An Overview: The Urban Jungle, and the Other Kind By Radovan Holub

in 60th Locarno International Film Festival

by Radovan Holub

The Locarno International Film Festival made for a pleasant stopover between Karlovy Vary and Venice (and eclectic Toronto), offering many films which had not been screened at previous festivals. Some were called discoveries; some of them actually were. The films in Locarno’s two main sections — the International Competition, and the Filmmakers of the Present series — were generally arthouse-oriented and talent driven, highlighting “new directors and new ways of telling stories”, as festival director Frédéric Maire underlined. The Piazza Grande film section offered a spectacular and commercial counterpoint to these two, which was gratifying. But not all of the arthouse fare was stylish enough, or comprehensible enough, or story-driven enough; I even had a feeling that some of the films were being hailed as discoveries simply as a willful act of art snobbery. But if we just consider the 18 films in the International Competition, five or six of which were highly notable, that doesn’t seem like such a bad ratio.

A few days of rain served to remind us how important a blue sky is for this festival, which takes place not only in cinemas but also in the streets, in the hi-tech tents and, of course, on Piazza Grande.

I mostly saw films in the International Competition and Filmmakers of the Present sections. A number of the competition films seemed to share a common theme, exploring the limits of the relationship between man and nature. This theme appeared in the Welsh production Sleep Furiously; in the Italo-Romanian-French Black Sea (Mar nero); in the Turkish-German co-production Autumn (Sonbahar); in the French-Canadian Story of Jen (with its images of Canadian spruce forests scarred by bark beetles), and the Korean Daytime Drinking, not to mention the German-Austrian-Swiss co-production North Face (Nordwand), about the spectacular ascension of the Eiger in 1936, which was screened in the Piazza Grande series.

The Chilean-Mexican co-production Alice in the Land (Alicia en el pais), a world premiere in the Filmmakers of the Present competition, was a perfect example of a film that oscillates between man and the natural world. Chilean director Esteban Larraín follows the solitary 180 km journey of a 13-year-old Incan girl from the Quechua tribe as she walks on foot from her village in southern Bolívia to the tourist town of San Pedro, looking for work in northern Chile — and sent back shortly after her uneasy arrival, as the concluding titles inform us. Alícia is a girl living in harmony with nature. Surprisingly, she does not need any “Northern Face” overalls or mountaineering shoes to traverse the tricky, inhospitable landscape of rocks, cliffs and snow — a landscape that’s slowly changing into salt desert and upland savanna, with marshlands whose natural colors are changing from white to reddish-green. We can only wonder how she survived, as there was no evidence of civilization along her way but for some shepherds. In flashbacks, we are shown Quechuan memories from this girl’s earlier life.

The idea of nature as a kind of cinematic challenge appears in an increasing number of important Latin American films. Even European filmmakers are being inspired by the notion, as we see in Kornél Mundruzcó’s Delta.

The Romanian Danube Delta, with all its picturesque gloom, plays its important role also in Federico Bondi’s competition entry Black Sea. Perhaps one of the most daring films to highlight the relationship between nature and civilization was the Swiss competition film Un Autre Homme, made by the very talented Swiss filmmaker Lionel Baier. He sets his film in the Joux Valley in the Swiss Jura, where the main character François finds a job in the local newspaper as a film critic (!). Traveling from home to the office, he gets to experience the feeling of taking a life when he runs over a fox.

But let us admit this “natur pur” stream is just one faint trend in modern cinema. Most of the Locarno films remained with event-packed cities which are the Promised Land of the contemporary cinema that focuses on human relationships and human action. Urban cinema had a few brilliant moments in Locarno — as in, for instance, the Irish film Kisses. Perfectly acted, the film is set in the outskirts of Dublin with an unforgettable scene on a ferry taking Dylan and Kylie, both children of dysfunctional families, to the capital. Writer-director Lance Daly tells the story of both children (played by screen newcomers Shane O’Neill and Shane Curry) as both fairy tale and social realism, road movie and urban tale, capturing the city in all its magic, tenderness and violence.

The most pessimistic film of the competition, the Chinese Feast of Villains (Liu mang de sheng yan) is a typical urban story about a delivery boy trying to save his gravely ill father. Fu-gui is desperate, and reads a street advertisement seeking human organ sellers. After some hesitation, the young man sells his kidney to organ traffickers; we’re told the kidney is sold onward by traffickers to a Japanese client for 800,000 Yuan, or approximately 100,000 US dollars. Part of that amount goes to the director of the hospital. The donor himself gets nothing in the end, in spite of the fact that he was promised 100,000 Yuan. Exploitative capitalism is revealed as utterly pitiless; there is no hope in contemporary China, the film says, for somebody who is down and out.

The black market, and how a simple man operates within its rules, is depicted to far better effect in Sean Baker’s urban drama Prince of Broadway, the story of “Lucky”, an illegal immigrant from Ghana now living in New York City and working as a hustler for an Armenian-Lebanese junk shop selling knock-offs of high-end fashions and shoes from Gucci, Nike and Armani. “We have everything,” Lucky tells potential shoppers. But he really does get “everything” when a junkie ex-girlfriend forces him to take in a two-year-old child — called Prince of Broadway — whom she says is his. This is how the story begins, at any rate. To quote the Locarno catalogue: “Performed by a largely non-professional cast, Prince of Broadway was filmed in less than 35 days in the shadow of the Flatiron Building, in the hurly-burly of Broadway.” It’s a typical US independent film, produced with a handful of great ideas, some humor, a sense of reality and no sleight-of-hand trickery — and with a happy ending. The comment in the catalogue calls it “urban guerilla style”.

Our last stopover is Asia, the special focus of Locarno 2008 despite the fact that most of this year’s important films were set in Latin America. The Polish documentary film Kites (Latawce, presented in the Critics’ Week) shows that the documentary genre is really blossoming in modern cinema, and finds the borders between fiction and documentary are blurring.

The urban jungle of Kabul, Afghanistan is seen through many eyes in this film — first, through the eyes of Polish filmmaker and lecturer Jacek Szaranski, who leads a documentary workshop at an art school in Kabul, then through the eyes of his students, who are making different documentary shorts on the hardships of life in this poor but proud country, and then by the eyes of director Beata Dzianowicz herself. This admirable film doesn’t just contain questions and answers about how the subject matter of a documentary should be grasped, how it should be described and to what extent directed and organized; it doesn’t just show how the theory is mediated to the students. It also contains striking sketches of the city, showing how disabled children from sick or scattered families survive. It shows the slaughter of a cow, and the struggle of a girl who works as a water carrier. It shows children weaving carpets, and a boy who lost his leg to a mine blast in the Taliban era when he ran into a minefield after a lost kite.

“We do not know who our enemy is, and where he is from”, one of the film’s subjects says to the student holding the camera. And we’re left to admire the firm man, who is just happy to have some flour, water and oil.