By Preston Wilder
I’ve been going to the Thessaloniki Film Festival for the past 15 years. Every film buff should, I don’t know why they don’t: it’s less than two hours from Cyprus, hotels are cheap, the films being screened – all with Greek and English subtitles – include many of the year’s most acclaimed, the city is lively and lovely, and the venues are right on the seafront so you walk past the glimmering Thermaikos on your way to the movie. A world-class film festival in a beautiful setting, almost on our doorstep. What’s not to like?
This year’s edition was the 55th, though it’s only in the past 20 years that the fest has broadened its scope from Greek cinema to the world beyond – and this year I did things slightly differently, going for the first half rather than the second so the prizes haven’t been awarded at time of writing and I’ve no idea which of the films in competition won the so-called Golden Alexander, named for the Macedonian superstar. Was it Modris from Latvia? La Tirisia from Mexico? Next to Her from Israel (“Two sisters share the same apartment and a rather unhealthy co-dependent relationship”)? Surely not The Tribe, a Ukrainian shocker – winner of the Critics’ Week at Cannes – so intense that someone actually fainted at the screening I attended!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Going early meant I could attend the opening ceremony for the first time in years, followed by the opening film White God (another Cannes winner, having topped Un Certain Regard). This is a vivid Hungarian drama about a girl and a dog, the dog leading other dogs in a revolution at the film’s gory climax (‘Rise of the Planet of the Pooches’, anyone?) – though a video message from director Kornel Mundruczo informed us that it’s not a story about a girl and a dog but “actually a story about injustice, and our mission to fight against it”. Which would be fine, at least if the film worked better as a story about a girl and a dog.
White God’s rather bombastic style (it’s really just a dirtied-up Disney adventure, garnished with Significance) was in marked contrast to the rest of the ceremony, which was notable for its modesty and simplicity. That’s no accident, of course, because even though Thessaloniki loves its festival (screenings were invariably packed) it might’ve been provocative to open proceedings with too much glitz and glamour: Greece is in crisis, indeed it’s more than a crisis. “It’s not a crisis anymore, it’s a new reality. A crisis doesn’t last five years,” observed my wry local friend Ioanna – and the mood among those I spoke to was a mix of gallows humour and bone-deep despair, their politicians being apparently even more useless than ours (and of course reforming Greece is a much bigger job). In previous years, I’d seen posters for demonstrations being organised by this or that trade union – but this year the only visible sign of unrest was the youthful crowd who took over Aristotelous Square on a Sunday morning, their banner notable for its vagueness as much as the sad implication that they wouldn’t know where to begin: “Diekdikoume ta aftonoita”, i.e. ‘We demand the things that go without saying’.
No surprise, in this context, that the speeches were blessedly brief at the opening ceremony, as if to say the Fest was just happy to have made it to 55. “I won’t bore you with words,” smiled festival director Dimitri Eipides by way of conclusion. “We’ve come here to celebrate films – so let’s watch some films!”.
Fortunately, films were everywhere – dozens of them, from 52 countries (even including Cyprus though we only had a short, Marios Piperides’ The Immortalizer, representing us this year). Greek films, admittedly, got the lion’s share, because 2014 is also the centenary of Greek cinema and the festival carried out an online poll, asking film fans to vote on their favourites from a long-list of 200 – and the Top 20 then got screened at the festival, ranging chronologically from the 1932 drama Social Decay to last year’s Little England (the all-time fave is apparently The Counterfeit Coin from 1955, with a starry cast including Mimis Fotopoulos and Elli Lambeti). Still, even with the extra oldies, there wasn’t a single Greek title in the 19 films I watched over four and a half days – not because I wasn’t interested, just because there was so much else vying for my attention.
On a single day, for instance, sitting in the same cinema (and indeed in the same seat) from 3 in the afternoon till 1 in the morning, I ranged from Spain to Austria to Belgium to early-20th-century Armenia, with detours to Syria, Cuba and North Dakota. (Asia wasn’t very well represented this year, though South America offered a break from the prevailing Eurocentrism.) The last of that day’s crop, The Cut, is perhaps the most notable – not because it’s the best, but because it’s the one we’re most likely to see in Cyprus, one of the few markets where the audience is already familiar with the history being peddled by this rather simplistic drama.
Tahar Rahim (from A Prophet) is our hero, an Armenian blacksmith whose quiet life is shattered literally from one day to the next. Soldiers bang on his door one night (this is during WW1) and inform him that he’s being press-ganged into the Turkish army – so he finds himself digging ditches and beaten with whips, yet it’s actually a blessing in disguise since he’s able to avoid the worst of the Armenian genocide of 1915. This is a big-budget, based-on-a-true-story, 138-minute epic (the director is Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin), playing like a condensed mini-series as Tahar sets out to find his daughters, miraculously spared but incredibly elusive. Our hero wanders through the desert, trudges endlessly, works menial jobs, is helped by kind-hearted strangers, half-killed by bandits – an encounter that severs his vocal cords, so he’s mute for most of the movie – beaten up by railroad workers, ventures across the Atlantic on his decade-long quest. The film is too much, yet the one-thing-after-another plotting makes it something of a guilty pleasure. I’ll be amazed (given the Armenian connection) if it doesn’t play the Friends of the Cinema Society in 2015.
It’d be nice if the many Russians living in Cyprus ensured a screening for the Russian movies too – because if I had to single out one nation’s films at Thessaloniki, Mr. Putin’s fiefdom would take the prize. Proof perhaps that Art thrives in unfriendly environments, though in fact both Leviathan (winner of Best Screenplay at Cannes) and Angels of Revolution got support from the Russian Ministry of Culture – unsurprisingly, since they’re made by established names, even if Leviathan at least (from director Andrei Zvyagintsev) paints a singularly bleak picture of modern Russia.
The setting is a small town where a hotheaded ex-soldier is involved in a property dispute with the town’s corrupt mayor – and the film builds this relatively minor drama into a portrait of a country that’s gone beyond corruption (corruption, after all, is human and rational) to something apocalyptic, a chaotic wasteland, the Leviathan from the Book of Job which nobody can hope to reel in with a fish hook. The structure is bizarre, yet effective – opening with a stranger, a lawyer from Moscow whose clever tactics seem certain to resolve the problem, only for the film to (deliberately) collapse halfway through, after which the lawyer disappears and entropy takes over. A wholly cynical, terribly sad movie with a strong sense of place – the town flanked by mountains, the rotting hulls of boats (and a glimpse of the titular whale) in the sea. Dazzling, really.
Angels of Revolution is even more dazzling, at least for the first hour – and takes place during another ‘difficult’ era, the mid-1930s when Stalin set out to subjugate the Soviet Union’s indigenous peoples. That makes the film sound dull when in fact it’s anything but, being fragmented, often funny, beautifully designed and relentlessly inventive. The director is Alexei Fedorchenko, whose last three movies (Silent Souls, Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari and this one) operate in a kind of grey area between anthropology and fantasy, using the names of tribes that really exist (at least, I think they do) but imbued with a tone that’s surreal and outright magical. This one has children in animal suits – “Raccoons! Raccoons!” – angels peeling potatoes, a commissar in a grass skirt and a soldier playing a theremin. Only the third act (when the actual plot kicks in) lets it down slightly.
These two were probably the best films I saw in Thessaloniki (not that my meagre haul of 19 is necessarily reliable), but there were other highlights: the riveting Force Majeure, in which a Swedish family implodes while on holiday in the French Alps; the richly-imagined Phoenix, in which a disfigured Holocaust survivor gets a new face in post-war Germany only to be inveigled into impersonating herself by her greedy husband (who has no idea of her identity); the gloriously twisted, ritualistic Duke of Burgundy, in which two women in love re-enact an S&M scenario over and over; the Dardenne Brothers’ timely Two Days, One Night, in which Marion Cotillard must persuade her co-workers to vote against her dismissal, even though it means they’ll lose money.
The only catch? All those films premiered at other festivals, and arrived already trailing good reviews. It’s true that Thessaloniki isn’t quite big enough to attract a really top-tier competition slate, most of the films in International Competition being either also-rans or unknown quantities – but this year there were definite exceptions, including Magical Girl (a rather misjudged Spanish drama that nonetheless won top prize at San Sebastian) and a one-two punch of indelible shockers including The Tribe which, as already mentioned, caused a woman in the audience to faint. That was one surprising incident I experienced in an auditorium this year, the other taking place during a simpatico Argentinian drama called The Third Side of the River when an elderly lady a few seats down from me suddenly started yelling at her male neighbour: “Get out of here! Get out! Police! Police!” she wailed indignantly, as the man beat a hasty retreat towards the exit. I never found out what he did (if anything), and I’m not sure I want to know.
When audience members weren’t outraging each other, the films did it for them – and there may even have been a few walkouts during Goodnight Mommy, the other indelible shocker in Competition. Three people in an isolated house somewhere in Austria, nine-year-old twin brothers and their bandaged, inhuman-looking mum, who’s been in an accident. Mum is slowly recovering – but she seems to have changed, and the twins are increasingly convinced that this cruel, evil woman is not their mother. A creepy psychological thriller, though the more ‘extreme’ stuff in the last half-hour feels like sensationalism – and the same may be said of The Tribe, which is violent, Ukrainian and (for better or worse) like no other film ever made.
The characters are all deaf-mutes here. The film is entirely in sign language, none of it explained or subtitled. All we can do is watch as the (mostly) young people fall into crimes and atrocities – and there’s also a backstreet abortion, which was when the woman in the audience fainted, cries went up for a doctor, chaos rippled through the auditorium for a few moments, then the woman was (presumably) revived and we all went back to watching the movie. The Tribe is flawed, and perhaps exploitative – yet it also shows that Cinema can still try something new after all these years (at least once you move beyond Hollywood’s endless recycling) and it also seemed quite fitting to watch a film without audible dialogue at this year’s Thessaloniki, echoing Mr. Eipides’ opening speech. “I won’t bore you with words. We’ve come here to celebrate films – so let’s watch some films!”. Precisely.