Balkan filmmakers have put themselves firmly on the international festival map lately with wins at Cannes and Berlin as well as numerous other citations and awards for helmers from across the region.
Although cracking the commercial market remains elusive — in common with most other European countries — Greek industry professionals believe their industry is on the verge of new recognition.
The share of Greek films — both arthouse and commercial fare — at the local box office is edging up, from 15% in 2006 to slightly more than 16% last year, and a new generation of directors is on the brink of discovery.
Konstantinos Kontovrakis, head of the Greek program at the Thessaloniki festival — one of a range of sidebars devoted to showcasing and supporting Balkans production — says Greece: Generation Next, part of the Crossroads co-production forum, will enable industry professionals to get a preview of emerging directors.
“This is a new section, introduced by the festival and Greek department to foster the country’s new talent locally and internationally,” Kontovrakis says, adding that only directors who have won acclaim for their short films and are now working on debut features are presented within Crossroads or the works-in-progress market, Agora.
The festival believes that most of the seven directors selected for Generation Next will draw attention in coming years. The concept, Kontovrakis says, is to provide the international film community with a group of new directors rather than to have them be identified in individual cases. “It’s like a sneak preview for upcoming talent rather than films,” Kontovrakis says.
The films, which Kontovrakis characterizes as mainly contemporary European arthouse expected to be of interest to international festivals looking for new talent, include “Mavro Livado” (Black Field), a story of sexual and religious identity with a dramatic twist set in the 17th-century Ottoman Empire. Pic’s directed by Vardis Marinakis, who won an award in Locarno for his short “Human Nature.” Another featured project is work-in-progress “Kill the Habit” by Laoura Neri, which is described as a politically incorrect dark comedy in the spirit of “Clerks.” Panos Karkanevatos unspools his taboo-busting “Athanasia” at Thessaloniki as well.
The festival’s support for regional film — through its range of professional sidebars — is a key part of a nexus of promotional and networking events hosted by film showcases across the Balkans.
The value of such events cannot be overemphasized in a part of Europe that lacks the kind of government and film agency support more common in countries such as France, Germany or Poland.
Although the Greek Film Center hands out annual public funding of E10 million ($12.9 million), there are no tax incentives for foreign productions or co-productions — apart from where specific bilateral treaties offer support — and a new film commission designed to help attract foreign shoots to Greece is hampered by a lack of appropriate legislation to facilitate its work.
A law obliging television channels to pay a 1.5% levy to help fund film production, passed in the early 1990s, is widely circumvented, industry observers say, by all but state television and larger cable operators.
“All this makes the position of the Thessaloniki festival even more crucial for the local industry,” Kontovrakis says. “Apart from being the best platform to promote Greek film, the festival is the main gateway for Greek films and professionals if they want to look for partnerships abroad.”
Festival director Despina Mouzaki acknowledges that Thessaloniki, like most showcases, tends to work more with arthouse than commercial film, and sees its role as molding audience taste.
“Although a gap between festival and local box office success exists, that doesn’t mean the goal of reaching an audience for these films is a lost cause; far from it,” Mouzaki says. “It seems that instead of making films for an existing audience, you have to shape one out of the general cinemagoing public by promoting and supporting those films with confidence and consistency.”
Mouzaki points to two recent Greek films, Thanos Anastopoulos’ “Correction” and Alexis Alexiou’s “Tale 52,” which won awards at Thessaloniki and other festivals despite modest performances on local release.
Extensive screening at international festivals can be an ancillary market for films, she notes, adding: “The appeal of local commercial cinema can create an audience for local films that can become more adventurous and eager to try out more demanding films. It might take a few more years, but I’m certain it can be achieved.”
Thessaloniki — which has long supported the Balkan new wave even before it first came to worldwide attention with Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” at Cannes in 2007 — is a “highly professional and popular” key event for the region, says Bulgarian producer and Sofia Film Festival head Stefan Kitanov.
“The professional events they organize — Balkan Fund, Crossroads and Agora — are well attended and respected among the industry of both the region and Europe. They are a good meeting point where many important co-productions have started,” Kitanov adds.
This year 15 co-production project will be presented at Crossroads to some 50 professionals from 17 countries.
For those keen to be in at the very earliest point, script development forum the Balkans Fund offers projects that include Serbian Stevan Filipoviv’s “Skinning,” which focuses on the world of soccer hooligans in Belgrade, and Romanian Andrei Gruzsniczki’s “The Other Irene,” the story of a husband who discovers things about his wife when it’s already too late.