With days to spare before the opening night of this year’s Thessaloniki Intl. Film Festival, organizers were suddenly forced to contend with a dramatic spike in coronavirus cases in Greece’s second city, prompting them to scrap plans for a hybrid edition and move entirely online.
The sudden reversal, said festival director Orestis Andreadakis, was “really, really difficult,” but not entirely unforeseen, as the country grapples with a second wave of COVID-19 that has far outpaced the first wave in the spring. Contingency plans were already in place, as Andreadakis and his colleagues spent months preparing for a variety of scenarios. “It was extremely difficult, because it was as if [we were] preparing three festivals” at the same time, he said.
On Nov. 3, the Greek government introduced a raft of new measures determined to halt the pandemic’s spread, including a curfew in both Thessaloniki and the country’s capital, Athens, as well as the closure of cinemas, bars, restaurants, gyms and other non-essential places of business, and the mandatory use of masks both indoors and outdoors across the country.
However, with the support of the Ministry of Culture, the show will go on for the Thessaloniki Film Festival, which will unspool with an online edition from Nov. 5-15.
Last March, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, which is run by the same organizing team, was among the first festivals to move online in response to the coronavirus pandemic. That experience, said Andreadakis, helped prepare TIFF to go completely digital this month. “We’re planning to use all the tools of the internet to promote, in the best way, the films, and particularly the Greek films and the Greek cinema community,” he said. “This is our priority.”
The festival program will be available on a geoblocked VOD platform, with films available to stream for €3 ($4) for a limited number of viewings. Participants in the festival’s industry arm, Agora, as well as select other international cinema professionals and journalists, will have access to all screenings.
Among the highlights of this year’s festival will be the tribute section “The space between us: from sci-fi to cli-fi,” a collection of rare and lesser-known science-fiction films. In a nod to these strange and unsettling times, Andreadakis described such movies from the height of the Cold War as akin to “prophecies from another world.”
“It was a time that humanity found itself in front of big fears: of nuclear war, of global conspiracies,” he said, adding that it felt “extremely prophetic” to rewatch films like Douglas Trumbull’s post-apocalyptic “Silent Running” (1972) or Richard Fleischer’s cult classic “Soylent Green” (1973). “If you see some of those films, you think they talk about…the fears we live today.”
As in years past, the festival’s official competition is organized around a theme, with this year’s selection inspired by the social theorist Richard Sennett’s epochal 1970s study “The Fall of Public Man,” which examined the already growing imbalance between the public and private sphere.
Under the theme of “Intimacy, the modern tyranny,” the competition titles look at a world that, through the use and ubiquity of digital technologies, has become increasingly separated and confined. In the midst of a global pandemic, said Andreadakis, it is a call to arms “for sharing, for solidarity, for the return of man to the public space.”
The competition lineup includes Tarzan and Arab Nasser’s “Gaza Mon Amour,” which played in the Horizons sidebar of this year’s Venice Film Festival, Fernanda Valadez’s Sundance World Dramatic Competition title “Identifying Features,” and “Ghosts,” from Turkey’s Azra Deniz Okyay, which won the Venice Critics’ Week Grand Prize. Greek films in the main competition include Christos Nikou’s Venice player “Apples,” which opened the Horizons section, and Georgis Grigorakis’s “Digger,” which premiered in the Berlinale’s Panorama strand.
In addition, Thessaloniki will host its annual Meet the Neighbors competition, presenting 10 films by young directors from Southeast Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East, as well as its popular Balkan Survey strand, and the Open Horizons section, dedicated to convention-breaking cinema.
“For the moment, we want to give people some hope,” said Andreadakis. “To offer good cinema, rich cinema, with many questions and many philosophical subjects…to make people think. And also entertain. This is our first intention.”
The Thessaloniki Film Festival runs online Nov. 5-15.