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Is There Life After Fire?: A Trip to Greece’s Evia Film Project 2024

Opening night at the Evia Film Project (Courtesy of Thessaloniki Film Festival)

One of the evergreen questions of filmmaking is: Can cinema make a difference? Usually, the issue is raised in connection with specific movies, such as those championing change, including SeaWorld-skewering doc Blackfish, or better husbandry of the planet. Take one step back, though, and there’s another, perhaps more vital way that cinema can make a difference — by bringing a community together in shared experience and cause.

This latter force for good is firmly in evidence at Greece’s Evia Film Project, which has just wrapped its third edition on the island nestled near the mainland a couple of hours from Athens. An offshoot of Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which hosts its fiction edition each autumn and a documentary-focused separate festival every spring, the event was founded in response to a devastating wildfire that ravaged more than 120,000 acres of forest on the northern part of Evia in 2021.

Once thriving in the Victoria era — when it was referred to as Negroponte, as visitors were drawn by Evia’s hot springs — it was also a playground for the likes of Jackie Onassis more recently, although now it’s more of a sleepy destination put back on the international map for the wrong reason by the fire. While thankfully there was no loss of human life in the 2021 blaze, it took a heavy toll on Evia’s wildlife and had a knock-on effect on tourism, which had already been slammed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result the Evia Film Project was born the following year, which aimed to “culturally reboot” the area. This wasn’t just a notional idea but one that was underpinned by immediate practical action spearheaded by Thessaloniki Artistic Director Orestis Andreadakis. He vividly recalls receiving a phone call from the Culture Ministry on August 16, in the wake of the fire, the day after one of the biggest annual holidays in the Greek calendar.

Said Andreadakis: “They told me, ‘The fires are over, but half of the island is destroyed, and we need your help to create things, to encourage the people, to encourage tourism, to encourage the economy.’ I said to the minister, ‘Okay, by the end of September, we can find an idea.’ And he said, ‘Look, Orestis, maybe you didn’t understand. Half of the island is dead. Think of something.’ So we gathered through Zoom from our vacations and we said, ‘We need to do something. It’s our obligation.'”

Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and within 15 days the idea for the project was born, with the intention of helping the island and its community, while putting green cinema and sustainability in general at its heart.

Among the immediate practical effects was the rejuvenation of the open-air Apollon Cinema, which lies on Edipsos’s seafront and had fallen into disrepair some two decades previously. Spruced up it now screens cinema for locals and tourists right though summer and is one of the festival’s main hubs, this year hosting everything from a family-friendly screening of Finding Dory and Lina Alluna’s postcolonial indigenous rights documentary Twice Colonized to a late-night showing of Jaws, all well-attended and all with free entry.

This year the festival had a focus on water as a core theme, which made Jérôme Salle’s crowd-pleasing Jacques Cousteau biopic The Odyssey an excellent opening night choice. It was introduced by Greek star Fanis Mouratidis. Speaking at the opening Andreadakis also noted, “Evia Film Project is a platform intended to be used as a wake-up call about the consequences of environmental destruction and climate change, but also as a catalyst for the revival of a beautiful region that carries deep wounds, both on a symbolic and a practical level.”

Away from the big screen, cinemagoers were also invited to step into the world of virtual reality via a trio of VR projects, including Thierry Loa’s 21-22 China. This VR experience takes viewers on a drone voyage across various landscapes in China, prompting them to consider man’s impact on them. The wild steppes offer a sharp contrast to vast illuminated cities and surging, steam pumping power plants. It’s hard not to watch it without considering the wasteful way we use our energy to light buildings needlessly simply because it looks pretty or thinking about the sheer force of the impact human nature is having on the more natural landscapes we seek to exploit.

Heading out from Edipsos you become acutely aware of just how devastating the island’s fire was, as skeletal trees spike up from the mountainside just about as far as the eye can see, although the vegetation is starting to show strong signs of rejuvenation. The restoration of nature was also the subject of the short public information-style film, Is There Life After Fire?, which considered the measures being taken to stop soil erosion and encourage the trees as the island regrows. That was among the films screening an hour’s drive away from Edipsos in the equally picturesque coastal village of Limni, which boasts a cute roof-top cinema, where cool breezes blow in the evenings and the whitewashed screen seems to stretch up to meet the stars. Beyond the films themselves, we got treated to an additional light show of an electrical storm on the evening I attended, a sharp reminder that nature, too, can be devastating on occasion. Among the other films screening there over the five-day event, which ran from July 3 to 7, was Emin Alper’s 2022 thriller Burning Days, attended by the Turkish filmmaker.

The Evia Film Project has a history of inviting directors to come along, with The Tin Drum director Volker Schlöndorff attending its first edition with his documentary The Forest Maker and Alexander Payne —who has both Greek heritage and, since 2022, dual Greek citizenship — bringing Downsizing last year. This year, Alper also took part in a busy masterclass alongside his Greek producer Yorgos Tsourgiannis, whose CV also includes Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth. This was hosted in the village of Agia Anna, perhaps unsurprisingly as quaint as everywhere else on the island, and attended not only by press and interested locals but also a group of keen students from the Department of Digital Arts and Cinema of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, which has a branch in Psachna, Evia.

Tsourgiannis and Alper proved to be funny and thoughtful interviewees, discussing everything from the start of their collaboration to the trickiness of raising funds for films. In the case of Burning Days, the filmmakers received cash from Turkey’s General Directorate of Cinema only to find them demanding it be handed back seven months after the film screened in Cannes due to some LGBQT+ content. Alper admits even shooting the film was “quite tense” as they had chosen a conservative city as the setting.

When the government demanded the repayment, right after its domestic release, Alper recalled: “In normal conditions, that would be devastating because arthouse films are made with public funds, but the reaction of the audience was really touching. They went to the cinemas as a kind of reaction and the film had very good admissions. So, If you were able to pay the money back very easily and, beyond that, we even earned some money.”

A lively Q&A session with the students followed in which Tsourgiannis was asked if he had any advice for budding directors. “If you are fragile, don’t do this job,” he said with a laugh. Going on to add that his “real advice” was to look to others on their course and “build on these relationships as you will carry them through life”. Alper added that the budding filmmakers should prepare themselves for potential disappointment and, if that happened, not become bitter. He noted he had some friends who had “become bitter and started attacking everyone through social media”.

The masterclass was one of six held in Agia Ana, which also included one centered on scriptwriting by Greek screenwriter Katerina Bei. Along with sessions that focused on specific filmmakers were more general discussions, including an awareness event focused on sustainable filmmaking. Featuring speakers Stavroula Geronimaki (GFC, Hellenic Film Commission), Linnea Merzagora (Green Film) and Dimitra Tenta (Sustainability Coordinator) the discussion centered on green filmmaking with regard to doing everything from managing waste to reducing a production’s carbon footprint.

While the Evia Film Project is focused on helping the community of the island and fostering new talent, it also has one eye firmly on established filmmakers and encourages them to consider it as a place to shoot. Ruben Östlund shot his Palme d’Or winner Triangle Of Sadness on the southern part of the island and last year the Project took an industry group to visit various potential locations.

Andreadakis, who says he’s still hopeful that familiarity trip could tempt some filmmakers to take the plunge, added, “Many location managers are impressed because it’s also easy. Here is the sea, 10 minutes and you’re in the mountains and in five minutes there’s a middle-age monastery. Plus, it’s close to the mainland, just one-and-a-half hours from the airport. So it’s very easy, that’s why Ruben Östlund came.”

The project director also notes it continues to have strong backing from the Ministry of Culture and that he hopes ambitions to be an inspiration for sustainable cinema will themselves be sustained long into the future.

One thing it’s easy to do in Evia is fall in love with the place and its people. There’s no doubt that the fire’s impact has, in some ways, changed the face of the place. But this annual celebration continues to make a difference, putting down strong roots across the island’s community and helping both the event and the locality to flourish from the ashes.

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