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The arrival this month of hundreds of foreign industry guests for the Thessaloniki Intl. Film Festival in some ways echoes the history of this ancient, seaside city, long a melting pot of civilizations and cultures.

“Historically speaking, Thessaloniki was the center of the Mediterranean and Balkan region,” says Yianna Sarri, head of the festival’s industry arm, Agora. “So keeping that in mind, we tried to build the Agora around that idea.”

As TIFF celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, Agora can point to its own growth as it kicks off its 15th edition. Sarri notes that in the market’s early days, many of the projects pitched at the Crossroads Co-Production Forum never made it out of development.

But she’s witnessed a dramatic shift in the past five years, with an increasing number of films not only seeing completion, but also landing premieres at top-tier festivals.

Recent projects to emerge from Agora include Turkish director Tarik Aktaş’ Locarno prize winner “Dead Horse Nebula”; Portuguese filmmaker Filipa César’s experimental documentary “Spell Reel,” which bowed at the Berlinale; and director Mounia Meddour’s Algerian civil-war drama “Papicha,” which premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section this year and is Algeria’s Oscar submission for international film.

What sets apart many of these projects, says Sarri, is the boldness of their cinematic language, a spirit of risk-taking that Agora encourages.

“We don’t usually choose films that are mainstream. We go more for arthouse, experimental,” she says. “So it’s very nice to then see these films having their premieres at big festivals.”

Thessaloniki’s industry program has long attracted European players from the likes of Germany and France. But in recent years, Agora has boosted efforts to lure more industryites from the Balkans, the Middle East and other neighboring territories, underscoring its position as a linchpin for filmmakers from the wider Mediterranean region. Strategic partnerships are central to its mission.

“We try to expand our network, because we truly believe that collaboration between festivals is the key to the whole industry,”
says Sarri.

This year marks the fourth edition of the Thessaloniki-Locarno Industry Academy, which gathers young sales agents, distributors and new media professionals and partners them with mentors during the fest. The festival is also partnering for the first time with the European Women’s Assn., a collaboration that will bring eight young female producers to Thessaloniki for three days of mentoring.

A new initiative this year will be Meet the Future, a program that will spotlight emerging industry professionals from different countries or regions. For the first edition, 15 young Greek filmmakers who are preparing their first features will have a chance to pitch their projects to a room full of industry attendees. Future editions might focus on up-and-coming sales agents from Germany, perhaps, or festival programmers from the Nordics.

It’s a sign that Agora will continue to push forward as it embarks on its next chapter. “The need to introduce new voices to the industry is more than ever obvious,” Sarri says.