Come forth, ye springs! Though it's more than 20 miles to the North Aegean coastline, the landlocked Greek city of Drama has its toponymic origins in Hydrama, or Dyrama, meaning 'rich in water.' Indeed, the city embodies something of an island within the sun-dappled agricultural landscape: between the 9th and 13th centuries it was a fortified military outpost, while today its nearest international airports—Kavala and Thessaloniki—are located some 42 and 100 miles away respectively. It is more than 400 miles northeast of Athens.
Currently, Drama is, figuratively speaking, an island besieged, or else abandoned: amidst ongoing and widespread financial difficulties, a great deal of uncertainty pervades the city, which bears visible manifestations of unemployment and the results of an austerity programme recently endorsed by Alexis Tsipras' so-called leftwing Syriza government. Given the current predicament, as well as the general despondency with which artistic and cultural layers of its population approached the country's third general election this year (which Tsipras again won, with a drastically diminished turnout, on 20 September), it's tempting to view the city’s myriad water sources—which played a large part in its origins as a Roman and Byzantine settlement—as a symbol of defiance against the odds.
One of the city's more picturesque locales is its Agia Varvara Park, home to several restaurants, fountains, small lakes and waterfalls, and the offices for its annual International Short Film Festival (ISFF). Now 37 editions old (its most recent taking place between 14 and 19 September), ISFF embodies an island mentality perhaps more than anything else in the city, as it braves predictable economic hardship in the form of its overall budget being slashed by half since the previous edition. Nevertheless, the festival enjoys corporate sponsorship from numerous sources. Remarking that he wasn't even sure, a few months ago, if this year's edition would take place, artistic director Antonis Papadopoulos was visibly emotional when introducing a succession of proud speeches from local patrons and sponsors at this year's opening ceremony.
For what are now 21 editions, ISFF has included an international competition, with a five-member jury tasked with awarding 11 prizes across the programme. This year, the international competition consisted of 57 titles ranging from three to 30 minutes in length. Among the international jury's more anticipated announcements was the EFA Prize, which promotes a short film onto the European Film Academy's travelling Short Matters programme, which tours the festival circuit year-round with films nominated by a select number of short film festivals. This year, the prize went to Picnic, by Croatian director Jure Pavlovic. The international jury's first prize went to Tranquillity of Bood (Umir krvi), a Montenegran production by Senad Sahmanovic. Their Best Documentary award went to Morgan Knibbe's Shipwreck—the only non-fiction film in the line-up.
This year, a FIPRESCI jury awarded a prize, for a film within the International Competition, for the first time since ISFF began. This can, hopefully, go some way in boosting the international reputation of an event that, despite continuing budgetary concerns, must endure a politico-economic climate that is casually disdainful of cultural and artistic endeavour. In such times, making art is an inherently political act. With much of Greece's industrial base and organised leftwing decimated by neoliberalism, making art becomes a social necessity: as we noted when announcing our winner, the most impressive thing about ISFF is perhaps the sheer numbers with which members of the public enthusiastically cram into the city's undersized screenings venue. Bringing people together under one roof seems, at any rate, the first requirement for any unified resistance to the desperately scattered, hopelessly individualistic mindsets that austerity measures encourage.
If ISFF fulfils its social aims of filling theatres, its educational aims would be furthered if it were to include more experimental fare—abstract, alternative, avant-garde cinema—within its programme. It needn't be a dramatic shift, but the sheer absence of non-narrative films seems to be an opportunity missed. As thing stand, the International Competition this year was overwhelmingly, and sometimes tiresomely, narrative-driven. Our jury agreed that the line-up was at times disappointing, with several shorts failing to demonstrate a basic technical knowledge of filmmaking craft. Whatever of colour correction, eye-line matches and the 180 degree rule, too many filmmakers working within the realm of shorts are falling prey to the aesthetic fads of their time, most commonly when relying on an undynamic succession of shallow-focus close-ups to convey 'character', and when concluding their underwritten scenarios with predictable cuts-to-black in order to lend ambiguity.
In the end, our decision was unanimous: the best film in the International Competition was the German filmmaker Benjamin Pfohl's Ghosts (Totes land), in which a young woman and her widowed mother, the last residents of a suburban village being razed and repurposed by ruthless capitalists, must defend their all-but-abandoned home against a predator of real estate. Employing an effective, soiled colour palette and the rhythmic throbs of the giant machinery churning up the surrounding land, Pfohl evinces a command of cinematic language and short-form storytelling, and the film was one of only a few in competition that showed any real desire to pursue a more direct engagement with the ongoing socio-political crisis. Regrettably, at a time of profound social upheaval and political opportunity, many other shorts continue to be negligible in thematic focus and inconsequential in their storytelling choices. (Michael Pattison)
Drama Short Film Festival: www.dramafilmfestival.gr