By Preston Wilder
The elephant in the room of the 59th Thessaloniki Film Festival – I guess I should say ‘my’ 59th Thessaloniki Film Festival since everyone has a different experience, inevitably with 159 films (and 77 shorts) to choose from – was An Elephant Sitting Still, a four-hour, near-plotless Chinese drama that’s become a sensation, partly for the wrong reasons (its director, Hu Bo, committed suicide shortly after making it, at the age of 29). There it was on the festival schedule, Wednesday at 2.30pm – the second screening started at 10.15pm, albeit on a Friday; dilettantes need not apply – tempting me with rave reviews from every other critic who’s seen it, plus a possible sighting of a motionless pachyderm.
Clearly, the film was a must-see – yet it was, after all, four hours long, which would dominate a whole day’s viewing and mean missing other films. The constant triage required at a film festival isn’t much of a problem on the cosmic scale – but it is a problem, especially with so many movies being made nowadays (and so few being made available at the multiplex). Arthouse cinema is often reduced, in the minds of those who don’t see much of it, to impenetrable allegories and films about migrants, yet the breadth of subjects (and nationalities) one encounters at a festival like Thessaloniki is staggering. On one memorable day, I went from a young gay male prostitute to an uncommunicative Serbian truck driver to a feckless teenage girl to a pair of troll-like creatures courting each other with maggots. (The films, for the record, were Savage, The Load, Alice T. and Border.) On another, I went from the US to Catalonia to Holland to Uruguay to Romania to Singapore. How to plonk a four-hour film into this crowded movie souk? What to see, what to leave out?
The problem was exacerbated for me (in a good way) by this year’s breathless influx of Cypriot films. We do often feature at Thessaloniki, admittedly – but rarely to such great effect, 2018 being perhaps the most prestigious year ever for Cypriot cinema. Two films in particular have done superbly on the festival circuit, Tonia Mishiali’s Pause which premiered at Karlovy Vary and is now heading to other A-list events, and Marios Piperides’ Smuggling Hendrix, which won Best International Narrative Feature – the top prize for non-American movies – at Tribeca. Also at Thessaloniki (and also impressive) were two films we saw at Cyprus Film Days a few months ago, Aliki Danezi-Knutsen’s unexpected martial-arts drama Chinatown: The Three Shelters and Simon Farmakas’ Sunrise in Kimmeria, a warm and bustling human comedy that somehow manages to traffick in the village-comedy genre without the endless mugging we see on TV.
Hendrix was also in the official competition at Thessaloniki – a very strong slate this year, including the much-feted Ray & Liz (British director Richard Billingham’s tense, impressionistic account of neglected childhood in a squalid council flat outside Birmingham) and claustrophobic Danish thriller The Guilty, which has already opened commercially all over the world – though the awards hadn’t been announced at time of writing (the festival ends tonight) so I don’t know if Piperides and his team will manage to walk away with anything. Even if they don’t, it hardly matters. The acclaim for Hendrix outside Cyprus is encouraging, of course – but the film’s real impact will be made here, on home ground, this light, fast-paced action comedy being also a quietly political movie that refuses to colour within the accepted political lines.
‘Hendrix’ is a dog (actually known as ‘Jimi’, but named after the 60s rock icon) belonging to a burned-out musician named Yiannis, played by Greek-German actor Adam Bousdoukos (the film is a co-production with Greece and Germany). Yiannis lives in old Nicosia – but one day Jimi scampers away to the occupied north and, though Yiannis manages to retrieve him, he’s unable to bring him back, the law forbidding animals from crossing over, at least from north to south. (They can go the other way since, after all, there’s ‘no border’ here.) Most of the film takes place in north Nicosia – though almost all shooting took place in the south – as Yiannis teams up with a Turkish Cypriot and a Turkish settler to find creative ways of smuggling back his dog, their relationship tested by inevitable ethnic and political tensions. “Nobody likes anybody here,” summarises Hasan the settler (played by Turkish actor Fatih Al), indicating the three of them. “We don’t like… us.” Audiences at Tribeca presumably chuckled at the silliness of it all; audiences in Cyprus may have a more complex reaction.
Smuggling Hendrix isn’t overtly political. It’s very amiable, full of knockabout jokes and comic bickering (the Turkish Cypriot – played by another mainland Turk, Ozgur Karadeniz – grumbles about Holland getting all the credit for tulips when they obviously came from Turkey), successfully adding little notes of action and romance to the mix – yet the film is also unusual in expressing the view from the ‘other side’ so clearly and distinctly. Liberal-minded movies like Panicos Chrysanthou’s The Story of the Green Line have long peddled a general ‘Aren’t we all brothers under the skin?’ piety – but here, for instance, Hasan (who’s likely to irk some Turkish Cypriots almost as much as Greek Cypriots) gets a rant about settlers being demonised when in fact “I’m Cypriot, whether you like it or not”. This is my home, protests Yiannis, my grandfather planted those trees; well, blusters Hasan – born in Yiannis’ old house after the invasion – my father planted those other trees! The real issue here is that many Greek Cypriots view the Turkish side as an abstraction, not crossing over ‘until the Cyprus problem has been solved’ and refusing to look for real-world solutions to practical problems. In inviting a clear-headed look at the mess – its acclaim outside Cyprus making clear that such ‘heretical’ thinking isn’t really so outrageous – this amusing, well-crafted jape has the potential to be a game-changer.
Pause isn’t quite so monumental, even its Nicosia locations being (deliberately) a bit generic. Indeed they’re often blurry, the focus being squarely on our heroine, played by Stella Fyrogeni – and the film works best as a kind of very subtle dark comedy, as implied in the opening scene when a doctor, having examined her, opines that her symptoms aren’t unusual for a woman her age (the title refers to the dreaded menopause), then launches into a comically long list: “Vaginal dryness, hot flushes, loss of sexual desire, memory loss, mood disorders, fatigue, hair loss, weak nails, night sweats, disordered sleep, dizziness, weight gain, allergies, body odour…” Her body is falling apart, the only ray of hope being her name, Elpida (which means ‘hope’). “Nothing to worry about!” concludes the doctor, ending the scene on a punchline.
Mishiali uses silence and duration to fine effect, though Elpida’s relationship with her husband (a loveless, much older man whom she met through an arranged marriage) seems a touch too oppressive; one gets the sense – which may or may not be intentional – that menopause is the least of her problems. The film grows increasingly introverted, the style more fragmented, the possibility of escape increasingly remote – then it’s finally resolved by another dark-comedy flourish. Pause is a key film in a banner year for Cyprus, though also part of a larger international trend: the Year of the Woman.
The fairer sex were everywhere at Thessaloniki, often dealing with situations that were anything but fair. Sasha in the Danish Holiday is a much-abused part of a criminal family, her function being to look decorative and submit to sadistic boss/boyfriend Michael – and the film includes a scene that would surely be deemed unacceptable if the director, Isabella Eklof, weren’t herself a woman. The teenage skaters in the New York-set Skate Kitchen are an all-girl posse in a boy’s world, finding refuge in unthinking, liberating action (“Us girls,” muses Camille, our heroine, “we think too much”) and talking rape culture in between skating – though in fact their problems don’t seem too intolerable, the film getting by on youthful exuberance. Then there was Sofia, set in Morocco, the tale of a 20-year-girl who gives birth out of wedlock – and I didn’t see the film but I feel like I have, thanks to the middle-aged lady who loudly spoiled the whole thing, including the ending, to her friends (and anyone else within earshot) in a packed theatre! This was the year when the festival dropped the anti-piracy warnings it used to feature, merely asking patrons to turn off their mobile phones; they should’ve added a polite announcement limiting public description of the film you just watched to a maximum of three sentences, and only with the vaguest of spoilers.
So what did I see, if not Sofia? Quite a lot, actually, dragging myself into dark screening rooms and away from the charms of Thessaloniki – a beautiful city, in a Greece which seemed a tad less dysfunctional this year (though the taxi drivers were on strike on the day of my departure, and a month-old sign summoned the proletarian faithful to the courthouse where “the striking workers of Coca-Cola” were apparently tried on October 4). There were cinephile novelties, like Star which is nothing but shots of outer space from dozens of different films (a true buff will await the appearance of “This is the Universe. Big, isn’t it?” from A Matter of Life and Death; it arrives on about five minutes, for the record), or The Green Fog, another collage which ingeniously describes Vertigo without actually showing any clips from Vertigo. There were stunning surprises, like Jaime Rosales’ brilliantly-controlled Petra, and a few disappointments like Joy, a film about Nigerian prostitutes in Austria (more abused women!) which won Best Film at the London Film Festival but seems to have been written in the stilted tones of an NGO trying to raise public awareness. There were quirky oddities like Diamantino – a Portuguese sci-fi comedy about a fiendish plan to clone Diamantino, aka Cristiano Ronaldo – and gloriously-titled films without much in the way of commercial prospects: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians (139 minutes of enjoyable sparring about anti-Semitism in Romania), this means you.
And of course there was also An Elephant Sitting Still, the four-hour, near-plotless Chinese drama which I did, in the end, make time for, on the simple principle that I’ll never get around to watching a four-hour, near-plotless Chinese drama – even assuming I can find it – outside of a film festival. The film is mournful and murky – and perhaps a masterpiece, following four main characters through dark interiors and down the chilly streets of a grey Chinese city; the camera is always on the move, except when it pauses for elegantly-composed dialogue scenes (the director’s eye, throughout, is impeccable). There’s a crushed birthday cake, a squabble over a gift card, and a story of watching someone kill a cat but not intervening “because then I’d be part of it”; life in an atomised China, with the titular beast as the only symbol of possible community (“People gather,” we’re told of the elephant, “watching it sit still.”). A film about how disgusting life is, but also – despite its creator’s sad fate – how you have to keep trying anyway. Simply put, I’m glad I saw it.
It would be quixotic to assume that film festivals change anything. “It was very slow,” I overheard a young man saying, of the film he’d just seen. “It had a twist which didn’t wow me, then it just ended suddenly”. Audiences at Thessaloniki are enthusiastic (most of the films were sold out) but everyone’s a little bit jaded in this day and age; films are made with love, often over many years, then treated with blithe disregard, as consumer goods. Still, there’s always the possibility of a film that’ll blow people’s minds and expand their horizons – maybe even make a real-world difference, as Smuggling Hendrix potentially could. This year, at Thessaloniki, a little Cypriot dog (actually played by a Dutch dog) showed the way. Meanwhile, back in China, an elephant is sitting, still.