By Andrew James Horton
January 2, 2005 - 1:57 PM PST
When the 45th International Thessaloniki Film Festival ran from November 19 through 28, 2004, Kinoeye editor Andrew James Horton, focussing on new films from Europe, sent daily dispatches to GreenCine Daily.
Just what makes the ideal film festival?
Most people probably expect more or less the same things: a wide selection of films, including the most talked-about hits from the world's leading filmmakers, new works from young up-and-coming directors and a smattering of retrospectives that invite you to stretch the boundaries of your film knowledge. On top of all that, the leading lights of the international cinema world should be on hand to discuss their latest works and general trends, with a relaxed, informal atmosphere that is conducive to enjoyable viewing and good conversation in between. And a historic and scenic location, well-served by good restaurants and bars is always a plus.
My nomination? Well, Thessaloniki seems to come close...
The international festival, held annually in the old port complex of Greece's second-largest city, has deliberately shunned the so-called "A-status" ranking that FIAPF (the International Federation of Film Producers' Associations) grants to the largest and most glamorous events, such as Cannes, Berlin and Venice, and has instead preferred to concentrate on preserving its intimate atmosphere and creating an stunningly good film selection, factors appreciated by both viewers and visiting filmmakers.
This year, the schedule includes films by Wong Kar-wai, Theo Angelopoulos, Ingmar Bergman, Peter Greenaway, Amos Gitai, Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Chantel Akerman, Todd Solondz, Kim Ki-duk, Alejandro Amenábar and Zhang Yimou, and Cool, the last work by the recently assassinated Dutch director Theo van Gogh to whom the festival has dedicated its New Horizons sidebar this year. Retrospectives will highlight the work of Abbas Kiarostami, Victor Erice (The Spirit of the Beehive) and "the new master of fantastic cinema," Kiyoshi Kurosawa. There are three regional selections of new films (which all bear 2004 as a production date), France, Russia and Argentina, as well as festival's perennial survey of Balkan film. For more of the Balkan flavor, the festival also showcases all the previous twelve months' Greek productions and there are two retrospectives of domestic directors, Costas Sfikas and Alexis Damianos.
Present at the festival will be Kiarostami, Erice and Greenaway, who will all be offering master classes, as well as Denis, Gitai and French actress Isabelle Huppert.
And last, but by no stretch of the imagination least, there's the international competition, which is devoted to new directors (eligible films must be one of the maker's first three features), with works from Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America in the line-up for the Golden Alexander, the festival's top prize. Heading the jury will be Hungarian veteran helmer Miklós Jancsó. FIPRESCI also have their own jury at the festival.
The only bad word I can say about the festival is that this is patently too much for any one person to see, a condition made all the more painful by the high quality of the selection. Therefore, to cut things down to a more manageable agenda I'll be concentrating on European cinema (although even with this restriction I'm unlikely to see more than a fraction of what is on offer), and over the coming week I'll be sending along dispatches from the festival with this emphasis. Although, who knows what in the whirlwind of it all I'll end up seeing.
Barely having set foot in the town, I was queueing up for tickets. And with reason. The festival is well-attended and there are many sell-outs. In fact, I was unsucessful on two of my first choices for films to see on my first evening - the world premiere of Alexandra Leclère's Les Soeurs fâchées (part of an homage to its star Isabelle Huppert) and a Macedonian film from the Balkan Survey. I was, though, able to get tickets for Kira Muratova's The Piano Tuner (Russia/Ukraine, 2004) and Shane Meadows's Dead Man's Shoes (UK, 2004).
If Kira Muratova made films in America, she would probably work with actors such as William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi. Her cinema is filled with quirky characters trying to find their place in contemporary Russia and Ukraine (where she now resides as a recluse). She's been making features since the 1960s, but has really made her mark in the glasnost and post-glasnost years. Her latest feature, The Piano Tuner, is a lesson in human weakness, in people allow their expectations to soar too high, all told through a series of hyper-verbal characters who also seem to suffer a form of attention deficit disorder. The plot revolves around Anna Sergeevna and Lyuba, both widows, and the piano tuner of the title, Andrei, who is divorced. All are struggling to find love and a place in life, but are constantly thwarted by the faith they put in other people - Andrei in his love for Lina, Lyuba in her prospective husbands (who invariably run off with her money) and Anna Sergeevna in Andrei himself.
Muratova's previous film was called Chekhov's Motifs (2001), and if anything, this film is even more Chekhovian, with its musical gatherings, aimless parlor conversation and the exaggerated literary delivery of the actors (Chekhov even gets squeezed into the dialogue). It's also a rather more eccentric film and even funnier too. But a running time of 154 minutes? I could be generous and say that the length is a reinforcement of the verbosity of the characters, but even the stellar performances can't mask the discomfort of the cinema seat piercing through the posterior as the film drags on, an extension of Muratova's well-known disregard for her audience.
No such problems afflicted Shane Meadow's Dead Man's Shoes, an original take on the exploitation revenge flick and an exposé of the dangers of drugs.
The trouble with drugs and violence in cinema is that it invariably detracts from character development and visual storytelling even though a certain cinematic flair is achieved through excessive stylisation. Well, almost invariably, as Dead Man's Shoes does a good job of avoiding the pitfalls inherent in tackling the subjects, and Meadows has crafted a taught thriller that has beautifully painted characters and which captures the English countryside perfectly (not a usual trait of the genre).
Richard, back from the a stint in the army, turns up in his village but is barely recognized. Only when the mysterious semi-stranger starts playing havoc with the lives of a group of happy-go-lucky pill-popping friends do they make the connection to a guilty secret they all share about how they treated Richard's retarded brother. And then the blood bath starts...
Admittedly, I had huge reservations about the direction that this film was taking as I was watching it. But Meadows's grainy video work changes gear in the final section of the film and is skillfully transformed from a crass justification for mindless violence against those who have wronged you into a poignant moral tale on the price of conformity and not speaking out. The superb performances almost are up to the gargantuan task of realizing the emotion ending - but just not quite. And whomping Arvo Part choral music on the score to up the dramatic tension of the denouement seems a bit clichéd against an otherwise fresh soundtrack. Kudos to Meadows (who is self-taught) for making such a disturbing, original and funny film and one that is strong enough to overcome the implausibility of its ending.
Another rewarding day, spent shuttling back and forth between the festival's locations - the historic port complex with its old red-brick warehouse converted into modern cinemas and the Olympion theater five minutes away in the waterfront Aristotle Square, reputedly the prettiest square in the Balkans.
Today's catch included two films from the New Russian Cinema series, although only one of them, Dmitri Meskhiev's Svoi (2004), is worth discussing, and Goran Paskaljevic's Midwinter Night's Dream (Serbia, 2004), part of the Contemporary Masters section of the festival. Although from different countries and having completely different themes and styles, both features are about coming to terms with past.
Goran Paskaljevic was already internationally famous for his allegorical films with a political edge when he made, in 1998, the explosive anti-war drama Bure baruta (literally "The Powder Keg," but called Cabaret Balkan in the US for legal reasons), depicting a group of inter-connected Belgraders caught up in a meaningless cycle of violence. With his latest film, Midwinter's Night Dream, he follows up on Bure baruta's legacy by examining Serbia's attempts to come to terms with its recent history. Lazar (Lazar Ristovski) returns from a ten-year spell in prison for murder to find his mother's house occupied by Bosnian refugees and her possessions stolen by the neighbors. He tries to kick out the intruders, single mum Jasna and her autistic twelve-year-old daughter Jovana, but on seeing conditions in the refugee camp for Bosnians, he allows them to stay with him - falling in love with Jasna and building a deep affection for Jovana. Containing documentary elements, Midwinter's Night Dream is a study of Serbia's own autism and a horrible confession of its complicity in war crimes.
The film has already had a good start on the festival circuit, winning a special jury prize at San Sebastian, and is likely to be popular elsewhere for its intellectual and moral honesty. But I felt the film was marred by the clash between the gritty realism of its MiniDV photography and its clearly allegorical intentions. The real test of its strength as a film, though, will be how the film fares in Serbia. It has its domestic premiere in Belgrade tomorrow.
Can other countries rise to the challenge and admit their part in the horrors of the Balkan wars of the 1990s? Maybe. Later in the festival, I hope to report on a Croatian feature that has the opportunity to do just that.
Russia's huge sacrifice in the Second World War - a staggering twenty million dead - has had a correspondingly large influence on the development of the cinema of the country. Early films about the war against Hitler eulogized the personal courage of ordinary Russians (who were all good) against the Germans (who were all bad). Great advances were made in the late 1950s with the introduction of a more realist tone to this simplistic schema and, since the 1970s, filmmakers have tried to paint a more complicated picture. Larisa Shepitko's transcendental The Ascent (1976), for example, was the first film to show that Russians in occupied territory had collaborated with the Germans - a huge taboo in Soviet cinema.
Svoi seeks to muddy these moral waters further and aims to show that Russians
who collaborated may have been decent people and may even have been patriots (although, obviously, many were not). This is even evident in the title, Svoi, which has been translated by the producers as "We Ourselves," making it sound staunchly isolationist (as in "without anyone else's help"), when, in fact, the word is more inclusive and embracing - one's own, one's nearest and dearest, one's country.
Also unlike the traditional Russian war film, Svoi revels in Peckinpah-like/Spielbergian effects - graphic shots of the bloody violence underlined by devices such as bullets shattering windows and jugs of milk in slow motion. But despite such stylization in its limited number of set pieces and its programmatic nature, Svoi strives to be realist in tone. The cultural specificities of the plot may be lost on most Western viewers, but it is testament to the dramatic power of this intelligent and tense work that it can overcome this and can easily be appreciated by anyone from any cultural background.
The next step for Russian cinema, presumably, is a film that sympathizes with
Also worthy of mention is a brief excursion out of my chosen patch into Argentinean cinema, with a viewing of Lisandro Alonso's second feature The Dead (2004), a beautiful and elegiac account of a serial killer's voyage into the jungle to visit his daughter. Viewing this, it is easy to see why the country is currently experiencing a wave of international interest (just three years ago, Thessaloniki had a sidebar devoted to Argentinean film).
Preview, Muratova, Meadows, Meskhiev, Paskaljevic.Greenaway, Bresan, Razbezhkina, Dragin, Zornista, Pawlikowski, Honoré.
Omarova, Vuletic, Ristovski, Zalica, Erice, Kiarostami, Angelopoulos and Postscript.
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Andrew James Horton
Editor-in-Chief of the excellent film journal Kinoeye, Andrew James Horton has written for several publications, including Senses of Cinema, and most recently for us, three primers on eastern European and early Russian cinema.
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