(Not) Being There: Presence, Absence, Institutional Space, the Politics of Place

Curator's Note

BEGINNINGS & ENDINGS  We begin with a video created for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Thessaloniki International Film Festival. The Festival opens with a journey-collage through the history of cinema. In the ceremony hall, this video is projected on three large screens surrounding the audience. A train takes us through various cinemascapes, coming to a stop in front of the Olympion, Festival headquarters, in Thessaloniki’s main square. A journey through time ends up at place.

PLACE  For the Festival’s 50th anniversary in 2009, a ceremony is organized to honor key figures from the Festival’s history. As awards are given to people representing vastly different periods of this history, it becomes clear that the Festival’s institutional history is fractured, discontinuous. The ceremony closes with a commemoration of Nikos Koundouros’ The River, which received top honors at the inaugural festival edition 50 years ago - not only in the same city, but in the very same building, in the very same hall. Place does what a disjointed historical narrative cannot - it grounds the institution, stitches together a coherent identity.

ABSENCE  The same year, 200+ of the most prominent filmmakers in Greece decide to boycott the Festival.  Unhappy with state agencies and national film policy, the filmmakers choose the high-profile 50th anniversary edition as the site of their protest, refusing to participate and to attend until new legislation is passed. Their protest takes the form of an absence - not being there - while the local Festival public accuses the absent filmmakers of trying to undermine the city of Thessaloniki. The filmmakers insist that it’s about the state; for the local Festival public, it’s about place.

PRESENCE  Months later, the filmmakers take their protest to the Greek Film Center. This time, they decide that the best way to protest is to occupy the Center - they gather at the Center’s headquarters, they enter, they fill the space with bodies. Apart from this, they do little more. Their protest lies in their presence, being there.

SPACE  In these various configurations of presence and absence, we sense a deep underlying investment in space and place, in being or not being there. But there being what? Apart from the products, practices and discourses generated by cultural institutions, there’s also something at stake in institutional space. The international film festival exists as event, exhibition venue, market, discursive center, but it also exists as a space: as institutional space, as a space of the state, as particular locality. And we define ourselves - as professionals, as citizens, as publics - within and against these spaces.


Toby's post raises the important issue of the role played by place in film festival culture. As her discussion suggests, the discourses surrounding this aspect of film fests can be very complex. In some cases, the spaces of festivals function as tourist magnets, bringing in visitors during shoulder seasons. In other cases, festival places act as foci for communal celebrations, be they local, ethnic or gendered communities. Still other festivals construct symbolic spaces to surround their events with a museum-like aura (for example, the Palais des Festivals and the Croisette at Cannes).

Great post, Toby--evocative.  How wonderful that the buildings themselves--the structures that at a festival so often seem temporary--evoke their own history and provide their own story.  

I'm most intrigued by the locals of Thessaloniki--about how often the local community itself becomes as overlooked as the buildings.  What are the stakes for the inhabitants, and through what means are they able to voice their ownership?

And to continue this line of thinking one step further, what infuses the "being there" with meaning here (I couldn't help but hear echoes of Wilco throughout the whole post, by the way), what transforms space into place in this instance, is temporally bound, right? One of the things that makes the international film festival (and festivals in general) special is that it derives its claim to our attention from the brief moment of its existence - if we don't attend, then we miss our chance. This extends well beyond the screen itself, as your post suggests - and I would add that ongoing labor struggles here in Toronto between hotel workers and their employers, which had been simmering for months, came to a head during the film festival, when workers staged actions around central festival locations. 

Love that clip! It's such a great explication of the power inherent in associating oneself with and branding oneself through media products, people and practices. And of course the filmmakers you discuss are as keenly aware of their value to the people of Thessaloniki as are those local inhabitants themselves, thus the acrimony on the part of the latter. Ultimately, are film festivals just exhibition without the presence of the media people who make the event "special"?

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