×

It had been nearly three decades since a film was last screened in Ciné Apollon, an open-air theater in the resort town of Edipsos on the north shore of the Greek island of Evia. But the arrival of several hundred moviegoers on June 15 for a screening of French filmmaker Coline Serreau’s “La Belle Verte” (The Green Planet) offered a much-needed sense of rebirth: for the cinema, and for an island that was devastated by catastrophic wildfires last summer.

As part of wide-ranging efforts to revitalize struggling communities and give a boost to the local economy, the organizers of the Thessaloniki Film Festival this year launched the Evia Film Project, a five-day event that underscores the perils of climate change and offers the film industry a chance to explore the possibilities of green film production.

When the audience gathered at the Apollon for the opening of the festival, which ran June 15 – 19, it raised hopes as well that the ravaged island is ready to turn a new page.

Addressing a crowd of several hundred on opening night, Thessaloniki festival director Orestis Andreadakis recalled the devastation wrought by last summer’s fires, a tragedy that compelled festival leadership to spring into action. “The images that we saw last year really overwhelmed us, and we felt the obligation to come and plant a seed of culture here,” he said. Insisting that “Evia can be reborn,” Andreadakis added: “Your strength is our strength, and your love for this land is our love as well.”

The Evia Film Project was organized under the framework of Fotodotes, a specially created developmental project for the reconstruction and restoration of Evia under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture and Sports. With events spread out across three locations in the island’s north, the festival received support from the Region of Central Greece and the Greek Film Center, in collaboration with the Municipality of Istiaia-Edipsos and the Municipality of Mantoudi-Limni-Agia Anna.

Their support was designed to help local businesses, many of which are still struggling to recover from last summer’s wildfires. “We planned to spend all that money there – in facilities, hotels, restaurants, jobs, food. That was our goal from the beginning,” Andreadakis told Variety on the eve of the festival. “We are going to contribute to things that will stay in Evia,” added project manager Leda Galanou. “We don’t want to have some screenings and leave. We want to leave something behind for the locals to enjoy afterward.”

Festival screenings were open to the public and held in outdoor cinemas at three locations in northern Evia. Along with Serreau’s opening film, a comedy about an alien who lands in Paris and must convince its inhabitants to change their consumerist way of life, the program included Benh Zeitlin’s Sundance prize winner “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” about a New Orleans community ravaged by rising tides, and “Megara,” a 1974 documentary by Sakis Maniatis and Yorgos Tsemberopoulos about a rural uprising against plans to build an oil refinery in a small farm community. The festival wrapped June 19 with a screening of the documentary “The Forest Maker,” from Oscar-winning German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff (“The Tin Drum”), who was in attendance in Evia.

Before last summer’s wildfires, Greece’s second-largest island was famous for its production of honey and resin and was a popular summer destination, particularly for tourists from northern Greece and the Balkans. According to Greek mythology, Edipsos was the world’s first seaside resort: Hercules came to relax in its hot springs after he completed each of his 12 labors.

But nearly a third of Evia was destroyed during a scorching summer that saw an estimated 300,000 acres of forest and bushland incinerated by wildfires across Greece; in parts of the country, soaring temperatures hit a record high of 115.3 degrees.

The climate crisis has become an inescapable fact of daily life, with each new heretofore-unheard-of weather phenomenon offering a solemn reminder that the time to act is now – if there is still time to spare. For Thessaloniki festival leadership, last summer’s wildfires only underscored the urgency for the global film community to reset its relationship to the environment and rethink old ways of doing business, and to do so in a place where “we can see the consequences of global warming” firsthand, said Andreadakis.

Throughout the five-day event, screenings were held in open-air cinemas ringed by hillsides still bearing the scars of last year’s fires. Shuttle buses carrying guests between festival venues swept past fields where blackened pine and olive trees rose like burnt matchsticks. Though the event was graced with ample sunshine and temperatures that hovered in the mid-80s, scientists are forecasting another difficult summer in Greece, where catastrophic wildfires have become an annual occurrence.

On Saturday, as industry guests gathered for an award ceremony celebrating the participants of the festival’s pitching forum and locals gathered in the village of Agia Anna for a concert by Greek singer Kostis Maravegias, firefighters were struggling to contain a wildfire that was raging in central Evia, where the residents of one village had to be evacuated.

The blaze underscored the magnitude of the challenges that lie ahead for the island’s residents. Yet those challenges also spurred festival leadership to redouble its resolve in helping Greeks plan for an uncertain future, with the Evia Film Project hosting an educational program designed to sensitize local schoolchildren about environmental issues and teach them about sustainability. Other highlights included a workshop led by WWF Greece devoted to boosting preparedness ahead of wildfire season, and a wide-ranging discussion among European filmmakers offering tools and best practices for green film production.

It is, admittedly, a tall task for a film festival to try to redress the perils of climate change, but the organizing team insists that the first small steps taken by the Evia Film Project are a seed that will someday bear fruit.

“I know it sounds a bit naïve to think that a concert and film screenings are going to help an area that has been so greatly affected by the fire, but this has a ripple effect,” said Galanou, citing the need for a collaborative effort between local communities, organizations and civic groups, and the government. “Everyone is doing their best and hoping that things will get better soon.”