Short History of the FIPRESCI Prize in Locarno

in 75th Locarno International Film Festival

by Peter Kremski

The 75th anniversary of the Locarno Film Festival might be an occasion to reflect once again on the festival’s eventful history. However, it also gives us a rare chance to look at the history of the FIPRESCI Prize, which has been awarded at the festival for 65 years – another splendid anniversary in itself. The first edition of the Locarno Film Festival was held in August 1946. That same year, the International Federation of Film Critics awarded its newly created FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in October.

Twelve years later, FIPRESCI began awarding a prize at Locarno as well. The first recipient was a young Italian writer who introduced himself to Locarno in 1958 with his debut The Little Apartment (El pisito), a Spanish production, making Spain the first country to be honoured by the critics in Locarno. The prize awarded to 30-year-old Marco Ferreri befits Locarno’s long reputation as the most exclusive festival for young talents.

The following year saw Richard Wilson, a longtime associate of Orson Welles, being awarded with the Prize for one of his own directorial achievements. His biographical gangster drama Al Capone with Rod Steiger in the title role won the critics’ favour in 1959.

In subsequent years, the FIPRESCI Prize has been awarded five times to a film from the United States. Karen Arthur won with her feature debut Legacy (1975) and Emile de Antonio with his docudrama In the King of Prussia (1983). Surprisingly, Hollywood director Francis Ford Coppola was also one of the American filmmakers awarded by critics at the festival. Certainly, Coppola was the winner with the biggest name in the history of the FIPRESCI Prize in Locarno. He was celebrated by critics for his artistically outstanding youth drama Rumble Fish in 1984.

Five awards handed out to American films over a period of 65 years isn’t so very many. FIPRESCI Prizes have been given to films from diverse nations all over the world. So far, 29 countries from four continents have received FIPRESCI Prizes, although there has yet to be a winner from Africa or Australia.

For a while, films from East Euopean countries proved to be especially successful in Locarno, with Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the Soviet Union earning 13 FIPRESCI Prizes and nine Special Mentions over the years.

This long wave of success began in 1959 with a Special Mention for the Polish WWII drama Farewells (Pożegnania), the second feature from Wojciech Has. A year later, the trend continued with the prize for the Czech WWII drama Higher Principle (Vyšší princip) by Jiří Krejčík, about the harrowing period of Nazi occupation in Czechia just after the assassination of infamous Reich-Protector Heydrich.

Then a new generation of Czech filmmakers, representing the New Wave of that country, found appreciation from critics in the early 60s. František Vláčil, Miloš Forman, Karel Kachyňa and Jan Němec gained Special Mentions, while Němec, Věra Chytilová, Jiří Menzel, Evald Schorm and Jaromil Jireš were awarded with the FIPRESCI Prize for their anthology film Pearls of the Deep (Perličky na dně) in 1965, to which each of them had contributed a segment. The film was taken by critics as a kind of manifesto-film of the Czech New Wave.

In the 70s, the heyday of internationally acclaimed New German Cinema, films from the Federal Republic of Germany moved to the fore in Locarno, winning the attention of critics. So, in the years 1976, 1977 and 1979 German films repeatedly won the FIPRESCI Prize. The first to win was Shirin’s Wedding (Shirins Hochzeit) by Helma Sanders-Brahms, the bitter recounting of a 20-year-old Turkish migrant woman’s tragic fate after her arrival in West Germany.

Prizes for Walter Bockmayer’s feature film debut Forever Jane (Jane bleibt Jane) and Ingemo Engström’s melancholy amour fou story Last Love (Letzte Liebe) followed. Two more FIPRESCI Prizes went to German films in the 90s: Michael Klier’s Eastern Cross (Ostkreuz) and Rosa von Praunheim’s Neurosia were the winners.

1976 was the first year in which a film from Switzerland was awarded: Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the year 2000 (Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l’an 2000) by Alain Tanner was a highly influential film in its time. Other Swiss prizewinners have included Nino Jacusso with Class Murmurs (Klassengeflüster) in 1982 and Reni Mertens & Walter Marti with their documentary Requiem in 1992.

Helma Sanders-Brahms, Ingemo Engström and Reni Mertens are three of the eighteen women directors who have won the FIPRESCI Prize in Locarno, beginning with the Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller for her feature debut The Lizards (I basilischi) in 1963. Other prizewinning female directors include Judit Elek from Hungary, Kira Muratova from Ukraine, Naomi Kawase from Japan, Urszula Antoniak from Poland, and most recently the Brazilian Maya Da-Rin in 2019. More than half of the prizes given to women have been awarded in the last 20 years, which shows that female directors are becoming more and more prominent.

However, Helma Sanders-Brahms had to share her prize with Alain Tanner. During the 70s, ex-aequo awards appeared to be very trendy. The years 1975 to 1980 saw six ex-aequo awards in a row. All in all, there have been nine ex-aequo awards over the years, the first one in 1963 and the latest in 1993.

These ex-aequo decisions were probably not the result of juries thinking it better to award two films instead of one. They were more likely a consequence of jury discussions running in two different directions, with critics not coming to an agreement on a single film. However, it is always more satisfying for juries when their discussion finally results in a unanimous decision.

The first time I sat on a FIPRESCI jury in Locarno back in 1998, I encountered a further problem. I felt a reluctance to support German films, in order to avoid the possible impression of an obvious kind of lobbyism.

From today’s perspective that is somewhat regrettable, since both German entries for the International Competition that year, Fatih Akin’s feature debut Short Sharp Shock (Kurz und schmerzlos) and Hans-Christian Schmid’s second movie 23, were really good and each of them could easily have been a well-deserved winner of the prize. Instead, our jury finally agreed upon the Spanish entry Tree of Cherries (L’arbre de les cireres) by Marc Recha, a visually subtle description of life in a Catalan village seen from the point of view of a young boy.

When I was on Locarno’s FIPRESCI jury again in 2014, one film left a deep impact on all five members from the very start. This was From What Is Before (Mula sa kung ano ang noon), a cinematic journey of more than five hours by Filipino director Lav Diaz. Then, during final discussions, each jury member shifted to support a different film. We finally came together to a unanimous decision, agreeing on the film we had all favoured at first.

So for the first time a Filipino film received a FIPRESCI Prize, and at the same time won, with rare unanimity, the prize of the official jury, the Golden Leopard. An overwhelming success for Lav Diaz, since this was his first time in the main competition of one of the most prestigious major international film festivals.

Since the 80s, there has been a continuous rise in Locarno’s FIPRESCI Prizes being awarded to films from Asia, beginning with the prize for a Taiwanese film in 1984 and Special Mentions for Japanese films in 1983 and 1986. Fifteen prizes have now been awarded to films from the Asian continent, along with four Special Mentions. The prizewinning countries include Lebanon, Singapore, South Korea and China – the latter has won four prizes alone.

This year, the prize went for the first time to a film from Malaysia, and it was also the first time that a Malay language film had been selected for Locarno’s International Competition. The FIPRESCI Prize for director Ming Jin Woo’s Stone Turtle gained wide attention in the Southeast Asian film community.

The film’s producer Edmund Yeo expressed immense joy about the prize on Facebook: “What a tremendous honour! Stone Turtle has received the FIPRESCI Prize at the Locarno Film Fest!!!! Many thanks to the International Federation of the Film Critics! So amazed to receive this historic award!!!”

Later, in an interview with the South China Morning Post, he made a further statement of gratitude: “The FIPRESCI Prize by the International Federation of Film Critics is one of the most historical and prestigious awards available in many of the world’s most important film festivals. Locarno Film Fest has been handing out the FIPRESCI Prize since 1958, and many of the great filmmakers I’ve admired, such as Francis Ford Coppola, Edward Yang and Lav Diaz, received it here before us.”

The FIPRESCI Prize was handed out this year to director Ming Jin Woo’s and producer Edmund Yeo’s Stone Turtle by the unanimous decision of our jury.

Peter Kremski
Edited by Lesley Chow