12/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Michael Ondaatje: Speaking About Film and Literature at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival

The Thessaloniki International Film Festival -- which just ended this weekend -- is considered the most important film festival in southeast Europe. Held during the rather sunless month of November (which makes even Greece seem wintry), it has an exciting premise: it showcases new directors' first or second features. Not a small matter. Its boost of support has helped, since its founding 48 years ago, the careers of Darren Aronofsky, Carlos Reygadas, Fatih Akin, Lucretia Martel and countless others.


The current director of the festival -- a pretty, petite blonde named Despina Mouzaki -- enthusiastically introduced the festival, pointing to the potential of cinema to expand people's minds. Later, meeting over dark coffee in the Electra Palace hotel lounge, she explained how she personally selects the twelve films for the competition, out of the 500 films received. "I'm interested in political films," she said. "Films that deal with social reality and structure a new way of looking at things, of directing actors, for example. They don't have to be good films," she added. "I try to see the future of this director."

Originally from a Greek textile family (cotton threads), Ms. Mouzaki has a background in film herself. After studying chemistry for the family business, she went on to documentary-making at Boston University and MIT, and subsequently a career as film producer, vice president of the Greek Film Center of Athens (which funds Greek filmmakers) and now, for the last four years, director of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. Her travels (and her family roots in countries, such as Bulgaria, with historically contested borders) perhaps inform her passionate interest in the political edge of film. Since her directorship, the festival has added a Balkan survey and a Middle Eastern section, screening films rarely seen in the West.

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Running off to a cafe by the port, I met up with writer Michael Ondaatje, this year's president of the jury, who had just come from Canada a couple days before. He explained that this was his second time on a jury -- the first time around ten years ago at Cannes, when the winner was Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry.

We continued to speak about the difference between writing and film:

Isn't it unusual for a writer to be on the jury of a film festival?

Cannes has a reputation of having a writer every now and then. Of course, there is that famous story of Henry Miller who was on the jury, although he was said to be out golfing the whole time. It is a very good tradition to have writers.

And how do you personally feel being on a film festival jury as a writer?

I have been involved with films for a while. I have made documentaries, and of course "The English Patient" got made into a film, and I always have opinions about films. It was great being on the jury at Cannes. It was also very exhausting: there were ten or so very intricate, complicated people. How to merge our views became the problem. We were meeting an hour or two every day, to winnow down the films. It became political. Everyone had their favorites.

And your own criteria in choosing a film?

I am always looking for the best film. Cannes has the great names, whereas to me, Thessaloniki is more interesting because it is geared towards first films and second films. You are discovering talents rather than acknowledging great talents. A festival like this is more valuable. Of course, Cannes is very important because it is an alternative to the North America system. When the Dardenne brothers' Rosetta won at Cannes, the critics were appalled, surprised by this choice.

But first films must seem amateur in comparison to the Cannes films...

I don't think they are more amateur. I think the talent is now so fresh. All of these first films here at Thessaloniki are very well made. When we were first doing first films, we could rarely get the voices in synch.The first and second year filmmakers are technically as good as anything going on in North America or Europe. Also to be honest, you are not getting North American films pushed here as much as Asian films and European films. The big problem with film today is that we are so governed by North America cinema. North America is so parochial. Americans read only English books and American books. In Europe, 70 percent of the books are in different languages. Only now are people realizing who is Wong Kar Wei or Ozu.

How about Canada?

I think Canada is more open. In Canada, I do think we have a good distribution of films, such as Edge of Heaven.

Have you noticed that these new films mostly seem to be political? There are fewer, lets say Fellini or Bergman-like films, which focus on transcendence.

You are not likely to get a quality of transcendence in a first film....

You don't think this is just a sign of our times?

I think this is partly true. We are in a more tactile culture. We have quick comedies, immediate stories. I think of a quote by Hemingway: "And in the end, the age was handed the kind of shit the age demanded." People don't go to transcendent art films anymore. Nobody watches "Cries and Whispers"--and this is a masterpiece, a great film, an eternal film. But our tendency is to watch what is immediate and understandable. I do think in Europe there are still those films that have an interior voice. I myself like an interior voice to be there. But I also love popular films. I like a screwball comedy as much as a comedy. I like Spike Lee: he is a wonderful example of a filmmaker who makes exactly the kinds of films he wants and then he can knock off a thriller. He has his own vision; he made a flawed but great Malcolm X. I have great admiration. I also think some of my compatriots are wonderful, like Atom Egoyan.

You said you made a couple documentaries?

Yes, one documentary, about a concrete poet, and another about a theater company that made a play about actual farmers in a farmers community--creating the play out of farmers' own lives. The farmers loved it. The actors were terrified. I followed them along, and interviewed the actors and the farmers. It was pretty basic: I did sound and camera.

What talents are different in filmmaking and writing?

Film and literature are totally different. Film is a communal act, you put it together, like theater. I couldn't stand it for long. For the most part, I like to spend most of my day on my own, writing. I don't want to be a filmmaker: it's too public. To be a director, you have to be a psychiatrist, a traffic warden etc. I am seeing the world as a writer. Now and then I enter the public arena

What I liked best about filmmaking was the editing: being alone with all the footage and editing, and re-inventing the story in some ways. That influenced me as a writer. I have great respect for the art of editing. After I finish a book, I spend a couple years on the editing and re-structuring. I have to rip it apart. The care to the presentation of the story is as important as the story. Editing does not involve just splicing and cutting; it involves re-writing. You think: this person shouldn't be telling the story. This other character should be telling the story. There is an unraveling that goes on that can be terrifying: the whole thing is falling apart. And at the same time, it does get better.

What I find interesting about writing a novel is that not every section is on the same tone or pitch. One wants a variety of tones and pacing. You have movements in music; and that is what fiction can have.

But don't you think many contemporary novels are written on one pitch? I am thinking of American best-sellers....

I think people today who read novels want that one pitch. I think television has terribly influenced how we read. Why do we read so many mystery novels? Because they are like television. There is a lack of variety in tone, voice and pace. A hardboiled thriller is the easiest thing to write. But you want people to be open, to know there is kind of more than one kind of fiction. The same thing is true of film. We want people to see more than one kind of film: a redemption story as much as Pulp Fiction.

That is why the festivals are essential. They bring to a public eye what would be overlooked. The best thing about the Academy Awards is the foreign film section. The Lives of Others was much better than the American films.

What writers do you admire today -- and how do they influence you?

I like John Berger, Marilynne Robinson, Russell Banks and many more. But I am probably more influenced by the other arts than fiction. I read novels -- for example Don DeLillo -- for pleasure. I am more influenced, however, by the other arts. Like painting. How so? It's like finding a tiny corner of a paragraph in Flaubert where he is describing an orange, or the sound of piano that is playing a long way away In a film or painting, it could be one small moment. In my book, In the Skin of a Lion, I was very influenced by a Rivera mural. There was a man holding a wrench in one corner, and in another, there is a man holding a pencil with the exactly the same hand gesture. It is a rhyme.

How does this rhyme in painting translate to literature?

In the book, it is a mood or emotion that is echoed somewhere else. A film can also influence the writing of a book. You alter the pace of a paragraph or a chapter: you can either speed it up or slow it down as with film. I did this book, The Conversations, about Walter Murch, the film editor. We talk a lot about editing, and how one edits a film and a book. One reason I did this project is that when you talk about editing a book, it's difficult to communicate to a third person how it works. Because it is not tactile. Here, I get Murch talking about the first time Michael Corleone kills someone in The Godfather in a cafeteria. Murge did the sound for that scene. It is amazing. Copolla wanted no music in the scene to bring up the tension, except at the end when he shoots the guy. He created three minutes of tremendous tension with the sound of the L train outside the cafeteria. As the scene builds up, the sound of the L train gets to a surreal loudness in Corleone's head. It is so loud that that train should be in the cafeteria itself. Then bang bang bang, total silence. The L train ends, and then there is opera. The scene began very quietly, with a bottle of wine being uncorked. The range of sound is incredible in this three minute scene.

Could you translate such a scene in a book?

All the time. When you are building a scene in a room, the more important thing is to make the landscape outside visible. If we believe in what's outside, we believe in the room. With literature, you create the landscape by thickening with memory. I can be talking and thinking about a pizza I had last night. The mind leaps somewhere in memory. The memory can thicken things, give landscape. Language itself can also make the scene. One can use simple language, and then use auditory language, to represent a person in different states.

Before we go, can you tell me how is it here in Thessaloniki?

I'm enjoying the group of people, a musician, a director from Turkey, a couple writers, a producer, a film critic: a very healthy group of people. I also enjoyed seeing Luc Dardenne's film last night, The Silence of Lorna. It is very dark as a film. Luc spoke yesterday about how he conceived the film. They don't want the audience to feel superior to the characters, so they step back, so you can't fully understand the lead character Lorna.

And the importance of film festivals?

It would be wonderful if Americans were to watch more foreign films.


THIS YEAR'S WINNER : AAN JA, (OVER THERE) by Abdolreza Kahani, Iran