A postcard from Thessaloniki Film Festival

Strong performances to the fore as Greek showcase ends 64th edition

by Amber Wilkinson

Animal Photo: Courtesy of Locarno Film Festival
It seems appropriate that the Greek port city of Thessaloniki has become a cultural meeting point for films from around the globe. The festival hub - where much of the 64th edition of the event unfolded in the past week - is in the dock area, now a hive of cultural activity.

The stately Olympion cinema also offers a warm welcome to festivalgoers nearby, although my favourite discovery this year was the small but lovely Makedonikon cinema, tucked away in a back street near the city's White Tower monument. An arthouse cinema outside the festival dates, it was the perfect place to catch the experimental Samsara. This was not the Ron Fricke film but a transportive journey from Spanish director Lois Patiño (Coast Of Death), which, at its midway point, instructs viewers to close their eyes before taking on a sensory trip "through the Bardo", from one life to the next. His film has a meditative quality even before this unusual sequence and is one of those pieces of work that must be seen - or, rather, experienced - in a cinema to be fully appreciated. It was good to see the film pick up the Golden Alexander in the Film Forward section, with the jury noting its "rich sensorial cinematic form".

This year the festival also had the additional draw of Italian star Monica Bellucci, who attended a screening of her latest film Maria Callas: Letters and Memoirs as well as picking up the Golden Alexander honorary award for her contribution to cinema. Picking up the accolade, she said: "I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the immense artist Maria Callas and to her beautiful homeland, which I hold deep in my heart."

This festival was blessed with plenty of sunshine - and that was only one reason the main competition winner was so warmly welcomed yesterday. The other was that the Golden Alexander prize went to a Greek director for the first time since 1993.

Sofia Exarchou's Animal, which premiered in Locarno, not only took the top prize but also saw its star Dimitra Vlagopoulou share the acting award. She plays a dancer in a raw depiction of life for "animateurs" who entertain guests at a holiday resort, which skewers a system that views humans as nothing but a source of entertainment. When we spoke to Exarchou earlier in the year she told us: "I was really interested in exploring - what entertainment means today and how important entertainment is for the survival of capitalism and how it plays out and how it works."

The Silver Alexander for directing went to Joanna Arnow's bitter-sweet comedy The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed, while Belgian filmmaker Zeno Graton won the best screenplay Silver Alexander for his coming-of-age tale The Lost Boys. Arnow also shared the best actress award with Vlagopoulou for her role in her own film. The best actor award went to another Greek star, Kostas Koronaios, for his unsettling central performance in The Last Taxi Driver, which charts a cabbie's growing obsession with a younger woman.

The Meet The Neighbours section of the festival features debut and sophomore films drawn from 36 countries in southeastern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The Golden Alexander for best film in that section went to Àma Gloria by Marie Amachoukeli, about a French girl and her immigrant nanny. Diego Llorente won the Silver Alexander for his sensual romantic drama Notes On A Summer.

The acting awards in the section went to Mouna Hawa for her central performance as a mother fighting a patriarchal system in Inshallah A Boy. Speaking about the role to us earlier in the year, director Amjad Al Rasheed told us: "It's a very complex character. It needed a lot of subtleness to deliver everything in a simple way, like how we talk in daily life."  The best actor award was shared by Richard Langdon, who has a crucial supporting role in Czech drama We Have Never Been Modern, and Soma Sándor, who plays a troubled high school student in Hungarian-Romanian co-production Without Air. Rounding out the Meet The Neighbours awards was the artistic excellence gong, which went to Eva Nathena’s adaptation of classic book Murderess.

The Silver Alexander in the Film Forward section was shared by Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt and The Human Surge 3, by Eduardo Williams.

The FIPRESCI award in the International Competition went to British film In Camera by Naqqash Khalid - look out for our interview with him coming soon. The FIPRESCI award for best Greek film went to Murderess.

The "Human Values" award was won by Christos Nikou's Fingernails, while Stavros Zafeiris won the Alpha Bank Accessibility Award for his portrayal of a paralysed man who embarks on a turbulent affair with his carer in Touched.

The festival was particularly rich in performances this year, and it must have been tough decisions all round. Other notable performances, for me, included Eliska Krenková's rich wife who learns a thing or two in We Have Never Been Modern, Ágnes Krasznahorkai's delicate portrayal of a teacher under pressure in Without Air and a blistering supporting turn from Renée Soutendijk in sharp colonial satire Sweet Dreams.

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