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.

“I wanted to create a Greek vampire who has these sensibilities, all the clichés that the Greeks have,” the writer/director explains; “he’s sloppy but he’s tender, but he can be aggressive at the same time. Have you seen Zorba the Greek?” It’s actually the reverse of that though, because Zano is not the guide, like Zorba, but the mystified passenger in this journey into the underbelly of a very dingy, very dangerous Greece. “I wanted to, in a way, play with the idea we have about Greek stereotypes and vampire stereotypes,” he says, “so we have this hybrid Greek vampire.” Although the film plays easily to any audience, it is steeped in Greek culture and history, with references to Theodoros Kolokotronis, a folk hero and the General given the most credit for the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence, 1821-29. “Kolokotronis was betrayed by his own folks,” explains Veslemes, “and he ended up in a dungeon.” Zano is, as described by the film, a Kolokotronis, which seems to reference getting to something far bigger than he, and yet still coming out unscathed. “We don’t know many things about this character,” he says, “but all the narrative is from his side of view, so it’s subjective. What he sees and experiences in Athens we, the audience, see it at the same time.”

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.”

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Veslemes devised a great way to get around this issue, relying on models and an atypical color palette to give the film a magical realism seldom seen in genre films. Just as Zano takes his trip into the unknown, the audience is also ‘brought into the film’ with the opening sequence shot utilizing a model train. “I needed to create a parallel past,” he says, “what I remember of the 80’s, not actually how the 80’s used to be in Athens. So, I have chosen for all of the exteriors to use miniatures and to enhance the effectness of them.”

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 premiered in the ‘East of the West’ section of Karlovy Vary, played Fantastic Fest and Sitges and took home the Fipresci Award (International Federation of Film Critics) at home country fest Thessaloniki. One of the producers of Norway, Yorgos Tsourgiannis, produced Dogtooth, often regarded (over here) as heralding a renaissance in Greek Cinema. I asked Veslemes for his insight on the ‘Greek Scene’ right now, and how the economic crises that underscores his own film (even though its not overt) is affecting filmmaking. “They used to fund more films in previous years, but now this is not happening,” he admits, “so the filmmakers join together helping each other, and there’s a very warm community.” Veslemes says there is not a ‘Greek Wave’ of filmmaking, but there is also very little concept of a ‘genre film’ either. “Every one of us makes more or less a different cinema,” he explains, “and of course there is no cross-genre filmmaking language. You can see minimalistic, realistic, political, or some historic films, but not genre filmmaking.”

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.

 

Bears Fonté is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin, a new festival in Texas’ capital focused on SciFi.  Prior to that, Bears served as Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival from 2012-14, overseeing some 200 films selected to screen at eight venues over eight days.  The 2013 Festival saw 28 world premiere features and 7 films picked up at the festival or the week after.  His most recent short film, THE SECRET KEEPER, has been selected by over 35 US Film Festivals since September of 2012.  His feature thriller iCRIME, which he wrote and directed, was released on DVD, VOD and streaming by Vicious Circle Films in 2011.  Bears also self-produced two web-series which have been seen by a combined ten million viewers.

Prior to arriving in Austin, Bears wrote coverage for independent producers and coverage services in LA and placed in nearly every single screenwriting contest out there including Screenwriter’s Expo, Final Draft Big Break, Page International, Story Pros and Austin Film Festival.

Bears received his BA from Carleton College in British Studies and Theatre Studies and a MFA in Directing from Indiana University and has directed over forty plays, including the Austin Critics Table nominee Corpus Christi, and the Austin Shakespeare Festival’s Complete Works of Shakspeare Abridged. He studied writing with noted playwrights Jeff Hatcher and Denis Reardon, and directed the first-ever professional productions by Princess Grace Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Don Zolidis and up-and-coming playwright Itamar Moses. He is currently working on a new five minute short to submit to festivals in 2015.

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