By Yun-hua Chen.
Viennale and Thessaloniki Film Festival are two of the finest film festivals in Europe. Viennale curates the best arthouse films of the year from all major film festivals and is an elegant audience festival which also provides a cosy environment for film professionals to exchange ideas and talk with the viewers face-to-face. Thessaloniki International Film Festival, on the other hand, is situated on the picturesque backdrop of a port by the Aegean and celebrates Balkan film connection. It was also the occasion when First Films First announced its Cinema Network Awards to projects of Nikos Labôt (Her Job), Florenc Papas (Open Door), and Dimitris Bavellas (In the Strange Pursuit of Laura Durand).
Thessaloniki International Film Festival is the place to celebrate contemporary Greek cinema indeed. Yannis Sakaridis’ Amerika Square, awarded with FIPRESCI Award, is one of the most interesting Greek films of the year. Its inception is dated far back to a time before the break-out of refugee crisis and the timing of its release is coincidentally very fitting. Its interweaving narrative meanders between the storyline of Billy a tattoo artist, Nakos a Greek racist and Tarek a Syrian refugee – all living around Amerika Square. Their life becomes entangled because of an interracial love story, the business of human trafficking, mafia-controlled nightlife scene, and Nakos’ desire to get rid of refugees from Amerika Square in order to restore the “glory” of the past. Yannis Stankoglou’s performance is spot-on, portraying the despicable, pathetic yet still humane Nakos. Though at times messy in its editing back and forth between different narrative threads and with a problematic ending tinted with forced optimism which does not render justice to the suppressed and the brutalised, the film does point out some key issues which would hopefully open up some discussion among ourselves – such as the living-together, mutual understanding and tolerance between people from different backgrounds, for different reasons and with different intentions, and the danger of accepting violence as banality of our everyday life.
Another noteworthy Greek film is the first feature film Park by Sofia Exarchou, who is an up-and-coming young Greek female filmmaker debuted with a powerful short film Mesecina. In Park, shot in Athens Olympic Village, which has become abandoned ruins ten years after the Olympic Games, a group of young people, retired athletes and stray dogs spend their days playing games, chasing each other and idling. This shanty town is full of unregulated hormones and animal instincts. The film is like an allegory of the social turmoil that Greece has been going through these years since the crisis. It is a world without rules to follow or anyone to trust. As instincts prevail, clashes and conflicts occur and are resolved in the most jungle and physical manner. Undoubtedly Park has a stylised look, smooth cinematography, and metaphor-infused backdrop of an abandoned village which is still inhabited – quintessentially Deleuzian any-space-whatever – but sadly the lack of coherence between form and content and its bland recycling of widely circulated themes around Greek cinema made it a less interesting film that it could have been.
Teucros Sakellaropoulos’ 3 Moirai is an unusual film in terms of its formal experiment. In this black and white silent film punctuated by interstitials, a middle-aged man in suit wanders on the street intending to change his “moira” (the Greek word for “fate”). He then ends up in Achaia Clauss winery and encounters the three sister deities of “moira” who spin the thread of life, while an ominous figure of a light-haired man lurks in the surroundings along his path. Whereas the narrative alludes directly to Greek mythology and visual aesthetics reminisces about the charm of silent cinema, the characters are dressed in contemporary clothing under a modern backdrop. One is left to suspect that this innovative look of the film is also out of some more practical reasons such as a tight budget because of austerity, and sadly the sound-deprived images alone are not strong enough to sustain the entire weight of the film. The character’s repetitive line “He wants to change his fate, moira…” almost sounds like the filmmaker’s attempt of a political allegory, but it is so very self-indulgent that the point gets lost somewhere in the middle.
In Viennale I caught up with Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman crowned in Cannes, which is yet another brilliant reflection upon human relationships, sense of guilt and moral dilemma – this time reframed within the theatrical production of Death of a Salesman which the main characters are involved in. There was also Paul Verhoeven’s Elle from Cannes, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, Juho Kuosmanen’s The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake from Cannes, as well as Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV and Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. It is also the first chance of watching the two beautiful Romanian films in Vienna: Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada and Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts – both are shot in an enclosed environment. Sieranevada is a wonderfully orchestrated chamber drama with well-paced camerawork which smoothly coordinates with the constant movement of the entire cast packed in a family flat. As the whole family gathers to commemorate the deceased patriarch, confrontations erupt at different corners between different members of the family; some guests are terribly delayed, and the meal is ready but not served. Scarred Hearts, on the other hand, is set in a sanatorium on the Black Sea coast. The patient Emanuel, the alter ego of the Romanian author Max Blecher who wrote this autobiographical novel and died at the age of 29, suffers from bone tuberculosis. Constantly threatened by the approach of death, the group of young patients consume life and love to the fullest with such joie de vivre while their bodies gradually fade away.
There are also more offbeat works in the Viennale. Hong-min Park’s Alone is nightmarish labyrinth. After a man witnesses a woman being murdered by masked men on the rooftop of a nearby building and is seen taking photos by perpetrators, he is caught in a never-ending loop like in Groundhog’s Day, repetitively waking up in the middle of the night on a park bench with different scenarios unfolding in front of him. In Dear Renzo, an Argentinian comedy by Francisco Lezama and Agostina Galvez, the paths of three young Argentinians living in New York cross one another by chance. They are then lost in the maze of mysteriously interrelated events, while seeking for recommendation letters for entrance into a film school, running a small business of import and export, and engaging with nocturnal flirtation.
Another Argentinian film is Daniel Burman’s The Tenth Man. The economist Ari is summoned back from New York to Buenos Aires by his distant father Usher, who runs a Jewish aid foundation in a close-knit Jewish community. As he meanders along the unintended path led by chance and coincidence and reconnects with people of his hometown and his own past, the world vision is turned upside down. Mohamed Diab’s Clash from Egypt is a very visceral film. It is set entirely inside a police truck, where a number of detainees from diverse political, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds as well as for different causes are brought together. There are American-Egyptian journalists, supporters of Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of the army. The boundaries between them are more arbitrary than they would like to think, and what the film powerfully revealed was the absurdity of attempting to draw a clear-cut line between people; among those carrying the yellow-red arm badge of Muslim Brotherhood, some demand that the distinction between paid official members to the party and unofficial supporters be signposted through different ways of wearing the badge. Meanwhile, outside the truck turmoil continues following the ousting of the former president Morsi from power. These helpless detainees in the suffocating and claustrophobic setting of the truck are all multifaceted; they could be brutal to one another, but also gentle and courteous. Through this microcosm of the society and an non-judgmental gaze, the film embarks upon a philosophical enquiry – a deeply insightful film.
Nocturama by Bertrand Bonello, a Viennale’s veteran whose documentary Ingrid Caven: Music and Voice was showcased here some years ago, is highly stylised like Bonello’s previous works. The film started with the mysterious jumping in and out of metro, photo-shooting of markings in the metro, and exchanging subtle glimpses of several young folks. It turned out that they are planning a bomb attack all over Paris as a protest to the society that they are unsatisfied with, before they take shelter in a shopping centre for the night. With a forced feeling of the May 1968 Paris spirit, the film drifts into a nonsensical direction with several plot holes, gratuitous glamour, and unconvincing discourse on materialism and capitalism.
It is worth noting that Viennale Special brought Noticieros – Cuban Weekly Newsreels 1960 – 1970 from Cuban Film Institute, a rare occasion of watching these short news reports under the supervision of the experimental director Santiago Álvarez, who has been inspired by Sergei Eisenstein’s montage technique. Against polyphonic chaotic soundtrack film scenes, documentary footage, photographs and posters are edited together into a collage of signs and symbols, which witness different stages of the Revolution in Cuba and reflect political discourses and social atmosphere of the time.
The highlight of the Viennale for me personally was Zhang Yang’s Paths of the Soul, which follows a group of Tibetan pilgrims who laid their bodies flat on the ground after every few steps along the 2,000-kilometre road to Lhasa at 4,000 metres altitude and above. It takes the form of a docu-drama, a fiction film that was shot in a documentary style. There was no script and all actors are non-professionals. There is thus a lot of spontaneity, improvisation and authenticity throughout the film. Each villager joined the trip for their own reasons: cleansing bad family karma, seeking redemption for butchering animals, or seeking to break the chain of cause and effect determined by life’s actions. The pilgrimage can be rough, as the group sleeps on the road, braces against harsh snowstorms, helps a pilgrim to give birth, and crosses rivers while continuing to lay their bodies flat on the ground. At some point the truck which carries everyone’s possessions breaks down, so the group stopped to work in a town to earn money for the repair. Through prolonged shots on their body movement and rumination on pilgrims’ carved faces, the film brings the viewer along to a cinematic journey akin to meditation where each frame can be a practice of spiritual discernment.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften to be published by Neofelis Verlag by early 2016.