Giorgos Valsamis could not have predicted where his career path would lead almost a decade ago, when, as a student of fine arts and accounting, he bought a camera to photograph the dramatic landscapes of Iceland, where he was on a study-abroad program. “It never crossed my mind that I could be a cinematographer,” Valsamis told Variety. “Until 2013, I didn’t know what a director of photography actually was.”
Seven years and two Palmes d’Or later, Valsamis is a fast-rising talent, and one of eight Greek cinematographers being feted this week as part of the Thessaloniki Film Festival’s Meet the Future program, which launched last year to give a boost to emerging film professionals from across Europe.
For its first edition, Meet the Future showcased 15 promising young Greek directors who were developing their first feature films. This year, the program trained its lens on up-and-coming local cinematographers. “The Meet the Future initiative is extremely important for us, since our absolute priority is to support the Greek film community,” said Thessaloniki festival director Orestis Andreadakis.
Yianna Sarri, who heads Thessaloniki’s Agora industry program, said that the idea to turn the focus to cinematography this year stemmed from the realization that “it’s a field of work that is not so much explored” when similar initiatives are put together. “We found eight very promising Greek cinematographers, and we wanted to give them an opportunity to show their work to the international audience,” she said. A one-minute showreel of each cinematographer’s work is available on the festival’s website.
Valsamis’s breakout work behind the camera came with Vasilis Kekatos’s “The Silence of the Dying Fish,” which played in competition in Locarno in 2018. Since then he’s photographed back-to-back Palme d’Or winners: Kekatos’s “The Distance Between Us and the Sky,” and Sameh Alaa’s “I Am Afraid to Forget Your Face.”
Since September, the cinematographer has been in Taipei, where he is in pre-production on the feature film “American Girl,” from director Fiona Feng Roan, with whom he collaborated on this year’s Cannes Cinéfondation selection “The Last Ferry from Grass Island.” Another feature, “18,” directed by Vasilis Douvlis, will take part in Agora’s Works in Progress section this week.
Valsamis cited longtime Wim Wenders cinematographer Robby Müller as a major influence, as well as Robbie Ryan, the Oscar-nominated DoP of Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Favorite” and Andrea Arnold’s Cannes Jury Prize winner “American Honey.” “I really like his camera movement,” said Valsamis. “Every film that he shoots is different from the previous one. He doesn’t have a specific style. It keeps evolving and changing in every film. For me, it’s…what a cinematographer should do.”
In order to achieve that result in his own work, the DoP said he spends long hours in conversation with his directors, poring over the script, getting an understanding of the filmmaker’s influences and visual reference points. “I need to communicate a lot before the shooting,” he said. “It has to do mostly about understanding the atmosphere that he wants or she wants to create, and how we can create this atmosphere using light and framing.”
Yannis Kanakis, who photographed director Yorgos Zois’s Venice player “Interruption,” said he sees himself as “a medium of the director’s vision.” “The biggest contributor in a film image is the director. Not me,” he said. “I like working with directors that have a specific vision, and they really [place] a big importance on the camera. Because they know better what they want to do.”
Kanakis’s body of work includes Zois’s feature debut, as well as Konstantina Kotzamani’s short films “Yellow Fieber,” which played in Locarno, and the Berlinale selection “Washingtonia.” “Right now, the projects that I work on are really different, and I don’t think I have a language of my own yet,” he said.
While Valsamis’s prize-winning work has taken him from his native Greece to the streets of Cairo to a remote island in the South China Sea, he said his philosophy behind the camera remains constant. “Filmmaking all around the world is…pretty much the same,” he said. “I haven’t had difficulties to communicate. Even in Cairo, most of the crew didn’t speak English. It’s more like a universal language, especially during the shooting.”
He continued: “The technical stuff stays the same. You have to find a new way to express the idea of the script. It could be different framing, or different camera movement, or something that you’ve never tried before.”
“I don’t like movies that have ‘beautiful’ cinematography. That are empty of meaning, [where] the cinematography and the substance of the film don’t match,” Kanakis said. “The best cinematography is [when] you can’t separate it from the film.”
He added: “What I miss is a little punk attitude. That’s what I would like to do. And that’s why I really enjoy documentaries. You have to work with what reality gives you.”
Here are this year’s Meet the Future participants:
Selected at Sarajevo Talents in 2018, Dionysopoulou worked on the short films “Yawth” and “Sad Girl Weekend,” which screened at the online Karlovy Vary Film Festival and was awarded at Greece’s Drama Short Film Festival.
Kanakis collaborated with director Yorgos Zois on his first feature film, “Interruption,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival. He has worked on numerous award-winning short films (“Yellow Fieber,” “Washingtonia,” “Premier Amour”), which have screened at festivals including the Berlinale and Clermont-Ferrand.
A Sarajevo Talents selection in 2018, Karambatsos was awarded for his work on the short film “Mare Nostrum” and worked with Yorgos Zois on the short film “Touch Me.”
The cinematographer on the documentary “Express Scopelitis,” Olsefski has worked on the short films “Deathcar” and “Mila,” for which she won an award from the Greek Society of Cinematographers.
Pissas has worked on numerous short and feature films, including Yorgos Zois’s short “8th Continent,” which screened at the Venice Film Festival.
For his work on Dimitris Tsalapatis’s “Torpor,” Simos won a Greek Society of Cinematographers award. He also worked on Fokion Bogris’s “Amercement,” which world premiered at this year’s Thessaloniki Film Festival.
Tilinski worked on “Wasted Youth,” by Argyris Papadimitropoulos and Jan Vogel, and was awarded for his camera work on the short films “Maneki Neko” and “Bella.”
Valsamis did photography on back-to-back Palme d’Or-winning short films, “The Distance Between Us and the Sky” and “I Am Afraid to Forget Your Face,” as well as “The Last Ferry from Grass Island,” which participated in Cannes’s Cinéfondation.
The Thessaloniki Film Festival runs online Nov. 5-15.