There’s an inherent absurdity to the mascot of the Locarno Film Festival, a spotted leopard that crawls across the screen before each projection: There are no accounts of such big cats roaming the Swiss Alps that surround the festival, which begins its sixty-eighth edition today.
However, from an institutional perspective, many festivals need some animal to provide a tangible shape to their proceedings: Locarno gives out the Golden Leopard; Berlin has the Golden Bear. Mar de Plata, on the coast of Argentina, has a sea lion for a logo. Cannes has no animal (unless one considered its beastly reputation as indicative of a species unto itself).
While Locarno’s leopard may not make sense geographically, it fits the programming style at this bountiful festival, which showcases a broad variety of international work. With 179 features from 51 countries, the lineup is spry, calculated and has plenty of bite. Locarno’s massive Piazza Grande section crams upwards of 8,000 people into the outdoor arena each night for films programmed on the big screen, including this year’s opening entry “Ricki and the Flash,” “Trainwreck” and “Southpaw.” But such big titles are in the minority. Locarno’s International Competition and Filmmakers of the Present sections generally showcase smaller, more experimental works, many of which are world premieres.
It’s here that internationally renowned auteurs such as Poland’s Andrzej Zulawski (“Cosmos”) brush shoulders with newcomers such as Josh Mond, whose debut feature “James White” first screened at Sundance, and rising arthouse figures such as Athina Rachel Tsangari (following up her sleeper hit “Attenberg” with “Chevalier” just a few months before her artist’s residency at the Film Society of Lincoln Center). Many of the films in these sections wind up screening in considerably larger festivals later in the year, such as Toronto and Venice, with smaller profiles. Locarno, however, creeps up each summer to complicate the festival circuit just before it gets hectic.
Locarno’s artistic director, Carlo Chatrian, is a bit leopard-like himself: A slender man with frizzled hair and a focused gaze, he slinks about the festival with an air of understatement that belies the sheer mania of assembling a program for thousands of people and seeing it through to the end. Late Tuesday night, in between meetings at his office behind the Piazza Grande, a bleary-eyed Chatrian sat down with Indiewire to explain how this year’s festival fits an agenda designed to have an impact on global film culture.
Now that you’ve been doing this for three years, how would you describe the identity of the festival?
Locarno is a place for supporting really independent cinema — films that try to challenge the market. Of course, I’m thinking mainly about the competition. For the Piazza Grande section, it’s a bit different. For the main competition, when I select a film that I know that it needs to be in Locarno. It might be recognized as a difficult work that could eventually find a market, even if it’s small.
Do you mean that you’re finding the commerciality in non-commercial films?
Well, I wouldn’t use the word “commercial,” but it’s to help increase the marketability of films that at the beginning have less of it. There is a kind of community that really wants to support cinema and try to enlarge the market. One example I have from last year is Eugene Green’s “La Sapienza.” It was clearly a challenging film that dealt with architecture from the Renaissance, with a very unnatural way of acting. It was a peculiar story. But it found a distributor for the U.S. here [Kino Lorber] and was well-recognized by critics.
How do you define success for a film like that?
Of course, we’re talking about a small part of the market. But maybe because it’s tiny, that means it can reach its audience. In that sense, Locarno is something real. Another example from last year is Pedro Costa’s “Horse Money,” which traveled everywhere. But it also got small distribution in several countries while it was here. That is very relevant.
That’s the goal now for everyone, not just Locarno. Productions are becoming more plentiful, but the number of films being distributed is the opposite. Every festival director is asking himself, “What am I supposed to do?” We all love cinema in our own way. When we see one result, even if it’s not huge, it makes us more confident to take risks. This year, in the competition, we have films that are very challenging. I will be surprised if some of them find distribution.
That calls for an example.
Well, I think that Chantal Akerman’s new film, “No Home Movie,” is very difficult. A film is a contract between the director and the audience. I am the matchmaker who makes that contract possible. If you accept the contract with Chantal Akerman — and you’ll know within the first 10 minutes what kind of contract it is — then you will be rewarded. Like any other film she has done in the past, it works with length. It demands a different relationship with time, and a different editing style that’s non-linear and non-narrative. But that has meaning. The film addresses a way of seeing the world.
On the other hand, Athina Rachel Tsangari’s “Chevalier” is a very narrative-heavy film in which the work of the director is very different. She works with every actor differently. She has composed a difficult acting mosaic on a microcosmic level, because the whole film takes place on a boat. The contract is completely different.
Going back to previous success stories, what’s this year’s “La Sapienza”?
Well, I don’t know. That’s a good thing — every year is a surprise. Last year, the films I knew would do well were Lav Diaz’s “From What is Before” and Costa’s “Horse Money.” I was confident about others, but “La Sapienza” was a surprise. It’s not my duty before the festival to say which films are going to do well.
But what do you consider to be significant discoveries?
The competition this year has quite a number of very well-known directors, at least half. Among the others, the French one, “Suite Americaine,” is from a director who made a film nine years ago that was well-received called “Illumination.” She came back with something that’s completely new, a project that’s very complex, dealing with memory and a very interesting script. It’s also quite fresh for French cinema.
The Spanish film, “The Football,” is much smaller. It challenges the boundaries between documentary and fiction. The Israeli film “Tikkun” is quite visionary and provocative. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a strong film in Locarno like “Lost and Beautiful,” from Italy’s Pietro Marcello. It reminds me of Pasolini’s work. It has a buffalo with a voice. Our goal is that we try to put every film in competition because it is meant to be there.
Outside competition, Argentina’s Benjamin Naishtat has a film in the Filmmakers of the Present section called “El Movimento” that’s reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah [the subject of the festival’s annual retrospective]. And we have films coming from countries not well-represented. Iran is back with a first feature in the main competition. We really believe in it. We have a film from Cambodia not made by Rithy Panh, but rather a very young director, and it deals with Cambodia’s new society. We have a film from India. So in terms of scouting, we got a good response.
You have four American films in the Piazza Grande section — “Southpaw,” “Trainwreck,” “Ricki and the Flash” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” These are movies with obvious broader appeal. Do the other films in the section, which have lower profiles, have similar appeal?
It’s a matter of perspective. For European audiences, the other films also have quite known actors. Cecilia Frances is quite well known because of her career with the Dardennes and other French films. Marthe Keller [the star of “Amnesia”] is well-known in Switerland. So is Carmen Maura [a star of “La Vanité”]. Then we have the Indian film, “Bombay Velvet,” which is not about stars. But that means we can combine this program into a way for audiences to journey through the world with films that are cinematically engaging. But it is, as you said, not only for cinephiles — it’s for a wider audience.
How has this programming experience for so many different sensibilities impacted your own relationship to the movies?
I’m becoming more aware of the power that the market has for every kind of cinema. Also, I started to understand that there is room to do something to help other films to be seen by a number of audiences beyond Locarno. The festival is more of a platform to launch films. When you see a small documentary film, like “Costa da Morte,” which went on to play at 70 festivals, it shows you that there’s a need to launch these kinds of films.
Of course, I’m not blind. Other festivals face other kinds of pressures. I don’t think Locarno should be the new Cannes. We don’t have the infrastructure for that. Even if we had the power for it, we have different goals.
If you have a big lineup with all the big international names — Dardennes, Desplechin, Garrell, etc. — then, of course, there’s less room for other filmmakers even if you put them in the same lineup. In Locarno, the challenge is to find a good balance. For me, the biggest risk is to put a film like Zuwalski’s “Cosmos,” which is completely crazy, in competition. But my duty is to support this kind of director who’s working outside of the system. Sometimes the risk is more rewarding than others. It doesn’t matter. We have to go for it. There is room for more films and we’re in a good place to support them.
Is it still exciting for you?
If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to do the job. It’s quite exhausting, especially for the last month and half. But you’re rewarded with the impact when a film is embraced by the audience and the director is happy.