By Maya Thompson, The Daily Californian
The San Francisco Greek Film Festival reigns as the first and longest-running film festival in the United States dedicated to promoting Greek film and empowering Greek and Cypriot filmmakers. The festival began as a fundraising event for the Modern Greek Studies Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the Center for Modern Greek Studies at San Francisco State University. Now, the festival will proudly celebrate its 17th anniversary this year from Oct. 3-10, a remarkable feat engineered by the close-knit and determined team of volunteers who spent all year organizing the event.
“It’s been a labor of love,” said Maria Nicolacakis in an interview with The Daily Californian. Nicolacakis has served as a director of the festival for 16 years, and under her and executive director Kleon Skourtis’ leadership, the event has blossomed into a treasured Bay Area tradition.
Nicolacakis attributes the festival’s following to the fact that the event gives “both Greeks, Greek Americans and people from the broader community an opportunity to really understand modern Greece. Usually, the Greek activities center around the Greek church, the food, the dancing and the fun, and those are all great … but there is another aspect that sometimes is a little more difficult for those of us (in the United States) to sense — and that is modern Greece,” she explained. “Art reflects reality and (the films at the festival show) the reality of Greece right now.”
Kyveli Short, another director of the festival, echoes Nicolacakis’ observation. A native of Greece, Short discovered the film festival in 2015 during a San Francisco sojourn.
Short expressed her admiration that the small group of volunteers could execute such an extraordinary film event. “For me,” she said, “it was very exciting, and I hoped I could bring my knowledge from Greece and (put) that to good use to the festival.”
In past years, the San Francisco Greek Film Festival encompassed a week’s worth of events to entertain guests and visiting filmmakers, also doubling as a networking opportunity for up-and-coming filmmakers.
This year, however, the pandemic cast the festival into uncharted waters. Yet instead of allowing their ship to capsize, the organizers revised their original plan and remapped this event to a virtual format. They turned this challenge into an opportunity to reward the loyal participants who sustain the festival and will present all films selected for the San Francisco Greek Film Festival available free of charge.
“We just felt very strongly that in this time of need, we wanted to do our very little part to bring a little bit of joy into people’s lives,” Nicolacakis explained. “And so the films this year are on us!”
After receiving close to 400 submissions, the festival narrowed the program to 18 films, spanning diverse genres, lengths and topics. “We’re excited to share all our films in the sense that this is very much a curated, hand-picked selection,” said Short.
One of the films stirring excitement among both Greeks and Greek Americans is “My Name is Eftihia,” directed by Angelos Frantzis. A triumph at the Greece box office, Frantzis’ biographical film follows the life of the most prolific Greek female poet and lyricist, Eftihia Papagianopoulou.
On the global stage, Greek cinema chimes in on contemporary concerns about inclusivity, visibility and representation. “Modern films reflect modern Greece,” said Nicolacakis. “I think modern Greece is dealing with a lot of these issues.”
Short agreed that progress in inclusivity persists at the filmmaking level and also at the festival level. This year, the Drama International Short Film Festival, the biggest short film festival in Greece, announced a new award category called “Drama Queer,” acknowledging and celebrating Greek and LGBTQ+ filmmaking. On a local scale, the San Francisco Greek Film Festival’s lineup reflects the diverse perspectives enriching the broader Greek cinematic landscape.
In addition to the feast of films online, the 2020 San Francisco Greek Film Festival will host a drive-in screening of “Topkapi.” The organizers selected this family-friendly film to honor its star Melina Mercouri, as 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of this renowned Greek celebrity’s birth.
“We thought (the drive-in event) is one you can attend with your whole family,” Short elaborated. “So that was also one of the reasons why ‘Topkapi’ seems like a good fit.”
While organizing an online film festival ushered new challenges in abundance, the process has also illuminated potential benefits to virtual platforms. Nicolacakis suggests the organization may add virtual screenings of classic films during the festival’s offseason, offering an enticing promise for those inquisitive and interested in Greek and Cypriot films and filmmakers.
In the meantime, the passionate and inspired directors of the San Francisco Greek Film Festival seem to be on a promising path toward executing an exciting event that celebrates Greek cultural contributions.
The San Francisco Greek Film Festival will take place from Oct. 3-10 with the drive-in screening of “Topkapi” occurring Oct. 4.