By Preston Wilder
This year’s 60th Thessaloniki International Film Festival (which ended on Sunday with the top prize going to Fire Will Come, an often-transcendent oddity set in rural Galicia) was also my 20th – though this year had a more personal flavour than the other 19 times I’ve attended, because this was the year I met up with American filmmaker Dan Sallitt. I’ve known Dan for years, but almost exclusively online; we’d met before fleetingly a couple of times, at the Toronto festival, but the last time was in 2006. This year, however, his new film Fourteen was playing in ‘Open Horizons’ so he crossed the Atlantic to introduce it, in between a screening at the Viennale and a few days in Madrid, where Fourteen is opening commercially.
Dan isn’t just a friend, he’s an inspiration. He has a full-time job as a civil servant, a technical writer for the city of New York – but is also a world-class cinephile, former film critic, occasional film writer and (of course) a filmmaker whose movies, remarkably, are entirely self-funded. It’s a laborious process, which is why he’s only made a handful of films (his previous one, The Unspeakable Act, was released in 2012). He’s now in his 60s, meaning he tends to be turned down for grants (one rejection letter politely described him as a “post-emerging” filmmaker), though he probably wouldn’t want those strings attached anyway. His cinema is relationship-driven, formally plain but precise, influenced partly by Rohmer and Pialat – but entirely personal.
Fourteen is his biggest hit yet, having opened at an A-list festival (Berlin) and played steadily since – though of course ‘hit’ implies money, and such films will never be commercial in the broader sense. A tale of female friendship, Fourteen is also a vehicle for Tallie Medel, the expressive star of Unspeakable Act; she plays Mara, eternal enabler and second fiddle to the more dynamic Jo (Norma Kuhling), whose behaviour is increasingly erratic. Things escalate from mere quirkiness (Jo is forever craving dessert, and will suddenly pause a conversation to pop into a bakery and buy a brownie) to full-on dysfunction – but in fact Jo isn’t the star of the show, the film being structured largely around her absence and viewed from the perspective of Mara. Some viewers couldn’t connect with this relatively uninflected drama; others questioned why a particular shot (of a train station) was held as long as it was. Dan, I feel sure, is okay with that.
The estimated budget for Fourteen barely scraped six figures, a tiny fraction of a Hollywood blockbuster’s. One assumes it even cost less than The Siege in Liperti Street, the sole Cypriot film in the Thessaloniki lineup. This was a quiet year for Cyprus, after last year’s one-two-three punch of Pause, Smuggling Hendrix and Sunrise in Kimmeria – but Liperti Street, written and directed by Stavros Pamballis, made up for that deficit not just by winning four awards (including an Audience Award) but also by being conspicuously Cypriot, working the haircut, the buffer zone, the Cyprus problem and the Mari explosion into its lively tale of a family barricading itself in its mortgaged home. The bank wants them out; there’s a tragic accident and the cops arrive, followed by a hostage negotiator – and meanwhile the TV’s showing news of those other negotiations, in Crans-Montana, just as the fuss over a house takes on added resonance in our post-invasion context. “Don’t make me a refugee,” pleads our hero’s father, significantly.
This is a brisk, amusing movie, slightly insubstantial at 88 minutes but deftly done and neatly laid out, further proof (along with Hendrix, in particular) that a new generation of local filmmakers are moving away from the portentous style of old. On the one hand, the casualness may be taken too far; the inciting event in particular seems a little rushed here (and it’s too bad the central couple, especially the wife played by Daphne Alexander, don’t get more to do). On the other, it’s great to see local films becoming more nimble and less lumbering. One tiny detail may suffice: “The National Guard is monitoring the situation,” says the TV, and we get a shot of soldiers sitting around apathetically – but in fact we cut away from that shot before the line is even spoken, whereas in the past Cypriot films might’ve beaten the joke into the ground by staying to the end and lingering on the soldiers for a few seconds after. It’s a start, right?
Thessaloniki, with 260 films screening (201 features and 59 shorts), is many things to many people. I watched Fourteen because I know Dan Sallitt, and a Cypriot movie because I’m Cypriot – but I could’ve gone in loads of other directions, especially this year, in its 60th edition (though it only became international in the 1990s), when the festival widened its scope even further. In addition to the main programme, there was also a selection of cult-ish 80s titles curated by ‘The Boy’, a.k.a. Alexandros Voulgaris – I only had time to watch one, the amazing River’s Edge from 1986 with a 21-year-old Keanu Reeves looking (even more) baby-faced; I’d seen the film before, but never quite realised how tonally eccentric it is, or how fiercely it laments human beings’ incapacity for empathy – as well as another cult director, trash maven John Waters, given ‘carte blanche’ to select some of his own favourites. There were delightfully deranged-sounding midnight movies, plus a tribute to experimental filmmakers Robert Beavers and Gregory Markopoulos. Award winners from the first Thessaloniki in 1960 were screened again, 60 years later. There was also a smattering of big films (“Films that would win an award, had they not already done so”) shown in special screenings, or out of competition.
The Painted Bird was here, a three-hour black-and-white drama – already a sensation in Venice a couple of months ago – about the cruelties of WWII and human cruelty in general, drawing a round of incongruously warm applause at the end of an 11.45 screening on a Tuesday morning. About Endlessness, the new slice of serio-comic bleakness from Swedish director Roy Andersson, was here. It Must Be Heaven, the often-wonderful deadpan comedy by Elia Suleiman – whose penchant for short, surreal sketches makes him a kind of Palestinian cousin to Andersson – was here. Oscar hopefuls Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit were here, as the festival’s opening and closing films respectively. Vitalina Varela, the big Locarno prize-winner (touted as one of the most beautiful films ever made), was here too, though I didn’t manage to see it. I didn’t manage to see lots of things, but that’s okay. That’s the beauty of festivals, and the reason why we hope Thessaloniki will endure (just a short two-hour flight away, lest we forget) for another 60 years.
Are such films still relevant? Can arthouse films, personal films – the kinds they show at festivals, the kinds my friend Dan Sallitt makes – still speak to people, in an age of corporate behemoths (Disney on the big screen, Netflix at home)? Why do we need the likes of Thessaloniki, when we have so much to choose from anyway? There’s no obvious answer to that – but I did watch I Was at Home, But by German director Angela Schanelec, a film so slippery that even its title is elusive (the Greek title, ‘I Was and Was Not at Home’, is even better), and listened to audience reactions afterwards.
“Too much Bresson,” the hip-looking young Greek next to me grunted to his girlfriend (he was wrong; Schanelec’s style is its own lovely thing) – but meanwhile a middle-aged American woman in a baseball cap looked around with a pleading expression: “Do you speak English?” she asked the people on my left. “I didn’t understand that film at all, I couldn’t even keep track of what was going on!”. They talked for a while, trying hard to connect the dots; I grabbed my coat and left them to it – but the people outside, who’d just left the screening, were discussing the film as well. This is what festivals do best, provide a space where people can engage and a vast array of movies for them to engage with. Happy 60th, Thessaloniki.