On Assignment from Greece

Publisher’s Note: SCENE Film Columnist Adam Donaghey filed this column while on assignment in Greece at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival using his iPhone. Typing 1200 words on a phone with an Ouzo-fueled buzz further displays Donaghey’s commitment to promoting independent film in the Bay Area.

The Thessaloniki International Film Festival celebrated its fiftieth anniversary this year and ST. NICK chose this festival in Greece to make its world premiere. I arrived via train and conversed with a Greek most of the way. He showed me where my five star hotel was and the staff graciously allowed me to check in at 8AM. I slept a great deal that day, but eventually met up with my coherts in crime, who arrived much later. TIFF is especially interesting because of the films they program. A great deal of the films I saw, I just won’t get to see in the States. Perhaps if I purchase a DVD or maybe, just maybe, some of them might be available on Netflix; but a great deal of them I’d never get to see again, and certainly not on the big screen.

Both of our screenings were packed full of festival goers and industry people; but mostly Greek cinema goers. It’s really a treat to see such an interest in festival films from the masses. As the film played and the Greek subtitles flurried onto the screen, I found myself in a quasi state of a European trance. The festival even flew out the real stars of the show: our child actors, Tucker and Savanna Sears. What a treat it must have been for them to see themselves onscreen amidst a packed house of non-English speaking people. It was all very surreal and an excellent opportunity for travel!

The real highlight of the festival for me, though, was discovering Werner Herzog. I’ve known of the man for quite sometime, as he’s something of a legend; but not in such depth. Herzog has directed over fifty films; a hodgepodge of features, shorts, narratives and documentaries. His work has been well-received and awarded at major festivals all over the world, and he was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008. Most recently, he’s premiered two films for 2009: MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE? and THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS. The latter, starring Nicolas Cage, is now playing in theaters. Both films merely scratch the surface of Herzog’s ouvre, but would be interesting introductions.

The festival’s retrospective screened every one of his films, twice. Herzog also garnered a Golden Alexander-the primo award of the festival-and gave a master class. I was bombarded with a true master of storytelling and documentaries of, as he puts it, “ecstatic truth!”

Herzog proclaims that “cinema knows no mercy.” He says one should not be a fly on the wall when filming a documentary, but a hornet stirring things up. He’s known for his stylized style; he even directs the participants in his film to make sure he gets what he wants. This way he can avoid the “brainless idiocy” of cinema verite. Instead of simply observing the facts, he finds a deeper way to experience truth.

Many of his narratives are inspired by, and very loosely based on, extraordinary events. Herzog’s vision is not clouded with outside sources. He claims to see no more than two or three films a year. What makes him a true gem is that his decisions can’t be influenced. He’s written all but a few of the films he’s directed and maintains complete control over all of them. A-list actors like Christian Bale, Tim Roth, Willem Dafoe and most recently, Nicolas Cage, work with Herzog simply to work with Herzog; they don’t do it for the money. A rogue filmmaker, at heart, Herzog announced loudly that in this digital age we live in he won’t accept any excuses from a wannabe filmmaker. Cameras are readily available and if you can’t afford one, “steal one,” he says.

According to Herzog, “The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot.” I’m composing this month’s article from a hostel in the heart of Tuscany-Florence, Italy. The church bells just finished ringing as the sun sets. It’s quite cold and rainy outside today, so it seemed like as good a time as any to write my column; that, and my deadline was two days ago. I’m enjoying the art and architecture of Italy during the low season with quieter scenic areas and cheaper lodging.

I began my trip in Athens and the view atop the Acropolis is a sight to be seen indeed! It’s truly phenomenal to experience structures thousands of year old, up close. The Temple of Olympian Zeus stands a whopping seventeen meters high and I actually sat in the Theatre of Dionysos! After five full days of exploring, I took a train to Thessaloniki and watched as many movies as I could.

I caught a flight to Rome and was yet again amazed by the ancient Roman ruins. I recommend viewing the Colloseum at night, so as to avoid a barrage of tour guides soliciting their services and Roman soldiers begging you to take their pictures.

Whether you like his films or not, Herzog is quite an inspiration. He’s traveled across the globe and seen more than most people. The vast majority of his films deal with obscure individuals with unlikely talents or extraordinary hopes and dreams. Oftentimes, it’s man against nature and it’s a toss up as to who will win-and of course, to what end. Typically his characters are driven insane by both their passions and their downfalls. Herzog’s films can be hopeful or despondent, enlightening or frightening. Most important though, is that his films are informative and entertaining at the same time. He takes great care in crafting images on screen so as to interest his audience.

ST. NICK has basically run its course for this year and we’ll be announcing a distribution deal by the beginning of the new year. When asked if Herzog would change anything about his films, he was quite clear that he wouldn’t. His films are his children and because of that he wouldn’t change a thing. I feel the same way about ST. NICK. Sure there are subtle details that would have been better this way or that; but really, the film inhibits the unique personalities of everyone involved. And, for better or for worse, I’m rather comfortable with that.

Several of my upcoming films are locked and loaded and ready to premiere next year on the festival circuit. As I parted with my producing partners, I felt the year coming to an early end. The day I checked out of my hotel, I boarded a flight to Rome and spent three full days walking the city before catching a train to Florence. Rome and Florence were all about seeing the sights and trolling the museums. Tomorrow I’ll head out to Cinque Terre, five villages along the Italian Riviera, and take in a bit of the Ligurian Sea, as I hike along the rigid coastlines and visit the historic neighboring villages. On my way back to Rome to catch my flight back to the states, I plan to stop at Pisa for a half day visit. This trip has been a welcome break from America and a great way to end the year.

Originally published in the 2009 December edition of The SCENE MAGAZINE