Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Towards a greener future at Evia

EVIA FILM PROJECT: Back with its second edition, The Evia Film Project aims to help the Greek island's recovery from the devastating wildfires and to be an international hub for sustainable film production.

When Greece was ravaged by catastrophic wildfires two years ago, the northern region of Evia, the country’s second-largest island, which lies outside Athens, was hit the hardest. Around a third of the island’s forest areas were then more or less burnt to ashes. The new fires in the Mediterranean area this summer have been a chilling echo of the same tragedy, with Evia again among Greece’s affected areas.

Modern Times Review visited Evia in June to attend the 2nd Evia Film Project. Behind the five-day festival/event is the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which already organises the documentary festival in March and the fiction film festival in November in the said Greek city – while this third annual initiative takes place at Evia. The Evia Film Project was established to contribute to the island’s restoration and raise awareness on sustainability. It saw its first edition last year, the summer after the initial fires. This year’s sophomore edition was held from June 20 to 24, a few weeks before the new fires broke out. Nonetheless, the climate-related disaster from two summers earlier was a sinister backdrop to the festival, just like the previous year.

Greek islands from above
PC: The Evia Film Project/Thessaloniki International Film Festival

Black forests

The bus trip from the mainland to the small town of Edipsos, which serves as a meeting point for the festival’s participants, passes through several of the areas with pitch-black pine and olive trees that characterise this part of the island. Similar sights are to be seen when moving from Edipsos to Limni and Agia Anna, the other two island villages where the festival is held. Insofar as it is needed, the vast landscapes of burnt forest provide strong reminders of why we are at Evia – although being at a film festival on a Greek island in June undeniably also has its pleasant sides.

Some might say that a film festival is not the most obvious of Evia’s needs after a crisis of this kind, but The Evia Film Project is only meant to be one of several means to help the island get back on its feet. In view of the wildfires, it also feels highly appropriate that climate, environment and sustainability are overarching themes for the event and all films in the programme – which includes documentaries and fiction films in a combination of new and older titles. The Evia Film Project is not a large festival but just as much a hub for sustainability and green film production. In this regard, it serves an important function as a meeting point for the attending industry representatives, in addition to the festival’s aim to benefit the islanders. All films and other events, including outdoor concerts, are free and open to everyone. Being spread over the three villages, the festival reaches more of the island’s residents – and the visitors both experience and support the local communities in more than just one place.

The film screenings take place in two open-air cinemas, of which the magnificent Apollon theatre in Edipsos had not been in use for almost three decades before it was restored by the festival and reopened at The Evia Film Project last year. Since all screenings are outdoors, no films are shown until darkness falls – but there are masterclasses, panels and other events to attend instead during daytime.

the climate-related disaster from two summers earlier was a sinister backdrop to the festival, just like the previous year.

Satirical opening

Last year, the veteran German director Volker Schlöndorff, not least known for the Oscar-winning feature The Tin Drum from 1979, was a guest at The Evia Film Project, with his recent climate doc The Forest Maker being shown as the closing film. This year’s edition opened with Downsizing from 2017, directed by Alexander Payne. The Greek-American filmmaker, who has a long and close relationship with the festival in Thessaloniki and even received Greek citizenship last year, was present at the screening of Downsizing – which was both an entertaining and fitting opening film for the Evia festival.

As many already will know, the fiction film is a satirical comedy about people who choose to shrink themselves to miniature size as a solution to the world’s climate challenges after some Norwegian scientists have come up with this technological breakthrough. Downsizing was a far bigger production than the director’s previous films and received mixed reviews when it was released – and was a financial disappointment for the producers. It was an open-hearted Payne who met the audience at Evia, also sharing his thoughts in retrospect of the film’s weaknesses. Nonetheless, it was enjoyable to rewatch the feature, which admittedly is better than its reputation. In particular, Downsizing‘s sharp, environmentally-related social satire feels even more relevant now than six years ago.

Salomé Jashi masterclass at the Evia Film Project 2023
Director Salomé Jashi from her masterclass; PC: The Evia Film Project/Thessaloniki International Film Festival

Taming the Georgian film community?

Among the documentaries screened at Evia was Taming the Garden from 2021, in which Georgian director Salomé Jashi portrays a rather unusual reforestation project in her homeland: For several years, the extremely rich and powerful oligarch and former prime minister of Georgia, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has bought a number of magnificent trees from around the country to uproot and plant in his own private park by the Black Sea coast. Even though he can be regarded as the film’s main character, Ivanishvili himself is absent and barely mentioned by name. Instead, Taming the Garden focuses on the long and difficult process of digging up and transporting a few selected trees to this final destination. In addition, the film gives insight into the local Georgians’ different attitudes toward selling these trees, which could provide income and finance much-needed infrastructure. The quietly observing documentary leaves it up to the viewer to reflect and evaluate, but the highly absurd project it depicts says a lot in itself about economic inequality and mankind’s thoughtless intervention of nature.

Perhaps for this reason, the film has recently been amid disturbing events within the Georgian film community. Last year, the director of The Georgian National Film Center was dismissed, an event that raised concerns that the government was about to exert stronger control over the content of the films produced in the country. Further reappointments and major changes to the film centre have followed this.

The ruling party, Georgian Dream, was established by Ivanishvili, who is believed to still be pulling political strings. As other fields of culture have experienced in Georgia prior to this, many fears that the film field now will be subject to more direct control by the Ministry of Culture – apparently triggered by the attention Taming the Garden has received at a number of international film festivals.

In addition to being present at the film screening, director Jashi held a masterclass at Evia arranged in collaboration with CIRCLE Women Doc Accelerator. So did the Austrian documentary director Hubert Sauper, whose 2014 film We Come as Friends was screened at the festival. The film depicts his travels with a small homemade airplane to the war-ridden, newly established nation of South Sudan – and shows the many disturbing faces of neo-colonialism present there, including military forces, religious missionaries and international companies with an interest in the country’s natural resources. In his masterclass, the filmmaker shared insights from the making of his up-close and often confrontational documentaries.

Director Alexander Payne at the Evia Film Project 2023
Alexander Payne from the opening ceremony, with Elise Jalladeau of Thessaloniki International Film Festival; PC The Evia Film Project/Thessaloniki International Film Festival

Shooting location for Triangle of Sadness

The Evia Film Project is not the only event that has placed Evia on the international film industry’s map, as the northern part of the island was also used as a location for Ruben Östlund’s 2022 Palme d’Or winner Triangle of Sadness. At this year’s Evia festival, location scouting was given extra focus for industry participants through excursions to potential shooting locations, as well as a case study presentation by the Greek co-producer of Östlund’s film. If more film shoots come to the varied and lush island, this will, of course, also positively affect the local communities.

It may seem paradoxical to travel, many of us by airplane, to a Greek island to discuss climate and environmental issues. But the film industry obviously has to deal with these questions and needs arenas like this. It’s hardly necessary to point out that not only documentaries but also fiction films have long contributed to raising awareness of the climate challenges we are facing. As many will know, there is also a growing concern for film and television productions to be as sustainable as possible and, for instance, employ «green coordinators» – and an increasing amount of public funding bodies are putting such demands behind their potential support. In our urgent way towards a greener future, the film community should aim to be in front.

Whether The Evia Film Project will become a permanent annual event still remains to be seen, but this year’s return must be regarded as a positive sign. A new edition next year would be much welcome – and presumably much needed.

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Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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