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Dispatch from Locarno: Swiss Festival Unspools Discoveries, Cutting-Edge Work

By Torene Svitil

The Locarno International Film Festival combines a spectacular lakeside setting in Switzerland, near the Italian border, and an easy-going resort vibe with an eclectic program of provocative films. The third oldest festival in Europe—this year was its 66th edition—and better known there than in the US, Locarno has a diverse mix of innovative and traditional film that draws locals, international film enthusiasts and industry pros. The city takes it all in good spirits: Shop windows, trash cans and rentable bicycles flash the leopard spots of the festival's symbol, and residents turn out in force for the popular open-air screenings in the Piazza Grande.

Although the Swiss festival offers crowd-pleasers and retrospectives of popular cineastes, programming during Carlo Chatrian's first year as artistic director reaffirms the festival's dedication to discoveries and cutting-edge work. That's also true for nonfiction films, which appear in virtually all festival sections.  

Pays Barbare, by longtime filmmaking partners Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, illustrates that commitment to films that stretch the medium. The directors' work repurposes archival materials with the express aim of commenting on the present through the past. Here, they assemble and manipulate negatives, photograms and other materials collected by private individuals during the Italian colonization of Libya and Ethiopia. Juxtaposing images of eroticized Africans, military displays, Europeans at play and at official gatherings, the filmmakers  invite us to think about the way perceived ideas of exoticism, primitivism and barbarism permit and perpetrate atrocities. 

Art intersects ethnography in the rigorously structural Manakamana, the first long-form doc by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez. For the approximately ten-minute length of a 16mm reel, a stationary camera records the occupants of a cable car carrying pilgrims to and from the Manakamana temple in Nepal. Eleven times, the car empties in the dark station and new occupants take their places. Silent, talkative, young, old, men, women (and goats!), some play to the camera, others try to ignore it. With no camera moves or edits to direct the eye, viewers create their own compositions and narratives and ultimately confront their own act of observing.  Manakamana took home first prize in the Filmmakers of the Present competition.


From Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez's Manakamana. Courtesy of Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez


Locarno's centerpiece venue is the Piazza Grande, where audience-friendly films screen each night to around 8,000 viewers. A documentary about the polarizing far-right Swiss politician and banker Christoph Blocher doesn't seem like a natural for this venue, but Jean-Stéphane Bron's L'Expérience Blocher filled most of the seats, no doubt a result of the profound effect Blocher has had on Swiss politics and economics. (He worked to keep Switzerland out of the European Union and he is fiercely anti-immigration.) Much of the documentary consists of interviews conducted in the subject's car, with Bron adding his own leftist perspective in voiceover. Not being a local, I had difficulty understanding the intricacies of Blocher's career, which may have contributed to my feeling that Bron never really penetrated the image Blocher cannily manages.  

One of Locarno's major documentary showcases, the Semaine de la critique, features a week of international or world premiers selected by members of the Swiss Association of Film Journalists and Critics. Watermarks—Three Letters from China, by Luc Schaedler, takes an anthropological approach to economic realities in three regions of China. In the drought-stricken north, young people driven from the farm by harsh conditions must find work in factories or in the coal mines.  Jiuxiancun in the lush, rainy south, while economically stronger, is still dealing with the after effects of the cultural revolution, trying to balance the dictates of the new China with the collectivism of the past. A 19-year-old woman in metropolitan Chongqing, where capitalism is taking hold, leaves behind her adopted family's fishing life on the polluted Yangtze to work in a restaurant. Their candid, thoughtful and often emotional words reveal individuals caught between reality and their hopes for the future.


From Luc Schaedler's Watermarks--Three Letters from China.


Globalization dramatically affects developing countries with natural resources ripe for exploitation. Rachel Boynton's well-researched and even-handed Big Men follows the ongoing development of Ghana's oil industry, comparing it to the disastrous state of affairs in Nigeria. The slickest of the selections that I saw, the doc profited from Boynton's excellent access to oil executives, Ghanaian officials and Nigerian activists who are presented with all their contradictions.


From Rachel Boynton's Big Men.


Winner of a social-ethical prize, Flowers from the Mount of Olives, Heilika Pikkov's first feature, profiles an 85-year-old Estonian nun, whose unusual path to a Russian Orthodox convent in Jerusalem took her through three marriages, drug addiction, translating for the Nazis, and a long career in cancer research. Although the director's observational style was frustrating at times, leaving me with unanswered questions, Pikkov achieved a remarkable intimacy with her subject. 

Five short docs made up Focus Syria, one of several sections centered on a specific region. Two of the five depict conditions in Syria prior to the revolution. Black Stone (2006), by Nidal Al-Dibs, chronicles the lives of four children in a poverty-stricken area just outside Damascus, who help support their families by collecting and selling scrap metal. Reem Ali's Zabad (2008) poignantly observes a Syrian family considering emigration for political reasons but distressed at leaving behind the wife's schizophrenic brother. Both films were banned in Syria. 

Randa Maddah's ravishing Light Horizon, filmed in a Syrian village on the Golan Heights bombed by Israeli forces in 1967, wordlessly evokes, in one seven-and-a-half minute shot, the human need to recapture home space after devastating destruction. True Stories of Love, Life, Death and Sometimes Revolution, by Nidal Hassan and Lilibeth Rasmussen, was originally meant to examine the situation of women in Syria, but when anti-government protests broke out the day shooting was to begin, the filmmakers' focus inevitably changed. They traveled the country recording demonstrations, artists, activists and ordinary people as well as their own difficulties while filming. The resulting rough-edged collage reflects the torn emotions and chaos of the early days of the revolution. 

During the post-screening discussion with Hassan, Maddah and Hisham Al-Zouki, moderated by programmer Lorenzo Esposito and Paris-based Syrian director Hala Alabdalla, the filmmakers talked about the difficulties they face in bringing Syrian narratives to the outside world. Al-Zouki, whose film Untold Stories follows the developing activism of a young woman traveling from Damascus to her home town, made his film to acknowledge the often overlooked role of women in the revolution, but also to show the reality on the ground to a public that generally knows only accounts shaped by the news media. A regime threatened by the power of images has terrorized, jailed and sometimes executed filmmakers and other artists in the opposition. Al-Zouki, who had been previously jailed for seven years, currently lives in Norway. Hassan was detained for several months. Reem Ali escaped to Lebanon and is without a passport. Asked how they can continue to work under these conditions, Hassan admitted that they themselves don't know how to go forward.

Other short and medium-length docs screened in the Pardi di Domani competition for filmmakers who have not yet made a feature film. Christina Picchi's Zima, a lyrical 12-minute portrait of winter in northern Siberia, and one of only two docs in the international competition, won second prize.  

Locarno screens such a rich array of nonfiction films that it wasn't possible to see all or even most of them. Among those I missed were the final four installments of Werner Herzog's Death Row series (Herzog was also feted with the Pardo d'onore Swisscom, a career achievement award.); Joaquim Pinto's E Agora? Lembra Me, winner of a special jury prize; Luis Patiño's Costa da Morte; and Thom Anderson's Red Hollywood. 

Torene Svitl is a Los Angeles-based consultant and writer.