Yperia Film Festival: Greece’s Lens on Travel and Tourism
Amorgos Island in the Greek Cyclades hosts its eighth tourism film festival. Credit Yperia Festival.
By Buzzy Gordon
I remember when I was young, the media genre known as travelogue was practically synonymous with boredom — much like the ancient ritual of having to watch the neighbors’ slide show of their latest vacation. It was considered so unappealing that in the days before large LCD TV screens screened news and sports in waiting areas of airports and train or bus stations, one of London’s main rail terminals had a mini-theatre where you could wile the hours away watching travelogues from around the world — for free, of course. Sitting in the near-empty room of this bustling station in 1967, I was mesmerized by the sights and sounds of exotic destinations — scenes I can recall vividly to this day.
The way we are exposed to worldwide destinations has changed quite a bit since the days of travelogues projected in small theatres to handfuls of viewers at a time. There is an entire Travel Channel on cable television, and hundreds of websites featuring videos shot by professionals and amateurs alike. And, as I just recently discovered, there are no fewer than 18 tourism film festivals held each year dedicated to screening tourism films, held under the auspices of the International Committee of Tourism Film Festivals.
One of these festivals is held each autumn on Amorgos, an island in the Lesser Cyclades in the Aegean Sea. Officially, the event is titled The International Short Tourism Film Festival of the Yperia International Convention on Tourism and Culture, an annual four-day conference organized by the Cultural Association of Tholaria, Amorgos, and the Aegialis Hotel and Spa, the finest resort on the island.
The topic of this year’s festival was “Cinema — a Challenge for Local Promotion and Economic Development.” The choice of topic was no accident: the festival coincided with the 30th anniversary of the release of the Luc Besson film The Big Blue (Le Grand Bleu), filmed on location in Amorgos. When the feature film was a box office success in France, tourism to the island reached new heights.
According to panelists participating in the festival’s symposia, after word-of-mouth, movies are the biggest driver of tourism. The Harry Potter franchise of blockbuster films has translated into millions of dollars of tourism revenue for the British Isles, much in the same way that The Lord of the Rings trilogy opened up New Zealand to a whole new world of visitors who had barely heard of the land Down Under, let alone been there.
More recently, the television phenomenon known as Game of Thrones has led to tourism fame and fortune for several international destinations, most notably Iceland and Croatia (Dubrovnik, in particular).
Cinema might therefore be considered a catalyst for promotion and economic development, while the “challenge” for destination lies in attracting production companies to film in their locations.
Thus, the Yperia program featured not only filmmakers from around the world, but also symposia on the growing role of film and video in publicizing travel and tourism — including representatives of national and regional film commissions, which exist to liaise among governments and local professionals and film production companies. Indeed, economic incentives play a critical role in determining in which countries and locales are eventually chosen as a location for filming. It is the rare film these days that does not acknowledge the cooperation of a film commission in its screen credits.
There were four categories of films at the Yperia Festival: Documentary, Travel/Promotional, Commercial, and Greek Films. In all, 65 films were accepted for screening at the festival. In addition, there was a special tribute session dedicated to “environmental education through lifelong learning.”
About one hour a day was set aside for screenings; given the short lengths of the films, anywhere from 10-20 works might be presented in that time frame. Commercials — whether for destinations, hotels or airlines — were only 30-60 seconds long; any longer, and they would be classified as promotional films.
The most inspiring category was Documentary, whose subject matter delved into issues like the effect of travel on indigenous communities, or artistic traditions that are being kept alive by exposure to new audiences. Particularly moving were vignettes showing how the Black Hmong tribe of Laos, or women from remote villages in Bali, are being lifted out of poverty by the formation of cooperatives to market items produced by indigenous craftsmanship.
Promotional films are the closest to the classical travelogue. Several were real eye-openers, like the film Crete: See for Yourself, which revealed the extreme geographical diversity — from snow-covered mountains to tropical beaches, and medieval architecture to barren expanses of desert — of one single island in the Mediterranean. Others were practically lyrical in their beauty, and many succeeded in provoking an appetite to visit the featured destination.
The homegrown category of Greek films encompassed both promotional films and commercials. The host island of Amorgos was portrayed in a film about its annual Elysia Yoga retreat, which depicted the island’s attractions juxtaposed artistically with lithe yoga poses. (The resident yoga instructor at Aegalis says the island is in a magnetic vortex, which imparts a sense of wellbeing.) The film Greece: 365-day Destination — coincidentally by filmmaker Andonis Kioukas, chairperson of the Yperia Film Festival — actually won a European Union award for its outstanding cinematography.
A fascinating sidelight of the festival was the ability to watch invited filmmakers at work, during daily tours of the island. For example, incorporating new technologies — such as affordable and user-friendly drones — as well as using special effects like time-lapse, has led artists like Joerg Daiber to create very entertaining results, and even build a thriving international enterprise spanning 40 countries: Little Big World.
According to CIFFT director Alexander Kammel, a key reason for holding tourism film festivals is not only to give the films exposure but also to judge them and hand out awards; this recognition enables filmmakers to burnish their credentials and get more commissions from producers and tourism destinations. Awards are conferred by festival juries, and the one in Amorgos — which consisted of five jurors from different countries in Europe — awarded first and second place awards to films in each of the categories.
Naturally, the host venues have their own reasons for sponsoring these festivals. Amorgos makes no secret of the fact that they have scheduled their festival at the end of October “as a way to extend the tourist season.” As on many Greek islands, peak season is spring and summer. One of the Yperia participants, Michael Wood — writer and host of, inter alia, the BBC documentary TV mini-series In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great — has been coming to Amorgos on holiday for years; in the spring, he says, the verdant countryside “is a carpet of flowers.”
With the cool autumn weather already ruling out sunbathing and swimming as recreational activities, the Women’s Association of the island organized outings every day designed to explore the island, whose primary sightseeing attractions include an Apollonian water oracle — reputed to be one of three in ancient times, along with Delphi and Dordona; a small archaeology museum; and the monastery of Panagia Hozoviotissa, a starkly whitewashed edifice carved directly into a majestic cliff. The monastery, overlooking an endless expanse of sea, houses a Greek Orthodox relic from the Holy Land — more precisely, from the monastery of St. George, which, not coincidentally, is hewn dramatically into a sandstone cliff on the outskirts of Jericho.
For many festival attendees, the highlights of the excursions were leisurely lunches in picturesque tavernas, serving dishes exemplifying South Aegean gastronomy. The local cuisine revolves around the bounty of the surrounding Mediterranean — notably fish, octopus and cuttlefish — along with savory stews of home-grown beef, pork and goat, and hand-milled fava bean purée. These tasty delicacies, as well as honey-drenched desserts, were washed down with wine made from red and white grapes grown on the island, and raki liqueur.
In one important way, contemporary tourism film festivals follow in the tradition of the railway station travelogue theater I fondly recall from my days as a backpacker: the films are generally screened without admission charge to the general public.
And the Yperia Film Festival of 2017 will be one that is memorable not only to this first-time visitor to Amorgos but to the organizers as well: this is the year that the Yperia Film Festival of Amorgos was promoted from candidate to full membership in the International Committee of Tourism Film Festivals.
Over the course of a 35-year career that has spanned more than 80 countries, award-winning journalist Buzzy Gordon has been a reporter, editor, and travel writer on five continents. His work has appeared in USA Today (where he was a regular travel columnist), National Geographic Traveler, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, among other leading publications. Buzzy is the author of Frommer’s Jerusalem Day by Day Guide, a contributing editor at Jax Fax Magazine, and a regular contributor to LuxuryLatinAmerica.com and TotallyJewishTravel.com.