The 51st Thessaloniki international film festival (TIFF) kicks off today with the gala screening of Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours. It will wrap Dec 12 with Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.

In between, 127 features (down from 180 last year) plus 20 programmes of short films will unspool in the 11 sections of the event. There will be tributes and homages to such filmmakers as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Suzanne Bier and Dorota Kedzierzawska.

Downsizing the event due to financial woes was one of the main concerns of the new festival director Dimitri Eipides, who took over in May. Fearing on the other hand he would not have enough time to properly prepare the event he decided to bring the dates back from mid November to early December.

The 2011 dates have already been restored to Nov 4 to 13.

Eipides previously ran Thessaloniki’s New Horizons parallel section from 1993 to 2004, then he continued with Images of the 21st Century, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival he created 12 years ago.

Having both festivals under his arms now he had to jostle with a 30% reduction in state subsidy as well as with accumulated debts from past years.

The challenge was not only financial. In his maiden year Eipides had also to put his own seal on the event.

As the nature of the competition (first and second films only) leaves little room for manoeuvring the new director decided to bring back a 22 films-strong revamped version of the New Horizons section, under the suggestive name of Open Horizons, catering to what he considers the most innovative and daring work in world film.

Running parallel is the six-years old section Independence Days, in which artistic director Lefteris Adamidis presents a 16 film-strong selection of international independent cinema. A large chunk of his programme this year is dominated by films from Latin America.

In terms of local films, last year the “Filmmakers in the Fog” movement had decided to boycott the event in its jubilee year: no Greek films were present. The filmmakers withdrew them in protest for the lack of the long promised new film law by the Culture Ministry.

A year later and after protracted negotiations no less than 23 new Greek productions will unspool in the festival as Culture minister Paul Geroulanos will travel to Thessaloniki to announce the imminent vote of the film law by the parliament.

Downsizing and financial woes reflecting the dire economic situation of the country have also affected the awards. The coveted Golden Alexander is now worth Euros 20,000 (compared with 40,000 in past years) while the Silver is backed by Euros 10,000 (against 25,000). To partly compensate that a third award, the Bronze Alexander carrying Euros 5,000 in cash, has been introduced to reward a film for its Originality and Innovation.

The 16 films in competition vying for the awards will be judged by an also downsized five member international jury — instead of the regular seven — chaired by local film critic Michel Demopoulos.

Demopoulos returns to the festival for the first time since 2004 when he was sacked for political reasons after having successfully directed TIFF for 12 years.

He is joined in  the jury by UK-based director Mohamed Al-Daradj, Ajami co-director Scandar Copti, producer Behrooz Hashemian, and Austrian Film Commission CEO Martin Schweighofer.

Another five member international jury, that of Fipresci, will decide the international film critics awards for the films in competition and for the Greek films.

Among the rest of the sections standing out is the 17-years old emblematic Balkan Survey catering to the production of regional countries. Artistic director Dimitris Kerkinos accompanies this year’s 15 films-strong selection with a 47 shorts-strong homage to Croatia and its Zagreb School of Animation including a tribute to master animator Borivoj Dovnikovic (Bordo), who will also offer a Masterclass.

Other Masterclasses include the one conducted by Cannes Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives).The Thai director is the object of a tribute by the Independence Days section. He will present and introduce his films including his rarely seen 20 shorts.

The Polish filmmaker Dorota Kedzierzawska, object of a tribute will also introduce her films and will offer a press conference/informal Masterclass.

Danish director Suzanne Bier will introduce a number of her eight films which compose the tribute the festival is offering her.

Both women directors will receive Honorary Golden Alexanders for their contribution to the film art.

Member of the jury Mohamed Al-Daradji  will be the object of a four-film spotlight accompanied by a posthumous one to the legendary German filmmaker Werner Schroeter (three films) who passed away earlier this year.

The Experimental Forum, curated for the third year by Vassilis Bourikas, includes a survey of the Australian experimental cinema in the 20th century and tributes to such experimental and avant garde directors as Martin Puz (Austria), Wilhelm Hein (Germany), George Manupelli (USA) and Oleg Mavromatti (Russia).

The Agora/Market, the industry/trade part of the event headed by Marie Pierre Macia, offers a 170 title-strong “Digital Film Library On Demand” featuring on top 15 features, 11 Works in Progress and 10 projects in the Crossroads and Balkan Fund co-production and development strands. More than 40 foreign TV channels, sales agents, distributors and producers are expected to attend such as Arte, ZDF, TV Polska, TRT, Wild Bunch, Match Factory, MK2, Films Boutique, and Latido.

Thessaloniki 2010 International competition line-up:

Animal Kingdom, David Michod, Australia

Apnea, Ari Bafaloukas, Greece

Attenberg, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece

Donkeys, Morag McKinnon, UK/Denmark

Erratum, Marek Lechki, Poland

Jean Gentil, Laura Amelia Guzman & Israel Cardenas, Mexico/Dominican Republic/Germany

Jo pour Jonathan / Jo for Jonathan, Maxime Girou, Canada

Limbo, Maria Sodahl, Norway

Littlerock, Mike Ott, US

Microphone, Ahmad Abdalla, Egypt

Morgen, Marian Crisan, Romania/France/Hungary

L’enfance du mal / Sweet Evil, Olivier Coussemacq, France

Le quattro volte / The Four Times, Michelangelo Frammartino, Italy/Germany/Switzerland

Mandoo / Tired, Ebrahim Saeedi, Iraq

Periferic / Outbound, Bogdan George Apetri, Romania/Austria,

Zefir / Zephyr, Belma Bas, Turkey