Movies

Thessaloniki’s Crossroads Co-Production Forum Proves Region’s Resilience Despite Pandemic

Now in its 17th year, the Thessaloniki Film Festival’s Crossroads Co-Production Forum has become a de rigueur stop on the fall circuit for producers, distributors, festival programmers and sales agents from across Europe – and increasingly the rest of the world – as they look to spot promising projects in development from Southeast Europe, the Black Sea, and the wider Mediterranean region.

For Yianna Sarri, who heads Thessaloniki’s industry arm, Agora, the reason is obvious. “They know that they will find the best possible projects in Thessaloniki,” Sarri told Variety.

Recent Crossroads success stories include Christos Nikou’s debut “Apples,” which opened the Horizons strand of last year’s Venice Film Festival, and “Ghosts,” the first feature from Turkey’s Azra Deniz Okyay, which won the Grand Prize at Venice Critics’ Week. Other notable titles in recent years include Mounia Meddour’s Algerian civil-war drama “Papicha,” which premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section in 2019, and Turkish director Tarik Aktaş’ Locarno prize winner “Dead Horse Nebula.”

The organizers this year selected 14 projects for the Co-Production Forum, out of some 120 submissions, and eight for the Agora Works in Progress from nearly 70 submissions, representing not only countries from across the region but territories as diverse as Mauritius, Poland, Czech Republic, and Sweden.

For a festival that prides itself on inclusion and gender equity, 19 of the 22 selected projects have women attached as directors, producers, or both. “Thessaloniki has always been one of the festivals that lead the way, especially in our region,” said Sarri. “We always try to be on the frontline and not stay behind.”

Despite the uncertainty that has loomed over the industry throughout the pandemic, the Agora topper says it’s been a fruitful period for the region’s filmmakers. “We were afraid that most of the projects were going to be about the COVID situation. But fortunately, it’s not like that at all,” said Sarri. “People have been very creative and used their imaginations to produce really good projects.”

This year’s selection includes a host of promising debuts, along with the latest features from filmmakers who have already enjoyed prestigious festival premieres.

“Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry” is the third feature from Georgian filmmaker Elene Naveriani, who directed the Rotterdam premiere “I Am Truly a Drop of Sun on Earth” and the Locarno prize winner “Wet Sand” (pictured). It’s produced by Thomas Reichlin of Geneva-based Alva Film, whose credits include Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “Hive,” and Ketie Danelia of Georgia’s Takes Film, who produced Levan Akin’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight player “And Then We Danced.”

The film is based on the novel by Tamta Melashili, a Georgian author and feminist activist who “relentlessly challenges the heteronormative patriarchal structure,” according to Naveriani. It tells the story of Etero, a single woman in her late 40s, who is stuck in a small, backward-looking Georgian town and discovers love for the first time.

“When I read [the novel], I imagined how powerful it would be to see this story on the screen, how empowering and controversial,” said the director, noting how Melashili frequently questions the role of women in society through “powerful, subversive and nuanced characters.”

In the protagonist, Naveriani sees a woman whose life has a universal dimension, drawing on themes of body politics, sexuality, and resistance against cultural norms. “Etero carries in her body the revolutionary message that one can be loved and beautiful whatever body she has…. In her own way, without even realizing it, she is a feminist,” she said. “The story moved and resonated strongly with me personally as well as politically and spoke to me and my filmmaking practice.”

“Baby” is the feature directorial debut of Nikos Kyritsis and is produced by Maria Drandaki of Greece’s Homemade Films, whose credits include Yorgos Zois’ Venice selection “Interruption” and Syllas Tzoumerkas’ Berlinale player “The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea.” It’s a contemporary teen drama about a petty drug mule who, after unexpectedly being saddled with fatherhood, moves to Athens with his girlfriend and their newborn.

The film follows their turbulent lives as they befriend a queer teen transitioning to female and, willingly or not, challenge social prescripts and traditional values as they form their own atypical family.

“I want to expose the irony of the concept of family, the most sacred value in patriarchal Greek society, that is supposed to be all about unconditional love but, at the same time, parents won’t accept their kids for who they really are,” Kyritsis said in a statement. “Baby” is the director’s attempt to push audiences to challenge their own social and ethical boundaries, exploring issues of sexual identity at a time when Greece’s LGBTQ+ community has become increasingly vocal about queer rights.

“My intention is to create a raw, honest and touching drama that will highlight the internal and external struggles of these kids and rediscover the coming-of-age genre in relation to gender, diversity and teen parenthood, issues that haven’t been dealt with enough in Greek cinema so far,” Kyritsis added. “For me, this story is crucial to be shared now because, despite recent steps towards visibility and legal recognition of LGBTQ+ rights, Greek society still holds on to some pretty conservative views.”

Sarra Tsorakidis makes her feature directorial debut with “Ink Wash,” produced by Anca Puiu of Romanian production powerhouse Mandragora, the outfit behind films including Cristi Puiu’s Cannes player “Sieranevada.”

The film follows an aspiring painter in her 30s who finds herself in a creative rut and a financial hole as she struggles with the recent death of her grandmother. When she decides to take a job as the decorator of a hotel in the Carpathian Mountains, she meets someone who she believes will help her out of her depression.

“‘Ink Wash’ is about what it means to be an artist in today’s society and the effect this has on one’s psyche,” Tsorakidis told Variety. “There is a strong link between creativity and depression which, although one doesn’t necessarily include the other, may result in various psychological patterns, including impostor syndrome or anxiety.”

The directors said that dynamic adds a personal dimension to the film which she hopes to explore. “The feeling of not being worthy of succeeding is something that keeps many creative minds from achieving their potential and, because it affects me as well, I wanted to try and figure out why that happens.”

Another first-time filmmaker, Cyprus’ Alexandra Matheou, will present her feature “Shibboleth.” It’s produced by Bark Like A Cat Films, the production shingle of Cyprus-based filmmaker Tonia Mishiali, whose 2018 feature “Pause” premiered in Karlovy Vary.

The film follows the love triangle that forms between a surrogate mother and the couple whose baby she is pregnant with when she joins them on a summer vacation. When the truth behind their real intentions is revealed, however, nothing goes according to plan.

“In ‘Shibboleth,’ the universe we are in invites certain allegories that all orbit around the themes it purports to explore, namely the complexities of motherhood and all the symbols that envelop it; the idea of faith as a motivational tool even when it can be weaponized in the spirit of manipulation; and of course, the role of art as the means to defeat death,” the director said in a statement.

Matheou said “Shibboleth” will have elements of magical realism and psychological drama, while certain aspects of the film will invite comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” and David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.”

“My goal is to immerse an audience into an airtight universe that asks more questions than it provides answers for, but instead gently weaves a multitude of thematic layers with nuanced precision,” she said. “More importantly, I want the film to invite the existential reflections that have constantly preoccupied me from childhood all the way to my young adult years: would remaining alive till the end of time be the biggest blessing or the most sinister trojan horse anyone could gift me?”

“Matilda Has the Last Word (*As She Always Does)” is the sophomore feature from Romanian filmmaker Andrei Creţulescu, whose debut “Charleston” – which was also presented in the Crossroads Co-Production Forum – premiered in Locarno in 2017. The film is produced by Cristian Nicolescu of Digital Cube, whose credits include Jasmila Žbanić’s Oscar-nominated “Quo Vadis, Aida?” and Călin Netzer’s Berlin Silver Bear winner “Ana, Mon Amour,” and Codruta Creţulescu of Bucharest-based Kinosseur (“Charleston”).

“Matilda” spans more than a decade in the life of a young woman, told in three episodes that the director described as “rough sketches ‘drawing’ a sort of puzzle encompassing 12 years from a woman’s existence.

“Their overlapping brings forth a portrait (or rather a sketch) which will help the viewer create – based on his or her sensibilities, personalities, preferences – his or her own Matilda,” Creţulescu added. “And he or she will judge (applaud, curse, love, hate, envy) Matilda as his or her heart will desire. It might be a truism, but it is, well, true – without an audience, Matilda simply doesn’t exist.”

He said the film was conceived as an homage to Jacques Demy, “full of music, but by no means a musical,” inspired by his own experience of parenthood. “‘Matilda’ was born exactly one year after I became a father. Hence, my daughter is literally the reason this movie will eventually see the light of day,” the director said.

Highlights from the Agora Works in Progress section include “Silence 6-9,” from Greek director Christos Passalis, an accomplished actor and theater director making his feature film debut; “Upside Down,” directed by Lee Gilat, whose screenwriting credits include the hit Israeli TV series “Your Honor”; “Things Unsaid,” the first feature from North Macedonian director Eleonora Veninova, whose last short premiered in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight section; and “Three Jumps, One,” the sophomore feature from Georgian filmmaker Rusudan Pirveli, whose debut “Susa” premiered in the Berlin Film Festival.

The complete list of projects in this year’s Crossroads Co-Production Forum can be found here.

The complete list of projects in this year’s Agora Works in Progress can be found here.

The Thessaloniki Film Festival runs online and in Thessaloniki from Nov. 4-14.

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