I’d love to be a festival jet setter and go all over the world to exotic locales seeing all the movies and enjoying each programmer’s curatorial touch. The truth is, not only is that cost-prohibitive, it’s also really not that necessary, because the good films rise to the top and ‘play the circuit.’ If you are lucky enough to have a solid film festival with good programmers, you are on the ‘inside’ of what’s hot before it reaches theaters or VOD. In Austin, we are lucky to have two fantastic internationally renown film festivals, SXSW and Fantastic Fest, I’m excited for this year’s SXSW which is leaning less on Sundance films this year than before (it seems) and is giving lots of new filmmakers their world premiere. Fantastic Fest does the same with genre films, and I’m still catching up on all the great films I saw their last year. While writing my article on Crazy Bitches a few weeks ago, I looked at the schedule for Fantasporto, the genre festival in Portugal, I saw they were playing one of the best low-budget genre-straddling indies I saw at Fantastic Fest last year, Yiannis Veslemes’ NORWAY.
NORWAY is a great example of doing a genre film on a budget, without resorting to the sort of splatter effects that so commonly plague those films. In Veslemes’ feature film debut, Zano, a vampire looking for fun and dancing, arrives in Athens in 1984. He must keep dancing to keep his heart beating. He finds a party, but his pursuit of the ‘night life’ leads him into a strange plot involving using his vampiric powers on an aging zombie-Hitler set to retake Europe with eternal life on his side. It’s not your typical vampire film, for a change, as Zano is not really all-powerful. He’s is actually charming, in a dopey sort of way. All he wants is a ‘warm girl.’ He is lead astray and by the end, he is the most pure character in the film, the hero. I had a chance to speak with Veslemes when he was here in the states for his US Premiere.
The Athens of NORWAY is not something I expect to see in a travel brochure any time soon. It’s a lot of really great, seedy locations, weird alleys, old construction sites and trip down into people’s basements — very dirty, very gritty. “I was also the production designer of the film,” says Veslemes, “so I had all these places in mind before writing the script.” Zano’s descent into this world gives the film a sort of Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now quality; he sort of has this idea of what Athens is going to be like when he gets there. But that’s not what he finds, and it just gets sort of darker and darker as he goes. He gets embedded in this place where his predetermined notions are taken from him. “These are the last relics of the 80’s era in Athens,” the director says, “The club is an infamous 80’s new wave club — Rebound it’s called. It’s actually one of the few [still around], because this city after the last 20 years has changed a lot. And it’s very difficult to find original 80’s places and areas in Athens.”
But it’s more than just getting around shooting long gone exteriors, NORWAY incorporates this 80’s imagery through the whole film, like in the sequence where the characters are floating on a bed with a deer, like some sort of bizarre Disney nightmare. “It’s supposed to be a horror film,” Veslemes admits, “but towards the middle part it goes into the children-adventure genre, so all these miniatures make it look more playful and childish.” The ex-Norwegians Veslemes falls in with are like jaundiced junkies, on their last legs of life, clinging to a dream long forgotten. They are more like graphic novel villains than physical, real personalities in a normal film. When Zano bites one, yellow blood comes out, another’s throat is slit, and the blood comes out blue. “Even the deer, the deer in the scene when the Norwegian guy eats it, it has green tinted blood,” the director points out. This makes Zano, the out-of-towner vampire, the most human character of the film. “I wanted the main character to have red blood, whatever this means,” Veslemes says, “all the secondary characters have colored blood… but it’s just a mystery for me too.”
Which leads us to the title, because a film with such a Greek setting, and a Greek character, is named for a group of side characters that eventually turn out to be the antagonists. “It all started from the end titles new wave song,” says the director,” it’s a pretty infamous track from the 80’s and its title is “Norway” and it has this lyric, “Norway descends upon the Mediterranean.” (I am going to be sure to include here the 1985 song “Norway” is from the Greek cult band Horis Peridereo – since I just scoured the internet for two hours to find the name of the band, making me the first person writing about the film to track that down – yay me. Obsess much?).
So the phrase ‘Norway descends upon the Mediterranean’ created the impetus for the film. “I truly don’t know what this means,” says Veslemes, “I wanted in an abstract way to create the narrative around this song and what will happen if this cold environment of the central Europe will come to our hot, intemperate Mediterranean Greece.” As a side note, Veslemes also composed a majority of the film’s soundtrack, under the name Felizol, crafting a vintage sound using analog synthesizers and drum machines. The Soundtrack can be previewed and purchased here. I’m listening to it right now as I write this.
Norway plays Fantasporto this weekend (March 4th if you are in Portugal ☺) and has already received a theatrical release in Greece. Veslesmes’ next project, he says, is a time travel film. I can’t wait to ride on that journey as well.