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Locarno Int. filmfestival 2008 report by Briana Berg

Every year, Swiss television includes a few shots of viewers at the Locarno International Film Festival, stubbornly sticking it out despite the rain to watch a movie on the famous Piazza Grande. This year, after an extremely sunny first week, the rain came without fail, only to linger on, putting a damper on the outdoor screenings and bringing down the number of viewers from previous years.

With its huge screen, 26 meters wide by 14 meters high, its 8000 viewers and the occasional bat fluttering across the picture, it is quite an experience to watch a movie on the Piazza. The offerings are usually mainstream, which was the case again this year. Still, the double bill sometimes features a more daring second picture such as Berlin Calling, Hannes Stoehr’s depiction of a DJ’s downward spiral and his subsequent musical rebirth in rehab. The part was played by DJ Paul Kalkbrenner, who also composed the soundtrack. The actor casually walked on stage after the screening to play some live music, a perfect way to end such a viewing. Other notable Piazza movies this year included Night and the City, a 1950 classic film noir by Jules Dassin, or Solveig Anspach’s latest work, a comedy named Back Soon set in Iceland.

The films presented in the International Competition largely made up for the slight climatic drawback. Most of the 18 movies competing this year were quality features, each with their own original approach. The Competition started out strongly with Parque Via by Enrique Rivero, a very personal first picture in the new vein of Mexican filmmaking, with magnificently framed shots and complete accord between form and content. The film draws the viewer into the daily grind of a man who has been cooped up for 30 years in the same house, paid to maintain its upkeep and scare away burglars. Due to a slow pace and the repetition of everyday actions, the viewer comes to understand, as if from the inside, the character’s frame of mind, the dullness of his life and his increasing anxiety to venture outside of the property. Parque Via won the main prize, the Léopard d’Or (worth 90’000 Swiss francs), as well as the Fipresci Prize, an award given by a jury of film critics. Other notable films include the Turkish Sonbahar by Ozcan Alper, which beautifully captures nature as experienced by a man released from jail after 10 years of imprisonment for political activism (winner of the Art and Essay CICAE Prize); the Swiss film Un autre homme by Lionel Baier, a well-crafted dark comedy about becoming a film critic; and Feast of Villains (Liu Mang De Sheng Yan) by Chinese filmmaker Jianlin Pan, a hard, unrelenting scrutiny of Chinese society, zeroing in on its economic hardships and its sprawling black market of human organs. Korean Daytime Drinking was a light and funny road trip into the pangs of adolescent love. First time director Young-seok Noh worked on almost every aspect of the film: script, cinematography, sound, music –composition and interpretation. The aesthetics of Dioses (Josué Méndez), a portrayal of the vacuous lives of the rich Peruvian bourgeoisie, both adults and teenagers, was reminiscent of Antonioni’s works, while lacking the Italian master’s underlying moral conundrums and failing to come up with a strong ending. Other notable films include The Market – A Tale of Trade, a spot-on parable about commerce by British filmmaker Ben Hopkins set in Eastern Turkey, which won Best Male Actor, and Gideon Koppel’s Sleep Furiously, a wonderful visual poem on the soon-to-be extinct ways of a small town in Wales. The film that was awarded the Don Quijote Prize was Kirill Serebrennikov’s Yuriev Den, Yuri’s Day, a Russian picture which called to mind both Tarkovsky and David Lynch, yet displayed a strong personal style. Yuri’s Day excelled in all aspects, be it acting, script, cinematography, social significance or dialog, each part connecting to the overall form and meaning. Serebrennikov’s picture also received the Youth Jury Prize (worth 6’000 Swiss francs) as well as a special mention from the Ecumenical Jury.

La forteresse (Fernand Melgar), a heartfelt, unbiased Swiss documentary about a holding centre for people seeking asylum in Switzerland, won the Filmmakers of the Present Competition. Esteban Larrain’s Alicia en el pais was awarded a Special Jury Prize in this same competition. This beautiful, slow-paced movie restages a young girl’s 180 kilometer walk through southern Bolivia, reflecting the country’s economic situation while acting as a reminder of an ancient Inca initiation into adulthood. Sean Baker’s Prince of Broadway received a special mention. This low budget movie convincingly mixes New York grit with a tale of immigration and fatherhood, partially thanks to the lead character, played by Prince Adu, a non professional actor who instilled a lot of his own experiences and style into the story.

The festival also paid tribute to the realist and allegorical films of Amos Gitaï, a well-known Israeli filmmaker. A Locarno specialty, the retrospective was extensive, comprising not only the works of the Italian cineaste Nanni Moretti, but also a selection of films chosen by the artist himself.

Beyond the bets on which films were going to be awarded prizes, many informal conversations in and about the Piazza involved guessing who would occupy the artistic director’s seat in 2009, as Frédéric Maire is scheduled to leave next year to head the Swiss Cinémathèque. There were heated public debates between the head of the cinema section of the Swiss Office for Culture, Nicolas Bideau, and the festival President Marco Solari, each vying for their own concept of what Locarno is supposed to be: on the one hand, a glamorous event filled with stars and a red carpet, on the other hand, a festival focused on film as an art form. One Swiss web magazine coined it this way: “Locarno, the silver screen rather than the red carpet.” The Locarno International Film Festival is an essential proving ground for film clubs and film club members, or for anyone seriously interested in the art of cinema: the retrospectives offer the opportunity to catch up on film history and the highly specialized selections showcase the newest art house cinema, even entering the field of contemporary art with sidebars such as Play Forward, which displays audio-visual experimentations. Let’s hope the festival will remain true to itself for a very long time, with many challenging movies and a light sprinkling of rain.