Roza Sings

My Sweet Canary, a documentary directed by Roy Sher, 2011 was a highlight of the ninth annual San Francisco Greek Film Festival. It not only traces the life of singer Roza Eshkanazi but also follows an international ensemble of musicians that publicly performs many of her songs in Turkish, Greek, and Ladino.

Roza Eshkanazi, born Sarah Skinazi around 1895 in the Ottoman capital, Constantinople, to a poor Sephardic Jewish family. Her father was a rag picker and her mother worked as a maid for a wealthy family. Roza never learned to read or write but enjoyed a long career as a singer and dancer of Rebetiko and other traditional music styles popular a century ago.

She can be compared to such legendary female singers as Uum Kalthum (Egypt), Edith Piaf (France), and Billie Holiday (USA). Rebetiko (often called Greek blues) was the urban, popular music of the underclass in Constantinople and most of the musicians who played it were from marginalized ethnic minorities.

Early on her family moved to Salonika, the second largest city in the Ottoman Empire. It became part of Greece in 1912. Before World War II, Sephardic Jews were the predominate population in the city. Less then five percent escaped deportation to Auschwitz.

A German military officer protected her and others during the Nazi Occupation. She narrowly escaped extermination after being reported by a Greek. She made a brief musical comeback before her death in 1980.

Even though I’m not a fan of Rebetiko, I thoroughly enjoyed My Sweet Canary, especially the contemporary renditions performed by Mehtap Demir, a Turkish singer and musician; Martha D. Lewis, a British-born Greek Cypriot; and Tomer Katz, an Israeli oud and bouzouki player. Their tour began in Istanbul and then moved to Thessaloniki before ending in Athens.

copyright © 2012 by N. A. Diaman, all rights reserved

Greek Comedies

The ninth annual San Francisco Greek Film Festival opened with a couple of comedies set in Twenty-first Century Athens. RF, written and directed by Stavros Liokalos, 2010, is a fast-paced short narrative. The titles show flashes of working-class apartment complexes built in the Sixties throughout the Greek capital.

RF begins with a middle-aged slob standing on the roof of a multi-unit condo building. He twists and turns a rusty TV antenna he believes is his. Then he pulls out a cell phone and calls his wife to find out if the reception is better and is rewarded by insults. A second attempt at repositioning the antenna results in still another tirade from his spouse. He responds by yanking the entire antenna off and disconnecting the wires.

One of the other tenants suddenly looses TV reception and goes up the roof to determine the cause. The two men hurl insults at one another before taking their dispute to the indifferent building manager. As the film progresses more and more of the condo tenants are drawn into the hilarious melodrama. Within this short work Liokalos presents a cross-section of isolated individuals momentarily brought together by unexpected circumstances.

The Guide is a narrative feature directed by Zacharias Mavroedis, 2011. Its main character is Iasonas, a young man from Thessaloniki that comes to Athens to lead an architectural tour for foreign-exchange students. One of the first obstacles he faces is a picket line at the Parthenon. This is followed by a mini rebellion in the group he’s leading. The city can be brutally hot during the summer, so it’s no surprise that they suggest lounging in a café or laying on a beach instead of his carefully prepared tour.

Iasonas takes his new job quite seriously. He’s determined to stick to the plan and also open to suggestions from those he’s leading and makes adjustments each day to accommodate them. He’s a handsome, clean-cut guy. Several of the women find him sexually attractive, as does the gay Frenchman that joins the tour. The guide keeps his distance from all of them but the pressure mounts over time.

Iasonas hangs out with his ex-girlfriend and her current partner Angelos during his off time. Also he must deal with constant telephone calls from his mother. The violent demonstrations, the ongoing economic crises and the current political turmoil are nowhere to be seen but some of the pressing issues of the time rise to the surface in the remarks that pepper the conversation throughout the film.

The short is a modern update of old-fashioned Greek comedy filled with stereotypes that appeals to a wide audience. The feature is smart, nuanced, and poignant but the use of architectural models in the titles seems contrived and the cutaway scenes an awkward editing device.

copyright © 2012 by N. A. Diaman, all rights reserved

Greek Film Fest

The Ninth Annual San Francisco Greek Film Festival will present eighteen features and shorts, narratives and documentaries Monday 7 May 2012 to Sunday 13 May 2012 at Delancey Street Screening Room, 600 The Embarcadero (between Main & Harrison Streets), San Francisco, CA 94105.

The opening night feature film is The Guide, a 2011 comedy directed by Zacharias Mavroeidis. A children’s program is scheduled for Saturday afternoon. This year’s festival will close with a special tribute to Thanassis Veggos, an award-winning actor who died last year after a long screen career.

Tickets for all programs and the opening-night reception can be booked online through Vendini or at the door on the day of the event if seats are still available. There are also special packages offered for film enthusiasts.

copyright © 2012 by N. A. Diaman, all rights reserved