International Cinematographer’s Film Festival

 You may have heard rumors, from those lucky enough to attend, that this year’s edition of the Manaki Festival is the best one yet! And to paraphrase Mark Twain; those rumours are not greatly exaggerated. Between the 23rd and 29th of September, the 44th Edition of the International Cinematographer’s Film Festival ”Manaki Brothers” was held in the picturesque town of Bitola, North Macedonia. We are treated to a full week of seminars, workshops, Masterclasses and endless film screenings all served up in a small town that could have been picked right out of a fairytale, with the spires of the numerous mosques reaching for the sky and the spectacularly mountainous landscape as a hazy blue backdrop.

In the words of Seamus McGarvey, the city’s omnipresent dogs are the counselors of Bitola.
  Everywhere in Bitola there are dogs. They have no owner, and yet at the same time they have a thousand owners. They are their own Masters and they stroll around freely or lie comfortably spread out in the streets of the town, pedestrians carefully circling around so as not to disturb them.
  Saturday the 23rd the opening ceremony of the festival was held in the Bitola Cultural Center and Simeon Moni Damevski, the director of the Manaki Film Festival, announced Peter Biziou as the winner of the Golden Camera 300 for Lifetime Achievement. Circus artists performed their daring acrobatics from the auditorium’s ceiling and on stage a children’s choir performed the music of Pink Floyd from the film ”The Wall” (1982), which of course Peter Biziou lensed! And the evening’s festivities were not confined to the Cultural Center auditorium, as everywhere in Bitola there were people dancing, blowing fire and performing in the streets.   

The Director of the Manaki Film Festival, Simeon Moni Damevski, with this year’s recipient of the Golden Camera 300 for Lifetime Achievement, Peter Biziou.  Photo Ivona Kochov
  Cinematographer Elen Lotman is often heard saying ”the objective of the IMAGO Diversity and Inclusion Committee is to make itself redundant.” She along with Bojana Andric, Ula Pontikos and Dragona Jovanovic brought us a roundtable discussion, which opened the Sunday program, about the current situation for women cinematographers. 
  One of them, here at the festival representing Spain, is Teresa Medina AEC. She feels progress regarding equality is coming along far too slowly. ”Women cinematographers are all too often only supported verbally by the industry”, she explains. Regarding the Manaki Festival itself, however, she is most enthusiastic. ”The thing I love about the Manaki Festival is that here, the actual festival Director comes and greets you when you arrive. That establishes the tone what this festival is all about.” Myself I can only concur with this sentiment as my rapport with the Festival team, and especially Katerina Gabunija, the Festival Coordinator, has been absolutely wonderful.

A children’s choir performing Pink Floyd’s music from ”The Wall”, shot by Peter Biziou, during the opening ceremony in the Bitola Cultural Center.  Photo Ivona Kochov
   As the week rolled on, Monday offered a roundtable discussion with Lawrence Sher and Friends, reminiscing memorable on-set blunders, as well as a screening of Alan Parker’s ”Mississippi Burning” (1988) which yielded Peter Biziou an Academy Award. And that provides us with a nice transition to the main event of Tuesday; a Masterclass featuring Peter Biziou moderated by Nigel Walters. 
   As an audience we are in for a treat, as Messieurs Biziou and Walters examine a remarkable career encompassing pieces as diverse as ”The Truman Show” (1998) and ”Life of Brian” (1979) and ranging from the stark crime drama ‘In the Name of the Father’ (1993) to the charming utter lunacy of Terry Gilliam’s ”Time Bandits” (1981). We learn that Peter Biziou decided early on to support himself by making commercials, in order to gain freedom to choose the feature films he wanted to work on -always selecting the best scripts out of the projects offered.  

Statue of Milton Manaki outside the Bitola Cultural Center
   Wednesday brought us a workshop with Anastas Michos temptingly called ”Champagne taste with a beer budget”. I asked Anastas if he could sum it up for the benefit of our readers. 
  ”The concept is”, Anastas mused, ”that no matter what size budget we’re working on, we’re always striving for more and we’re always working within constraints. And that I think is a strength that sparks us to think outside the box, forcing us out of our safety zone, and that’s often where magic happens. A practical example could be limiting yourself to two primes. That’s an artistic challenge at the same time as it saves money for the production.”

Anastas N. Michos ASC, GSC
    A screening of Joe Wright’s ”Atonement” (2007) prepared us for Thursday’s Masterclass featuring Seamus McGarvey. Once again we are in Nigel Walter’s capable hands, and once again we are all winners, as both gentlemen are fantastic raconteurs. One question from Nigel brings forth from Seamus a twenty minute answer ripe with insights, memories, life lessons… There’s fantastic rapport between the two, and the ambience varies from solemn moments where we are almost moved to tears, to hilarious on-set-stories. The hilarity goes pretty far at times and realizing he’s being recorded, Seamus pleads, ”Oh you’re going to have  to edit this out, please! What happens in Bitola stays in Bitola.”

Nigel Walters moderates Masterclass with Seamus McGarvey in the Manaki cinema.
  Friday evening brought the Grand Finale of the entire festival, a Closing Ceremony held in the Cultural Center. It’s been delicately hinted at me earlier that my casual t-shirt-and-shorts outfit won’t be appropriate for this, but fortunately I’ve brought along more formal clothing as well for this trip. Winners galore are announced throughout the proceedings, among them Cevahir Şahin and Kürşat Üresin who won the Golden Camera 300 for ”About Dry Grasses” and Chengma Zhiyan who took home the Silver Camera 300 for ”Only the River Flows”. Seamus McGarvey was honored with the Camera 300 Award for Outstanding Contribution to World Cinematic Art and received warm and prolonged ovations when he entered the stage to accept it.

Seamus McGarvey handcranks his Camera 300 Award for Outstanding Contribution to World Cinematic Art

  But more was in store for us, as the awards ceremony was followed by the world premiere of the Macedonian feature film ”Lena and Vladimir” starring Tony Naumovski and Sara Klimoska, directed by Igor Aleksov and featuring fine cinematography by Dusan Kardalevski. As the movie ended the entire cast and crew crew got up on stage and received thunderous applause.

Peter Biziou pays tribute to Milton Manaki.
  And as if this wasn’t enough, some of us were invited afterward to a massive wrap party with hundreds of guests at the nearby historical Military Academy building, thoroughly ensuring that the festival would remain a warm memory for all who participated.
VIPs indeed! Top meeting at the wrap party. The President of North Macedonia (right) flanked by the President of the Welsh Society of Cinematographers. (I nicked that joke from Chris Ross BSC. Sorry Chris!)
Lars Pettersson FSF