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Director’s Cut: An Inside Look at the 2017 NYC Greek Film Festival
by Chris Salboudis
The 11th Annual NYC Greek Film Festival is here! Opening Night at the Directors Guild of America Theatre on 57th Street and 6th Avenue was completely sold out. While the audience laughed (and scoffed!) in captivated unison as the truths and lies of Perfect Strangers unfolded, NEO Magazine held an exclusive interview with Founding Director of the NYC Greek Film Festival, Professor James DeMetro.
2017 FILM LINEUP (Sept. 28 – Oct. 15):
We began with a discussion on the themes and lineup of the films selected for this year’s festival:
“There really is no single theme, but these are the latest Greek films. It’s a combination of mass entertainment and quality films. There are fewer films this year, and that was a conscious choice on our part. We really had to be strict about what we picked this year… and the selection is good. There are no block busters this year, as there were last year, but every film is a very solid experience. We have short subjects as well as the regular feature length films.
“This is our 11th year and we do always have a balance of genres so there’s something for every viewer. So that means we go from very mainstream type films to the more artsy themes. The film we’re showing today, Perfect Strangers, is one of the more commercial films. It’s a very smart comedy. It started life as an Italian production and the Greeks adapted it. The story’s also been sold to an American production company for an American audience, which says something about the versatility and the appeal of the story. Basically, it’s a digital age comedy: 7 friends meet for dinner and as a proof that they have no secrets from one another they all put their cellphones on the table and they’re going to share everything that comes in – messages, calls, and so on. Of course all hell breaks loose, as you can imagine, because truth games are very dangerous.” As if on cue, there is a loud roar of laughter in the theatre.
“Rose of Smyrna is the top-grossing commercial Greek film of this current season and we also have the Oscar contender from Greece, Amerika Square.… We also have a few good documentaries. The first is Dogs of Democracy and it’s about the stray dogs of Athens – one dog in particular, who becomes a kind of symbol of the resistance because he was always at the protests and rallies. His name is Loukaniko and people took him to heart. The second is Boarder Souls and it’s about the refugees and refugee camps; it focuses on one particular monk, who’s taken it upon himself to feed them; he’s rallied nuns and townspeople to feed 15,000 refugees; he doesn’t accept money from anybody, only food donations. We’re airing the World Premier of that film this Sunday, October 1st. The third is The Patriarch’s Room which is an interesting one. About 11 or 12 years ago, a guy by the name of Irenaios, Patriarch of Jerusalem, was accused of leasing church properties to extremist Jewish organizations in Christian Palestine, so they did away with him and to protest his innocence he locked himself in his chambers at the patriarchy and didn’t come out for 11 years! Nobody saw him! All he had was a window out on the street and a cellphone. The Director of the movie befriends his former assistant and is somehow granted the first interview in 11 years. The movie doesn’t make a judgment, which is fine. That’s what a good documentary does. But it’s very interesting. The inner sanctum of the church, even the Israeli Secret Service is involved…. There’s also a nice film from Cyprus, Boy on the Bridge, and a murder mystery – a very rare genre in Greek cinema – called The Other Me that has a lot of the aspects of a classic detective novel.….”
For youth (age 12 and older) Professor Demetro recommends Border Souls and Dogs of Democracy: “Kids should see how other kids live and understand how lucky they are to be here and have such a good life, to know that some kids live…. There’s nothing in the average American’s life experience that can prepare them for this. The movie makes a wonderful statement, ‘while some countries close their borders, other countries open their hearts.’ And that’s a lovely thought to take from the film.”
NYC GFF TAKE 11:
When asked how long it takes to prepare for the NYC GFF, Professor DeMetro admits that it is a year-long commitment. “You’re always trying to keep up with the movies. You have to keep track of what reviews a movie’s getting at the box office and what people are saying about it, so you have to be vigilant. We’re getting to a point now where we’re pretty well known, so producers will just send us pieces, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re appropriate to include. We’ve established good credibility over the past 11 years and that makes the job easier, you know, but it also makes it more responsible because you now have a track record and reputation to live up to. People don’t care what you did in the past, they don’t remember what you did last year, they’re paying money and want to have a good time when they come to the movies.”
When asked what inspired the NYC GFF, Professor DeMetro says, “All in all, it’s something that simply has to be done. We live in a city where so many countries have foreign film festivals. Greece is not in a position to do that for itself, unfortunately, so, it’s just not acceptable not to have Greek representation. Greek films today are very good!” He then says that although he is the Founding Director 100% credit for the original concept of the current NYC GFF goes to Stamatis Ghikas, former Executive Director of the Hellenic American Chamber of Commerce. “This is what happened. At the time I had just retired, and there was a conversation going between Stamatis and a mutual friend about the fact that there had actually been several Greek Film Festivals in New York back the 70s and 80s that were financed by the Greek government – one in the late 90s too that I remember – but when money started going towards the Olympics this stopped. So… it had been about 7 years since there had been a festival here in New York and Stamatis had this idea of starting it up again; this was his inspiration. So one day my friend told him, ‘You know, I have a friend who knows a little bit about Greek movies and he’s just retired, maybe he’ll be interested,’ AND I WAS INDEED because I love and grew up with Greek movies.” Anyone who has seen the numerous successful iterations of the festival can tell that Professor DeMetro certainly takes the task to heart and was well chosen for the role as Director, not only because of his knowledge base, but because he genuinely loves what he’s doing – the research, the screening, the collaboration. “The fact is, the Greek cinema is so much more sophisticated and complex today than it’s been in the past – not to denigrate the work of the 50s and 60s, but it’s not really sophisticated, world-class cinema….
BENEFIT OF THE G.F.F.:
Professor DeMetro shares, “Now I’m not suggesting that it’s specifically to our credit that this has happened, but in the eleven years that we’ve held this festival eight of the featured Greek-language films have been sold for American distribution as foreign films offered in select cinemas in major cities in the US. They get the On Demand (Netflix, Amazon) as well. Last year’s World’s Apart is a good example. It played California, Chicago, and the New York run was supposed to be a week and was extended to three weeks. It did very well and it’s not on Amazon or Apple. Also Suntan from last year has made it at that level. This year the only film that has been sold for American distribution so far is Amerika Square. That’s the Oscar contender.…
ONGOING ISSUES IN THE GREEK FILM INDUSTRY:
The multi-tiered socio-economic crisis has had a marked affect on the film industry. Some positive, some negative. On the positive side, Professor DeMetro says that the crisis discourages less determined members of the industry. “There’s something about the crisis that gets rid of the money grubbers in the industry, and people who stay on are people who have something to say, and they’re going to find a way, come hell or high water. To make a movie today in Greece is a major effort. I notice really talented directors who I really respect waiting 5-6 years between projects because that’s how long it will take to recoup the losses from the first film to make the next one, and then to find the money for the second one….”
On the negative side, the market does not seem consistent enough to sustain itself. “Do you know that the average Greek film today is under 5,000 Euro? Which is laughable, really. In an American film that’s the catering bill! Talented people, strong actors and good technicians face chronic problems because of the consistent failure of marketing. In Greece, to be honest, there is none because of this there is no audience. You cannot sustain an industry selling 100,000 tickets.… and it’s only the big hit Greek film that brings in 100,000 people. The average film grosses maybe 10,000 if it’s lucky. Terrific films that win awards in Thessaloniki and other Greek festivals… they open in Greece and no one goes to see them. Maybe because they’re not advertised? I don’t know what the situation is. But you’d think that just out of curiosity someone in a foreign country gave this film an award, don’t you want to go see it? No, it doesn’t happen that way. And a lot of this stuff doesn’t end up on Greek television. SOME of them do. But a lot of them don’t. Now there are some On Demand services in Greece, but they’re not very developed yet. Anything that helps create the market is healthy for the industry, I think, so we’ll see what happens.”
For a complete listing of films, times and theatres, please visit nycgreekfilmfestival.com.