Outdoor screenings on the Greek island set an ageing medium amidst the ruins of the century that defined it
J.G. Ballard frequently imagined a future in which drained swimming pools survived as monuments to the decadent last days of the West. The image comes back to me during a film screening at one such empty concrete pit on the Greek island of Syros. In nearby Athens it is 41 degrees. Today I received a text message advising me to close the windows of my apartment against clouds of ash from the wildfires encroaching on the city’s suburbs. Big-bellied aeroplanes carry water across the sky. I imagine the pool’s patterned tiles being pored over by the perplexed archaeologists of whatever civilisation succeeds ours. The film I’m watching, The Years of the Big Heat, directed by Frida Liappa and released in 1991, describes a near future in which a population afflicted by a pandemic and heatwave loses its collective memory. You can see why the curators thought it timely.
The screening is part of the ninth Syros International Film Festival, an annual exhibition of Greek and international independent filmmaking at outdoor venues across the Cycladic island. For a second consecutive year its programme of workshops and screenings follows the theme ‘off-season’, with the collapse of international travel putting a new slant on its exploration into the traffic of people and ideas. The discrepancy between the dream of free movement and the fortification of borders is nowhere more stark than in Greece, which offers tax incentives to ‘digital nomads’ from the north even as it repels migrant boats from the south. The context encourages local interpretations of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), which opens the festival at a screening set against the backdrop of Hermoupolis’s neoclassical architecture.
The dreamlike account of a Black community’s migration from the US South to the North at the start of the twentieth century, interspersed with dialogue in Gullah creole, ruminates on the relationship between memory and place, and how identity is carried across borders. Ideas which are themselves taken into the later work of two of its crew: director of photography Arthur Jafa and production designer Kerry James Marshall.
These correspondences across cultures animate an island-wide festival in open-air locations that also function as commentaries on the theme. One screening takes place in a shipyard, its spectral cranes looming over the gathering like the ghosts of old industry. The highlight is a new commission by Marina Gioti that montages archival newsreels of ceremonial ship launches, the smashed champagne bottles and waving dignitaries, accompanied by a performance by thereminist May Roosevelt. Watching footage of crowds cheering the baptism of new boats from amidst the rusting hulls is uncanny, an effect exaggerated by the eerie sounds that Roosevelt conjures from her touchless instrument. It feels like an elegy for the old utopias of progress and expansion built on the exploitation of resources and abstraction of value for which we are now paying the price. As an artform once heralded as ‘light’ (portable, immaterial) and ‘hot’ (in Marshall McLuhan’s sense of immersive and stupefying) but which in the age of TikTok feels ‘heavy’ (expensive, ecologically impactful) and ‘cool’ (even festival audiences struggle to keep their phones in their pockets), independent cinema is the ideal medium through which to express a generational sense of lost innocence and heightened awareness.
Now that the indoor cinemas are closed and we’ve become accustomed to streaming series into our living rooms, SIFF’s outdoor screenings set an ageing medium amidst the ruins of the century that defined it. An intelligently curated programme plays on ideas of travel between cultures but also, as in the case of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), across the boundary separating life and art; shorts including Marcus Meicher’s Austria (2017) and Peixuan Ouyang’s The_____World (2021) ask us to look again (and harder) at the illusions on which society is constructed. The people who attend film festivals are often described as pilgrims, and the description might naturally seem to fit the groups who trip across the island of Syros in search of art’s quasi-religious escape. But the more apt analogy for a festival that uses film to reframe our relationship to a changed world might be with Ballard’s anthropologists, studying the last documents of a disappearing time, trying to work out what went wrong.
From the September 2021 issue of ArtReview
SIFF, 9th edition, 22-26 July 2021