Review: The Hellenic Film Society USA’s First Ever Virtual Greek Film Festival

Every year, the Hellenic Film Society USA provides viewers in the US access to incredible Greek movies through festivals and the “Always on Sunday” film series at the Museum of Moving Image in Astoria. Every spring they host their annual film festival in movie theaters in and around New York City.

This year, however, things had to change. With a global pandemic altering everyone’s lives, the HFS board initially discussed the possibility of moving the festival to the fall. Instead, the board decided on another unique solution staying true to their audience, culture, and mission to promote Greek cinema throughout the US. Observing the expanding phenomenon of video conferencing, the board was influenced by the new from-home living circumstances. Prestigious film festivals such as Cannes, Tribeca, Berlin, and Toronto pivoted their programs to streaming platforms and so the HFS decided to do the same! Thus, they provided us all with a virtual, on-demand film festival that just ran its first and successful round.

We had the opportunity to speak with Maria C. Miles, Esq. who noted:

“To be honest, it’s been a blessing in disguise. Yes, we’ve had to learn many new things in a short time. Yet, to be able to offer the first Greek Film Festival on demand in the US and reach audiences nationwide has been extraordinary.”

The first run was very successful and provided viewers with a selection of films true to the quality HFS has become well known for offering. This year there was the added treat of including an awarded 1960s film featuring Aliki Vougiouklaki and Dimitri Papamichail as lead characters, and music by Manos Chadjidakis.

The added perk of this virtual format was that it added greater access to the films to a wider audience across the US who may not have been able to travel even if things were normal. With that in mind, the HFS seems keen on repeating the model again, much to our pleasure, in the future.

Hellenic Film Society USA, First Virtual Greek Film Festival 2020 poster.
Photo courtesy of the Hellenic Film Society.

We asked Maria to walk our readers through how it all worked:

“The process is fairly straightforward. The festival ran from July 10 through July 20, 2020. You would visit the Hellenic Film Society, USA’s website at www.hellenicfilmusa.org where you could read the descriptions and watch trailers to their carefully curated films. All films were available for streaming 24/7, with the exception of Adults in the Room which, at the request of the film’s producers, had three specific showtimes. Then, the viewers had the task of deciding between purchasing an individual ticket to specific films or a festival pass. The festival pass granted the viewers access to all films (except Adults in the Room). After completing the online purchase, you received a code and link from the Society’s hosting platform to begin viewing the selected films.

Defunct, directed by Zacharias Mavroeidis, stars Mihalis Sarantis as Aris, a failed young businessman who, while rebooting his career, discovers a family secret that will forever change his outlook on life. Defunct, making its US premiere, won the prestigious Fischer Audience Award for Best Picture at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival in 2019. Photo courtesy of the Hellenic Film Society USA.

You were able to watch them at any time, day or night, for ten days. The technical specifications were also available on their website. The process was straightforward. You were able to use AppleTV, Roku, a smart TV or simply watch from your computer, tablet, or even phone if not connect those to your television via an HDMI cable. As Maria put it “Super easy, super versatile.”

We could not help but inquire after how the films were selected and what the curatorial process was. Maria kindly gave us insight on this topic as well:

“We had a terrific line-up of award-winning films, including many US premiers. From the latest by award-winning director Costa-Gavras to a digitally remastered version of the Vougiouklaki classic. We offered something for everyone.”

“The process of selecting the films starts with educating ourselves about what films are being produced in Greece. Our wonderful president, Jimmy DeMetro travels to Greece every year to view many films during the Thessaloniki Film Festival, as well as screenings in Athens. He returns with a wealth of information and excitement for Greece’s wonderful offerings. Then, the organization’s selection committee reviews the potential films and we select the final films to be shown.”

Siege on Liperti Street, directed by Stavros Pamballis, stars Constantine Markoulakis as a desperate father crushed by economic austerity who fights to keep his home from being repossessed in the divided city of Nicosia. This film won five Best Picture Awards at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival in 2019, including the coveted FIPRESCI Prize given by the International Federation of Film Critics.
Photo courtesy of the Hellenic Film Society USA.

When considering all this, and our own experience of this first-ever virtual Greek film festival, we could not help but wonder if the same format would be used again in the future. There was no doubt either on our side or the HFS’s that watching a film in a movie theater is the best viewing experience. They are proud, however, as they should be, to be breaking new ground. The added benefit of reaching multiple generations of Greek Americans and cinephiles across the country was humbling and exciting, Maria notes. “We have literally broken our geographic constraints to reach a wide and varied audience as an organization. We have already started dreaming and planning of many more events we can produce for streaming. It wouldn’t be nice to spoil any surprises, but stay tuned, I foresee many more innovative announcements in our future.”

And we cannot help but feel excitement and anticipation after this comment. Being avid supporters of experiencing art in person on peri-Tēchnes, however, we could not help but wonder if there were any plans for the virtual fair to take a more social character, perhaps for people in the same time zones. The inaugural response came by way of the impromptu announcement of interactive panels during the last days of the fair where you could join conversations about various aspects of film production as pertains to the specific films of this festival. Maria also added:

“We hope we reach far beyond our local area. The possibility of bringing films to people’s homes who have never seen a Greek film, or have gone decades since they left their beloved homeland to now see them with their children and grandchildren in the comfort of their homes is exactly what film is meant to do – touch the hearts and minds of those far and wide.

And during these lockdown times when human contact and socialization have been greatly limited, friends and family can watch the same film while social distancing and have a robust conversation thereafter. Dare I say the Hellenic Film Society’s on-demand virtual festival may be the cure for social distancing.”

One of the extra fun aspect of the HFS’s festivals was meeting the filmmakers themselves, getting immediate responses to their work from the audience, and not just film critics. This year, the HFS recorded wonderful videos from some of the filmmakers which could be seen following their films, after the credits.

Finally, we could not help but inquire further regarding the inclusion of the 1960 film Madalena, about which Maria notes:

“One of the HFS’s missions is to preserve Greek Films. Finos Films has recently undertaken the taxing task of remastering their old films. When we learned Madalena was one of these remastered treasures we knew our audience would love it. Finos Films was very generous in allowing us to stream the film during our festival. The story, the music, the island life of Antiparos, and, of course, Aliki Vougiouklaki. Who would not want to see that?!”

Maria mentioned the Society’s hope that everyone would enjoy the on-demand Festival and indeed it seems like that is the overall experience. We applaud and thank the Hellenic Film Society USA for their hard work in spreading Greek culture nationwide one screen at a time. If we can take one positive outcome from this global pandemic and its resulting isolation, is an admiration of how they managed to use technology to create unifying social, as well as cultural experiences.

We greatly enjoyed the films, and panels of this first virtual festival and look forward to what is to come. We thank Maria for her time in answering our questions, as well as Nancy Nicoelis for providing us with images for our review of their fantastic inaugural virtual film festival!

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