In no manner or way is this to be interpreted as an attempt to interfere with the internal cultural politics of another country, nor is it a piece of free advice, for no advice has been requested. It is simply my personal opinion on the state of a festival that I have been following for many years, admiring its growth to one of the most satisfactory international film events of its kind, and the expression of my concern with the risks it may be running right now, as it seems to approach a turning point in its course.
When I first attended the film festival in Thessaloniki, many years ago, it was still a strictly national encounter, only Greek films, the national industry attending en masse, hotly debating their conflicts among themselves, and themselves only, until all hours of the night. Guests from abroad, you could count on the fingers of your hands, and regulars, on the fingers of one hand only.
In 1991, Michel Demopoulos was put in charge, the next year, the program was international, and despite the many critics who remarked that the one thing the world did not need at the time (or now, for that matter) was another international film festival, the event went on, its timid initial approach growing more secure with every passing year, its improvised base on the city’s Fair Grounds replaced by the spacious, functional and welcoming new home in the harbor area, the National Theatre and the inadequate town cinemas exchanged for new, state-of-the-art screening rooms, and the program gaining every year in depth and perspective.
Today, Thessaloniki has a solid, regular international following, with hundreds of film professionals flocking in every year from all over the world, drawn by the reputation for its being that rare bird — a film gathering appreciated not only for the movies it shows and its superbly produced sidebars, but also for the unusually pleasant convivial mood, an ideal place to strike new friendships and to cement older ones. To make one’s guests feel comfortable and eager to come back in such a competitive field as the festival world, is no mean feat. And, as one of my colleagues pointed out this year, any other festival in Thessaloniki’s category would kill to present within the same edition master classes by Kiarostami and Victor Erice, to host the likes of Miklos Jancso, one of the all-time innovators of cinema language, and Alexander Payne, one of the rare, interesting, truly original voices of the young American cinema, both members of the jury, not to mention having an international premiere of a new Isabelle Huppert picture, with the star attending in person. And those were just some of the highlights. What’s more, since no preparations could be started for the 2004 edition until very late in the day, with all of Greece monopolized politically, economically and culturally until the end of August by the Olympic games, putting together a program such as this, is a pretty amazing performance by Demopoulos and his crew.
However, long before this year’s event was launched, there were rumors, which only intensified during the festival itself, that major changes may be taking place at the top, before the next edition takes place. Strange but evidently true. In sports, everyone knows you don’t mess with a winning team. The same type of wisdom doesn’t always apply to cultural politics. Though maybe it should. Changing horses in mid-race, and festivals, as we all know, are a constant on-going race, is pretty much of a gamble. Before doing it, one should make sure the next horse is at least as reliable as the one abandoned. This, at least, is the humble opinion of an interested follower watching from the gallery who would like the race to be as exciting in the future as it has been in the past.
© FIPRESCI 2004