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Last Year’s Revolutions:
The 51st Thessaloniki International Film Festival (2010)

You Killed the Underground Film

It’s not easy being Greek.  As an outsider, I can see it in their faces, faces etched with struggle, pain, desire, hope.  Of course, this is a cinematic panoply in itself, a drama “behind the scenes” playing out in various configurations, in a setting that is a veritable hotbed of forces.  So half the time, the question is not whether Greek cinema (and its film culture at large) can be relevant on the world stage, but whether it can actually exist, in any kind of efficacious sense.


The 51st Thessaloniki International Film Festival (TIFF) was by necessity a pared-back affair, especially in comparison to the previous year’s 50th, which naturally included celebrations tied to that milestone anniversary.  Privileged to be living in Athens in the lead-up to the festival, I attended the major press conference TIFF had, a week before the festival launch, and it was clear that even the normally rabid Greek media were understanding and empathetic to the festival’s plight.  New festival director Dimitri Eipidis (former director of the Reykjavik International Film Festival) helmed the conference in a humble but steadfast way, and explained that TIFF’s budget for 2010 was only 50% of the 2009 amount.  He outlined the effect on the festival: no major fundamental or structural changes, just a paring back of the amount of films, number of guests, etc.


From my own perspective, having attended TIFF 2009, I was simply relieved and thrilled to see that the “Experimental Forum” section had been retained in 2010, in its essential form (meaning: a dozen or so sessions, programmed by Vassilis Bourikas).  Of course, TIFF pretty much conforms to a certain “template” for international film festivals in Europe – a certain size, structure, programming, etc., with obviously a weighting towards Greek/Balkan cinema.  The “Experimental Forum” is extraordinary because it is the realisation of a visionary programmer who loves the idea of presenting avant-garde work to more straight-laced audiences, and so TIFF is a great context for this ambition (alas, the festival confined the 2010 Experimental Forum to the small cinemas, unlike in 2009, where some sessions played in the larger cinemas).


And so, the 2010 Forum unspooled: a major retrospective “Australian Experimental Films from the 20th Century” (which I can’t comment on due to my close proximity to it, curatorial-wise); the section “Amantes Sunt Amentes” (Latin for “those who love are lunatics”), focusing on the filmmakers Wilhelm Hein, George Manupelli and Oleg Mavromatti; the section “Last Year’s Resolutions”, containing 31 mainly new short films; a “Tribute to Martin Putz”, the Austrian cinematographer; and the reconvening of the group “Kino Climates”, a collection of alternative cinema space organisers located throughout Europe.


To say that programmer Vassilis Bourikas presents little-known filmmakers to us for our appreciation is to somewhat understate things.  Bourikas is a chronicler of revolutions.  Cinema is a most unforgiving medium for artists, the most stultifying: no matter what “diversity” seems to exist for film at most times, its aesthetic, production and exhibition modes are pretty narrow.  And even the avant-garde has its canons, rules, superstars, procedures.  Which Bourikas knows, of course.  In fact, Bourikas himself is an anomaly, a revolution: as a programmer of film work on the international stage, his passion, his dogged nose for buried treasures, mark him as a true radical – if you want edge in your cinema, you’ve come to the right place.


Within the “Amantes Sunt Amentes” section, Wilhelm Hein’s work was intoxicating.  A radical German filmmaker since the late ‘60s, Hein attended the festival and presented two films – the famed Materialfilm ( 1974, a mesmerising collection of film leaders), and the first hour of the 15-hour You Killed the Underground Film or the Real Meaning of Kunst Bleibt, Bleibt (2001-02).  This hour-long intro to this mammoth work (apparently only on 16mm, not digitised at all, and always changing) is a bold, free-form collection of found footage, texts, agitprop stances, pornography, classical music, all kinds of things.  It is at times very raw, but very invigorating, as only the free-est of essay collage cinema can be.  Rounding out the “Amantes” section were programs by Oleg Mavromatti (a very political Russian avant-garde artist now exiled in Bulgaria) and George Manupelli (an American film festival director and advocate of experimental cinema).


The “Last Year’s Resolutions” section contained 31 short films, most of excellent quality.  Annette Frick presented her trilogy This Is Just a Rehearsal, All Good Comes from Above and Sick World, which document spaces in Berlin, in both a sober and punky way; Michel Pavlou also had a trilogy, Interstices, Exit and Tamsara, which are inventive, intricate and pleasurable experiments with movement and space in train stations mainly; Max Le Cain had two films in the program – the digital Monologue, with its exhilarating rhythms, and the Super 8 Hotel La Mirage , a more leisurely but still fascinating meditation; Peter Tscherkassky’s run of brilliant short films continues, with Coming Attractions, a breathtaking essay on the cinematic apparatus;  Igor & Ivan Buharov premiered their Super 8-shot film Rudderless, a highly inventive surreal narrative comedy; Pip Chodorov presented Charlemagne 3: Pastrami Recordings, an epic collage of New York people and places; The Secret School by Marina Yoti is a subtle but telling reworking of an old documentary film; Moonalphabet by Yoel Meranda is a simple but clever exercise exploring both texture and the figuration of shapes; and striking films from the past by the Hungarian Tamas St. Auby, German Hellmuth Costard and Yugoslav Bostjan Hladnik were also shown, all for the first time in many years.


Regarding the “Kino Climates” forum that took place over three days during the course of the festival, it was refreshing to see a group of people (a dozen or so people, filmmakers, curators, from different parts of Europe) sit down within the context of a glitzy festival and actually talk about real and necessary things!  These people are very aware of the current problems facing independent and experimental filmmakers, the need for good, small-to-medium size venues to screen their work.  And so they are networking together to create a better environment for this in the upcoming years.

The other highlight of TIFF 2010 for me was undoubtedly the retrospective of the work of the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, programmed within the “Independence Days” section curated by Lefteris Adamidis.  The retrospective was seemingly a complete one, the six features together with 20-odd shorts, and also the presence of the filmmaker, who presented a Masterclass that was a structured 90-minute overview of his art work, which I for one knew nothing about, so it was a welcome component of the overall retrospective.


As a celebrated art auteur (for some years now), Weerasethakul is in an odd position – able to freely express himself with inventive new works, but also mindful of unbelievers and any more general backlash against him.  As a human being, he is impressive: humble and friendly, and also possessive of an intuitive intelligence (but not an “intellectual” one).  He attended all his screenings with good grace and was very welcoming towards his fans.  Joe, as he is known, is a “good bloke” as we Australians like to say.


His 2nd feature Sud Sanaeha (Blissfully Yours, 2002) mesmerised many of us when we first saw it on the festival circuit in 2003.  And since then, each new feature seemed like a new wonder, a new exquisite and beautiful concoction (well, apart from the genre piece he did, Huajai Toranong [The Adventure of Iron Pussy, 2003, co-directed by Michael Shaowanasai], which is a particular case).


Revisiting his work now, in the one sitting, including the newest feature Lung Boonmee Raluek Chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, 2010), which some of us also saw earlier in the year, was a great experience, a great new (if obvious) way to connect with this uniquely talented filmmaker.  We can now see his “matrix” of themes, and actors especially.  This is not unusual, of course – many great directors over the years have given us reworkings of their ideas, or utilised the same actors over again.  This is just an observation in fact, nothing more – perhaps just a sign of Weerasethakul’s “humanity”, his “preferences”.


More importantly, this retrospective, and indeed the stronger focus on him anyway since he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, have now made us realise that Weerasethakul is indeed a fundamentally different artist to other lauded Asian art auteurs of recent times, such as Tsai, or Hou, or Jia.  And this can be seen even in the film that most resembles a Tsai or Jia film – Blissfully Yours.  Here we have a mainly realist and minimalist work from Weerasethakul, yet it seems as magical and supernatural as his other works.  It is clearly a formalist film, yet has a warmth of feeling and an ineffable generosity to it that Jia would give his right eye to possess.


Admittedly, Sang Sattawat (Syndromes and a Century, 2006) now seems a lesser (lighter) work than when it first appeared, and Dokfar Nai Meu Marn (Mysterious Object at Noon, 2000), though very radical and interesting, now seems over-clever and empty.  But Blissfully Yours and Sud Pralad (Tropical Malady, 2004) have now grown in stature in my eyes to be out-and-out masterpieces.  What’s shocking now about Tropical Malady is the level of the contrast between its two halves.  The first half is fragmented, and colourful to the point of being kitschy, while the second half is pure velvety darkness, mystical beyond belief.  As for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, its episodic structuring and curious content make it highly entertaining to watch of course.  It is a great film, undoubtedly, but probably not as good as the aforementioned titles.  It was fascinating to watch Weerasethakul’s shorts too of course.  The more rewarding ones were The Anthem (2006), Sud Vikal (Vampire, 2008) and especially Morakot (Emerald, 2008), a great attempt to capture “the invisible” in an empty room.


Programmer Lefteris Adamidis worked hard to get Weerasethakul to attend the festival, so kudos to him and his team.  His section “Independence Days” is indeed a great section in this festival.  Unfortunately I caught only two other films in the section: La vida útil (A Useful Life, d. Federico Veiroj) and The Happy Poet (d. Paul Gordon).  A Useful Life is a curious little film, from Uruguay, set in the world of a small cinematheque venue, with the protagonist an ordinary-looking film programmer.  It is a dry, very “everyday” film, but the tensions crack at one point and the film flowers into a fantasy – it is a film indeed about the “magic of cinema”.  The Happy Poet is a typical American indie comedy in a way, but it has a great intelligence, so is very engaging and likable – apart from an “ironic” ending which is a miscalculation.


The festival also had its other traditional sections – “Competition”, “Special Screenings”, “Open Horizons”, “Greek films”, “Balkan Survey”, various “Tributes”. Films I saw from within these sections: Donkeys (Morag McKinnon), a straightforward British working class tale, cast as a comedy; Periferic (Outbound, d. Bogdan George Apetri), another cracking Romanian realist film, with great acting and cinematography, a deserved winner of the main awards; 127 Hours (d. Danny Boyle), the Opening Night film actually, from a director who seems to be losing the plot a bit now; One Hundred Mornings (d. Conor Horgan), a well-acted but lifeless Irish drama about the breakdown of normal life and rules; and a number of Greek films, none of which I found particularly exciting (including the lauded Attenberg by Athina Rachel Tsangari). (For the record, my favourite Greek films of 2010, seen elsewhere, were Ta Oporofora tis Athinas [The Fruit Trees of Athens, d. Nikos Panayotopoulos] and Mesa sto Dasos [In the Woods, d. Angelos Frantzis].)


I sensed that there were some other very interesting films in the festival, especially within “Independence Days”, but one can only see so much of course.  But this is a good sign – even in these difficult times for Greek culture, TIFF is alive and buzzing with possibilities.

© Bill Mousoulis 2011
This report first appeared in Senses of Cinema, No.58, March 2011.