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Flush with the Promise of Discovery, the Locarno Fest at 62

Flush with the Promise of Discovery, the Locarno Fest at 62

The Locarno Film Festival

It is perhaps not too much of a challenge to wax on rhapsodically about the many seductive charms of the town of Locarno, perched as it is on the northern shores of Lake Maggiore, right at the foot of the Alps in Southern Switzerland. There are the stunning views across the lake, interrupted only by water skiers and windsurfers taking advantage of the temperate climate and glacial-clear waters; the palm trees (not something you’d typically associate with a Swiss way of life) rustling in the sweetly scented, early evening breeze; the gingerbread houses looking down over curving cobblestone streets, as they have for centuries.

The laid-back locals of this fairy-tale kingdom eat al fresco in its charming cafes, before sauntering through squares or riding spotless busses, chattering pleasantly in their native Italian. They seem to have conquered long ago (or probably just never adopted) any urge to check cell phones or PDA’s. Everyone seems well and truly in the moment, and why not? Each moment feels freshly minted and quite special.

Sixty-two years ago, faced with the imminent threat of fascism, the Festival del film Locarno was born in this place. And, while the festival takes full advantage of its bucolic surroundings, don’t be fooled into thinking that the programming of this festival — indisputably one of the world’s pre-eminent — is anything less than bold, provocative, challenging and utterly engrossing. These are guiding principles of the event, one that outgoing Artistic Director Frederic Maire has ably stewarded during his four-year tenure, and which new incoming programming head Olivier Pere, formerly the Director General of Cannes’ Directors Fortnight, will surely build upon in future editions.

The lakefront scene in Ascona, an easy 3 kilometer bus ride from Locarno, where many festival guests like to stay. Photo by Christian Gaines

Screening close to 400 films and spread across ten days in August, Locarno serves many constituents among the 180,000 spectators who flock to the region. It recently was brought under the “Top Events of Switzerland” umbrella, bringing together the country’s leading sports and cultural happenings, significantly bolstering its media coverage and positioning film in a constellation of events that encompasses horse racing, art, music, athletics and golf. So, the Swiss attend the event by the tens of thousands, not to mention hordes of European holidaymakers attracted by the beauty, the excitement and the multi-lingual ease (besides the official language of Italian, French, German and plenty of English are widely spoken) of visiting the region. Shops and cafes happily get into the spirit of the season, decorating windows, tables and anywhere the eye might travel with the leopard print pattern that is the festival’s signature.

In recent years however, an international film community comprised of producers, buyers, sellers and festival programmers have been coming to Locarno in steadily increasing numbers to preview new work from up and coming filmmakers, stealthily checking off titles and making deals before the mad rush of the Fall festival season swamps festival line-ups with Oscar hopefuls. Consequently, Locarno feels fresh, invigorating, flush with the promise of discovery yet serious about its responsibility to film history and culture.

Still, Locarno is not so austere that it won’t indulge in some large scale crowd-pleasing, as evidenced by its Opening Night selection, “(500) Days of Summer.” While a fixture on the North American festival circuit since its Sundance debut in January, Locarno served as the film’s European premiere, and the crowd of around 8,000 in the Locarno’s centerpiece venue, the glorious outdoor Piazza Grande, clearly enjoyed this dryly-humorous tale of loving and losing. And by the way, for big screen enthusiasts, seeing a film in Locarno’s spectacular Piazza Grande is to experience one of the best outdoor picture-and-sound happenings the planet has to offer. Add it to your bucket list.

A festival billboard on the platform at Locarno’s train station. Photo by Christian Gaines

Much of the festival’s discoveries could be found within the two main competitions – the International Competition and Filmmakers Of The Present sections. World premieres in the international competition embraced a wide swath of world cinema, including numerous international co-productions like “Plato’s Academy” (Greece/Germany) from director Filippos Tsitos or the first feature from London-based filmmaker Babak Julali, “Frontier Blues” (Iran/UK/Italy), which focuses on the inhabitants of the remote border zone between Iran and Turkmenistan. From the competition however, a highlight was certainly the bleak and uncompromising “Shirley Adams” a first feature from South African director Oliver Hermanus. Free of sentimentality, the film tells the story of Shirley as she cares for her son Donovan, paralyzed for life after a random shooting in the Cape Town slum in which they live. A simple story directly told, “Shirley Adams” manages to find grace in abandonment, love among racial turmoil and peace even in life’s cruel twists and turns.

Beyond the competitions, the festival has an impressive array of sidebars. Included in 2009 was a thorough overview of Japanese Manga featuring over 100 films in a single section, from landmark titles like “Akira,” “Ghost in the Shell,” “Perfect Blue,” “Spirited Away” and “Jim Roh: The Wolf Brigade,” to whole sections devoted to Manga “indie” upstart studio Gainax, and tributes to directors Yoshiyuki Tomino, Isao Takahata and Ichiro Itano. Locarno’s Manga Impact section was one of the most extensive and exhaustive approaches I have ever seen to any genre at any festival, and just a great example of the dedication with which this festival approaches the seriousness of its programming.

Since 2003, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) has worked with the Locarno International Film Festival on behalf of independent filmmakers the world over through the Open Doors program, designed to provide emerging filmmakers with invaluable exposure to the attending film industry. This year, the spotlight focused on independent films and film artists from the Chinese world — China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. In total, over 600 industry meetings were planned within the Open Doors program for these visiting guests, who represented 23 films all of which, like Liu Bingjian’s “Cry Woman,” Li Yang’s “Blind Shaft,” Lou Ye’s “Summer Palace” and Cheng Yu-chieh’s “Yang Yang,” have carved out their place in world cinema.

Like any organic and ambitious event, Locarno was not without its occasional battles with the forces of entropy, including the last minute cancellation of Polish directing legend Andrzej Wajda, who’s advancing age prevented him from making the trip to Locarno, but didn’t prevent him from writing a touching letter of thanks and apologies which was promptly published in the festival’s daily newspaper. But most exciting (perhaps more for me than the festival’s dedicated crew) was the steadily gathering storm on the first Friday of the festival, resulting in an unrelenting downpour as night fell, replete with cacophonous thunder and continuous ribbons of lightening. This caused some momentary chaos on the Piazza Grande as thousands rushed for the shelter of an alternate venue planned for just such an occasion. Most took it in their stride however, considering a little rain on a warm summer night to be fair trade for the good fortune to be in a place as enchanting as Locarno, faced with the prospect of abundant cinematic treasures in the week ahead.

Christian Gaines is the Director of Festivals at Withoutabox, a division of IMDb.com

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