The year 2020 will go down in history as the time when a hazardous virus revolutionised human lives. Fast-paced mankind had to slow down, lock itself indoors, renounce travelling, socialising and engaging in the physical contemplation of any art form. Museums shut down, as did theatres and cinemas. Film festivals became endangered. They could not take place with a physical presence. However, the bold ones decided to embrace the challenge and take advantage of the great benefits of our digital era, to organise their first online edition. This was the case in the 33rd Edition of the Panorama of European Cinema in Athens. In doing this, Festival Director, Ninos Mikelides, opposed the great villain of 2020, not only by ensuring that the 33rd edition would not be cancelled, but by choosing an exquisite selection of films for its Competition – films that portray stories of rebels as active forces in society.
My ode to rebellion is not one that is appreciative of a contrarian philosophy, but one that arises from the urge to right a wrong. The intention follows the philosophy of Albert Camus, one of understanding and learning, one that reprimands passive compliance. A rebellion that is triggered from the need to find meaning in the face of absurdity; the act that reaches out for a new humanism built upon the dignity of man and the beauty of solidarity.
Out of the 11 features in competition, each one had a trait that portrayed rebellion as a life-affirming action to improve the world, whether its heroes confronted structural injustices or the styles of the motion pictures were able to unhinge conventional storytelling.
Let us begin our journey of cinematic rebellion with Who Will be Eaten (Ποιος, ποιος θα φαγωθεί, 2020), directed by Elpiniki Voutsa-Rentzepopoulou. This film, in terms of themes and narrative approach, epitomises insubordination. The heroine is averse to the way her country cannibalistically confronts the issue of refugees. And the way the filmmaker tackles this topic is quite extraordinary, in the sense that it is out-of-the-ordinary: Voutsa-Rentzepopoulou rebels against habitual storytelling by presenting a sociological cinematic essay, contoured with surrealistic moments. The Greek mythology of Kronos becomes a childhood anecdote that creates the foundation for this anthropological adventure. Meanwhile, the incommunicability of our world is exemplified in two scenes that evoke the Tower of Babel, where language becomes an obstacle to a universal comprehension of what is humane.
A similar philosophical approach that breaks the boundaries of traditional storytelling, and embraces a transcendental avenue, is In between dying (Sepelenmis Ölümler Arasinda, 2020), directed by Hilal Baydarov. Here, a rebellious youth goes on a journey of discovery, as the director creates a contemporary Odyssey to confront the great questions about life and death.
Another rebelliously oneiric approach is the one taken by Gregor Bozic, in his Stories From The Chestnut Woods (Zgodbe iz kostanjevih gozdov, 2019). The protagonist here is a place, and the stories that were bequeathed by those who inhabited it. The non-conformity of this film is represented by the way the stream of consciousness takes over, to intertwine with the lives of two characters: Mario The Carpenter and Marta The Last Chestnut Seller. A Dickensian flair enhances the magic of the mysterious decaying forest of Slavia Veneta, that comes to life on the silver screen as a mystical Nowhere Land; a Brigadoon set on the Yugoslav-Italian border in the years after World War II, a place that quietly safeguards its withering traditions and displaced people.
An analogous defence of the natural world can be seen in Digger (2020), directed by Georgis Grigorakis. The filmmaker revolutionises the Western genre and adapts it to our time, locating it in the heart of a mountain forest in Northern Greece. The protagonist is a loner, a dissenter, who opposes the destructive behaviours of those who want to exploit natural resources. Grigorakis’ strong critique of the short-sighted environmental policies reminds us of those adopted by worldwide politicians who are blinded by rapacious speculation.
Another lonely misfit is presented in Yellow Cat (Sary mysyq, 2020), directed by Adilkhan Yerzhanov. Plunged into an alienating society, the film shows a candid soul, struggling with the repressive politics of his country. His silent rebellion is of non-violence, one that seeks escapism through the magic of motion pictures, as he idealistically pursues the construction of a cinema in the back of beyond.
Much more vocal and assertive is the rebellion of the lead character in Dolce Fine Giornata (Słodki koniec dnia, 2019), directed by Jacek Borcuch. Maria Linde is a free-spirited, Jewish Polish Nobel Prize in Literature winner, who leads an apparently tranquil life in her villa in Volterra. But her resistance to a preset vision of the world emerges, when she makes an impassioned speech condoning a terrorist attack. She defines it as a new form of art, with the aim to dismantle the hysteria around the anti-immigrant sentiment.
A much younger antagonist of xenophobia is the adolescent in Daniel ’16 (Ντάνιελ ’16), directed by Dimitris Koutsiabasakos. This Teutonic version of Antoine Doinel is sent to a juvenile offender community in Greece. In this new setting, Daniel is both the foreigner and the witness of discrimination towards illegal aliens. His insurgence will thus occur from both his perspective and the one of a young Syrian boy, as he experiences unprecedented dilemmas, that he will dauntlessly confront with resolution and humanity.
That same intrepidness is the one portrayed by the parents in Listen (2020), directed by Ana Rocha de Sousa. Also here, we have some outsiders revealing the injustices of how a state can exercise its power in a despicable manner. The director proves to be a valiant agitator in opening Pandora’s Box, as regards the British Social Services. The story is set in the outskirts of London, where a Portuguese couple struggles to make ends meet. Their financial situation triggers a perverse mechanism of forced adoption, that takes away migrant children from their family of origin. Based on a true story, Ana Rocha de Sousa, takes to pieces the conspiracy of silence on the tireless battle of these immigrant parents, fighting a system that wants to tear their families apart.
On the other hand, there are stories where families become prisons. This is the case of the story presented in The Domain (A Herdade, 2019) directed by Tiago Guedes. Here the family secrets are the venom and glue that keep the family united. The cinematic saga traverses different phases of the main character’s life, depicting the historical, political, economic, and social life of Portugal from the Forties until today. Landowner João Fernandes gives into his father’s nefarious behaviour as a child, and ends up emulating it as an adult with his family members. But the latter will be the ones who will display defiance when the day of reckoning arrives, during João’s declining years.
If the story of Tiago Guedes ends with the protagonist’s winter of life, there’s a filmmaker who uses it as a starting point. Senior Citizen (Πολίτης τρίτης ηλικίας, 2020), directed by Marinos Kartikkis, undoubtably fights ageism, by centring the film on the solitude that can affect elderly people. Theoharis is a widower who takes refuge every evening in the hospital, to spend the night on the benches and chairs of the outpatients’ wing. The general indifference and discrimination against seniors is subverted by a young nurse, who tries to learn more about this lonely man. She paves the way on how to break the age stigma.
The last film in competition (also in its title) but definitely not the least rebellious, is The Last Ones (Viimeiset, 2020), directed by Veiko Õunpuu. In this case, the troublemakers who challenge an unjust state of affairs are miner Rupi and his friend Riitta. They can no longer withstand the despotic behaviour of the manipulative mine owner, who is in control of the untamed Lapland tundra where they live. They therefore rise against this authoritarian, in the only way they can.
This was the line-up of a phenomenal festival, where its cinematic heroes and their representation were a powerful response to the alienation caused by CoronaVirus. Their stories glorified what I initially mentioned as Camus’ concept of rebellion, but I might equally have made a reference to pop culture. For instance, the iconic Think Different Apple campaign said it all: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
Indeed, Festival Director Ninos Mikelides and his team were crazy enough to bring such a consolidated festival to the virtual realm. And we are grateful to them for their folly in not succumbing to the invisible enemy of 2020, allowing cinephiles to enjoy the magic of cinema.
Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
© FIPRESCI 2020
Edited by Sharon Hurst