The beautiful, coastal capital of the Macedonian region in northern Greece is home to the annual Thessaloniki International Film Festival which saw its 58th edition this November, amidst thunderstorms, cool grey skies and occasional sunshine sparkling across the Aegean sea. This is a shining example of film festivals at their best - well-organised, easily navigable, situated in a culturally vibrant location and populated with great films, packed industry events and friendly people.

I was there as a jury member of the inaugural Virtual Reality competition section, and to attend the Works in Progress platform at the Agora, Thessaloniki’s Film Market. Established in 2005, the market exists to enable industry professionals from South-Eastern and Central Europe, the Balkan region and the Mediterranean to connect up with the rest of the world. The agora was the central public space in ancient Greek city-states, and the hub of the athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life of the city. The literal meaning of agora is "gathering place" or "assembly", and the essence of this is recreated annually in Thessaloniki, with Agora Works in Progress, Crossroads Co-Production Forum, ACE Producers Think Tank Discussion, and the Locarno IFF and Industry Academy International collaboration workshop.


The heart of intellectual development in the Western world is rooted in Greece, and this is exemplified in the ethos of the festival which clearly places great importance on the integrity of the artform and celebration of the developments within it, presenting a fascinating range of events complementary to the central programme of local, national and international films -- Taking Roots, an inspirational exhibition of commissioned works from fourteen young Greek artists, inspired by films in the competition section; From Cinema to Theatre and from Theatre to Cinema, five extraordinary theatrical interventions by National Theatre of Northern Greece actors in the Festival’s venues; Cinema Paradiso, Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra in collaboration with TIFF and the Thessaloniki Concert Hall, a concert of film music signed by Greek and Italian composers; Loafing and Camouflage, an exhibition dedicated to the archives of Nikos Perakis; and Open Discussion with Ruben Ostlund.

The hub of the festival is situated at the Port of Thessaloniki, stretching out along a broad pier lined with olive trees, with the imposing grey Hellenic Navy warship moored at its side and the calm sea stretching out for miles beyond. It’s clearly a cultural hotspot year-round, with several cinemas, gallery spaces and a cinema museum all within five minutes walk of each other. It was particularly vibrant with TIFF in full swing, and a dense programme of screenings and events on offer to locals and visitors, managing to balance a relaxed vibe with a buzz and crackling atmosphere that sustained the momentum.

Main square in Thessaloniki

The Works in Progress selection was presented at the classical Olympion theatre located on one of the main squares (pictured above) overlooking the seafront. The vast proscenium arch and traditional red velvet tabs lent an air of formality as filmmakers stood up in front of invited industry guests to present their works in development before selected clips were played on the screen. The projects are in varying stages of production and it was a very interesting selection, spanning work from Albania, Hungary, France, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Serbia, Croatia, Spain, Lithuania and Greece and incorporating a broad range of genres and approaches, exhibiting innovation and sincerity and offering fresh and sometimes daring perspectives on challenging and very human topics.

The Agora Works in Progress Jury comprising Bero Beyer (Artistic Director of International Film Festival of Rotterdam and EIFF 2016 Michael Powell Juror), Dorien Van De Pas (Netherlands Film Fund/Eurimages) and Ilias Georgiopoulos (distributor at Danaos Films), presented the Post-Production Award from Greek house Graal, of 70,000 euros, to Sister by Svetla Tsotsorkova, describing it as a “personal and deeply human film with a striking lead character and a fierce director”. The Eurimages Lab Project Award, worth 50,000 euros, went to the experimental documentary Speak So I Can See You, directed by Marija Stojnic, crediting it as a “film that tries to create an innovative and playful cinematic experience through the transformative use of sound”.

The Virtual Reality competition section, running in Thessaloniki for the first time, was aimed at showcasing films which provide evidence that this developing medium presents opportunities for novel and edifying cinematic experiences that expand on what we have come to expect from the art form. The technology is still in a relatively fledgling stage, however it was clear to see from the selection presented the scope it has to be used to engage audiences and to facilitate empathy, particularly in the field of documentary filmmaking.

The VR jury comprising myself, Aliki Tsirliagou, director of the Nitra Gallery in Athens, and Aris Dimokidis, editor-in-chief of website, viewed a programme of ten films at INVR - Virtual Reality Thessaloniki, a calm, welcoming space below ground where visitors can disappear into virtual worlds. The selection of films was as diverse as it was fascinating; Bloodless; Dolphin Man; EWA, Out of Body; Kinoscope; Lifeline; Notes on Blindness; On Sight; Proxima; Sergeant James and We Who Remain. We presented the Film Centre Serbia Best Film Award, worth 3000 euros, to Bloodless, which traces the last living moments of a real-life sex-worker who was brutally murdered by a US soldier in Dongducheon in South Korea in 1992. Fearless and uncompromising, and making extraordinary use of VR technology to create a fully immersive experience addressing a sensitive political situation, this is an innovative, original and starkly atmospheric film.

We also gave a special mention to British film Notes on Blindness. Drawing from the same material as the award-winning 2016 documentary, and beautifully rendered with strong, effective visuals, we considered it to be a sensitive and impactful film that exemplifies the use of VR as a tool to break down barriers, and offers a glimmer of understanding into the "emotional experience of blindness".

Thessaloniki International Film Festival is easy to recommend - well thought-out, progressive, inclusive and thoroughly enriching to experience. Thank you to the whole team there who took such good care of me, and provided such a smoothly organised and inspiring platform for engaging with the works at hand.

Olive trees in Thessaloniki