Stroke of the pen

Writers share stories, vent at confab

Innumerable sects and troubled minorities have sought refuge at Thessaloniki since its founding some two-and-a-half millennia ago, and last week it was the turn of Europe's screenwriters to descend on the port city in northern Greece.

More than 120 scribes from 22 countries, together with a smattering of legal advisers and other experts, gathered for a two-day conference on a subject dear to a writer's heart — "The Stories, the Rights and the Money."

Organized by the Balkan Fund, the principal source of script development in southeastern Europe, the conference was described by coordinator Christina Kallas as an "ideal place to start a conversation between writers from Western and Eastern Europe."

Despite the presence of writers from as far afield as Turkey and Bulgaria, regional issues hardly featured, except when Marta Lamperova, head of sales at the Berlin-based distributor MDC International, noted: "Films from Eastern Europe have almost no chance of breaking out of the region unless they are structurally innovative or have a particularly powerful story line."

In his opening lecture on story structure, Denmark's Mogens Rukov, co-writer of Thomas Vinterberg's "Festen," chose to be provocative. "American films are deeply civilized," he noted. "Their characters are defined by their jobs — detectives, cops, taxi drivers, and so on. In European films, characters are defined by their way of existing, which is animalistic. We are animals."

German writer Thomas Bauermeister added nuance. "There is no such thing as a European film," he opined. "There is European money that is used to make local films."

Poland's Jaroslaw Sokol believes that the local emphasis has gone too far, in his country at least. Evoking the emergence of a "Ken Loach complex" among young Polish directors, all bent on making gritty social dramas, he hearkened back wistfully to the movies of Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose parables achieved universal resonances despite being set in the daily reality of the Communist era.

The time-honored debate over the relative merits of the authors' rights and copyright systems was given a rerun, but Irish guild leader David Kavanagh stressed that regardless of the system favored, what matters most is the power relation between writers and producers.

Machinations at Brussels, notably the threat to collective bargaining rights from the European Union's directorate for competition, caused much foreboding, but conference morale was boosted by the intervention of the sole American present, David Kipen. A former critic, Kipen raised the meeting's biggest cheer with the presentation of his book "The Schreiber Theory," which radically debunks the pro-director "auteurist" view of filmmaking and reaffirms the writer's claim to be a primary creator of movies.