What to Watch at the Athens Film Festival 2019

From pioneering 60s films of the Czech New Wave, to two 2019 Palme d'Or winners and much more, the 25th AIFF promises a wealth of riches for cinephiles.

For cinephiles in the capital, September is synonymous with the Athens International Film Festival Opening Nights. Perhaps that wasn’t so 25 years ago when the institution was first launched, but it certainly has been the case over the past decade. Every year the public’s interest grows – as does the competition to secure tickets for popular screenings.

The 25th anniversary edition of the AIFF, which kicked off on Wednesday (18-29/9), promises rich rewards for all those who will brave the queues for festival passes in order to spend many a waking hour over the next two weeks in darkened movie theaters.

This year, the festival is divided into three categories in which films will compete: the international feature film category in which 12 movies from around the world will square off for the Golden Athena; the international documentary category which in recent years has been bringing to Athens fascinating non-fiction films – the most dynamic genre of contemporary cinema; and the Greek short film category which will include the gem “The Distance Between Us and the Sky” by Vasilis Kekatos which was awarded with the Short Film Palme d’Or from the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

The scent of Cannes will also be in the air at the screening of the AIFF’s opening film, the 2019 Palme d’Or-winning “Parasite” by Bong Joon-ho, while the festival will close with the much-awaited “Adults in the Room” by Costas Gavras.

However, what promise to be even more interesting at the 25th AIFF will be the carefully-crafted homages – and especially the one titled “Spring awakening: Wild flowers of the Czech New Wave”. Beyond hardcore cinephiles, few will perhaps know that the  Prague Spring was deeply connected to the world of film. In the general cultural blossoming triggered by the brief relaxation of the political climate in the 1960s, a number of talented graduates of the famed Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague created works for the silver screen that were staggeringly innovative and bold.

With their imaginations unshackled and drawing inspiration from everything from literature and history to modernist movements, the young Czechoslovak creators succeeded in crafting true works of art that subsequently influenced many later auteurs.

Their works may have endured, but their own fortunes were less rosy. The military invasion by Soviet tanks in the August of 1968 put an abrupt end to this creative frenzy of cinematic activity with shoots canceled, scripts that had already been approved being scrapped, and many of the movement’s films banned outright. The filmmakers were forced to either abandon the profession, or leave the country – as in the case of Milos Foreman.

This year’s AIFF, with the assistance of the Czech Center of Athens, has collected and will screen 12 of these masterpieces which remained blacklisted for many years, yet today are lauded by top directors such as Yorgos Lanthimos. Indeed, the most recent short film by the Greek filmmaker, “Nimic” will have its Greek premiere before the screening of the Czech “The Cremator” by Juraj Herz. All of the films of the tribute will be screened in newly digitally remastered versions.

Film & Music

The tributes, of course, don’t stop there.

As it did last year to great acclaim, the festival will feature a “Music and Film” section, featuring works for all (musical) tastes: “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” about the life of the Queen of Jazz; “Amazing Grace” a lost recording of an Aretha Franklin concert filmed in 1972 by Sydney Pollack and completed only recently; “Blinded by the Light”, a film about a young man’s love for the music of Bruce Springsteen; “Miles Davis: Birth of Cool” about the great jazz musician; and, finally, for those who prefer their music several shades darker, “Murder in the Front Row”, a cinematic social exploration examining the birth of thrash metal in San Fransisco in the 1980s, a movement which gave rise to legendary bands such as Metallica, Megadeath, Slayer, and others.

Must Watches

Finally, if we had to round out the the list of “must-watches” of this year’s festival it would go like this: From the Festival Darlings category “Sorry We Missed You”, the new and very timely work of the master of social realism, Ken Loach; from the After Midnight section the shocking “The Golden Glove” by Fatih Akin; and from the Special Screenings, the final cut of Francis Ford Coppola’s legendary “Apocalypse Now”.

*Note that all films are screened in their original languages with Greek subtitles.

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