As I type these words, a few months after leaving the 60th Thessaloniki International Film Festival (TIFF), I don’t exactly know when the next fest will be. Stranded in quarantine in the north of Italy as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, with over 15,000 casualties across the country and the rest of the world catching up fast, recalling those November days in Greece feels like a particularly painful exercise.
TIFF’s docs-only spinoff, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, whose 22nd edition was scheduled for early March, was among the first film fests to fold in response to the global health crisis. It did roll out digitally, eventually, as other events are planning to, but the ever-growing list of film industry rendezvous that have shut in response to the spread of coronavirus is staggering, and the long-term consequences the crisis will bear on the festival circuit look frightening. Which probably explains the mix of nostalgia and angst I feel as I look back to my time in Greece. For TIFF provided everything a festival-goer could hope for: judiciously curated line-ups, a stimulating mix of local and international crops, but also, and far more importantly, an irreplaceable, family-like atmosphere that brought guests together and facilitated all sorts of conversations in between screenings.
Two of those have earned a very special place among my most treasured memories from the circuit: an hour and a half-long chat with Dan Sallitt, in town to present his wondrous Fourteen, and an interview-turned-stroll with Joanna Hogg, to whom TIFF devoted a phenomenal retrospective. Having caught Hogg’s The Souvenir last February at the 69th Berlinale, I’d been longing to dig up her entire filmography ever since, and a chance presented itself in Thessaloniki. Save for Caprice – Hogg’s 1986 student film starring a then-unknown 26 year-old Matilda Swinton, which I finished aboard my Greece-bound flight – TIFF screened all of Hogg’s films to date. A technicolour Oz-style trip, Caprice follows a girl who daydreams of working for her favourite fashion magazine but wakes up to the corrosive and sinister machinations of the creative industry. After a fifteen-year stint as director for TV productions, Hogg returned to the silver screen in the mid-2000s with a series of features populated by well-to-do Britons hailing from the affluent world she was raised in. Which explains the title she’s earned – an unflinching portraitist of the British upper class – and with which she’s traversed the critical debates of the past decade. Indisputable as it may be, I fear the label carries a dangerous side effect, suggesting her entire filmography could essentially boil down to bourgeois ennui. Far from it.
The characters dotting Hogg’s cinema are hardly spoiled patricians, nor are the struggles they face irremediably lofty concerns. Caprice had ended on a belligerent tone: having realised that working for her favourite magazine would be tantamount to selling her soul to the devil, Swinton turns her back to the editor in chief with a proud: “my life may not be much, but at least it’s mine.” It’s curious (and also somewhat cosmic, in an eternal-return sort of way) to watch Swinton’s own daughter Honor Swinton Byrne echo a very similar paean in her lead turn in The Souvenir. A lacerating romance – and Hogg’s most personal feature to date, chronicling the real-life love story that tied her to a heroin addict for the best part of her twenties – The Souvenir also traces a perceptive Künstlerroman, a portrait of a director as a young film student struggling to find her voice over and against a platoon of older men setting the limits of her creativity. But this interest in trailing behind people fighting for their independence – artistic or otherwise – can be found all through Hogg’s cinema.
Take Unrelated (2007). Hogg’s feature debut homed in on forty-something Anna (Kathryn Worth), a Brit on vacation with fellow compatriots in the Tuscan countryside. Anna’s married, but she’s reached the centuries-old villa sans husband, as the trip doubles as a much-needed escape from a faltering relationship. At the villa, Anna meets and falls for a fellow guest, Tom Hiddleston’s Oakley. Smitten with the twenty-something lad, she starts treading into dangerous waters, as the flirting eventually sets her at odds with the two camps she straddles – youngsters and grownups – alienating her from the events around her. And yet, like all of Hogg’s features, Unrelated also gestures toward a healing process. Sure, Anna is struggling with a middle-age crisis that’s awakened her to an almost unspeakable solitude (“I will always be forever on the periphery of things,” she breaks down halfway through), but the film hints that she may come out of it in deeper synch with her own self and with the world around her. If not to overcome that loneliness altogether, at least she’ll learn how to coexist and grow with it.
Watching the many shots of the villa’s guests idling and bickering around the swimming pool brought me back to the moribund bourgeois dotting Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénaga (2001). But the image that will stay with me the longest – indeed, the one I think sums up the film’s spirit and Anna’s predicament – surfaces at the very end, when she marvels at the hazy immensity of the Tuscan hills before getting aboard a car, airport- and home-bound. A shot that would ripple on, almost identical, to another stunning portrait of a woman’s middle age resurrection, Mia Hansen-Løve’s L’Avenir (Things to Come, 2016), with Isabelle Huppert standing on a field, her back to the camera, contemplating the vastness of the landscape and the freedom sprawling before her.
Hiddleston may be a catalyst for Anna’s awakening, but this is not his picture. Archipelago is. Enraptured as I was when I first sat for The Souvenir on that cold Berlin afternoon – and then again upon revisiting it in Thessaloniki – Archipelago (2010) remains, to me, Hogg’s finest. Like Unrelated, it’s a film marooned by an almost inexpressible void, only here that feeling is inscribed within a larger discussion concerning guilt and privilege, and the sense of healing it predicates is more intimately connected to one’s growth as person and artist. In it, Hiddleston returns as Edward, a well-spoken 28 year-old holidaying with older sister and mother in the Isles of Scilly.
Edward is quitting a job in the City to embark on a year-long AIDS-related volunteering project in Africa, and the trip is to serve as a family catch-up-cum-farewell. But his mounting angst as the film unfolds and the departure looms nearer points to a quarter-life-crisis that blurs the exact purpose of the African adventure. Is this a heartfelt mission, or just a cheap way out of confronting one’s ghosts? Edward is “a burning martyr”, jibes his sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard), and Hogg’s careful scrutiny of the young man’s empathy complicates his Good Samaritan façade, especially as the lad starts bonding with the house chef Rose (Amy Lloyd), and the flirting jostles against unspoken power barriers.
Pitted against an insufferably sour sister, revoltingly dismissive toward Rose and chronically embittered toward him, and unable to confide in his mother, the best advice Edward receives comes from Christopher, a family friend and painter (played by non-professional actor and real-life artist Christopher Baker) who slowly morphs into a father-like figure. “Being tough is holding your course,” he tells Edward, “it is believing that thing inside you is very important, even if you can’t reveal it to others in its full worldly sense.” Christopher too faced something of an existential crisis in years gone by, one that orbited around his academic training as painter. Pointedly, he warns Edward now to rush: people take their time to figure out their art as much as their own selves. “It’s taking me a long time, but I think I know the angles better now.”
When I asked her about the quote, Hogg said it amounted to a mission statement. “I’m still learning to breathe within cinema, and within my cinema, to let my work be hyperconnected to my own rhythms.” Hearing that, I was jolted back to her third feature, Exhibition (2013), where an installation artist struggles with something similar. “D” (played by musician Viv Albertine) and “H” (conceptual artist Liam Gillick) are a childless couple of artists headquartered in a modernist London townhouse, a triumph of lab-like chilly interiors that’s hosted them all through their 20-year relationship. But now H wants to sell it, and the encroaching separation assumes for D the magnitude of an existential crisis.
Like Unrelated and Archipelago, Exhibition uses its circumscribed setting as a vehicle to dissect a social unit, but triangle it zeroes in on here – a woman, a man, a house – is far more elemental than anything that came before it. And the gender dynamics between H and D – the way the more cerebral, calculating and dominant H seems to tower above her, daring her to be more confident about her artistic output but smothering her in the process – also anticipate a theme The Souvenir would further elaborate, by pushing Julie against men-cum-mentors eager to curtail her vision. Yet both films culminate with something of a revenge: as the inevitable sale approaches, D tells H she’s received an offer for an exhibition, and the film suggests that the move might effectively coincide with a chance for D to renegotiate his creative authority over her. Likewise, jostled against men who either tell her that her film school training is worthless (“teaching filmmaking is like teaching one how to breathe,” remarks Richard Ayoade’s Patrick), or that she should clip her wings and film what she knows, The Souvenir ends with Julie starting anew, hinting that the emotional wreckage she grapples with might eventually inspire her creative awakening: pain healed through art.
Aside from Hogg’s retrospective, TIFF’s international competition offered plenty more to marvel at. Spared from the hassles of its larger, glitzier A-list brethren, required to fight for world premieres lest they should lose their badge of honour, Thessaloniki can happily and freely poach the best of the year’s festival circuit. Which means its fourteen-strong international competition is saddled with gems, not rejects – for the happiness of the local audience filling theatres all through the ten-day bonanza. Among the fourteen were titles that had begun touring the circuit as early as January (Alejandro Landes’ Sundance premiere Monos) as well as summer and autumn offerings. To me, the line up was a chance to revisit Maya Da-Rin’s The Fever (2019), a mesmerising and harrowing take on Brazil’s cultural and ecological genocide under Bolsonaro’s regime, which had nabbed the FIPRESCI award in Locarno, and also catch up with Peter Mackie Burns’ Rialto (2019), a gorgeously performed two-hander on grief and guilt, which I’d missed in Venice.
But my greatest and belated find among the fourteen came in the shape of Oliver Laxe’s O Que Arde (Fire Will Come, 2019). Laxe’s third feature – a Cannes Un Certain Regard contender unveiled three years after his 2016 Mimosas – opens with a dreamlike vision of bulldozers ploughing through hills and forests in the dead of night, and hangs in that same oneiric region all through the hour and a half that follows. Like Da-Rin’s The Fever, it’s a character study of a man who crumbles together with the world around him, only here the devastation waged against nature is, allegedly, brought about by the protagonist himself.
It’s been two years since Amador (Amador Arias) was sent to prison for arson, a crime whose motives director-writer Laxe leaves deliberately unexplained. Granted parole, he returns to his old mother Benedicta (Banedicta Sánchez) and their rustic abode in Spain’s mountainous region of Galicia. Thus begins a film that appears to hail from a realm of its own, a meditation that juts into being out of the woods, and gently hums to their sounds and rhythms. The plot, such as it is, is tenuous. Ostracised from the local community after his return, Amador spends most of the film sauntering through the woods, faun-like, recoiling from fellow humans save for when the encounter with a local vet makes for a brief, unexpectedly tender moment (and a scene that’s very possibly the film’s most stunning, with man and woman driving a cow through the mountains, listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” reverberate from the car’s stereo).
With a title that essentially telegraphs the film’s climax, the many charms in Fire Will Come lie in the symphony for the sense Laxe concocts along the way. Fires crackling, branches rustling, animals breathing, raindrops washing leaves and faces: the film absorbs one in a soothing, mystifying embrace, the same Benedicta is enveloped in as she finds refuge inside a tree during a summer storm. Mauro Herce’s cinematography captures a landscape covered in mist, and when seasons change and an ellipsis propels us to summer, the warmer palette makes for scenes of languid beauty.
Having won the runner-up Jury Prize in Cannes, Fire Will Come took home Thessaloniki’s top award, the Golden Alexander, a fitting recognition for a film that, with its skeletal and elliptical narrative, spoke a language that set it apart from anything else in competition. But if my first year at TIFF could boil down to a single film, it’d be the last one I saw, the kind of moviegoing experience that would singlehandedly justify the entire trip: Thomas Heise’s monumental Heimat ist ein Raum aus Zeit (Heimat Is A Space in Time, 2019). Fittingly, Heise’s latest was slotted in TIFF’s Film Forward, a sidebar devoted, much like the Berlinale Forum where the film premiered last year, to radical film practices “testing the limits of the form” (other entries included Anocha Suwichakornpong and Ben Rivers’ Locarno premiere Krabi, 2562, as well as Angela Schanelec’s Golden Bear contender I Was at Home, But). And what better category to screen a monumental undertaking which, in just less than 4 hours, strives to capture 100 years of family and national history?
Heimat unspools as a memoir of Heise’s family through the 20th Century, which the director weaves together in a cross-generational mosaic of letters, photos, drawings, journal entries and all sorts of archival materials. But the film grows parallel to a chronicle of the country’s recent decades, so much so that to tread into Heise’s family tree is to witness a scrap of Germany’s past. Pointedly, Heimat opens with a 1912 essay written by Heise’s grandfather Wilhelm for a school assignment. It’s a scathing critique of war and ode to pacifism that feels as prescient for its pre-WWI zeitgeist as for the film’s own gestalt. “Superstition thrives in the soil of stupidity,” writes young Wilhelm, and the words ricochet all through Heimat, as Heise chronicles his ancestors’ meanderings through an endless series of world crises fuelled by populism and ignorance, caroming from the first World War to the rise and seismic fall of the Weimar Republic, from the advent of Nazi Germany – all the more catastrophic for Heise’s Jewish relatives – to the repression under Stalinist DDR.
What emerges is a genealogy of institutions and people, a quest to understand how power relations affect individuals in the most tangible and practical sense – how technologies of power (as embodied by totalitarian regimes of any colour and shape) produce different types of people, and dictate the relations that can emerge between them. I fear I may be painting Heimat as some cerebral essay, but this is hardly an abstract bloviation. Far and above anything else, Heise’s epic bellows as a hymn to life’s resilience, and life – from its quotidian routines to the most poignant and large-scale human tragedies – breathes through it. We hear of romances thwarted by war, of journeys through and beyond Europe, of professors fighting against censorship, and young lovers grappling with long distance relationships. There’s a certain solemnity to the sprawling canvas of memories: even Stefan Neuberg’s stunning black-and-white cinematography endows the film with a primal grace.
There is no real family tree as such, no footnotes, no guidelines or cues for one to hang on to as the story grows larger, the connections more evanescent. Underpinning the whole project is a single plea: to “remain decent,” and understand – to borrow from one of the journal entries – that “our state, like any state, is an instrument of domination.” This accounts, I believe, for the ageless and timely allure of Heise’s project, a film whose micro-macro scaffolding allows it to vault from a family memoir to a discussion on the meaning and purpose of a whole people, tracing a history of continuities between the spectres that haunted Europe in the early 20th century and today’s populisms. Perhaps better than any other film screened in Thessaloniki, Heimat encapsulated the essential role festivals play in exposing people to voices and works that would otherwise be impossible to track down. It’s an irreplaceable function, one whose lack has never felt as strongly as today.
Thessaloniki International Film Festival
October 31 – November 10 2019
Festival website: https://www.filmfestival.gr/en