With an Eye Firmly on the Oscars

in 46th Drama International Short Film Festival

by Achim Forst

Why is there an international short film festival in the small town of Drama in the far north of Greece? And does the name have something to do with it? – There is only a simple answer to the first question: It was the cinema enthusiasm of the Drama Film Club members that led to the first festival with Greek short films in 1978. The event was so well received by the filmmakers and the audience that a few years later the city and, in the mid-1980s, the Greek state became sponsors.

It was not until 1995 that the festival became international. These first 17 years of its history play a crucial role because the Drama Short Film Festival is still a trade fair and showcase for young Greek cinema. Almost all national visitors know each other, and the Greek talents from all sections meet producers, organizers, and journalists here. Without any problems, because Drama – with a population of almost 45,000 according to Wikipedia – is an almost perfect festival location. The tranquil town on the edge of the Eastern Macedonian mountains, two hours drive from Thessaloniki and only 50 kilometers from the Bulgarian border, offers good gastronomy, serenity, and a pleasant ambiance – comparable to Locarno.

Like the Swiss festival, Drama proves its cosmopolitanism not only in the International Competition and the young talents series (the National and the International Student Film Competition), but also through special events for young talents: For the first time, the “Short Film Hub” offered discussion panels for exchange and meetings between newcomers and national and international professionals. At the “Pitching Lab” in Drama, young filmmakers from all over the world met for the tenth time.

One of the best entries of the festival was The Silence of the Banana Trees (FIPRESCI Prize) by Eneos çarka, my favorite film: an unspectacular, gentle documentary about a Hungarian father whose talented daughter has at some point renounced him and rejects any personal contact. He lives in a large, deserted house tastefully furnished with objects from a distant past, including two banana trees with gently swaying leaves, perhaps reminiscent of a trip they took together many years ago. The father spends his days here between his daughter’s artwork and countless photos and slides from the time when he was still her most important inspiration and admired creative partner. The filmmaker patiently observes the father, listens, but also wants to mediate and intervenes in the family matter with a letter.
As an experienced viewer, you now expect and fear the discovery of a dark secret. How the director deals with this, takes us by the hand and leads us to the simple yet surprising ending shows the credibility, the aesthetic quality and the strong emotional impact of this little film.

The German short film The Age of Innocence received a merited honorable mention from the International Jury. As director and editor, Maximilian Bungarten, a graduate of the HFF Munich Filmschool, composed scenes from cold, excellently framed images (camera: Tom Otte) of an emotionally likewise cold and limited everyday life in a small West German town, from which two young men try to escape quietly but desperately.

In The Open House (La Casa oberta, Spain; Prize for Best Direction), Julieta Lasarte tells the tragic story of a prominent mother who manages her career and her family, but loses herself in the process, using exclusively found footage and a voiceover – whether true or fictional, in any case, virtuoso.

How little has changed in 75 years of degrading wage labor and exploitation was shown by Same Old, a remake of Vittorio De Sica’s neorealism classic Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette) from 1948. After its Cannes premiere, the film was awarded Best Short Film in Toronto in 2022. After Xiaoshuai Wang’s more loosely based Chinese feature film remake Beijing Bicycle (Shiqi sui de dan che) from 2001, the Korean-Canadian director Lloyd Lee Choi transferred the tragic story of an unwilling bicycle thief from post-war Rome almost unchanged to today’s Manhattan. Breathless like his hustled protagonist, the Chinese bicycle courier, Choi shows condensed and compelling, with low-key visuals and the rough editing of Hollywood’s best social-realist feature films, how an economic and social system can destroy personal values, forcing the individual victim to become a perpetrator.

In the International Competition, the festival offered a carefully composed selection of good short films, which were awarded eleven prizes (including national awards and honorable mentions). For a spectrum of almost all genres: including an essayistic documentary about a Greek mountain monastery (Light of Light, Documentary Film Prize in the National Competition), a Tanzanian reportage documentary about the discovery of one’s own African film heritage (Apostles of Cinema, Special Prize for the Best Production), the bitter-sweet, graphically wonderfully designed Australian animated film Teacups, which tells the true story of a multiple lifesaver (Animated Film Award) and a sharp Norwegian satire about career and political correctness in the new media world (Offline).

The Grand Prix of the jury for Aqueronte by Manuel Muñoz Rivas I don’t consider as appropriate. The Spanish film looks like a work from the second or third year of film school: a technically successful study with a good cast, which however offers little more than a compendium of all possible emotional states, camera angles, settings and optical means for showing people who are traveling for a very long time on a ferry.

Apparently, the most important award for the Drama festival organizers was the nomination of a possible Oscar candidate – a privilege granted to the festival for the first time by the Oscar Academy, which in Drama was viewed as a prize of its own. However, it actually means only that the respective film could be nominated.

It is no coincidence that from the five national Greek entries, the festival selected for the International Competition, the wildest and most dramatic one was chosen for the Oscars – and honored with three more prizes. The Greek soft horror film Midnight Skin by Manolis Mavris probably has little chances of winning an Oscar, but it still has some qualities that could attract the Academy members. With genre-typical twists and cleverly placed accents Mavris directed effectively the story of an inconspicuous hospital nurse who in her nightmares is transported every night from the big city into a dark jungle, drawn into an eerie communication with the huge trees. As in Franz Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung), the dream world gradually penetrates into reality: her skin changes …

It’s interesting how director Mavris moves between genres and transforms his in the beginning realistic arthouse plot into a fantasy drama, but alas there emerged no sparks of empathy or emotion on the way, at least with me. In the end the film which won national awards for cinematography, sound design and special effects simply left me cold.

Speaking of the award ceremony: Of course, Giorgos Lanthimos’s recent Golden Lion win in Venice for his feature film Poor Things offered a special reason to celebrate. However, so generous, helpful and friendly the Drama Short Film Festival welcomed its foreign guests, at the closing event the Greeks apparently wanted to celebrate primarily among themselves.

At a whopping three and a half hours long the awards ceremony almost rivaled the Oscars – and it wasn’t translated! Even guests who had gotten hold of one of the few translators mainly heard static. That’s why even some award winners could in their thank you addresses only express the assumption that something kind had just been said about their film on stage.

So here is my kind request to artistic festival director Yannis Sakaridis and his great team: Celebrate the Greek cinema at next year’s awards ceremony in good understanding together with us, the non-Greek speaking guests! We are curious about your hymns of praise and thanks and will be even more happy for you!

Achim Forst
Edited Peter Kremski