Flicking through the program for the Syros International Film Festival, it doesn’t take long to realize that this isn’t a regular film festival. Screenings are hosted in an old shipyard, a quarry, a far-flung beach, a pop-up drive-in cinema, oh, and sometimes a regular movie theatre, too. This July, the Syros International Film Festival (SIFF) returned for its seventh edition, with a bumper program of classic and avant-garde cinema, musical performances and educational workshops, all spread around some of the island’s most idiosyncratic locations for its 4,000 guests.
Here, we share five reasons why you should experience the festival for yourself.
1. A ticket to travel the world
Syros may be home to Ermoupoli, the capital of the Cyclades, but it’s still a relatively small island in the grand scheme of things. However, picking up a festival pass is the beginning of a truly international experience.
The program lays out not just a journey around the island, but around the globe, too: a collaboration with the Taiwan International Documentary Festival brought a curated selection of Taiwanese documentaries old and new to Syros. The screening of avant-garde jazz pioneer, activist and self-professed alien Sun Ra’s Space Is The Place transported us from Komoti Beach to a vision of space from 1970s black America. While one of the most intimate events was the black and white German expressionist silent classic Vampyr from 1932, screened on Ermoupoli elegant Miaouli Square and accompanied by an original live score from Polish composer, multi-instrumentalist and singer Ela Orleans.
2. A reason to stay at “home”
Syros, the festival’s home, is a draw in its own right. While you will recognize typical Cycladic touches, Syros has a very different aesthetic and feel due to its period under Frankish and Venetian rule (1207-1537). Both Catholic and Orthodox Christianity is practiced on the island and much of the food, culture and architecture speaks to this mixed Greek and Venetian heritage — especially in the capital, Ermoupoli. Syros remains very cosmopolitan and culture is a strong part of its identity. It is the birthplace of rebetiko pioneer Markos Vamvakaris and hosts a packed program of cultural festivals throughout the year, from animation at AnimaSyros, to the Syros Jazz Festival, street art at Stray Art Festival, the Markos Vamvakaris International Rebetiko Festival and even the Syros International Accordion Festival. And, of course, swimming spots are also in plentiful supply — from taking picturesque a dip in town at Vaporia to remote and unspoiled beaches on the other side of the island.
3. A chance to mingle with the stars
When you read “international film festival,” you most likely picture celebrity mega-stars, red carpets and exclusive champagne receptions. But that couldn’t be farther from the down-to-earth and approachable ethos here.
The three special guests for the Artists in Focus strand were all internationally-renowned filmmakers and hosted lively discussions of their work with guests at the storied and much-loved Laoutari Kafenio in Ermoupoli. Greek documentary director Eva Stefani screened her 1995 debut Athine; shared segments of her eight-year-work-in-progress Days and Nights with Dimitra K. which profiles the head of the Union of Greek Sex Workers and explores prostitution during Greece’s years of economic crisis; and later offered a documentary filmmaking workshop for children.
Austrian artist Rainer Kohlberger introduced his experimental video works before a spectacular performance alongside Giorgos Xylouris, Ela Orleans and acte vide at the island’s abandoned quarry. Just like the other “stars,” American director, photographer and multimedia artist Jem Cohen stayed around to brush shoulders and engage in conversation with the festival’s guests after presenting his audiovisual project Gravity Hill Sound + Image at the the Tarsanas Shipyard. On the final day of the festival, I even spotted him with his camera and tripod set up, capturing the life on Ermoupoli’s seafront promenade.
4. An invitation to explore
Most film festivals lock you inside an auditorium, so that you rarely feel like you have experienced the place in which they take place. SIFF couldn’t take a more different approach. The festival’s organizers clearly have a great knowledge of the island and have made a conscious effort to use the programming to show off the diverse treasures the island has to offer. Between screenings you will discover the stunning Venetian architecture of the capital, Ermoupoli, of course. But you’re also encouraged to explore the length and breadth of the island, too, with journeys to distant screenings on beaches or in quarries becoming adventures in and of themselves, giving you an opportunity to meet other festivalgoers and make new friends along the way. SIFF truly is one of the best ways to discover Syros.
There’s a great sense of dialogue between the island and the festival, such as when the strong winds of the Aegean sea were causing the screen of the drive-in cinema to flex and ripple as we watched innocent school teacher John Hughes being led down a dangerous and drunken path in the Australian outback in ‘70s caper Wake In Fright.
5. You’ll want to come back
After such a warm and stimulating experience, at the end of the festival, each attendee is left with a yearning to return; either to reconnect with new friends made, for more cinematic surprises at the next edition of SIFF or just to explore even more beautiful corners of the wonderful island that is Syros.