Traditional Narratives and Contemporary Perceptions

in 61st Thessaloniki Film Festival

by Kostas Konstantinidis

In the digital special-effects era, the viewing experience has paradoxically yet progressively moved away from the cinema, even before the pandemic. Kostas Konstantinidis laments true cinema lovers being forced to watch films in private screenings as the inexorable trend continues with the current crisis.

The 61st Thessaloniki International Film Festival called it a wrap amidst these terrifyingly difficult times, while also facing the uncertain future of the cinema industry on a worldwide scale. The relationship between cinema and its audience is held up against the threshold of a sweeping change in communication patterns, as well as the overall shifting of the rules governing the participatory process in the course of a movie’s viewing. Is it a political, a social or an economy-driven issue? All pawns are willy-nilly, piled up across a bizarre chessboard, as if dazed and confused, where invisible hands pull all the strings – the hands of the few or of the many that remains to be answered by history in the years to come.

Somewhere inbetween, backed up by a computer screen or – in the best case scenario – by a smart TV receiver, the three-member jury of FIPRESCI was given the task, for yet another occasion, to award films, in this case two awards: one from the International Competition and the Greek Competition sections respectively, accolades given for the sum of their artistic values, as well as for their cinematic syntax.

One thing is for sure, though. Both the competing films and the dreams of the all the people who put in hard work for the final outcome converge towards a time-honored goal. That is, the ‘ viewing’ of a voluntary ‘confinement’ within the premises of a dark hall, matched by all the concomitant criteria of this magical tuning in with the ‘others’, avoiding to be confined to the depleted perception of the ‘individualized’ cinema through the use of a small screen and the subsequent features of a typical private screening. The criteria are altered; our instinct conveys meaning in different ways, the whole process of evaluating the artistic values of a film moves to uncharted territory, eventually leading to a dilemma as to the shaping of a well-rounded view on the fundamental traits of a movie. How can one form an opinion on the frames, the sound and the editing process within the boundaries of a small screen?  A film critic’s task, especially when assigned to award a film, is a perplex procedure, a structuring, an exchange of symbols, as simple as it may seem for most people. The wide-angle mapping of the historical and political pathways, the ideological confrontations, the artistic movements, and personal influences, are only a few of the necessary tools for the thorough consideration of a film and its subsequent classification.  

Today’s generation – and I’m not referring to boundaries or limitations, but to the viewers’ age scales  – has witnessed a double shift in recent years as to the ‘gender’ of cinema. The film’s grain gave its place to the impeccable digital era, before passing on the torch straight to the special effects consoles. In our times, amidst a colossal social and financial crisis, the art of cinema is the one to be hit the hardest. Since last year, cinema lovers are forced to watch films in private screenings, while the act of voluntary and desired seclusion inside a movie theater is pushed aside and marginalized.

Shorta (2020) by Anders Ølholm and Frederik Louis Hviid, from Denmark, stood out right from the start, catching everyone’s eye thanks to its no-frills aesthetic and narrative, as well as its intense juxtaposition approach in terms of both the plot and the building of characters.

When a 16-year-old immigrant, who fell victim to police violence, leaves his final breath, two policemen of opposite characters are found trapped in a suburban ghetto of Copenhagen, while carrying out their routine patrol. The crowd is infuriated, bent on revenge, and the two men, whose destiny is chained to the choices they make, are caught up in a wild and endless survival hunt. A simple and plain approach would sum it up in the following words: “He who goes into a mill, comes out powdered.” However, cinematic fiction has plans of its own, woven in a refined narrative.

European immigrant ghettos maintain a certain degree of social political autonomy, whose main axe revolves around a kind of ‘sui generis’ and unshakeable sense of support and solidarity, regardless of the objective dimension of events. That is the generic rule – as in the case of the ghetto residents driven by a feeling of injustice – obviously liable to exceptions. After all, one can’t help but to notice the striking similarities on a worldwide scale: police forces are prone to brutality, often accompanied by power abuse that goes even beyond the level of humiliation for anyone stumbling in their way. This behavior is vividly portrayed in the film in the arrest sequence of the young ghetto resident, pertaining to a different religion. 

Good and evil are two equal and counterbalancing notions, each developing its own dynamics in the justice scale. The film engages in that game, where characters serve as a constantly alternating source of energy, while their semantic pointers are incessantly moving up and down the sides of the moral threshold, often taking on interchangeable roles. Everyone is at once right and wrong. Justice may be firm and immutable, but its true value lies in the eyes of the one charged with its interpretation. And at this very point nature steps in to take the baton. You cannot win, unless you sacrifice something along the way. Newton’s causality is a law not only of physics, but of nature as well, found in all living creatures on this planet, and consolidated on a daily basis, in every aspect of life. Survival may be part of life’s cycle, obeying to its own set of rules, practices and tactics. However, the last word belongs to causality, which is the one to determine the final winner, tying the score between wrong and right in the choices’ balance sheet.   

The two directors elaborate and handle their material with caution and clinical consistency, placing emphasis on both scenery depiction and character construction. However, the two policemen are not the only key players. Their hostage, a high frequency satellite one might say, is the one who triggers and subsequently absorbs their innermost thoughts, and consequently their actions. He serves as the emotional platform upon which the two main characters move, putting into practice an exercise of manners, in order to live up to, or eventually fake, the inner changes they are not ready for. He is the ‘bad guy’ switching over to the ‘good guys’, by swapping places with the two policemen.

Along comes this god-forsaken music: unworldly, cursed, and bloodcurdling, following them step-by-step, thought-by-thought, and action-by-action, adding up or pairing away, as in the scenes of eloquent silence between the protagonists. The camerawork enriches the feeling of coldness and conveys, through its movement, the plot’s juxtapositional approach. Last but not least, it’s that bloody instinct that leads imagination to a deeper level, in the depth of field, where the ruptured social relations lay buried, in the unseen fringes of an ailing society.

It’s not by all means a one-sided denunciation film. Shorta is in fact a hard-boiled police drama, a thriller of realistic structure and climactic action, taking place in the heart of a society craving to be hailed as an elite member of the European family.

Kostas Konstantinidis
Edited by Steven Yates