It has been a challenging year for cinemas worldwide, but the extraordinary efforts of many film festivals to stream their programmes online have kept the magic going. In Greece, the 61st Thessaloniki International Film Festival went strictly online during a second national lockdown in an effort to sway the rising cases of Covid-19.

While major film distributors continue to delay their release dates until cinemas are open again, for the festival in Thessaloniki it meant an increased number of debut features in key sections of the programme. Opening the festival with a debut feature – Russian director Philip Yuryev’s The Whaler Boy – was a brave choice, but the film was absorbing. It tells the story of two teenagers in a remote Russian village near the Bering Strait who discover love on an adult website. One of them begins his journey to America to meet the woman of his dreams (‘Hollysweet_999’) – but his solo journey through the vast and empty land starts to crumble his fantasies. There is friendship, tragedy and humour, with sterling performances from an unknown cast.

This year’s Meet the Neighbours competition showcased ten films from the Eastern Mediterranean, Southeast Europe and the Middle East. (Sadly, just two were from a female director.) Amongst them were Ameen Nayfeh’s powerful debut feature 200 Meters, which also played in October’s BFI London Film Festival programme last month, and Zeina Durra’s UK co-production Luxor, a romantic tale unravelling in the temples of Egypt, now available online.

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All the Pretty Little Horses (2020)

Writer-director Michalis Konstantatos finally followed up 2013’s Luton (a first feature nominee at the 57th BFI London Film Festival) with All the Pretty Little Horses, again teaming with cinematographer Yannis Fotou and, in the lead role, Luton’s now fully-grown Yota Argyropoulou on an eccentric drama of a married couple trying to deal with misfortune. The result is a shift away from the Greek Weird Wave’s absurdist dialogues, joining a number of Greek films in 2020 that were affecting and witty with an emotional punch.

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Green Sea (2020)

In total, 18 Greek feature productions and co-productions, and 21 shorts fresh from the Drama International Short Film Festival, were given an online platform. More Greek female directors were included than in previous years, mercifully, and one of the highlights was Angeliki Andoniou’s Green Sea, a gastro-delicious film starring Dogtooth’s Angeliki Papoulia as amnesia-stricken writer Anna. But although preparing a meal day in, day out was at the heart of the story, Antoniou’s film was less about great cooks than about the delicate nature of memory. The script was excellent, and it was only a shame that the film’s finale felt rushed.

In the international competition, Christos Nikou’s Apples was an enigmatic work, beautifully shot by Bartosz Świniarski, about a man searching for a new identity in order to recover from a tragic loss. Coincidentally an unpredictable pandemic is causing amnesia in the city of Athens – but throughout there’s a nostalgic feeling for times gone by, like a polaroid image. With a strong cast, especially a beautifully crafted performance by Alps’s Aris Servetalis, Nikou – previously assistant director on Dogtooth and Before Midnight – has achieved a heartfelt tonal work and a confident directorial debut.

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Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (2020)

Hungarian director Lili Horrath’s Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time was a compelling challenger in the competition. Starring an elegant Natasa Stork in the lead role of 40-year-old neurosurgeon Márta, it’s a psychological noir drama about desire and its many territories. Azra Deniz Okyay’s Ghosts was a notable work about four individuals surviving nation-wide outage in Turkey; and Gaza Mon Amour by the Nasser brothers had a profound warmth that cleverly defied conservatism, the misery of war and age stereotypes.

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Digger (2020)

Unlike in previous years, a number of films in the programme dealt with the escalating environmental crisis. Georgis Grigorakis’s debut feature Digger, a modern western set in the woodlands of Greece, was a rather moving work of activism and resistance. Chevalier’s Vangelis Mourikis excels as farmer and forest settler Nikitas. He is raging against a company that’s after his forest’s trees. But when his son appears after 20 years to demand his share for his father’s land, Nikitas has to dig deeper in the mud to save the bond with his offspring.

Akin to environmental activism was Janis Rafa’s Kala Azar, a spooky film with a whiff of science fiction. A couple drive across the country to pick up animals hit by cars on highways and collect dead pets for cremation. With an eye for still-life photography superbly lensed by Thodoros Minopoulos, Kala Azar’s animal welfare message is simple, heartfelt and brilliant.

This year, the festival focused on up-and-coming directors of photography from Greece as part of its strand Meet the Future. Of the eight DPs invited to direct a one-minute video on the theme of The Space Between Us: from sci-fi to cli-fi, two entries stood out. Fili Olsefski’s They Looked at the Sky and Yannis Karabatsos’s Never Night both approached climate change and the mental health consequences with innovative camera and storytelling techniques.

The festival’s repertory Spotlight section picked out the films of two female pioneers, Norwegian Anja Breien’s Wives (1975 – a response to John Cassevetes’s 1970 films Husbands) and the late Věra Chytilová’s debut feature Something Different (1963 – available on BFI Player), which lives up to its title with its overlap of two parallel female worlds (those of a gymnast and a weary mother) and its improvised jazz soundtrack. But both cried out to be seen on the big screen.

So too did Peter Strickland’s new short, Cold Meridian, an immersive work of passionate and creative dance. Filmed on 16mm and Super 8 cameras, it blends a vigorous photographic documentation of dance rehearsals with mirror images of our own online viewing experience – people watching and liking videos on YouTube – for a powerful seven-minute film.

But like many festivals this year, Thessaloniki’s main goal was to support what makes the magic of cinema – its community and creators – even if that means long hours of isolation viewing their work virtually.

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