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Why a 32-Year-Old Film Festival is Struggling to Honor its Past

Why a 32-Year-Old Film Festival is Struggling to Honor its Past

Film festivals often cultivate a contradictory relationship with the cities where they take place. Cannes, for instance, serves as merely a flashy backdrop to a festival that is by design aimed at professionals and not the general public. But Berlin — despite hosting the second biggest film market after Cannes — is very well attended by the residents of the German capital who do not see the festival as an intrusion but as a palatable treat in their cultural diet. Locarno, a rather unexciting Swiss town, hosts one of Europe most daring and exploratory film festivals. But the story and artistic identity of the Turin Film Festival, which wrapped its 32nd edition last month, is inextricably linked to that of its hosting city.

Once the heartland of the manufacturing and car industry, Turin is a sort of Italian Detroit: During the late 70’s and early 80’s, the city saw its vast factory plants closing down or downsizing with drastic results. What had once been the backdrop of immigration from southern Italy, worker’s revolts and rampant capitalism seemed to be destined to become yet another post-industrial ghost town. But a solid literary tradition (Turin was and still is the main center of the publishing industry in Italy) — and relatively enlightened cultural policies — granted the city a new life, one where culture and cinema played an important role. Unfortunately, the festival has lost some of that appeal — but not for lack of trying.

Struggling With the Past

The first edition of the Turin Film Festival dates back to 1982, and was animated by a group of young cinephiles who had just experienced the political fervor of the previous decade and were determined to bring the same enthusiasm and youthful perspective to their newly devised festival. The first 15 editions of the festival were in fact called “International Festival of Youth Cinema.” Works by Leos Carax, Jim Jarmusch and other, then relatively obscure, filmmakers were featured in the line-up of the first editions of the festival. Retrospectives were, and still are, one of the signature features of the festival, which has always matched the discovery of new talents with the historical context of the cinematic past.

Still, over the years, regulars have complained that the event has abandoned its fiercely independent roots and given way to more mainstream tendencies. The festival’s reputation took a hit few years ago when British director Ken Loach declined to accept a career prize the festival had awarded him following allegations that the cleaning staff hired by the festival organizers was being exploited and underpaid.

Very much in the vein of similar independent European film festivals such as Rotterdam, though never as internationally known as the famed Dutch festival, Turin has been struggling with cutbacks and the changing paradigms of the festival circuit for several years. A growing co-production forum and workshop, the Turin Film Lab has been gaining traction and receives a growing proportion of the festival budget (which this year couldn’t afford to even print a catalogue) and of industry delegates’ attention. For the past several years, the role of the Turin artistic director has been entrusted to famed Italian directors, though it is unclear the extent to which they are actually involved in the festival organization. After Nanni Moretti and Gianni Amelio took turns, the festival’s artistic direction was most recently entrusted to director Paolo Virì, whose “Human Capital” recently opened in the U.S. to little fanfare.

The Latest Edition

As is often the case with festival these days, the different sections and overall amount of films is too big for any one viewer to properly analyze. The strongest offers in the latest edition were in the sidebar sections, retrospectives or special programs; the main competition showcased the endless and toothless crop of “film festivals” films, a category whose very label suggests their predestined lifespan.

There were a few exceptions: “N-Capace,” directed by Eleonora Danco, is a singular hybrid creature halfway between documentary and inner travelogue, performance art and ethnographic satire. Appearing for the first time behind the camera, Danco, chiefly known in Italy for her work in experimental theater, stages a surreal road movie that starts in her native Terracina — a provincial town some 50 miles south-east of Rome — and takes her to the Italian capital, where the first-time director has lived and worked for the past few years. Looking for the elusive answers we all have concerning the meaning of life, age and sexuality, the director decided to pose the questions not to her own self but to the people she met on her semi-fictional road trip.

This year’s retrospective was dedicated to the known and lesser known output of the New Hollywood, including notable films such as “Americana,” directed by David Carradine, about a Vietnam vet refurbishing a rusty merry-go-round in a hostile Kansas citadel. The one truly surprising entry in the section was “The Jericho Mile,” Michael Mann’s directorial debut, an Emmy award-winning TV movie made for ABC. Set in the Folsom prison in California, the film centers around a bizarre and lonely convict, Larry “Rain” Murphy (Peter Strauss), who spends his “free” time running around the prison courtyard.

Steering clear from the gang warfare and the sectarian logics governing the prison, the protagonist is compelled to intervene when his African-American friend is conned and later killed by the white supremacist wing gang. Meanwhile, prison personnel is persuaded by an Olympic trainer of the inmate’s athletic potential and starts training him for the Olympic games.

An Accidental Tribute

This festival also unwillingly delivered a premature epitaph to Giulio Questi, one of Italy’s most original and unclassifiable directors, whose work was celebrated in Turin a few days prior to the director’s death.

Despite his 90 years of age, a very lively and witty Questi met Turin’s audience to recollect his picaresque career and incredible films (among his die-hard fans are the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Alex Cox). Though chiefly remembered for the three unique films he directed between 1967 and 1972, Questi was also a sublime (if not exactly prolific) storyteller. A collection of his short stories about his time in the resistance against Nazi-era fascism at the end of WWII was published last year.

An inspired lyricist, Questi’s experience with the armed guerrilla in the mountains of northern Italy is metaphorically exposed in his debut feature, “Django Kills,” one of the visionary peaks of the spaghetti western genre. The resistance against the bottomless horrors of nazi-fascism, personified in the film by a gang of black-dressed sadists, is not depicted as an act of heroism but rather as a gesture of moral duty.

A hallucinated, almost psychedelic western, “Django Kills” never romanticizes violence but shows instead its ugly face even when exercised for a legitimate purpose. While his debut was a peculiar western that suggests Luis Buñuel by way of David Cronenberg, his second feature was an elliptical deconstruction of the Giallo. Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Gina Lollobrigida, and scored by the avant-garde composer Bruno Maderna, the film takes place in a futuristic chicken farm where legless and armless chickens are bred to maximize profit.  It’s particularly striking how much liberty the director with such highly codified genres — the kind of freedom one would hope to find from younger generations of filmmakers, who could learn something form this recently departed legend.

And it’s younger filmmakers that Turin has historically championed, so it feels somewhat incongruous that the most cogent films seen in Turin came from the archives.Though many are the factors must be taken in consideration when assessing the artistic identity of a festival, the feeling is that TFF, like many others, is trying to fit too many shoes at once to the detriment of its illustrious history. There’s always next year.

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