You're Dead Without Money, Or Maybe Not

in 21st Drama Short Film Festival

by Massimo Lechi

Whenever I hear or read of cultural or political institutions facing dramatic financial hardships, I can’t help recalling the title of a paperback I once saw in a second-hand bookshop in London: You’re Dead Without Money. The British thriller writer James Hadley Chase, author of that quickly forgotten literary milestone, probably wasn’t familiar with the film festival circuit but seemed to believe pretty strongly that the world is a jungle and that there’s not much you can do out there with an unloaded gun. Or with an empty bank account.

The opening ceremony of the 21st edition of the International Short Film Festival in Drama (38th, if we consider the National competition) started sarcastically with a screening of a German animated film titled Who Will Pay The Bill? (Wer Trägt Die Kosten?), and it’s not hard to understand why. As the artistic director Antonis Papadopoulos emphasized during his speech, this year’s edition – after having been for a while on the verge of cancellation – had to be made with just 1/3 of last year’s budget. Nothing would have had been possible without tenacity, big sacrifices, new foreign partners and enthusiastic volunteers from all over the country. A little miracle, in every sense.

Of course, Mr. Papadopoulos had all the rights to denounce a present of relative isolation and painful uncertainty. Nowadays, in this wearing aftermath of the global crisis, raising funds has become an ordeal, almost like gold panning in a dead creek with your own bare hands and no emotional support from your donkey. For European cultural operators budget cuts and cash shortages are concrete and often overwhelming obstacles capable of ruining years of serious work. Less money means less international guests, less collateral events, less debates and, most of all, less films. Cut to the bone and you will provide your audience with something weaker, something lacking the necessary momentum: it’s much more than a risk. But if I look back at what the festival team managed to achieve in such an unpleasant economic situation, it’s impossible for me not to feel true respect and admiration. In fact, despite the many difficulties, the Drama Short Film Festival proved itself to be a hospitable and very well-organized cinematic event, with a dynamic staff doing its best to overcome all the daily problems and help the film professionals and the viewers attending the screenings and the public meetings.

What really struck me was the attachment to the event. People in Greece care about their short film festival: it’s a main cultural appointment, and not just something that is regarded as vaguely prestigious by local politicians and intellectuals. Many top international directors, such as Denis Villeneuve or László Nemes, had their films screened in the small and lovely city of the East Macedonia and Thrace region way before rising to fame. At the same time, the great majority of currently well-known Greek directors had in Drama the first chance to reveal their talent to a wider audience. This is where some important careers started.

This year’s main competitions turned out to be quite uneven, but the viewers’ curiosity never faded. Every scheduled screening was surprisingly packed and the special guests who took part in the festival life offered plenty of interesting and intellectually compelling moments. The celebrated Greek cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis, for example, held a crowded masterclass on new technologies in cinema, while Fipresci members Venia Vergou and Manuela Cernat – the two Grands Témoins chosen by the festival – analyzed in detail the competitive sections. This public, critical evaluation seemed to me an intelligent way to open up the cinematic debate, and I have to admit I was positively impressed by the liveliness of the discussions.

Needless to say these are all things to be proud of. They give evidence that there are still passion and commitment to the cause, and that the sole appeal of both the National and the International showcases can pretty much easily attract a motivated audience. In this turmoil-ridden September, Mr. Papadopoulos and his collaborators showed us that even after a shockingly severe budget reduction you can succeed in making a good festival and in gaining new supporters. A remarkable job, indeed.

Nonetheless, the emergency has to come to an end. For the sake of young Greek cinema in particular, Drama and its film festival need stability. I hope it’s just a matter of time.

Edited by Michael Pattison