The 15th edition of Opening Nights – Athens International Film Festival kicked off last Wednesday night with a typically sparky opening night celebration.

1500 people attended, spread over the twin cinemas Attikon and Apollo, in central Athens. Speeches were made, a film was shown, and, an after-party buzzed away until the wee hours.

The festival is growing. Whilst the Thessaloniki International Film Festival (now in its 50th year) is Greece’s major film festival, the Athens festival has been developing nicely over the past few years.

A popular festival with Athenians, it shows mainstream and arthouse features (before their release), but it is now also programming more esoteric and intellectual material, from independent filmmakers worldwide.

As part of the opening speeches, Artistic Director Orestis Andreadakis spoke passionately about Greek cinema, its current state and his hopes for it. A man with cinematic taste (he champions independent/alternative films), his excitement was palpable.

The General Director Petros Antoniades also hit the stage with verve and vigour, and spoke about the financial crisis and the upcoming Greek General Elections: “We’re waiting for something good.”

And indeed, clearly, this moment, late 2009, is a sharp moment for Greek cinema. A moment of crisis, and a moment of anticipation.

The crisis has been brewing for some months: Greek producers and directors are rallying for better industrial conditions, and as a result have agreed to not show any films at this year’s Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

This is a big statement, as each year Thessaloniki shows every Greek film made in the past 12 months and hands out awards.

It’s a double-barreled shotgun here – on top of this strike action (and of course any hopes of improved conditions with a change of government), there is great excitement in the air currently regarding Greek cinema because, for the first time in a while, Greek films have garnered attention on the world film festival circuit – Dogtooth (director: Giorgos Lanthimos) at Cannes and Toronto; Plato’s Academy (dir: Filippos Tsitos) at Locarno; Small Crime (dir: Christos Georgiou) at Karlovy Vary.

One Greek director I spoke to at the after-party said it was “Year Zero for Greek cinema.” And there was a certain frisson in the air during the night – clearly there is great hope that from now on, Greek films will have better conditions locally, and that they will also be better distributed internationally, especially to Australia, Canada and the United States.

Given all this, it was actually a surprise and a shame that one of the Greek films (Dogtooth in particular) was not shown during the Opening Night.

Whilst no Greek films will be at Thessaloniki Film Festival this year, the Athens festival has stepped into that breach, and is showing a number of Greek features and shorts this year, including the aforementioned Dogtooth and Plato’s Academy.

Putting one of these films on show during the opening night would have really sparked the air.

As it was, we viewed an English film, An Education, directed by Lone Scherfig.

Set in the early 1960s, it is the story of a teenage girl and her burgeoning friendship with an older man. The film contrasts everyday life with a more glamorous life, and is engaging enough in this thematic play (and there is a superb performance by Carey Mulligan as the girl), but the film loses its nerve and complexity as it moves along, opting for a safe 3rd act and ending.

The director’s Italian for Beginners, a few years back, was a lively, quirky Dogme-style film. An Education is conventional by comparison.

The festival runs for 12 days, until September 27. It screens films only in the evening, but has four cinemas running simultaneously, so there’s plenty on offer for the public to view. It has numerous international guests (producers, directors, actors), from the world over, accompanying their films.

As General Director Petros Antoniades said during his opening speech, this festival is now “one of the most important cultural events in Athens”.

 I couldn’t agree more.