Athens film fest shakes things up with focus on the young and restless

Visitors to the 14th annual Athens International Film Festival may have spotted New York animator Bill Plympton selling his sketches, DVDs and books in the theater lobby to raise money for his next very independent project — the kind of moment that captures the essence of this event.

While off the radar for festivalgoers who annually flock to Cannes, Toronto and Berlin, Athens has carved out a niche for itself in the area of grass-roots indie filmmaking and do-it-yourself cinema. What's more, it's rather popular in a country in which actual moviegoing has fallen drastically. The fest, which wrapped at the end of September, attracted about 50,000 film fans and featured many sold-out events.

Organizers invited me to head this year's jury for Music & Film, its main competitive area. Festival director Orestis Andreadakis wants Athens to be known for its strong programming of music documentaries.

"Filmgoers in Athens love music and want to learn more about its history," Andreadakis says. "We also hope to create a big section with music films to establish our identity as a festival."

The competition's grand prize, the Golden Athena, is accompanied by a €10,000 ($13,000) cash award. Our jury awarded this to "Largo," Mark Flanagan and Andrew van Baal's exquisitely shot paean to the venerable Los Angeles music and comedy club, which features an array of performers who made their mark on its stage.

Watching films at four cinemas in the central city, I found attendees to be mostly young Athenians eager to catch up on the latest efforts by international filmmakers whose works often do not reach Greek cinemas.

"We try to find the new cinema, the independent, underground, DIY cinema," Andreadakis says. "A half-century after (John) Cassavetes and the French New Wave, a new generation of agitators has emerged, a bunch of young, restless filmmakers who want to make their own movies."

The Music & Film program very much reflected the festival's audience. Although there was one film about classical music, the eight competing films leaned heavily toward youth music. One film looked at the Greek alternative music scene. Three others were about hip-hop, including one that surveyed Athens' own vibrant culture.

At the raucous premiere for that film, "Hip Hop Rhythms and Rhymes," various band members, often serious rivals, found themselves on the same side, rooting for a film that celebrates their music. It was time to party in the aisles.

The festival is a private one created by media group Pegasus, which publishes four newspapers and several magazines, including Cinema, the country's only film journal. The festival's convivial general director, Petros Antoniadhs, says that private sponsors contribute about 70% of the €600,000 budget, while governmental agencies like the Athens municipality and the Ministry of Culture supply the remaining money.

Given the explosion of docs about music following the success of Wim Wenders' 1999 "Buena Vista Social Club," the Music & Film section can only grow. Indeed, Andreadakis says he wants to attend next year's South by Southwest music and film festival in Austin to strengthen his favorite section. (partialdiff)