LARNACA, CYPRUS — In a darkened public theater, a Russian performer sang “Shallow,” the Lady Gaga hit from A Star is Born (2018), to a small but devoted audience. This eclectic scene of the globalization of film culture took place in the coastal city of Larnaca as part of the 16th Cyprus International Film Festival, an intimate celebration of film on an island historically at the crossroads of the world.
The performance of “Shallow” at the festival was emblematic of the challenge the festival faces in trying to carve out a local identity in an industry dominated by Hollywood, on a Mediterranean island that has always played to the cultural tune of each historical period’s global power. The Cyprus International Film Festival therefore represents an intriguing initiative to bring film culture to the periphery of the European Union and raise awareness of Cyprus’s complex geopolitical situation.
“We want to spread the word that Cyprus is divided,” Petra Terzi said, the principal organizer behind the festival since its inception 16 years ago.
Though culturally Greek since the Bronze Age, Cyprus has long been a meeting point between East and West, a place that every major empire in the area has sought to control, the last of which included the Ottoman and the British Empires. Since 1960, the Republic of Cyprus has been an independent country, but intercommunal violence between the Greek Cypriot majority and Turkish Cypriot minority eventually led to a 1974 invasion by the Turkish military and sustained occupation of the northern part of the island. The self-declared “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” goes unrecognized by all other nations but Turkey. A United Nations-managed Buffer Zone separates the two sections of the island, a line that runs through the capital of Nicosia, generating a situation evocative of postwar Berlin, with barbed-wire barricades cutting off central city streets. Since 2004, the Republic of Cyprus has been part of the European Union, its overall fate unresolved.
Despite this ongoing dispute, Cyprus has inherent advantages for hosting a film festival—a mild climate, a well-developed tourism infrastructure, and strategic proximity to Europe, West Asia, and Africa. Filmmaker Petra Terzi came upon the idea for the festival in 2000 at an 11th of September event in Greece (an important date commemorating a mutiny against the Greek monarchy in 1922), when she met American producer Gregory Cascante, who suggested Cyprus as a location for a film festival.
In 2006, Terzi and her collaborator Phedon Papamichael, a production designer for John Cassevetes, got that idea off the ground. Entrants compete in first-time filmmaking and “veterans” categories. The festival’s top prize is the “Golden Aphrodite,” a statuette named for the goddess of love apocryphally born of the sea foam near the Cypriot city of Paphos. Crafted by local artists Leni Loizou and Michail Christofinis, the statuette riffs on the images of Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus and the Venus de Milo, but Aphrodite’s torso is split in half, reflecting the island’s present-day division.
This year’s festival included a screenwriting workshop and a tie-in with the Larnaca Biennale art program held in the city throughout the fall, in addition to a detailed slate of screenings held in Larnaca and Nicosia over the course of a week. Some of those screenings took place in the Classic Hotel in the old city of Nicosia, within the city’s iconic Venetian walls. But, in an example of the difficulty of defining independent film in a small, globalized place, several screenings were held at K-Cineplex Nicosia Prime, a conventional cineplex in the suburban neighborhood of Strovolos, amidst posters for No Time to Die and The Matrix Resurrections.
One of the film festival’s strengths was in its short film category, which featured a wide range of genres from a variety of locales across the world. Narrative films included the charming Cypriot short film, Leonidas and the Fish (2021), which tells the story of a boy trying to catch a fish to sell so he can afford to buy his mother an electric fan. Horror fans might appreciate a Greek film by Iasonas Sigma called Dead or Not? (2021), featuring unsteady handheld shots depicting movement through hallways in the Lynchian tradition. Meanwhile, dance enthusiasts might be intrigued by an entry from Egypt—Samir T. Radwan’s Folds of Wind (2021), spotlighting a dancer against the backdrop of a stunning desert. More abstract films were also featured, including Paris-based Japanese filmmaker Watanabe Atsuhiko’s short film Thanatos (2021), in which a disturbing wailing soundtrack accompanies a haunting montage of obscure images.
One of the more interesting feature-length entrants was Tom Waller’s The Cave (2019), a dramatization of the famed 2018 rescue of the Thai soccer team filmed in the actual cave in which they were trapped, and with some of the real-life rescue personnel playing themselves. Using Vice News-esque cinematography, the film’s use of authentic personalities and diving technical knowledge makes much of the film feel more like a documentary than a docu-drama. “I wanted to bring the film here because the film has a message of hope and of the world coming together,” Waller said. “And what better place to bring (that message) than to Cyprus?”
Other films showcased local issues, including the short Turkish film, The Delivery (2020), which takes a suspenseful look at the migration crisis. The film follows a man desperate to pay for his daughter’s surgery who accepts a job smuggling migrants across the Turkish border in a refrigerated truck. When the customs guard stops him and asks him to open his trailer, the result is pure Hitchcock regarding a contemporary issue.
The short Greek documentary, Zeibekiko in Beirut (2020), tackled another major event in the region. That film discussed the impact of the 2020 Beirut explosion on the Greek expatriate community in Lebanon, featuring a Greek dancer performing the eponymous traditional dance amidst the rubble of a Greek home.
Even with all that variety, the festival remains small and close-knit. “This is a family festival,” Stamatis Nerantzakis said, the festival’s official photographer. “We all come close and get to know each other. So we feel more like a family than just participants or cooperators.”
Swiss actor and director Uwe Schwarzwalder, who wrote and directed the independent thriller The Radicalization of Jeff Boyd (2017), expressed a wonder shared by many of the indie filmmakers for being selected for the festival. “I’m proud [to be here] because it’s a really good festival, and it’s been around many years.”
Though the Greek film scene has achieved breakout fame through the work of filmmakers such as Yorgos Lanthimos, Cypriot filmmakers are still trying to define themselves and their work as apart from Hollywood and the European film culture centered around Cannes. By being a venue for film culture, the Cyprus International Film Festival represents a step toward meeting that goal.
“The first thing we need to address is to look at how we can network [in Cyprus] and have the information so that we can find each other,” Valentine Nonyela said, speaking at a Women in Film and Television panel held during the festival. A British producer who lives in Cyprus, Nonyela had a small part in Casino Royale (2006) and produced the Hungarian version of Love Island, which filmed in Paphos. In his address, he expressed hope for a new golden age of international, independent filmmaking.
“It’s the most exciting time in filmmaking because I think that the age of the Hollywood star is now dead,” Nonyela continued. “I think streaming and the fracturing of audiences are allowing the diversity of voices to come into storytelling. Local stories are going to be as powerful as Hollywood stories.”