Short Films, Big Ideas

in 23rd International Short Film Festival, Drama

by Tonci Valentic

Located in the east of Greece, a two hour drive from Thessaloniki and closer to the Bulgarian and Turkish border than to Athens, the town of Drama seems to lack much to offer: there are no immense cultural attractions or even a tourist office. It has one paper store which is also a mini-bookshop, a county hall which occasionally serves as a place of culture, a small town square and a post office. But this is why it has a short film festival, one of the best in this part of Europe! Once a year in September, Drama turns into a filmmakers’ destination, where one can see all of the domestic short film production and an excellent selection of foreign shorts.

This year, the festival celebrated its 40 th national and 23 rd international editions – both respectable numbers. Originally conceived as an independent Greek filmmakers’ event in the mid-70s by enthusiasts of the local cinema club, it has become an international event with much to offer short-film lovers. Unlike, for example, the much larger and more comprehensive film festival in Thessaloniki, Drama screens over only four days and displays several hundred films, both Greek and foreign. A special program this year was devoted to Croatian film, with a total of 17 films by Croatian directors: a significant matter for this Croatian film critic.

At the closing celebrations, it seemed as if everything that was produced in the past year was shown, and the prizes were so numerous that probably every movie in the marathon final ceremony got at least one. Given these facts, it can be responsibly claimed that Greek film is slowly recovering from the financial crisis and that the national section was of rather good quality as well as quantity. Since the beginning of the economic collapse, Greece has produced around a thousand films, including features, documentaries and animation. I recall the dire selection of features five or six years ago in Thessaloniki, when screenings were hindered by street demonstrations; from the seven or eight films on offer (roughly the average annual quota), it was hard to say which was worst. The best part of the national program that year was the retrospective of Theo Angelopoulos. Today, the situation is different: Greek cinema is slowly but surely returning to the European scene and does not rely solely on old masters because new, young forces are coming.

In the International Competition, the organizers made the effort to showcase 58 films from 48 countries, and considering that at least a dozen of them were great, the author of this text returned from Drama very pleased, albeit somewhat tired from the four-day marathon of viewing. The decision not to include documentaries or experimental films proved to be good, because the short narrative feature is ideal for any director who wants to show that the short form is no less valuable than the long. There are at least three reasons for this. Firstly, from a glance through the directors’ biographies, a short film is not merely a kind of “student exercise” for a full-length feature. Secondly, a short film does not mean lesser quality – it is just a different kind of text, the way that the short story is no better or worse than the novel. Thirdly, the idea that short movies are only for specialized audiences and not for commercial distribution is incorrect. Taking all this into consideration, a 140-minute blockbuster does not have to be any better than a movie which lasts just seven minutes (as is the case with Short History of Princess X by Gabriel Abrantes, which won the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Film in competition). Given the number of movies screened, there is space only for a brief overview of the most interesting entries, with the hope that some of them will achieve wider distribution beyond festivals.

Let’s start with Play by Vangelis Liberopoulos, a surprisingly cool, provocative, skilfully directed and well-shot semi-feature film about the employees of a private family corporation who wish to replace the boredom of office work with unusual games which go beyond conventional team-building. Wearing thick skirts, they play with guns on the water, but soon things veer out of control when animosity surfaces and funs turns into cruel torture with catastrophic consequences. Describing the movie in one sentence is difficult, but I would say that it is a blend of the specific, strange narratives of Yorgos Lanthimos (perhaps the most original Greek filmmaker working today) and A Clockwork Orange (from costumes to music, Liberopoulos does not even try to hide the references to Kubrick). However, this is not a dystopian film or merely a farce: it is a highly articulate and extremely original criticism of today’s capitalist system. It was given the award for Best Film at Drama, which reflects the fact that Greek cinema is maturing creatively; in the early stages of this “non-chronological” period of film, some of the award-winning works were confusing, dark, barely respectable ironic dramas (like Boy Eating the Bird’s Food by Ectoras Ligizos). However, today’s filmmakers are much more open and find it easier to tackle the political-social repercussions of the society they live in. Therefore Play is a must-see.

Although grimly received by the jury and audience, Limbo by the Iranian director Ghasideh Golmakani seemed to me one of the festival’s most provocative films. A former Iraqi soldier has fled to Iran, and after two wars (Iranian-Iraqi and American-Iraqi), he decides to tattoo the names of all those killed in battle. In the cloistered setting of an apartment, Limbo not only compresses all the tragedy of Middle-Eastern conflicts into 15 minutes, but astonishes the viewer with its grotesqueness: the body of a former soldier is unusually thick, nearly obscured by all the tattoos, inscriptions of death on frozen skin. This is not an artisanal work like Greenaway’s The Pillow Book, depicting instead the brutal end of a vanishing life.

The dystopian void was broached in another Middle Eastern film, Mounia Akl’s Submarine, a film in which Lebanon is threatened by cataclysm and cholera epidemics, while its heroine stubbornly refuses to leave Beirut. The film has a meticulous rhythm, in contrast to its apocalyptic scenario, with an excellent atmosphere. On the other hand, a film such as Mountaineers (Montanistas) by Mexican director Romy Espinoza engages with the poetics of the unusual, where alienation and narrative confusion prevail. The three mountaineers in this film may not be real people, and the past and the future are closely interwoven.

It is also worth singling out the excellent poetry of the Polish drama The Frog King (Zabi krol) by Areka Biedrzycko, about an online date between a single mother and a man from a remote village, and Boris Dobrovolyski’s drama The Rope (Verevka), which successfully combines the visual style of Tarkovsky with the narrative skill of Tolstoy. One of the best animated works was The Shadow over Prague (Stin nad Prahou) by Marek Berger, whose narrative relates to that of the cult graphic novel Maus, with the bitter coincidence that this story is also located in Nazi Germany.

The winner of the FIPRESCI Prize was Gabriel Abrantes’ Short History of Princess X, a brilliantly funny, crafty masterpiece, inspired by Brancusi’s phallus-shaped sculpture of Marie Bonaparte, known as Princess X. Abrantes uses slapstick comedy and a socially engaged commentary to tell a story about an artwork, questioning the status of art today, and thus confirming how short films can be powerful, entertaining and serious in the hands of good directors and screenwriters. Similarly, short-film festivals can be a great reminder that in a short format, sometimes you can say and show much more than in a full-length feature.

Edited by Lesley Chow