New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Greek film artists continue to make films that are worth seeing despite the battered Greek economy. The overwhelming enthusiasm and audience participation in the screenings and Opening Night Galas of the Fourth Annual New York City Greek Film Festival, presented by the Hellenic American Chamber of Commerce from October 26 to October 31, seemed to take the shape of a warm bubble of solidarity in New York’s Greek American community.
And the inclusion of Greek Americans’ films in the festival — planned to be repeated next year — showed that the community supports and encourages the Greek artistic production of young persons of Hellenic heritage.
What could be better for Greek film in New York? Only one thing: Continued support to make the Fifth Annual New York City Greek Film Festival possible in 2011. Based on the first counts — more than 1500 people attended the first three days of performances, which was very encouraging, Festival Director, James DeMetro told the Greek News.
This year’s major supporters were the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, The John S. Latsis Foundation, Angeliki Frangou (Honorary Chairperson of the Festival) of Navios Maritime Holdings, Inc., and Southern Star Shipping, but it’s the people that count, said DeMetro, “The people are the most important part of the process. Obviously we depend on our benefactors and patrons who have every right to make certain demands from us, so if the public doesn’t respond, the money will run out, and justifiably so.”
DeMetro emphasizes that if this were to happen, it would be the end of the Festival.
“The Festival can never be self sustaining financially. It’s impossibility because of the costs: an average theatre rental in New York City is 5,000 to 10,000 dollars a night. In order to make that work you would have to charge 50.00 to 100.00 dollars a ticket! which is not possible. We don’t want an elitist event; we want an event that everybody can afford to come to, an event that you can bring your family and friends to, so we must depend on our patrons, and our patrons, in turn, demand that we bring in an audience, and that is not an unreasonable demand.”
De Metro expressed the sobering thought that if the support of the Festival patrons is not sustained, New York City will be closed to any kind of Greek cinema because the chances of commercial distribution of subtitled Greek films in America are essentially nil. “Film festivals are the only way foreign countries get their films shown,” says De Metro. “Americans are not paying money to see subtitled films, and the direction American films have taken is so different from what is being done in Europe that there’s no hope of developing an audience.”
The selection of films for the New York City Greek Film Festival, no easy task, is essentially a yearlong process. “We’re always looking out for films,” says DeMetro. Contacts in Greece, Greek newspapers, checking box office results to see what films do well, reading reviews, obtaining “screeners”, or sample DVD’s from the Greek Film Center, individual production companies, or from the directors themselves, are all part of the process.
DeMetro is largely responsible for coordinating this effort, however, he says, the selection is not entirely his own, nor should it be one person’s selection. As not everybody on the festival committee is interested in this aspect of the project, 5-6 committee members and DeMetro exchange the DVD’s, talk about the films, and come up with those they believe are “intelligent, have a certain charm, a certain appeal, and don’t insult the intelligence of the audience”.
“The idea is to get something for everybody, from the very commercial to the more artistic so that the festival is balanced, so that everyone can find a film he or she will like. No matter what your taste is, we’re covering it. Everything from comedies to serious dramas to more artistic entries,” says Demetro.
Although determining Hellenic heritage from surnames is “very unscientific”, said DeMetro when asked whether persons not of Hellenic heritage made up part of the audience, he guessed from the names on the ticket order forms that the figure was perhaps something like 22%, as opposed to last year’s possible 20%.
The first days of screenings included Dogtooth, shown at the Cantor Film Center (followed by a much larger than expected attendance for after-film discussion); The Island and 3 short films by young Greek Americans, shown at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria; the unforgettable 1955 Greek American classic Dark Odyssey, starring Thessaloniki-born dancer Athan Karras, shown at the NYU TIsch School of the Arts; and the official opening night screening of the film Plato’s Academy at the prestigious Paris theatre preceding the Festival Gala at the Trump Towers nearby. DeMetro told a cheering audience at the Paris that when he was a child his parents took him to see Michael Cacoyiannis’s Girl in Black there, saying, “It has taken 53 years for a Greek film to be shown here again!”
The main body of the festival, 7 films by Greek directors, long with Elia Kazan’s classis, America, America, took place at Manhattan’s top state-of-the-art School of Visual Arts theatre.
“So far, the movies I’ve seen are all watch-able, said Festival Consultant Dan Georgakas, Director of the Greek American Studies Project at Queens College-CUNY and Consulting Editor of CINEASTE magazine when asked to evaluate this year’s crop of festival films, ”and they all deal with a Greece that seems realistic to me, even The Island, which was a farce, and Plato’s Academy, a comedy that dealt with the real issues of Greece… it wasn’t far-fetched, and I think the audiences responded on that level.”
Georgakas thinks that there is a general uptick in the overall quality of Greek film. “You see a division between the films that are in the festival circuit and the ones that are trying to reach a popular audience… and you don’t see too much in-between that is artistically trying to cut something but says something. Very few of the artistically cutting-edge films really speak to a popular audience.”
Georgakas pointed out “Greek film production is not like that of other countries, both in its pluses and in its minuses. Let’s remember that if you get 10% or 20% of really good films out of a year that’s a high percentage… but if only 10 or 12 films are produced, these are ‘slim pickings’. Whereas, in America if you have 500 movies, then you can have 20 or 25 that seem okay and you can forget about the others. And that’s what I’m saying in terms of ‘what’s wrong with Greek cinema’…in other words, there isn’t enough. It seems as if the Papandreou regime is beginning to make some reforms in the financial area, which would make foreign investment easier in Greece, and that would be helpful, leading to more production and making a better percentage possible.”
And what is a Greek Film Festival without Elia Kazan’s classic, America, America, starring Stathis Giallelis, who appeared in the panel discussion following the screening of the film? “This is a magnificent print of America, America, actually entrusted to the Fourth Annual New York City Greek Film Festival,” says DeMetro with reverence, “It’s an irreplaceable print, and the actual projection will b supervised by a representative from Warner Bros., that’s how much they cherish it.”
What is very touching, said DeMetro, are the expressions of gratitude from Festivalgoers. “The Greek film devotees are so grateful for what we are doing. You realize that people really want to see these movies, and we’re very grateful for that.”
Kai tou Xronou.