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Go global, go local: Thessaloniki Film Festival 2016

By Preston Wilder

Cinema, like Greece, is always in crisis. Having just arrived in Thessaloniki for the 57th international film festival (which ended yesterday), I shared the car from the airport with a film buyer from a Central European TV channel, who admitted that his job was getting harder. TV viewers no longer had the patience for so-called “auteur cinema”, he explained, meaning those films where story beats often come second to a director’s personal signature. Coming to a festival like this one, he knew from the start that he wasn’t really in the market for slow, plotless ‘festival films’. Even acquisitions for which a spot on the schedules might’ve been found five years ago were now non-viable.

How did he explain it? What was causing this change in people’s attitudes, or at least their attention spans?

“The devastation of the mind,” he replied dolefully, as if this were a well-known phenomenon which I’d surely recognise without more ado. He paused, then shrugged: “Maybe it’s capitalism…”

Greece, too, is out of love with capitalism, still mired in the economic crisis that’s now lasted for nearly a decade. “I honestly don’t understand how we’re still coping,” said a local friend with an air of bemusement – though in fact, as another friend noted, the damage to the country is irreversible. 400,000 Greeks have emigrated, and most of them aren’t coming back; a generation has been decimated, as if by war. People seem resigned to the worst, though a “Sunday strike” was called while I was there, posters on walls all over town urging locals to protest by doing nothing. “We don’t work! We don’t consume!” instructed the posters – making me feel a bit guilty, since I was doing both. Then again, is it really ‘work’ to watch movies, even if I ended up watching 17 in four days? And does that capitalist word ‘consume’ really apply when you’re imbibing ideas and appraising gorgeous images?

The truth, as already mentioned, is that cinema is always in crisis – especially festival cinema, whose obituary has been penned more than once – yet films keep on being made, now more than ever as the tools with which to make them grow cheaper. The festival opened with an ode to precisely this kind of creativity, the personal, quietly independent spirit that finds poetry in the everyday without any need for grand resources (or a Hollywood studio). Paterson, a hit at Cannes earlier this year, was the opening film at Thessaloniki – and the best film at Thessaloniki. Granted, I didn’t see everything, not even close (there were 200 films over 10 days); still, I’m pretty sure.

Adam Driver is Paterson, a bus driver in the town of Paterson, New Jersey. His life seems quite cosy, even beyond the fact that all the public buildings in his town appear to be named after him. His wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) is a loveable kook who dreams of becoming a singer – and Paterson himself is a poet, though a modest one, using his daily routine (and the passengers on his bus) as inspiration and jotting down the modernist verse in an old notebook. The film flirts with being overly sweet, yet ends up being perfect: Driver’s beaky face and shy expression place a necessary distance from the character while evoking the constant pulse of his inner life – and director Jim Jarmusch (who also had another film at the Fest, the Iggy Pop documentary Gimme Danger) structures it like a poem, with repeated motifs and internal rhymes. The images glow, the portrait of a happy marriage is a rare thing in movies, ditto the quiet insistence on the hidden poetry in everything. A Halloween costume can be poetry. Even a pie can be poetry. Only a smartphone, it seems, can’t be poetry.

Smartphones are a plague, of course; they may single-handedly end up vindicating all those Death of Cinema obituaries, just because they make filmgoing so annoying – though hopefully people will realise that a bright light in one’s peripheral vision is a huge distraction when one is trying to watch a movie (no, I don’t care if you’re just checking your messages) before they kill off the artform altogether. “You’re gonna turn that off, right mate?” came a worried plea – with just a faint undertone of menace – from the back of the room during the opening credits of The Untamed, a nutty Mexican drama featuring some kind of alien creature. The credits gave way to a clearly distressed young woman, totally naked, the camera pulling back to reveal a slimy cylindrical thing in mid-slither, having seemingly emerged from… her body? There were no more pleas from the back of the room, so the scene was presumably weird enough to convince the iAddict to turn off his phone.

Audience participation is part of the fun at Thessaloniki (Greeks aren’t shy about sharing their opinions) – though it also reminded me of that Central European buyer, and his line about viewers being increasingly impatient with lack of story. This year’s festival included a tribute to avant-garde French filmmaker Philippe Grandrieux, so there’s clearly an audience for the formally challenging – but the 8pm slots in particular (which tend to attract ordinary working folks looking for a night out, as well as hardcore film buffs) sometimes led to a disconnect between film and audience. “Bravo to us for staying to the end. We are all heroes!” quipped a wag behind me at the feeble applause greeting the final credits of The Human Surge – and the film is admittedly heavy going but increasingly magical, a fuzzy reverie drifting from Argentina to Mozambique to the Philippines, following its characters in nausea-inducingly shaky shots then tending to linger to the point of enervation.

In the future, “silence will sound like a crowded food court,” offers someone in Surge – and the backdrop is our mixed-up digital world, with its constant background babble as the new normal. Characters sit before screens in the dark, communicate online (one long, explicit scene shows a bunch of cheerful boys engaging in gay porn for the benefit of a webcam) in between dead-end jobs; “I feel something is spying on us,” says one character, “I lost track of my thoughts,” says another – and at one point the film leaves the world of humans altogether, going underground like David Lynch in Blue Velvet. Audience frustration is understandable, but they missed out – as indeed did the people next to me who spent much of Sieranevada commenting on the action (“That must be Tony”; “Are they ever going to eat anything?”) instead of rolling with the shaggy-dog humour in this sly Romanian tale of a family gathering. Director Cristi Puiu introduced the film, inviting the audience to walk out if it all got too much – though I didn’t stay for the post-film Q&A in which someone hopefully asked him why, despite the three-hour running time, the title is never even mentioned, let alone explained.

Sieranevada was another Cannes hit, Cannes being the source of the biggest titles on the Thessaloniki slate (both because it’s the world’s most prestigious film festival and possibly because Elise Jalladeau, TIFF’s new General Director, is a Frenchwoman). Not that everything was edgy, perverse and experimental, far from it. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, which won the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes, is almost too modest for its own good – a Finnish black-and-white boxing drama set in the 60s (how often do you see that combination?), tinged with both affection and condescension for the provincial Finland of those days. The result is minor but crowd-pleasingly so, standing for happy domesticity – and love, of course – over the temptations of celebrity.

Two more from Cannes, both among the best films I saw at Thessaloniki: Aquarius and The Salesman, Brazilian and Iranian respectively – and The Salesman, at least, is certain to play our local film societies sooner or later, since it’s directed by Asghar Farhadi who made A Separation. He’s becoming a name known even to casual film buffs, like Almodovar back in the day – and his new one is another shrewd human drama blending masterfully-staged confrontations with a distinctive Iranian touch, since its underlying theme is the separation of public and private (a big deal in Iran, which imposes different social norms for the two spheres). Our hero is an actor – a man who appears in public – trying to deal with a violation of privacy, implicitly sparked by his own transgression in interfering with a previous tenant’s personal belongings. This theme is echoed throughout, and the film as a whole may be slightly puzzling – the title invokes Death of a Salesman yet this hero doesn’t seem to have much in common with Willy Loman – but it’s still very gripping; even, or especially, for the narrative hounds.

Aquarius is even better, a rich and consistently intelligent movie with an immense performance by Sonia Braga as Clara, a 60-something living in Recife. Her block of flats (the titular ‘Aquarius’) is being taken over by a property developer but Clara refuses to sell, even as it leaves her alone in a “ghost building” – and the film is a tale of clinging to a place, clinging to the past, above all clinging to life in the midst of assorted deaths. The photo of a late lamented son hangs at a birthday party; the sight of old bones being dug up in a graveyard makes Clara shudder. Like The Salesman, the film is regional, steeped in the ways of a particular place (director Kleber Mendonca Filho lives and works in Recife) – and maybe that’s the secret of success nowadays, either go global like The Human Surge or do the opposite, go local, earning your spurs by illuminating some tiny corner of the world like Paterson in Paterson.

And what of our own corner? Thessaloniki may be international, but for years it existed only as a showcase for Greek cinema – and it still shows almost the entirety of Greek production, which this year included two Cypriot films, Boy on the Bridge from director Petros Charalambous and The Story of the Green Line by Panicos Chrysanthou. I wasn’t able to see the latter – the tale of a Greek Cypriot soldier who discovers that his Turkish Cypriot counterpart across the Green Line is living in the Greek’s old village home – but I did see the former, a coming-of-age drama with a period/village setting (Kalopanayiotis in the 80s) and brisk 85-minute running time.

This is a charming film, and will look even better outside the confines of a film festival. Viewed after edgy provocations like The Untamed and The Human Surge (and, for instance, Zoology, a turgid Russian thingy about a woman who grows a tail (!)), Boy looks a little old-fashioned, with its rather simple characters – admittedly, it’s aimed mostly at kids – and occasionally stilted dialogue. Doe-eyed Constantinos Farmakas makes an excellent 12-year-old hero, however, setting off firecrackers and causing mischief like a Cypriot Tom Sawyer, and the second half – when the plot gets progressively darker – is brought off superbly by Charalambous, in his feature debut after years in commercials. Making any film in Cyprus is a Herculean task these days (especially with a kid hero, hampered by too-strict regulations on the working hours of underage actors); making one as sweet and sensitive as this should be applauded.

“He’s obsessed with this idea that he’s becoming a vampire, which may or may not be true. And then he meets a girl. Well, of course – he meets a girl.” That was Michael O’Shea, whom I happened to see being interviewed by a TV crew on Day 2 of the festival – and the plot description sounded intriguing so I watched his movie, The Transfiguration. Another Cannes hand-me-down (it played Un Certain Regard). Another local product, set in the Rockaways in Queens where O’Shea also lives. And another case of story over “auteur cinema” – because the director didn’t really want to talk about the plot, but the TV people insisted. (The film itself, alas, is rather thin.) Does it matter? In the end, probably not – because Thessaloniki, like any big film festival, is able to encompass all kinds of cinema, from avant-garde to the by-products of capitalism. “A festival is something personal,” wrote head of programming Yorgos Krassakopoulos. “Each one of us lives his own festival.” I agree.

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