The biggest film festival in Greece and the most cosmopolitan film festival in Southeast Europe, Thessaloniki serves up a broad spectrum of world cinema, with the usual mixture of retrospectives, tributes and regional specialisms. Of course, Greek cinema is featured strongly, but also there is a focus on the Balkans in general, as well as a generous emphasis on first features from young directors. Set on the shores of the Aegean it ranks as one of the more welcoming and enjoyable medium size festivals on the circuit.

The most moving film of the festival was shown in the New Horizons section. Turtles Can Fly (2004), directed by the Iranian Kurd director Bahman Ghobadi, offers an incredible insight into life in the Kurdish mountains just before the outbreak of the current Iraq war. The majority of the cast are children. The undisputed leader amongst this group of children is Soran, otherwise known as "Satellite". A thirteen-year-old lad with precocious business and technical skills he is relied upon by the village elders to set up a satellite dish so that they can watch the war unfold and by the children for whom he finds work as mine-clearers. He falls in love with the unsmiling, enigmatic Agrin, a girl with a baby already at the age of 14, for whom she is reluctant to care; and so this task falls to her brother, Henkov, a boy who lost both his arms when he trod on a mine but who can somehow see the future. Through the course of the film we come to know of Agrin’s personal tragedy and trauma and the root cause of her dysfunctional relationship with her child.

This film transports you to another world totally beyond your own personal experience. On the one hand the resourcefulness and determination of these children living under the worst conditions is uplifting. On the other, it is unbelievable what they have experienced and are still going through and the injustice of their plight is devastating. Ghobadi successfully creates a muddy mountain world littered with the detritus of modern warfare – an appalling metal playground for the young and energetic. It’s a tremendous, engaging and disturbing film and a tribute to the endurance of a long-suffering people.

After The Day Before (2004) is an accomplished thriller from Hungarian director Attila Janisch. It’s set in the depths of the Hungarian countryside, in an empty, haunting landscape beautifully shot by Gabor Medvigy. Using a minimal script Janisch investigates what he calls the "psychology of sin" as a stranger on a bicycle comes looking for his family inheritance – an old farmhouse – and stumbles across a tiny, introverted community and the murder of a fifteen-year-old girl. There are plot twists along the way of course, and the music design is fantastic, even containing a few clues itself. I wasn’t totally surprised by the eventual denouement but nevertheless it’s engagingly handled under Janisch’s assured direction.

From the Republic of Macedonia comes a superb performance by the young teenage actor Marko Kovacevic in the film Mirage (2004), by Svetozar Ristovski. Kovacevic plays Marko, a young lad in an obscure Macedonian town hoping to one day get on in life. However, the world is set against him. His own father drinks and gambles and is a militant unionist. His mother is browbeaten and his sister gets on in life by sleeping with whoever seems to have a nice car, be that a local gangster or an American GI. Marko is a talented writer and his teacher encourages him to enter a poetry competition that could lead to him representing Macedonia in Paris. But even that becomes a remote possibility when he is bullied by other pupils and even the teacher will not help him. In the end he turns to violence himself after hanging out with a lone desperado who just happens to be called Paris. Featured in the Balkan Survey section of the festival, the film functions as an allegory for Balkan politics and conflict and feels tinged with a degree of xenophobic sentiment but the direction is compelling and the cinematography (by Vladimir Samoilovski) superb. But what you really remember is the central performance by Kovacevic. Blessed with film star looks and a prodigious acting talent he is magnificent portraying the degradation of this young man’s spirit. Someone should teach him English and get him an agent!

Other highlights included the two Russian films Dmitry Meskhiyev’s We Ourselves (2004) and The Harvest Time (2004) by Marina Razbezhkina. The former is an excellent study of divided loyalties amongst a small Russian community under German occupation, as a group of escaped Russian POWs seek refuge in the village. A superb cast seems to prove true the oft-voiced adage that Russian actors are the best in the world. Meskhiyev’s direction is also commendable, creating a sensuous, strangely erotic atmosphere within a taut military thriller. The Harvest Time is a more muted but visually lyrical film concerning a Russian family surviving after the war. The father has lost both his legs and so the mother has to do all the work and she becomes a champion combine harvester driver, awarded a Red Flag by the state. The ultimately negative impact that this award has on the family is explored subtly by the director though at times it can feel a little uninvolving.

Festivals are always fun for their eclecticism and esoteric film selections and Thessaloniki is no exception. From Peru came the film Days of Santiago (2004) by Josue Mendez starring Pietro Sibille as a young man returning to civilian life after time in the military. His difficulties adjusting to the new lifestyle are movingly portrayed by the fine Sibille and the director convincingly evokes the limited options of a downtown Lima barrio.

Best feelgood movie came from Icelandic director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson with his quirky film Niceland (2004). Containing well-known British actors such as Martin Compston, Gary Lewis, Timmy Lang and Peter Capaldi it movingly portrays one young mentally handicapped man’s search for the meaning of life in order to revive the spirit of his dying girlfriend, amongst the strange urban architecture of Iceland. Fridrikkson successfully avoids sentimentality in a film full of humanity and warmth.

Thessaloniki is a Greek film festival and it would be nice to report that there were also some good Greek films on view. Sadly this was not the case. Amidst a somewhat dire selection was the particularly dreadful big budget epic from renowned director Theo Angelopoulos, Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (2004). As the title suggests it’s the first part of a trilogy, supposedly depicting the fate of the Greek nation since the 1920s. Unfortunately the result of such epic ambition is a ponderous, excruciatingly self—important film. The direction is atrocious, with repetitive tracking and panning shots, all done at the same speed whilst extras move around the expensive sets in over-orchestrated manoeuvres. They should give the next two parts to another director.

But this does not detract from an excellently organised festival, providing a wealth of stimulating film in a most hospitable environment. Worth visiting if you’re in Greece in November.