Seems like only yesterday that the Thessaloniki International Film Festival was celebrating its landmark 50th anniversary—just as Greece saw its national debt double in size while a global financial crisis shook its very foundations. Yet three years have passed and with the aid of EU grants the fest is going strong—for what will hopefully be a long time to come. It has scaled down over the years (no more cash prizes, for instance), but what festival hasn’t to some extent? The heart of any serious fest will always be, plain and simple, the movies and the audiences who come out to see them. And Thessaloniki’s selections have held steady, in terms of both quantity and quality, while Greek audiences remain some of the most devoted I’ve ever encountered.
As Festival Director Dimitri Eipides notes in the program guide: “At the core of all the films, the glue that holds them together is always humanity.” And indeed, in addition to its usual impressive selection of retrospective tributes—Aki Kaurismäki, Cristian Mungiu, and the late Theo Angelopoulos among them—Thessaloniki, which ran from November 2 to 11, demonstrated an even deeper focus on personal, socially conscious independent film than in past editions.
Three standouts centered on resilient young women—victims of their upbringing, and their times. (All three were written and directed by women, as it happened.) In Krisztina Deák’s Aglaja, the title character is born into the circus. Her father’s a two-timing clown, her mother a vain trapeze artist whose claim to fame is being “The Woman with the Hair of Steel”—a literally hair-raising feat that is as painful to listen to as it is to watch (imagine exaggerated crackling sounds, as an uprooting threatens to occur at any second…). Because Aglaja’s half-sister has been exempted from performing any further life-threatening stunts having been severely injured in a circus accident years earlier there’s no question as to which path Aglaja, the only other child in the family, will be forced to travel. The film’s action begins in the early Eighties, when Aglaja is 5, with the family fleeing Ceausescu’s Romania and ending up in Zurich. Further tragic events transpire, and the family is eventually forced to separate, yet a decade later Aglaja is pulled back in. But perhaps she’s now old enough to control her own fate…
Children of Sarajevo
Rahima (Marija Pikic), the 23-year-old heroine of Aida Begic’s Children of Sarajevo, is a no-nonsense woman grown from blighted ground. She and Nedim (Ismir Gagula), the teenaged brother she is responsible for, are orphans of the Bosnian War, yet the two deal with their suffering in vastly different ways. Seemingly stripped of all joy, Rahima slaves away at a restaurant. And the Muslim headscarf she defiantly wears is looked upon unfavorably by many; her brother treats her with the utmost disrespect, and her sleazy boss tells her to at least put on some makeup. Nedim also acts out by causing trouble at school, adding to Rahima’s burden. Though the film follows its protagonist very closely, it offers little sense of her inner life. It’s Pikic’s compelling performance that makes this bleak film so absorbing.
And, finally, Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland follows up her 2004 Somersault with the starkly beautiful Lore, a coming-of-age story of a different sort. The setting is Germany in the final days of World War II. And the title character (short for Hannelore) is the oldest of five siblings—all of them model members of the Hitler Youth. Their Nazi parents (Dad’s an S.S. officer) are “arrested,” leaving Lore in charge of shepherding her siblings (the youngest still a baby) to refuge at an aunt’s house in Hamburg—a long and harrowing journey, and an emotionally draining though ultimately rewarding experience for viewers. One of the many intriguing things about the film is that it asks us to sympathize with people who are usually regarded as the enemy. The kids are too young of course to understand their parents’ political persuasion—except for Lore. Some of their beliefs have already seeped in, as exhibited by the way she mistreats the young Jewish man who joins them on their trek, despite her growing attraction to him. Over the course of the film, we watch Lore mature—and harden—right before our eyes.
Now I must take a moment to second what Chris Darke wrote in his Locarno coverage (Film Comment, Nov/Dec 11) about Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s The Shine of Day—that it’s a bright light amidst the gloom of depressing offerings. The lead characters in this Austrian human drama—a narcissistic theater actor (Philipp Hochmair “playing” himself) and the uncle, a onetime traveling-circus performer, who unexpectedly pays him a visit (Walter Saabel, also kinda, sorta appearing as himself)—may be lost and lonely, and the snowy terrain of wintry Hamburg and Vienna may be dark and dreary, but the film is charming nonetheless. It’s always entertaining, with memorable characters and warmth, especially when it comes to the subplot concerning Walter’s involvement with Philipp’s neighbors in need.
The Color of the Chameleon
While The Shine of Day was the festival’s most winning film, The Color of the Chameleon, the directorial debut of Bulgarian cinematographer and sometime actor Emil Hristow, was by far the most original. It’s a movie bursting with ideas, which isn’t surprising considering that the screenplay was written by Vladislav Todorov, author of the prodigiously inventive Zift (a highlight of Thessaloniki’s 2008 edition that was shot by Hristow). Adapting his own novel, Zincograph (a much better title in my opinion), Todorov’s scenario begins with the recruitment of a peculiar young man, with an odd family history to match, as a secret-police informant. His task: to infiltrate a group of college students who meet in secret to discuss a subversive novel called, you guessed it, Zincograph. When he is relieved of his duties, he takes matters into his own hands, carrying out the investigation on his own terms. It’s a dizzying film, exhilarating and sometimes overly heady. (My curiosity piqued, I tried to order the Todorov novel immediately after the screening only to learn that it has yet to be translated into English…) A bit shockingly, this darkly comedic film received only a second mention from the jury for the Artistic Achievement Award. Based on the one prizewinner I did manage to see (Vahid Vakilifar’s Taboor), their decision could be considered a case of bad judgment, but because I haven’t seen the other (Vasily Sigarev’s Living) I’ll chalk it up to a surplus of innovative storytelling on offer.