56th Thessaloniki International Film Festival. Balkan Survey Section.

56th Thessaloniki International Film Festival. Balkan Survey Section.

Thessaloniki, Greece, November 6-15, 2015

Lydia Papadimitriou
Balkan Survey; Thessaloniki International Film Festival; Balkan Cinema; European co-productions

Established in 1994, the Balkan Survey is one of the most distinctive and enduring strands of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. Introduced by the then festival director Michel Demopoulos, its aim has been to showcase films from the region in Greece’s second-largest city and, by extension, intensify links, interactions, and exchanges across the often mutually unknown neighbouring Balkan countries and their cinemas. Twenty-two years later, after the transition to market economies has been – rather traumatically – completed, and in the midst of a major refugee crisis that strains not only relationships among Balkan neighbours, but the European edifice as a whole, the festival and its Balkan Survey strand continue to play a significant role in establishing and promoting an identity for the cinema of the region.

The Balkan Survey was introduced two years after the festival’s internationalisation (Papadimitriou 2016). After years of tentative and inconclusive efforts to open the festival beyond Greek cinema, the broader socio-political transformations that took place in Europe in the early 1990s played a decisive role in this change of identity making the festival’s European and Balkan orientation possible. This change took place in the context of contradictory Greek responses to the effects of the regional troubles. Nationalism and xenophobia were reinforced by often biased media representations of the wars in Yugoslavia; furthermore, the creation of the controversially named neighbouring state of the [Former Yugoslav] Republic of Macedonia, and the influx of immigrants from ex-communist countries intensified defensive and negative feelings among many Greeks. In contrast to the above, a cosmopolitan and transnational perspective saw Greece as a potential leader in the economic and cultural regeneration of the Balkans. By rebranding itself as “international”, the Thessaloniki Film Festival aspired to become a leading regional player in cinema-related matters.

56th Thessaloniki International Film Festival poster. Image courtesy of the festival.

The festival’s Balkan emphasis has a dual direction: to support filmmakers and enhance collaborations; and to develop audiences for their films. Industry support was first manifested through initiatives such as the “Balkan Forum” (1994), and later through the script development initiative “Balkan Fund” (2003-2010); this was superseded by the co-production fund “Crossroads” (2011-todate) that also includes the broader Mediterranean region more widely. Audience development has been the realm of the non-competitive parallel strand Balkan Survey that, according to its programmer since 2002, Dimitris Kerkinos, “aspires to capture what is going on each year in the Balkans, offering films of aesthetic and narrative originality, which at the same time illustrate important features of Balkan life and the Balkan identity” (Kerkinos 2013: 10). The strand showcases films from all ex-communist Balkan countries (Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and all former Yugoslav states), as well as Turkey, but excludes Greek films because the festival has a dedicated section for them. Addressed predominantly to local audiences (that have been loyally supportive throughout its 22 years), the aims of the Balkan Survey have been aesthetic and cultural. The selection seeks to highlight different filmmaking traditions in the region – Romanian minimalism, Serbian carnivalesque comedies, Turkish political cinema etc. But most importantly, the films also have an ethnographic function. As the vast majority focuses on the present (or recent past), they give insights into the culture of these countries and enable audiences to identify similarities and differences, learn and understand the “other”, and implicitly create an “imagined community” of the Balkans.

This year’s edition continued the established path of presenting a selection of new films alongside a tribute to a particular director or a special theme (such as Croatian animation in 2010, or Contemporary Turkish Cinema in 2008). The 2015 tribute was dedicated to veteran Romanian filmmaker Mircea Danieluc, whose self-reflexive, realist and allegorical work spanning four decades is little known outside Romania. A dissident filmmaker, Danieluc managed to work under Ceauşescu, evading censorship, largely by adopting modernist, self-aware techniques reminiscent of Godard (Nasta 2013: 57). An actor as well as writer-director, Danieluc directed eighteen feature-length films, having written the screenplay for most. Eight of his films (and a short) were shown in Thessaloniki. In Proba de Microfon / Microphone Test (Mircea Danieluc, 1980, Romania), one of his best films, he also plays the main male character, a cameraman who tries to dissect contemporary society by doing ad hoc interviews in the streets, and gets hooked with a young factory worker played by his real-life partner, Tora Vasilescu. Through pursuing what proves to be an unconventional relationship with an evasive and morally dubious character, the character exposes social dysfunctions of the Ceauşescu era and related psychological impasses. Despite the lifting of censorship in the 1990s, his post-communist films continue to use metaphor as a means of exposing and critiquing the failures of the new system. Their use of absurdity and black humour (Patul Conjugal / Intimate Bed, Mircea Danieluc, 1993, Romania), and their focus on social problems such as the failing health service (Această Lehamite / Fed Up, Mircea Danieluc, 1994, Romania), renders them predecessors of the Romanian New Wave – especially of films such as Moartea Domnului Lazarescu / The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005, Romania) and A fost sau n-a fost? / 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006, Romania) that deal with similar topics and approaches. Thessaloniki’s festival audiences, familiar with recent Romanian cinema through the Balkan Survey and its tributes to Cristian Mungiu (2012) and Nae Caranfil (2007), showed great interest in Danieluc’s films.

Mircea Danieluc. Image courtesy of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

The Balkan Survey main programme is non-competitive (but has a dedicated audience award), offering significant freedom of selection of films for their Greek premiere. Of the twelve contemporary Balkan films screened as part of the Balkan Survey this year, seven were by new directors. That five of these were women is particularly welcome, especially in the context of the continuing presence of traditional patriarchal structures in many parts of the Balkans. Two films from Turkey and one from Albania explicitly deal with such issues. Written, directed and produced by Senem Tüzen, Ana Yurdu / Motherland (Senem Tüzen, 2015, Turkey, Greece) thematises the conflict between traditional and modern womanhood in Turkey through an intensely observed mother-and-daughter relationship. Internalised patriarchal restrictions and religiosity turn the mother into a well-meaning but destructive oppressor of her divorced daughter who had sought escape into the village in an effort to realise her writing ambitions. With post-production funds from Greece awarded in Thessaloniki’s own co-production forum Crossroads, this is a promising debut that will hopefully open paths to its director.

Still from: Tüzen, Senem. 2015. Ana Yurdu / Motherland. Image courtesy of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

The other female-directed Turkish film, the highly acclaimed Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015, Turkey, France, Germany, Qatar) focuses on five young orphaned sisters in a coastal Turkish town whose erupting sexuality leads their conservative guardians to imprison them in the family house and force them in arranged marriages. Following the five main characters and their differing fates, Mustang ultimately celebrates the possibility and power of escape and associates the big city with hope. The bond among the sisters offers a satisfying emotional core, while the film’s attractive protagonists invite voyeuristic visual pleasures. In contrast to the emotionally intense and authentic, but also downbeat and claustrophobic Motherland, Mustang seems formulaic in its presentation of a rather unsubtle version of the modernity/tradition, freedom/oppression binaries. But through its visual pleasures and hopeful resolution, it is also a film that has and will travel beyond the Balkans. A multi-partner co-production, Mustang represented France in the foreign language film Oscar nominations this year. This was a surprising choice given that the film is exclusively spoken in Turkish and set in Turkey, but it is also evidence of how co-productions can greatly enhance a film’s visibility.

Vergina Giurata / Sworn Virgin (Laura Bispuri, 2015, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Albania, UNMI Kosovo) tells the story of a woman who was denied her gender and sexual identity as part of the Albanian custom whereby for a woman to share the same freedoms as a man she has to live, dress and act like a man and take an oath of perennial virginity. The film follows the character’s escape to Italy to join her sister’s family, and her gradual self-realisation and transformation as she discovers and liberates her oppressed body. This is a powerful film about what we may call forced transexuality. Alba Rohrwarcher’s performance conveys in a subtle and touching way this woman’s sexual awakening and gender re-identification. A multi-partner co-production among Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Albania and Kosovo, Sworn Virgin is more fundamentally transnational than Mustang: it is shot and set in two countries (Albania and Italy), spoken in two languages, and led by an Italian director and actress while dealing with an Albanian topic. It is a notable achievement that it places a peripheral national and cultural context at the centre of contemporary (mostly Western) concerns and issues around gender identity.

Still from: Bispuri, Laura. 2015. Vergina Giurata / Sworn Virgin. Image courtesy of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

Zhazhda / Thirst (Svetla Tsotsorkova, 2015, Bulgaria) uses symbolism to tell a story of desire and destruction. The film is set around a house at the top of a windy hill where a woman washes and dries hotel sheets to support her ailing husband and teenage son. When she invites a father-daughter team to dig for water in her plot, multiple desires surface. The film adopts an austere but accomplished visual style, with the floating sheets in the wind as its most iconic image. Visual and verbal references to the arid land abound, while the recurrent motif of “thirst” carries the core symbolic meaning – the need for love. The film is confidently directed and brilliantly cast – especially in terms of the two striking looking young characters whose physique and acting visualise very effectively the characters' traits. Unlike the previous films discussed, Zhazhda has only been financed by Bulgarian funds. In its adoption of a symbolic language (where characters do not even need a name), the film conveys little sense of a specific national space – even though the abandoned school in the vicinity points to a post-communist desolation. On the other hand, the use of symbolism alludes to Bulgaria’s poetic cinema, reinvigorating this national visual storytelling tradition (Holloway 1989).