Thessaloniki fest at 50

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As the Thessaloniki International Film Festival celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the event, which runs Nov. 13-22, finds itself on the precipice of a new era. But even as fest programmers look to the future, a brewing controversy threatens to overshadow what has become Greece's greatest film event.

The trouble began in the summer when a number of prominent Greek filmmakers (the so-called "Filmmakers in the Fog") threatened to boycott the festival in an effort to protest what they see as a lack of funding support by the Greek Film Center. The members of the movement made it clear that one of their goals is to draw attention to what they see as "the indifference and inertia" of the Greek Directors Assn. as well as the "mockery of the Greek state toward Greek cinema." The group has also suggested that the Greek Film Center submit its resignation.

While the protest managed to garner headlines, not everyone in the local film sector is supportive of the cause. Prokopis Doukas, one of the most well-known local cinematographers and a 35-year veteran of the industry, says the controversy is "a joke."

"No one from the directors' movement clarifies what exactly they wish this bill about cinema to be about," he says. "What I think hould be done is surely a new bill based on (the current) status of all cinema workers, that will solve problems that exist for so many years now. For that to happen it is vital for the Minister of Culture and the Committee he'll create to take under consideration all opinions on the issue by all unions, and create a bill that will be commonly accepted. If that will happen then automatically more budgets for filmmaking will be available and the Greek cinema will definitely evolve and deliver a lot better works of art."

Adds Kyriakos Chatzimichailides, the most famous Greek director of short films, who supported the Filmmakers in the Fog by retiring his newest short film from the festival: "I strongly believe that there is a necessity of a bill about cinema in Greece. Not only feature films but also short films are totally ignored all these years in this country. The TIFF is undoubtedly affected by this boycott because it's a national event. And a national event without national content is definitely a wound on cinema's body. I can assure you that no one is happy with that development but I think it was a necessity. If we won't put push the issue with actions like this one, then there is not hope for a good result for Greek cinema, ever."

Still, with the country under new leadership after the Greek elections Oct. 4, many in the industry have decided to move on, and Thessaloniki organizers are no exception. When the fest started announcing its various thematic sections in recent weeks, the clear intention was to support the idea that TIFF is entering a new era.

TIFF director Despina Mouzaki says the fest needs to look forward rather than back. "We draw our inspiration from the words of the French master Jean Renoir, who once said, 'For cinema to stay alive, it should reinvent everything from the beginning.' " she says. "We wish the 50th anniversary edition to be a new starting point for us. We want the 50th edition to present a radical proposal: (That) we hope Renoir's phrase will not remain rhetoric, but become the opportunity to set our minds free in creative and unexpected ways. The 50th edition of TIFF will be a new starting point for us, rooted of course in the continuous discovery and recognition of talent as always."

The core sections vary and are totally in line with the meaning of the "radical" and "alternative." Mouzaki is proud of the "inspiring programming, both in the official and in the parallel sections, such as Independence Days and Balkan Survey, as well as Focus thematic section and Experimental Forum. Our International Competition section focuses in first and second features by young directors from all over the world and over the years it has contributed in the recognition of new talents."

Focus: Post-Romance will attempt to redefine the meaning of romance and its multiple representations in cinema. The selection of films examines the need for companionship, loneliness, urban life and vague and constantly changing sexual relationships. Similarly, the fest's Pinku Eiga Tribute salutes a unique Japanese film movement from the '60s and '70s that boldly expressed a guilt-free interpretation of sexuality.

This year the festival also will put an emphasis on Balkan cinema in an effort to expand the possibilities of co-operation between the area's filmmaking forces. In addition to a tribute to Serbian filmmaker Goran Paskaljevic, the Balkan Survey section's core program includes significant recent films from Serbia, Romania, Slovakia, Turkey, Albania, Bulgaria and Croatia.

"Unique points of reference for Thessaloniki are its location and its audience," Mouzaki says. "Thessaloniki is strategically placed between East Europe and the Mediterranean, as well as close to the Middle East. It is a crossroads of cultures. Its audience is one of the liveliest in the world, something that is always acknowledged by the filmmakers that attend Thessaloniki."

It's ironic that even as ambitious festival organizers strive to support Greek film and bolster their 50-year-old film event, the Filmmakers in the Fog threaten to distract from the genuine gains that TIFF and the industry as a whole have made in recent years. While the irony is not lost on Mouzaki, she chooses, in true cineaste fashion, to emphasize the gains that Greek film has made recently. Proving that it is the films themselves that are of the most importance, she lauds some of the filmmakers in the Fog movement, including George Lanthimos, whose drama "Dogtooth" wowed audiences at May's Festival de Cannes.

"In the last couple of years, the Greek film industry is showing positive signs due to the international acclaim of films such as Thanos Anastopoulos' 'Correction,' which was screened at the Berlinale, Alexis Alexiou's 'Tale 52,' which was in competition in Rotterdam and Panos Koutras' 'Strella,' which was also in Berlin. 'Dogtooth' by George Lanthimos is another success for Greek cinema, having won the Prix Un Certain Regard this year in Cannes. There is a strong tendency that shows that Greek cinema is back on track, competing on the same level with films from other countries, and we hope that it will last in the years to come. The Thessaloniki International Film Festival has helped a great deal toward this direction, since all of its industry activities are working to promote Greek films, their directors and producers in the best way."
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