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Dispatches from Thessaloniki, Macao and Cucalorus

Porto (Photo by Wyatt Garfield)

Thessaloniki International Film Festival

By Ray Pride

What everyone in Greece has known since 2008 is — well, no one knows. In late December, the eurozone lenders again withdrew short-term relief measures for the demolished Greek economy, partially prompted by a one-time relief payment to impoverished pensioners for Christmas. A local observer said the current goal in Greek politics is to see “who can be less hated than all the others. Trust in political parties is rock bottom.” Greece is still in crisis, still reeling and contracting, although there are hopeful signs at street level, in cafes and tavernas, in this centuries-old, oft-beset port city of Thessaloniki, off the Aegean Sea in view of Mount Olympus. 

During the Thessaloniki International Film Festival each November, as well as its March documentary fest, screenings are at capacity, partially due to the youth of the city, with 40,000 students at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki alone. The programming and sidebar events are at a smaller scale than the festival’s mid-2000s go-go years, but its film production assistance programs, not limited to the Crossroads Co-Production Forum, a Works In Progress section and the Industry Center, have only grown more important, a smaller version of what the Sundance Institute accomplishes in its range of support activities.

The 57th edition of TIFF advocated for and demonstrated ambition in its role in its home country and internationally as well, while still looking toward American independent filmmaking as a touchstone. Festival patron Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson opened the festival, with Gimme Danger later in the week. A taste for portrayals of the darker side of America persisted, reflected in the programming of Michael O’Shea’s Transfiguration, the Daniels’s Swiss Army Man, Tim Sutton’s Dark Night, Ira Sachs’s Little Men, So Yong Kim’s Lovesong, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation and, as part of a series where films “respond” to each other, the mirroring of Antonio Campos’s Christine and Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine. Early shows are free to students and pensioners, and the five-euro tickets, compared to seven at cinemas, ensure the six theaters along the water are quickly filled. (It was oddly right to see Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann at noon one midweek day in the company of a phalanx of appreciative, elderly Greek women.) The political content of the Greek movies lay in a consistent depiction of the hope for a polyglot culture, as in the polished immigrant drama, Amerika Square, which took several awards at the end of the festival, or in simply reflecting intractable cultural specificity, largely in the onscreen habitation of Greek streets and Greek bedrooms. Gabe Klinger’s Jim Jarmusch-co-produced Porto also captured a moment: cosmopolitan wanderlust and disorientation unspooling against the face of another history-inscribed European city.

TIFF 57 was the first event after the retirement of 24-year veteran programmer and, later, artistic director Dimitri Eipides, who departed after the March event. On opening night, new general director Elise Jalladeau took film history back to 1895 and the Lumière Brothers at La Ciotat train station to invoke all of cinema as a journey. “The train of cinema drives audiences to a promise of a world which is more tolerant, more educated, more accessible,” she said, citing the festival’s year-round programming and growing Cinema Museum and Cinémathèque. Festival director Orestis Andreadakis, who held a similar position at the smaller Athens International Film Festival for almost a decade, also reduced dilemmas to essentials: “What exactly is a festival, which are the boundaries of cinema, and what is the role of the cities hosting the film festivals? Festivals were initially exhibitions of film products, meaning film screenings, press conferences, stars and prizes.” The 53-year-old Andreadakis sees the 21st century as something larger, building on TIFF’s strengths in supporting the development of screenplays and films, aiding production and distribution and facilitating collaboration between filmmakers. “We want to restate the meaning of our festival and see it as a living entity, with many forms and shapes and year-round activity. We support Greek cinema, but at the same time we want to enhance the international character of our festival, since the most substantive help we can offer the Greek cinema is to support its international potential.” Greek films, largely pushed aside in recent years, were restored to the program, not just as premieres but local debuts of films from earlier European festivals. Twenty-nine Greek features were in the lineup, as well as several programs of shorts.

A few days later: It was the night of the U.S. presidential election, seven hours ahead of Eastern Time. The night was warm and still after a sea-chopping afternoon of stiff winds off Mount Olympus to the west. I figured there was no way to stay awake all night after half a week of outsmarting jet lag and five days of festival ahead. Sleep would fall. And abruptly my eyelids would open, I would reach for my phone and the cascade of notifications, the churn of Twitter. The Results. If the election were cinched by 11 p.m. or midnight, it would already be 4 or 5 a.m. I decided to stay awake until there was a hint of who might win, at a favorite bar with Wi-Fi called “Flou,” a French word for “blurry,” until the fate was clear. Sitting with an iPad, largely scrolling Twitter commentary. Around 5:30 a.m., when the staff was clearing the bar, smoking the latest in a succession of hand-rolled cigarettes, I turned the iPad face down. The owner came from behind the bar and stood in front of me. “Trump,” he said plainly, color draining from his face behind his beard. “Trump,” I echoed. “I hope you will never know what Greece has known since the crisis,” he said. “I hope you never know what our parents told us about the Civil War.”

Somehow after that I slept. The next day began late and the sun was friendly, even frisky. Not too bright. Golden. Perfectly… Greek. The temperate Mediterranean climate that extends from the islands, inland and to the north. I walked slowly in the sun to the pier, where members of the staff greeted me with the same expression the man of Flou had shown, a mixture of seeing a ghost and a meltingness of maternal-paternal concern. “Are you… okay?” one asked, and I wondered if she meant, did I have a terrible hangover? I realized I had slept my way to numbness. But then she said, “We are all worried. What the fuck! You must be, too.” Conversation continued: The world was more real, our stories more urgent, our fears and hopes and freshest fears, than the fantasies all around us.

Toward the end of the festival, a visibly wearied Andreadakis elaborated on the original American independent movement as “the beginning of good cinema.” He exclaimed, “Cassavetes! One of our theaters [all named for Greek filmmakers] is named after him. Sometimes we forget how important that movement was. Because now American independents are not independent anymore. So you go to Sundance and everybody’s trying to enter Hollywood. But still, there are some directors who keep making films, like Jim Jarmusch, like Ira Sachs, they keep going and doing independent films, independent in spirit, and they don’t want to enter the big system. We want an international festival, at least for Europeans, and for us, this is a manifest. We want to open the festival; we want to communicate. The most important political act in our days is to open our frontiers, to communicate, exchange ideas. It’s very dangerous, what’s happening everywhere in Europe, and America now. Our job is not to solve problems, but to open bridges through art, through cinema.”

One of the most optimistic afternoons came with South By Southeast, an informal meeting of film fund representatives from Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Macedonia, Italy and Romania as well as the Eurimages fund. Speaking on the event’s panel, Konstantinos Kontovrakis, a TIFF organizer-turned-producer spoke of a vision for keeping regional cinema regional, both in flavor and in visibility at home as well as in nearby countries. Kontovrakis left the festival in 2010 after 10 years and 20 festivals, “a conscious but sudden change for me,” he related after the panel, “as I had no prior experience in film production, and producing is very different to programming film festivals.” A year after he quit TIFF, Kontovrakis was executive producer of Argyris Papadimitropoulos’s Wasted Youth (2011), which was unexpectedly selected as opening film of the Tiger Competition at the Rotterdam Film Festival. At that festival, he also met Giorgos Karnavas, one of the film’s producers who is now his partner at the Athens-based production company-sales rep Heretic (which had four films at TIFF 2016). “I soon realized that understanding film and being able to discuss creatively with filmmakers is key to film producing,” Kontovrakis told me, “and harnessing the filmmaker’s vision, assisting it become a reality and, often, safe-guarding it, is one of the job’s most significant aspects. It was my years of watching films and believing in other people’s talent as programmer for TIFF that helped me acquire these skills. It also provided me, of course, with a strong network of filmmakers and other film professionals, who trusted my taste and knowledge of the film world and helped me through my first steps as a producer. Some of them still do. Coming from the world of film festivals, I was always more familiar with the afterlife of a film rather than its preparation or execution. Therefore, from my very first experience as a producer, I clearly understood that the international market is very competitive, if not hostile, to small arthouse films speaking obscure languages like Greek. Soon, I realized that it’s not only hard to find international sales agents to represent your film but also that they often come from a world very different to ours. So, the idea of repping my own films was almost an instinctive reaction. Extending to producers from the region, who are going through very similar experiences to mine, was a logical outcome.” Looking back at his history with TIFF and toward a future Greek cinema, Kontovrakis observed, “We are the most complicated region of Europe. We’ve had so many wars but, at the same time, so much in common. This makes us also the most interesting part of Europe, and I think that there’s immense potential in uniting our creative strengths.”

I also saw the supermoon over Mount Olympus. It was a night or two after the election and I was walking from “Faces and Spaces,” a photo exhibition by Nelly Tragousti on the Thessaloniki pier. It’s also a location where the late Greek master filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos shot scenes for several movies. Beneath that huge moon, inside a warehouse that Angelopoulos had used as a soundstage for The Weeping Meadow (2004), production stills from the Berlin shoot of his final finished film, The Dust of Time, were scattered along the walls as fine art behind glass. Some of that movie’s crew was there, taking selfies and selfies with other selfies taken behind them up against the framed work. Decades folded: I wouldn’t think about the news from a couple days earlier that this entire Port of Thessaloniki could be up for sale for as little as 180 million euros, but of the festival in 2002, when Angelopoulos invited journalists to watch him shoot scenes in a Russian peasant village constructed for The Weeping Meadow a few meters from this spot. Angelopoulos was making pictures in a specific place, this specific place, and I thought instead about how different kinds of pictures are being made, and will continue to be made in Greece and southeastern Europe. 

International Film Festival and Awards Macao

By Whitney Mallett

Arriving for the first-ever International Film Festival and Awards Macao, Shekhar Kapur said that he hardly recognized the place. The last time the Indian filmmaker had visited the small island on the Pearl River Delta was some 30 years ago, and he didn’t remember any high-rises back then. Returning as a festival juror to the former Portuguese colony — sovereignty of Macao was transferred back to China in 1999, though, like Hong Kong, it remains an autonomously administered territory — Kapur found the place transformed. Macao has long been a gambling hub, but in the last 15 years, billions have been poured into developing it into a world-class resort destination. Today, “Asia’s Las Vegas” is home to towering 30- and 40-story hotels as well as the largest casino in the world, the 546,000-square-foot Venetian Macao. Those new to the city could see for themselves how much the skyline had changed by watching Immortal Story, a romantic Hong Kong film set in Macao 30 years ago, which saw the world premiere of its restored version at the festival in early December.

The rapid development Macao has undergone made the city the perfect backdrop for a program of films threaded with anxieties of industrialization and urbanization. Across many parts of South and East Asia, in a single generation, traditional ways of life have been disrupted by mass urban migrations and large-scale development projects, provoking an angst that propelled many of the festival’s films, from the Indian noir Gurgaon, chronicling the power struggles within a family whose real estate fortune is intertwined with a violent past, to the Chinese thriller Hide and Seek, about a nuclear family in a luxury condominium haunted by an estranged disinherited older brother and terrorized by a psychopath agitated from development-fueled evictions. 

In a program that spanned both genre films and arthouse cinema, these anxieties were explored in wildly different ways. For example, one could choose between Survival Family, a Japanese comedy set during an unexplained apocalypse, and The Winter, a quiet eulogy for an Argentinian sheep ranch soon to be sold off to resort developers. Suggesting that change is a harsh but inevitable part of both natural life cycles and societal constructions, the latter won best picture.

While welcome, this varied meditation on the jarring effects of industrialization and development felt somewhat of an accidental theme. On the whole, the festival program was plagued by trying to do too many things at once — even as the organizers were dealing with all the challenges that inevitably come with programming a brand-new festival in an obscure locale. “Imagine how it is to try and sell a festival that has not existed so far, to try and sell Macao, a tiny dot on the geographic map,” implored former festival director Marco Mueller when talking to The Hollywood Reporter on the occasion of his resignation. Apparently the program’s lack of focus, however, was not an effect of the director’s sudden exit. Lorna Tee, head of festival management, insisted that the program remained exactly the same after Mueller’s departure, as it was only weeks before the event and all the filmmakers and talent had already been invited. 

Some selections felt motivated by a desire to secure films with big-name talent. There seemed little logic, for instance, behind the choice of the opening night film Polina, a mediocre coming-of-age drama about a Russian ballerina finding herself in France and Belgium, other than Juliette Binoche’s supporting role. There was also a disappointing film starring Michael Fassbender in competition, Trespass Against Us. While neither Binoche or Fassbender made an appearance in Macao, the festival did manage to lure a mix of both Eastern and Western names. British director Ben Wheatley, for instance, made a red carpet appearance along with South African actor Sharlto Copley, one of the leads from his Free Fire’s ensemble cast. And both Japanese director Takashi Miike and Hong Kong director Fruit Chan came to Macao for the world premieres of their respective films, The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio and Shining Moment. There was other Asian talent I’d never heard of but that Macanese audiences were clearly impressed by. Hours before the opening ceremonies, there was already a crowd of young girls, some with sanitation masks and posters, camping out to catch a glimpse of South Korean actor and singer Jang Keun-suk. 

Tee explained that the genre element of the program was partially aimed at drawing local audiences to the screenings, which took place in locations all over the city, including some casino theaters. There was an international offering of horror films including the Catholic-themed Filipino film Sekluyson, the colonial era Vietnamese ghost story The Housemaid and the ghastly Mexican mystery tale 1974. It’s hard to judge how well these films fared in bringing local moviegoers to the theaters. Some of the public screenings I attended seemed about half full. The French horror film Daguerrotype, Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s first picture set outside his home country, was sold out days before its only screening, only to play for a largely empty theater. Tee and the festival team weren’t sure why. 

The festival aspires to not only grow the local film watching community but also to develop the Macanese filmmaking industry, which is right now in a nascent stage. Only time will tell if either ambition succeeds, but the festival’s first edition made an effort to support local filmmakers by including two Macanese films in the program, Emily Chan’s Our Seventeen and Tracy Choi’s Sisterhood. The fest also included a pitch forum and industry matchmaking event, which invited the directors and producers of 12 different projects, both genre and auteur, from around the world to Macao in an effort to introduce them to industry professionals who could offer support in writing, production, distribution and financing. Tee suggested that promoting Macao as an industry hub where film professionals from the East and West could connect, as well as endorsing Macao as a location for more international productions, would have a positive effect on developing the local filmmaking community. And while one might assume Macao is already an international hub for Asian film professionals as it has hosted the Asian Film Awards for the past three years, Tee noted that event only brings superficial engagement between the city and the industry at large. Her goal is for the festival to stimulate more sustainable investment.

While this idea of “the East meets West,” which informed not only the industry events but also the festival’s film program, could be interpreted as simplistic, or unfocused, there did seem to be some value in putting these different schools of contemporary international cinema in conversation. While Kapur acknowledged that Eastern nations all have their own unique storytelling traditions, he also contended that there is a sensibility connecting cinema from regions as diverse as China and India and which differentiates their tastes from Western ones. “What they call melodrama, we call mythology,” he explained. “The West has a habit of dulling life down and making it intellectual. Asian storytelling has a mythic quality.” Indeed, fate and destiny affected the plot in many of the fest’s Asian cinema selections, and I couldn’t ignore that I found myself weeping and sincerely moved in a lot of films that I wanted to write off as sentimental. Learning the intricacies of these divergent sensibilities seemed a valuable lesson, if not just for cross-cultural understanding then for business savvy, as the Asian and especially mainland Chinese market is increasingly one to which filmmakers and studios around the world are striving to appeal.

Cucalorus Film Festival

By Whitney Mallett

Let your freak flag fly. That sentiment bleeds into every nook and cranny of the Cucalorus Film Festival, now in its 22nd year, where frightful genre films and microbudget experimentations crash into each other against the backdrop of backyard bonfires in coastal North Carolina. Set in the 100,000-plus person city of Wilmington, home to a couple colleges and the largest film studio outside of California, Cucalorus feels first and foremost for filmmakers, with an uncommon amount of money invested in supporting directors, producers and actors to make the trek to the Southeastern locale, transforming the four-day noncompetitive nonjuried event into a community-building affair. Full disclosure: I attended the festival as a journalist as well as a filmmaker.

I arrived in Wilmington the morning after the election, timing that underscored the theme of end times threading through the program, from Etta Devine and Gabriel Diani’s Diani & Devine Meet the Apocalypse, a comedy about a couple escaping Los Angeles in the wake of unexplained cataclysm, to Sarah Adina Smith’s Buster’s Mal Heart, a nonlinear dive into Y2K paranoia and ontological reckoning starring Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek. Another foreboding highlight was the thrilling, class-conscious Korean zombie film Seoul Station, which stuck closely to the expectations of the genre while interrogating patriarchal power structures and problems of homelessness caused by real estate development.

Genre has an interesting status at the festival, which spotlights examples of filmmakers playing with conventions in different ways. Jorge Torres-Torres’s experimental narrative about a woman suffering from memory loss, Fugue, was introduced as “horror-ish,” while my favorite of the fest, Ingrid Jungermann’s film Women Who Kill, chronicled a love triangle between serial killer-obsessed Park Slope lesbians, combining murder-mystery and romantic comedy.

The freaky playfulness of the program was well matched with performances like an evening of modern dance and a costume karaoke party in a sports bar, formerly a second-wave coffee shop where much of Dawson’s Creek was filmed. Throughout the weekend, the introductions were often as entertaining as the films themselves. Programmer Aaron Hills donned wigs and ears to introduce the films in his Convulsions series. Before Diani & Devine Meet the Apocalypse, local comedian Kevin Yee belted out a pop ballad about wanting to lick his lover’s tears. And setting the tone for Peter Sheehan’s documentary Gip, about a 90-something-year-old Alabama juke joint owner, Maurice Martinez, aka Marty Most, gave a sprawling and illuminating introduction about the roots of the blues, finishing off by playing a little music on the hose from a gas stove. Late one evening, in the backyard of Cucalorus’s year-round candy-colored headquarters, Jengo’s Playhouse, we were treated to a display of fire breathing and fire juggling. “This is about as much Burning Man as I can take,” someone next to me in the crowd whispered. 

Two events at the fest seemed to garner the most buzz: visiting Canadian comedian Shirley Gnome playing a kazoo with her vagina and Stanley Kubrick’s daughter Vivian Kubrick presenting never-before-seen footage from the then 17-year-old’s behind-the-scenes documentary chronicling the making of The Shining. She presented the footage in person along with Garrett Brown, the film’s Steadicam operator, and Joe Dunton, the legendary camera engineer who functioned as a technical advisor on the set. There was a local connection as Dunton, a British native, is a longtime Wilmington resident. He first discovered the town while working on Dino De Laurentiis’s film Firestarter in 1984.

Nicknamed “Hollywood East,” Wilmington saw a boom in TV and film production in the ’80s. In the year 1986 alone, the city hosted productions of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Michael Mann’s Manhunter, and Crimes of the Heart, starring Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard. More recently, amenities like a 37,500-square-foot sound stage and the largest special effects water tank in North America have enticed big productions like Iron Man 3, shot in 2012. However, in the last couple of years, North Carolina’s tax incentive program has changed to a new grant program, making the state more attractive to smaller story-driven productions rather than billion-dollar blockbusters. In December 2015, the North Carolina Film Office launched a filmmakers’ fund in partnership with Cucalorus to support film and video projects made by local NC filmmakers. Cucalorus was given $10,000, which it divvied up between nine projects chosen through an open application process. One of the fund winners is Dunton’s daughter Erica, who’s been making independent films for years — her 2011 feature To Get Her shot in Wilmington with a local cast and went on to win the Best of NEXT Audience Award at Sundance.

In Wilmington, the commune has replaced the studio to some degree. The modest budget, studio-funded films of the 1980s don’t really exist any more. Today, there’s superhero movies and crowd-funded films and little in between. In this brave new world, Cucalorus has emerged as a grassroots and community-centric organization supporting film, as well dance and theater, through grants and artist-in-residency programs, set in their hippy-dippy creative campus that boasts a stationary furnished van and an outdoor shower. Their annual film festival helps them expand their community to the filmmakers who come from around the country and around the world, forging relationships and suggesting a model of filmmaking support that some of these visitors might take back to their own cities.

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