIPRESCI award for the Greek Films section.
Yannis Fagras’ Forget Me Not, an ambitious “road movie” on the freezing seas of Alaska, divided its audiences. His first feature Still Looking for Morphine (2001), a low budget black-and-white film, received critical acclaim and commercial success, and made it to TIFF’s 20 most popular Greek films. Ten years in the making (due in great part to funding and other difficulties with the Greek Film Centre), Forget Me Not is an intriguing and visually alluring film, despite its surface narrative gaps. The story is relatively simple. Alex, a professional diver, has left Greece and his lover, Daphne, for work in the U.S. from where he forgets to return. He journeys to Alaska to perform a dangerous dive, while Daphne also arrives there to reunite with him. Chance will see to it that their paths never cross. The real narrative of the film however is the boat voyage in the Bering Sea towards the site of the dive, whose exact goal is never revealed. Panagiotis Salapatas’ cinematography captures the menacing power of the sea and magnificent distant snow-capped mountains, while the soundtrack builds suspense with repeated guitar riffs. A “heart of darkness” journey, the film cinematically reminds one of Joseph Conrad’s literary statement, “Most things and most natures have nothing but a surface.” (3) A number of critics, impatient with the minimal narrative and plot information, dismissed the film as a failed love story with no character development. However, the film stakes its artistic authenticity on the interplay between a deeper visual narrative and the surface story, keeping plot information to a minimum. It is in this balance that the film may lose its audience. Forget Me Not lends itself to multiple readings in its evocative exploration of liminal spaces: chance and will, desire and impossibility, life and death, fear and calm, East and West, human fate and the power of nature… A film that will most probably go on exasperating some and intriguing others.
Amongst the nine films added to the official entries in the Greek Films section, there were a number of stand-outs characterised by different styles and thematic interests. Christos Voupouras’ 7 Kinds of Wrath continues his earlier cinematic explorations of the relationship between Greeks and their contemporary Other, migrants and refugees, whose poverty and otherness both repel and attract the mainstream social imaginative. Shot almost entirely in black-and-white, it follows the life of a middle-aged archaeologist who begins a relationship with a young Egyptian worker in a milieu where gay Greek and foreign men meet. The film has a loose narrative structure but an assured focus on the cultural and social borders that exist in matters of love and desire between individuals of unequal status. An honest, restrained and contemplative cinematic gaze at the spaces between people and their need for intimacy.
Margarita Manda’s Forever is another film with a slow narrative pace which builds into a tender and poetic drama about loneliness in the big city. Costas, a train driver on the line between the centre of Athens and the port, has fallen in love with Anna, a female passenger who makes the same journey every day to her work in a ferry-boat office. After years of silently watching her, Costas finally makes himself known. The narrative builds slowly with repeated shots of train journeys and the grey cityscape, while the solitude of the characters begins to open up as they find each other. The film continues the director’s earlier exploration in Gold Dust (2009)of personal lives and memories in the city of Athens.
Nikos Kornilios’ Matriarchy is a cinematic exploration of contemporary women’s voices through a combination of documentary, workshop improvisation and loose narrative. Ostensibly the story is about 60 women of diverse backgrounds, ages and nationalities who turn up at a Women’s Shelter threatened with eviction. The real story however is seven days of multiple stories, conversations, confessions, arguments and emotional high points arising from the experiences and articulations of women. The film continually crisscrosses the line between documentary and fiction, the emotional impact of the scenes making the issue of which holds true superfluous. An unusual film that provides an interesting insight into contemporary female and feminist discourse in Greece. Kornilios is a director whose strength in recent years lies in his work with ensemble casts and improvisation.
Panos Koutras’ Xenia, premiering at Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard, is his fourth feature and follows his 2009 knock-out movie A Woman’s Way (Greek title: Strella). Xenia is a lighter and more playful film that follows the quest by two brothers, Danny and Odysseus, to find their biological Greek father after their Albanian mother’s death. The character of 16 year-old Danny, a mix of teenage camp and street-wise kid, is the main focus of the narrative. His dreamy and impetuous take on life constantly lands the brothers in trouble. Their journey from Athens to Thessaloniki, where Odysseus is to compete in a song contest and their rich father is rumoured to live, is simultaneously a journey through a contemporary Greek social and economic landscape. The question the film indirectly raises is where do these young men fit in Greek society today. The ironic title “Xenia”, the ancient Greek word for hospitality, and related to “Xenios Zeus” (Zeus the protector of foreigners), the term used in recent anti-immigrant “sweeping-up” operations by the Greek police, is also the name of an abandoned hotel where the brothers find shelter on their journey. One of Koutras’ directorial strengths, like Pedro Almodóvar with whom he has been compared, lies in his ability to create, with great affection, larger-than life characters on the screen. Xenia not only entertains with its flamboyant protagonist, it also frames Greece through a cultural lens of difference – differences that are familiar, yet seen afresh and given new meaning. A feel-good story about minorities, queerness and youthful optimism.
Syllas Tzoumerkas’ A Blast certainly earned its title with its sustained tension and pace over its 83΄duration. His first feature Homeland (2010) was a frenetically-paced ensemble drama about the dysfunctions of a left-wing Greek family, and now, four years later, with the recession still spinning out of control, Tzoumerkas has turned his cinematic blowtorch on the social and psychological impact of bankruptcy on a female protagonist, Maria (a strong performance by Angeliki Papoulia), wife and mother of two young children. Like a compressed coil about to unwind, the film’s narrative is a ‘blast’ in perpetual motion, a series of flashbacks from the opening scene of a forest fire to Maria’s character unravelling in a series of self-realisations. From the time she gives up Law School for perceived security with a spunky high-earning sea captain with whom she has two children, the film takes us back and forth, until Maria’s resolve to save herself from the bankruptcy of her parent’s small business and her own ‘ridiculous life” that has proved ineffectual in dealing with crisis. A Blast works on multiple levels, posing questions about Greece’s economic and social structures, family, and the realities of gender, sexuality and happiness on which individuals build their lives.
Already on a successful roll at festivals, Yannis Economidis’ Stratos won the Greek Film Critics Association (PEKK) Award at TIFF. The film follows the director’s successful film Knifer (2010), another bleak and dark moral allegory about Greek society. After spending years in prison for a crime of honour, Stratos (played to a tee by Vangelis Mourikis) is a damaged man whose only moral code seems to be to fulfil a debt for his life owed to a godfather in prison. He carries out contract executions to help raise money for a tunnel prison breakout planned for his former protector. A consummate professional devoid of feelings and moral compunction, except for a sense of loyalty and obligation, Stratos becomes the victim of a double-cross that puts into question even the underworld code he has adopted. But what finally tips the balance somewhere deep in his moral psyche is his hooker friend Vivi’s decision to prostitute her ten year-old daughter to an underworld boss she is in debt to. “If he’s paying so well, why not?” says Vivi’s brother. From this point on, Stratos becomes a loose cannon, embarking on a killing spree which includes the underworld boss, as well as Vivi and her brother. No longer a contract killer, Stratos has become a free moral agent of sorts, which swiftly ends in his own execution. A neo-noir style of film, Stratos is masterly in all its elements. Like the previous two films, it is open to various allegorical readings about crisis, both economic and moral.
TIFF’s Greek Films section offers only a partial window on feature productions that in recent years have made a strong impression internationally, with the so-called “Greek weird wave” leading the way. For some, these “quirky” films (Dogtooth, Attenberg and Alps) appear to have emerged from left field with no apparent precedents in Greek cinema. (4) However, a close study of Greece’s diverse cinema history would turn up many examples of earlier experimental and even eccentric cinematic auteurs, without of course overlooking the crucial fact that influences on Greek filmmakers today extend to a dynamic and accessible world film culture. An interesting argument on the emergence of this new and unconventional cinematic style in Greece is that it is tangentially related to a collapsing civil society and loss of sovereign power. (5) The stylistic trends however are too diverse to be encapsulated in a “wave” (by definition short-lived) and the thematic preoccupations are naturally varied, as the films at this year’s TIFF suggest. Whatever the influence or staying power of these stylistically similar films, the fact is that for a small European country Greece’s filmmakers are powering on, despite extreme financial constraints. In January 2014, the Greek e-journal Flix listed about 90 films either completed or in different stages of production as at September 2013. It is easy of course to underestimate the obstacles awaiting filmmakers at every one of these stages. What is undeniable though is that creative energy seems to be high amongst Greek filmmakers and accompanied by a tough determination to get films on the screen come what may.
Thessaloniki International Film Festival
31 October – 9 November 2014
Festival website: http://www.filmfestival.gr
1. The Festival began in 1960 as a “Week of Greek Cinema”, changing its name in 1966 to “Festival of Greek Cinema”, and in 1992, “Thessaloniki International Film Festival”, which has become an internationally recognised venue for cinema in the Balkans and independent filmmakers worldwide.
2. Petro Alexiou, “Greek Cinema – Emerging from a Landscape in the Mist: The 51st Thessaloniki International Film Festival” Senses of Cinema,Issue 58, March 2011.
3. A letter quoted in Edward Said, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1966, p. 93.
4. Oliver Westlake, “Short Guide to the Greek Weird Wave” in Mapping Contemporary Cinema website, Film Studies Department, Queen Mary, University of London.
5. Alex Lykidis, “Crisis of Sovereignty in Recent Greek Cinema” Journal of Greek Media & Culture, vol. 1 no. 1, 2015. Forthcoming. Accessed at: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/intellect/jgmc/2015/00000001/00000001/art00002