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Saturday, December 01, 2001

Arts & Letters

The Thessaloniki Film Festival, 2001

Over the past few years, a new generation of Greek filmmakers has begun to emerge. While not constituting any kind of school, their work is far more accessible and engaging than that of their most immediate predecessors. At the 42nd annual Thessaloniki International Film Festival, this informal group had enough of a presence to suggest that a new era in Greek filmmaking may at last be at hand.

The new filmmakers are anxious to reach a popular audience. Although one result is that some of the films are formulaic and even pander to popular taste, many seek to combine some of the virtues of the auteurist era with those of popular cinema. The response of Greek audiences has been positive. Greek-language films now make up 15 percent of the Greek box offfice. At this year’s festival, attendance was up 30 percent, reaching over 79,000 during a 10-day period. Many screenings were completely sold out, with standing-room only in the back and sitting in the aisles.

Total production has also risen. This year’s new films included 25 features, seven documenaries, and three co-productions. The most successful new features were debut and sophomore films such as Rescue Me (Sose me), Looking For Morphine (Pes ti morfini akoma tin psachno), Silicon Tears (To klama vgike apo ton paradiso), and The Cistern (I Akrovates tou kipou). Less successful but of merit were the debut films, Ghost of a Chance (Eonios fititis) and Under the Stars (Kato apo t’astra).

Rescue Me focuses on Anna, a thirty-something woman who works as a graphic designer in Athens. Anna has all the problems of contemporary urban women, some of them compounded by her own faulty or compromised decisionmaking. The point of view is feminist, but without indulging in cheap shots at men. A subplot about a not-so-handsome nice guy who wants to get married is carried off with gentle humor and empathy. Although the film has a storybook ending, it is generally realistic and never cynical. Writer/director Stratos Tzitzis conveys a sense of modern Athens as lived by young professionals by shooting the film out of doors and on location. The besieged Anna is played by Maria Zorba, who won the best acting award for a female lead. She is in nearly every scene of the film and carries that burden with considerable skill.

Looking for Morphine, like No Budget Story and Polaroid in previous years, was shot in video and transferred to film. Like its predecessors, it did not have the financial support of the Greek Film Center. The story, adapted by director Yiannis Fagras from a novel by Nicole Roussou, deals with a young woman in Piraeus living on only a few drachmas a day. The walls of her rundown rooms are filled with graffiti, and her friendships are mainly with a drug dealer and a cat named Morphine. Dark lighting produces shadowy effects that give the film the gritty sense of early low-budget film noir or American independent films of the l950s. Fagras says that the film is less about drug culture than resistance to conformity. The Greek Association of Film Critics cited the film for its bold and aggressive spirit. Its success may help to embolden the emerging phenomenon of Greek independent filmmaking. Asked if he felt part of a new film culture, Fagras replied that, “We are all quite different, but something has definitely started.”

Coming from the most commercial sector of the new Greek film scene is Silicon Tears, the sophomore film of Michalis Reppas and Thanassis Papathanassiou, the writing/directing team whose Safe Sex was last year’s most viewed film in Greece. The Greek title has a Greek reference that will escape international audiences but the present title is no better, suggesting breast implantations or computer software.

Celluloid Tears” would better describe this campy sendup of the Greek studio films of the l950s and l960s. Tongue firmly in cheek, we have musical numbers galore, hidden family relationships, zany death scenes, a foustanella sidebar, noble peasants in class struggle, and tears aplenty. Many scenes refer to specific films, but even a general knowledge of Greek film or a taste for camp is sufficient to keep viewers laughing. The film’s humor is set off by black-and-white documentary newsreel footage over the opening and closing credits. The first set depicts the end of the civil war and the second the brutal era of the junta. The time period of these cinematic bookends is that of the Greek studio system, offering a not-so-subtle reminder of the real world from which so many of the studio films offered momentary escape.

A group of pre-teen males gathering on summer days at a neighborhood cistern to play dangerous games form the spinal cord of The Cistern. The saga of the maturing boys unfolds in a kind of Greek magical realism. One minor characer is a Dorian Gray-type centenarian who credits his long life to not eating vanilla. A more realistic subplot involves the mother of one of the boys and her two sisters. A not-so-young unwed sister is courted by a humble man in a manner that conveys the sweetness characteristic of Greek culture at its best, while the boy’s mother deals with an adulterous husband who wishes to reconcile. Although writer/director Christos Dimas might have done well to resist some of his more fanciful sequences, his script moves briskly, generally elaborating rather than obfuscating his main themes. Commenting on the new filmmakers, Dimas thought it was a difficult time of transition, but, he added, “Something is happening; there is a new perspective.”

Less happily realized but of considerable merit were Under the Stars, written and directed by Christos Georgiou, a Cypriot, and Ghost of a Chance, written and directed by Vangelis Seitanidis. The somewhat predictable but thoroughly watchable Under the Stars follows two Greek Cypriots who decide to cross the green line to visit their homes in Turkish-occupied Cyprus. The situation, of course, evokes considerations of national and personal identity.

Ghost of a Chance involves a different kind of no-man’s land, the nightlife of an Athenian casino. After skillfully using the first third of the film to set up a credible relationship between a student gambler, an older gambler, and the latter’s daughter, the plot becomes hopelessly muddled as the writer/director seems unsure about whether he is making a comedy, a caper film, or a romance. Opting for any one of them would have been sufficient for a first-rate film, but the combination is a lumpy mess. Inexplicably, the film won the playwright’s award for best script.

Among the disappointing sophomore films was writer/director Constantine Giannaris’s One Day in August. The film involves four separate stories that take place on and around the fifteenth of August. Dramatic momentum is lost in the cutting between the stories and, as in his first film, From the Edge of the City, there is insufficient character development. Nonetheless, One Day in August has outstanding visual moments that earned it a commendation from the Greek Association of Film Critics.

Winning the major national award was The Only Journey of His Life (To monon tis zois tou taxidion) based on the short story by Georgios Vizyinos. Rather than a cinematic interpretation of the story and the writer’s life, the film feels more like a dramatized reading. Consciously or not, veteran director Lakis Papastathis seems to assume that the audience already knows the essence of the tale and of the author’s tragic life. Without such knowledge, the film remains largely incoherent.

Far more interesting was The Seventh Sun of Love (O evdomos ilios tou erota), which took several awards. Set in the years of the Smyrna disaster, the film focuses on the family of a major in the Greek army. The chambermaid is pursued by the major’s assistant, repeatedly raped by the major, and then drawn into a quasi-erotic relationship with the major’s wife. Around this sexual intrigue are studies of the Greek ruling class and the war in Asia Minor. The sets and costumes designed by Despina Athanasiadou brilliantly evoke the era and are a joy to watch. The story, unfortunately, wanders and is languidly paced. Most problematic is that veteran writer/director Vangelis Serdaris seems to want to evoke some sympathy for the major, but cannot find any dramatic means to do so. In contrast, the major’s wife is well-drawn and exquisitely played by Elena Maria Kavoukidou. The net effect of the uneven character development and meandering storyline reduces the film to an interesting period piece when it could have been much more.

Directorial indulgence and slow pacing remain typical of too many Greek films and few show any flair for dialogue. In some instances, there are simply extraneous scenes and characters and directors insist on holding many shots for too long. The accumulation of unneeded minutes ultimately saps a film’s vitality. At a final moment in The Seventh Sun of Love, for example, the major, who has lost a leg in Asia Minor and whose military superiors have been executed as traitors, leaves the room and we hear a pistol shot. That he has taken his life is obvious and not anticipated, but the director squanders the effect by insisting on showing us the corpse.

In other sequences, when a lovely horse and carriage leave a mansion and reach the edge of a park, rather than cutting, the director unnecessarily follows them around the entire park. The effect is not enriching but exhausting. Nor have some Greek directors learned that filming someone taking out a cigarette, lighting it, and blowing smoke is no longer visually engaging, if it ever was. More often than not, it means that the actor doesn’t know what to do with his or her hands, and the director doesn’t know how to get the scene started.

On the positive side of this year’s productions was a nearly across-the-board improvement in performances by female actors in roles far more demanding than those of recent years. One shared element in this success is that Greek female actors appear to understand far better than their male counterparts that in film acting, doing less often means achieving more. In this respect, the Greek films resembled the films in the international competition, as American director John Boorman, speaking for the international jury, observed that the female characters in the films in the international competition were exceptionally strong and intriguing.

Taking third prize in the national awards, Word of Honor (To tama), a 153-minute epic also identifed at times as Evagoras’s Vow, reflected more of the passing era than the one emerging. The ever-ambitious writer/director Andreas Pantzis follows the pilgrimage of a simple man to the shrine of Aghios Andreas in Cyprus. As in numerous Greek journeys, the pilgrim encounters all the eternal questions of existence along the way, a route that, as the family priest asserts, is “full of temptations.” The exposition of these challenges, however, involves extravagantly rendered episodes that often are weakened by near-amateurish performances. Although the film ends in a miracle, the character with the strongest moral fiber is a leftist who physically as well as spiritually takes a different road from that of Evagoras. Too long by an hour, Word of Honor is remarkable largely for its willingness to take on big issues.

Worthy of comment for very different reasons are Thief or Reality (Kleftis i pragmatikotita) and Alexander and Aishe (Alexandros ke Aishe). Thief or Reality is a highly abstract meditation by Antoinette Angelidi on mortality and European culture. Much like her previous work, this film will appeal only to an extremely small audience. The film, nonetheless, has some strong performances, and its visual highpoints are comparable with the best of its genre. At an artistic counterpoint is Alexander and Aishe, written and directed by Dimitris Kollatos, who also edited, designed the sets, and performs in the film. A depiction of a sexual encounter between a Greek Christian and a Turkish Muslim, this clumsily made film is extremely xenophobic. The festival is obliged to show all Greek productions, but I hope that other public viewings of this film will be limited.

The field of documentaries, as in previous years, was quite strong. Sure to find an international audience is Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – I Put a Spell on Me. The film includes material from the last year of the musician’s life and examines his career and personality with considerable skill and gusto. There is little specifically Greek content to the film, but it is conceived, written, and directed by Nikos Triandafyllidis and realized by a Greek crew. It took the second prize in non-fiction films.

Winning first prize in non-fiction was Stelios Haralambopoulos’s Log Books – George Seferis. The film addresses the inspiration and reception of the poem, “The Cats of Saint Nicholas,” which clearly took issue with the Greek junta. The film’s subject matter makes it unlikely to reach any audience beyond a domestic one. The same is true for Athanassios Christopoulos, A Forgotten Poet (Athanassios Christopoulos, enas lismonimenos piitis), a by-the-numbers biography with adequate but uninspiring visuals.

Of wider general interest is Apeke (I apiki), which examines the lives of the Greek minority in Albania. Filming began in 1991 and ended in 2000, offering a chilling account of the post-communist years. The film also traces the history of Greeks “living on the other side” since antiquity, with the recurring issues of preservation of language, culture, and religion.

The Cypriot Unwitnessed Memories (Aviotes mnimes) features interviews with eight young people born since or shortly before the Turkish invasion of l974. The young people express diverse feelings about their bifurcated land and the Turkish minority. The film is not particularly hopeful about the future.

Generally speaking, this year’s Thessaloniki film festival was an auspicious event for Greek cinema. Although veteran directors got most of the prizes, most of the excitement was generated by younger filmmakers, particularly those moving out of short films and documentaries into first and second features. A strong desire for authorship, rather than an opening to collaborative styles of filmmaking, remained prevalent, but authorial restraint was also much in evidence. Although the number of women directing, scripting, and editing remained disproportionately low, female actors were among the strongest elements in nearly every film. No one new film or filmmaker stood head and shoulders above the rest, but a group of filmmakers at the onset of their careers appeared committed to creating a more accessible and better-crafted national cinema.

Dan Georgakas teaches film at New York University and is a member of the editorial board of Cineaste.
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