When the curtain rises Thursday on the 62nd edition of the Thessaloniki Film Festival, it will be a long-awaited return to form for one of the oldest fests on the circuit, after a surge in COVID-19 cases last fall forced the organizers to pivot from a hybrid to a fully online edition.

Attempting to sum up his feelings on the eve of opening night, festival director Orestis Andreadakis was gripped by emotion, using words like “strange,” “happy” and “anxious” in the same breath.

“It’s as if you go out from the hospital, this period of pandemic, and you don’t know how to speak to your friends, you don’t know how to be in love again, you don’t know how to speak with your relatives and parents and children,” Andreadakis tells Variety. “But at the same time, you have a big appetite for life.”

For the veteran film critic, who’s been at the helm of the Thessaloniki fest since 2016, that appetite extends to cinema and a return to the communal viewing experience that’s been lost during the pandemic. Though audiences over the past 18 months have grown increasingly accustomed to watching movies from the comfort of their sofa – and indeed, this year’s festival will also unspool online through a VOD platform – Andreadakis is insistent that a return to movie theaters is essential to the art form.

“The cinematic experience is to see a film together, to share a common memory and take those films with us in the city, in the restaurants, in the bars,” he says. “And to be in love again, through the movies.”

The festival, which runs Nov. 4-14, takes place against a backdrop of rising coronavirus cases across Greece, with authorities this week sounding the alarm as new case numbers reach record highs.

On Wednesday festival organizers told Variety that they were prepared for any eventuality in the days ahead.

“Long before the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, the festival made sure to take all necessary measures for hosting the 62nd TIFF in the safest possible way,” the festival said in a statement. “Our movie theaters will operate as COVID-free spaces and will be thoroughly sanitized after the end of each screening, through the use of the most up-to-date equipment. In addition, there will be a sufficient time span between the slots of the films screened at the 62nd TIFF to ensure that overcrowding is avoided.”

The statement continued: “It goes without saying that the festival is keeping up with all health and safety protocols and is ready to adapt to any additional measures that might be imposed by the authorities.”

The festival opens Thursday night with “Happening,” French director Audrey Diwan’s powerful, timely abortion drama that won the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival.

Other highlights from the international competition this year include Venice player “True Things,” Harry Wootliff‘s critically acclaimed sophomore film headlined by “The Affair” star Ruth Wilson and Tom Burke; “The Box,” a dark psychological thriller by former Golden Lion winner Lorenzo Vigas, which played to rave reviews on the Lido; Cannes Directors’ Fortnight selection “Clara Sola,” a magical-realist drama from Costa Rican-Swedish debutante Nathalie Álvarez Mesén; and “Pilgrims,” from Lithuania’s Laurynas Bareiša, which won the top prize in Venice’s Horizons sidebar.

A trio of Greek films will also compete for the Golden Alexander, including “Moon, 66 Questions,” by Jacqueline Lentzou, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival this year; Araceli Lemos’ Locarno prize winner “Holy Emy”; and “Pack of Sheep,” the feature directorial debut of Dimitris Kanellopoulos.

They’re among the 35 feature-length Greek films to take part in this year’s festival, which will also screen eight masterpieces of cinema from the host nation within the framework of “Motherland, I See You: The 20th Century of Greek Cinema,” an initiative dedicated to the restoration, digitization and screening of classic Greek films that was launched by the Hellenic Film Academy this year to mark Greece’s bicentennial.

Amid the nationwide commemorations, Andreadakis sees this as a pivotal moment for filmmakers in Greece, where a decade-long economic crisis has led to deep fractures in a society that still prides itself as the birthplace of democracy.

“Of course, it’s difficult for them. Of course, it’s very hard to make a movie. Of course, they need more money. Of course, they need more support,” he says. “We give as much support as we can. But also, they have remarkable inspiration. And they also have remarkable power to talk about all those things and to criticize society and to criticize us, the previous generations, and arrive at – very painfully sometimes – useful answers and questions that have to be answered.”

This year marks the first edition of the Thessaloniki Film Festival since the passing of Dimitri Eipides, the long-time festival programmer and champion of cinema on both sides of the Atlantic, who held various roles in Thessaloniki before serving as director from 2010 to 2016. Eipides passed away in his hometown of Athens in January after a long illness.

Andreadakis took the reins from Eipides when he assumed the top post five years ago. “Since I arrived in Thessaloniki, Dimitri was an inspiration,” he says. “He was there to inspire through his work and his ideas and his vision. He was always present. So he will be present, always. And Dimitri is not dead. Dimitri is among us. He’s in the theaters, he’s in every screening.”

Among Eipides’ innovations was overhauling the celebrated New Horizons section, which he programmed for more than a decade, and introducing the Open Horizons sidebar, offering a selection of bold, daring, and innovative work in contemporary world cinema.

It is that avant-garde spirit, says Andreadakis, that remains essential to Thessaloniki’s DNA. “I think that we have to always look forward, look into the future,” rather than “fall into nostalgia” and long for “the masters of the past,” he says. “We always need to see the future and to find in the future the revolutionary ideas that will change the art of cinema, the arts in general, and our lives.”

While much has been made in recent years about the fate of film festivals, amid the general decline in movie-going and shifts in audience habits that pre-dated the pandemic, Andreadakis insists that events like the Thessaloniki Film Festival will always play a crucial role in both cinema and public life.

“They gather all the people together. They gather the talents, the directors, the producers, the film-lovers, [in one] city,” he says. He likens the process to a kind of “art think tank.” “All of them together, they can produce something new. And this is the important [role] of the festival.”