Blue Sky Planning

in 52nd Thessaloniki International Film Festival

by Julia Khomiakova

Film production — never the most powerful industry in general — has been virtually destroyed by the global economic crisis. Film budgets are no longer simply small — they are almost non-existent, with actors and directors often working for free. The professional level of most films leaves much to be desired. The film community is split into groups and clans, which makes any defence of professional and creative interests all but impossible: there is no strong trade union which can establish a consensus between artists with a professional education and “amateurs” making their pictures under the same conditions. The people responsible for the state support of filmmaking have made some strange choices: we might even call their choices erratic or unprofessional. Where does filmmaking take place now? In Russia? No. In Greece.

The difference between the Greek and Russian situations is that in Greece (as opposed to Russia when it was part of the Soviet Union), there has never been a powerful filmmaking industry with internationally renowned film stars. Greek filmmakers’ lives have always been hard, and they are used to this state of things. So it is not surprising that a persistent character type in Greek cinema is the average, contemporary individual (rarely a historic character, as this would be too expensive) who is struggling all alone against the hardships of life. Logically, most of the hardships in this year’s Greek films have been triggered by the global crisis. In fact, the word “crisis” itself is Greek in origin — so what do Greek filmmakers have to say about contemporary society?

What we see are corrupt police in Menelaos Karamagiolis’ J.A.C.E. and Filippos Tsitos’ Unfair World (Adikos kosmos), and massive unemployment and ruthless dismissals in Costas Kapakas’ Magic Hour and Yorgos Gikapeppas’ The City of Children (I poli ton pedion). Widespread use of drugs in Thanos Tsavlis’ F.L.S. and Paradise (Paradisos) by Panayotis Farfoutis. Gangster-like authorities whom even the princes of the church — like Archbishop Demagogios in Georgias Papaioannu’s satirical fantasy Super Dimitrios — don’t dare to stand against. There is a painful state of the soul where everyone, disappointed in ‘European values’ as much as national resources, feels as if they are in a mousetrap: living in this beautiful country which, on the edge of Europe and Asia, must balance itself between geo-politicians and the godfathers of various mafias.

At the same time, Greek restaurants and cafes are never empty, especially since bread and water come free with any order. One may even feel surprisingly relaxed: this is what we ex-Soviet people have in common with Greeks. In Paradise, a character watching feverish preparations for a carnival in the city of Patra exclaims, ‘And we are in the middle of the crisis!’ Well, the diagnosis (again a Greek word!) presented by Panayotis Farfoutis’ film is probably the most accurate: most heirs of the ancient Hellenic civilizations are surprisingly infantile and immature.

Alas, the artists are part of their nation and their films may be also immature: for instance, Iason Tsavellas’ Salvation (Sotiria), Telémachos Alexiou’s Venus in the Garden (I Afroditi stin avli), and Thanos Tsavlis’ F.L.S. Shot on micro-budgets, these pictures come across as pretentious and amateurish (not even student-like) exercises. It seems that the authors (who have had little or almost no training at a national professional film school) sincerely believe that the main principle of arthouse cinema is: the queerer it is, the cooler it is. Which makes seeing these hollow and oppressively slow movies a hard and senseless task. Who would pay for a ticket to watch films like this?

By the way, several films presented in this year’s Greek panorama in Thessaloniki might, under certain conditions, be viewed as acceptable mainstream movies — I refer to the Dickensian J.A.C.E., the road movie Magic Hour, the socio-criminal drama Unfair World (dir. Filippos Tsitos), and Constantine Yannaris’ thriller Man at Sea. All of these films might even become box-office champions if their authors were financially interested in mainstream moviemaking. Well, why not create a kind of ‘Hellewood’ (like a Greek Bollywood), especially since the natural sunshine here is no less bright than in L.A., and given that the Greek diaspora guarantees an audience the world over?

I am not a specialist in Greek film history and have no answer to this question. I know why the mighty (or during its final twenty years, seemingly mighty) Soviet film industry collapsed. But evidently in Greece there may have been some unknown historical figures who, even before the introduction of TV and home video, were interested in giving a potential cine-Onassis the chance to appear.

An interesting subject, by the way! Who might do this historic research? We don’t have a specialist in Greek cinema in our Russian NIIK (Film Art Research Institute), because you can hardly imagine anyone capable of studying both Greek language and universal film history agreeing to work for a salary of 120 euros per month. Well, let’s imagine that there was a serious increase in salaries at NIIK — a kind of ‘blue sky planning’. What if there was such a miracle? But no. The end result would be the same, since very few Greek films are of interest even to the arthouse film audience in Russia. The reason is that Greek authors do not seem interested in telling the world about their country, or expanding the international audience’s idea of Greece beyond antiques, beaches and taverns. What is the reason for this depressing provinciality, surprising in a country which has always been open to the world, never isolated from other countries?

A possible answer may be found in Magic Hour where one of the protagonists, a failed film director working as a night receptionist in a sex hotel, says to another character, ‘Do you understand what could happen if the media finds out that a parliamentary deputy has been caught with an archimandrite? We might have another junta!’ Well, this explains a lot! It is no coincidence that in the wrecks of the Roman agora, Comrade Stalin’s portraits are visited most often by tourists. In Greece, as in Russia, people scold the government at every chance, while nobody has any positive ideas (or at least no-one proposed any in my presence), and in spite of international repercussions, serious matters are considered to be this country’s domestic affairs. I suppose this may be the factor which keeps artists from making their values and verdicts public.

An interesting though not very professionally executed film was Super Dimitrios, by the self-educated Georgias Papaioannu, who was born in Thessaloniki and warmly accepted by the local audience. The protagonist of this film is the extremely strong Dimitri, a journalist at a local TV channel who flies around the city like Batman and struggles against all evil. The point is that Saint Dimitrios of Thessaloniki is a holy patron of this city, but he, as the filmmakers sadly notice, has no time to cope with all of its problems; therefore a mighty man — an Orthodox Superman, to be exact — is badly needed. Saints are not obliged to solve the city’s municipal problems since contemporary people, although grateful for mercies from Above, cannot revert to living according to Christian principles. Finally, the Almighty (a white-bearded grandpa) himself appears and forgives Dimitri (the guy has violated his fast in order to save his beloved girl), and returns to him his lost strength: as he puts it, ‘I have to modernise the Holy Manual!’ However, he stipulates one condition: Super Dimitrios, beloved and admired, must remain alone forever, belonging to everyone and to no-one, just like Saint Dimitrios of Thessaloniki. Or perhaps like Comrade Stalin? Well, in countries corrupted by nepotism, the family can no longer remain an absolute value for ordinary people suffocated by Mafiosi.

In Man at Sea, the crushing of a single family is followed by the crushing of almost everything. Having taken sinking Asian refugees on board his oil tanker, the captain Alex faces a hard choice: the ship owner insists on getting rid of these people without documents, which means throwing them to their inevitable deaths. The crew eventually start a revolt because they have not been paid their wages in some time. Finally, it comes out that the ship owner has brought himself to ruin. So, what else remains except to sink the ship and wait in the boats for somebody else to take them on board? ‘Relatives or aliens, we are all in one boat!’ declared filmmaker Constantine Giannaris, also a member of the International Competition Jury (his film was shown as a director’s cut, from a very dark print). No matter how artificial and unnatural some parts of the story were (like Alex’s relations with his wife Kate, an onboard doctor deserting the ship (!) after the final break with her ex-husband), the purpose of Man at Sea is to raise the eyes of its audience from hold to heaven. In one of the most dramatic scenes, Alex reads King David’s psalm: ‘Then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.’

Hopes for the Almighty were typical of this year’s program. In fact, only in Unfair World do the protagonists come to a happy end due to their own will and efforts (though not without some lucky coincidences). In all of the other films, events are simply a chain of favorable or unfavorable contingencies, and in Magic Hour, the protagonist just flies away — evidently, director Costas Kapakas (also the screenwriter and producer) didn’t know how to remove the protagonists from their dead ends. This reliance on the Almighty is not surprising, and not just because Greece is an Orthodox country which encourages people to settle all their hopes on the Creator. It’s evident that Greek filmmakers can see no other way out. And when they shoot abroad — as Alexis Tsafas, a resident of Cabo Verde, did for The Girl With Big Eyes (A menina dos olhos grandes) — the choice of story is the same. In this neo-realistic film, Tsafas, who is familiar with the situation of Greek locals, shows people whose attempts to improve their lives cause them to lose their last possessions. This has parallels with the current political situation, in which Greece is disappointed by its membership in the EU! Well, you can’t imagine Europe — historical or actual — without Greece. But how to place the Balkans in Western Europe when both geography and history suggest the opposite? And shall this country of ancient civilizations stand like a schoolgirl in front of her Western brothers, mighty but junior, studying their proposed life models?

In Paradise, two days of a carnival become “moments of truth” for four couples. Marianna, a young girl returning from London to live with her boyfriend Michalis becomes completely disappointed in him; a teenager named Panayota experiences an even stronger shock on learning that the gorgeous Antoni is her own mother’s lover; Niko, a gay man in love with his boss, tries to arouse Sokrati’s homosexuality, but failure results in him losing his job; finally, elderly Ilias manages to reunite (at least in hospital!) with his ex-wife Vicky, who has been the only one to nurse him after a sudden brain attack. Well, isn’t that a good enough reason to live together? That truth becomes evident, alas, too late. Young days are like a carnival full of fun where one’s true face is daubed or hidden behind a mask. However any holiday comes to an end with the inevitable removal of masks. With this message, Paradise might be regarded as a candidate for an award, if not for the oppressive emptiness of all its characters. It looks as if these people are interested in nothing except their own small private interests. Well, in decisive moments people tend to be deaf to anything outside their personal affairs, but what make these affairs compelling to an audience? The notorious crisis in Paradise is not even moral but first of all an intellectual dead end.

From this writer’s perspective, only one film in this year’s Thessaloniki Greek program could attract our attention — not only as the jurors’ choice, but as a film which could be recommended for international screenings. Yorgos Gikapeppas’ The City of Children is really a film which proves that, yes, Greek cinema is alive and has potential. Its level of professional execution and the peculiarity of the local references do not overwhelm the universal importance of its themes. By the way, in this film there are also four couples for whom a child, desired or unwanted, is going to appear; the problem of moral immaturity together with the lack of real Christian faith are seen as more important than the economic crisis. The critical opinion on The City of Children (both awards for this film came from press juries, international and local) proved once again the importance of talent and professionalism. By the way, this film received no support from state foundations. Sad, isn’t it? Although he is a filmmaker capable of becoming the pride of his generation, for the Greek state officials, Gikapeppas was a kind of unwanted child…