Surprising Award Choices

in 76th Locarno International Film Festival

by Nada Azhari Gillon

The Locarno Film Festival, held over ten days from August 2–12, 2023, is considered to be among the top ten in the world. With eleven sections, three competitions and 20 awards, this year’s 76th edition was surprising in some award choices. 

The main jury was chaired by the French actor Lambert Wilson and his fellow jury members included the Iranian-French actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi (winner in Cannes 2022); Lesli Klainberg, director of film at the Lincoln Center; British director Charlotte Wells; and Matthijs Wouter Knol, CEO of the European Film Academy. The jurors decided to award the Golden Leopard, along with a financial prize of 75,000 Swiss francs, to the Iranian-German production Critical Zone (Mantagheye Bohrani) by Iranian director Ali Ahmadzadeh, considering the film “a hymn to freedom and resistance in Iran.” The film tells the story of one night in a semi-deserted Tehran. It was shot without permission of the Iranian regime, using real people and not actors; Ahmadzadeh (b. 1986) wrote and edited the film.

Critical Zone shows characters and situations not usually seen in Iranian films circulating at international festivals. It was filmed in secret and gives a glimpse into the city’s underworld in a murky, strange way. Tehran seems to be a hotbed for drug dealers, addicts, perverts and madmen who find their only refuge in this despicable life. The conditions forced the director to divide the shooting into ten short films, from which his final full-length version was completed. The crew was small: the main actor, director, cameraman and sound operator.

A small hand-held camera was used to secretly film some scenes at the airport, where the director slipped into the queues to avoid drawing attention. At times, he resorted to using fake permits, and at other times to bribing the police. “I took advantage of all these circumstances to motivate him and the staff to say what he wanted to say as a director,” said the Iranian-German producer who delivered a speech upon receiving the award, as Ahmadzadeh was unable to leave Iran. In his speech, the producer urged the world to stand with the Iranian people. He also gave an interview to the festival newsletter about the film and the conditions imposed on filming, concluding with the remark that he learned how the regime works in Iran: “The more a person is in the spotlight, the safer he becomes.”

The result violated many expectations, especially among critics, many of whom put their stakes on Do not Expect too much from the End of the World (Romania/Luxembourg/France/Croatia) by Romanian director Radu Jude. However, this film won the Special Jury Prize with a cash award of 30,000 Swiss francs. Jude gave a fiery speech that was not devoid of a sense of humour, but also protesting also a lack of neutrality in the Swiss position towards Russia in the war on Ukraine.

Jude’s 163-minutes-long film is about work, exploitation, death and the new gig economy. Overworked and underpaid, Angela drives around Bucharest to cast for a “safety at work video”, as required and commissioned by a multinational company (German-Austrian). The film exposes how these companies try to blame the workers.

The award for Best Direction went to Maryna Vroda for the Ukrainian movie Stepne (Ukraine/Germany/Poland/Slovakia), a humanely profound film. She finished filming before the war in Ukraine. The film evokes the topic of disappearance, departure and parting with something valuable, and the silence of past generations about their history in post-Soviet society. Stepne is the story of Anatoliy, a man who returns home to care for his dying mother. A meeting with his brother and a woman he loves leads him to reflect on his choices.

The French documentary Dark Night (Nuit obscure, au revoir ici, n’importe où) by Sylvain George received a special mention from the jury. Over several years, the director observed a Spanish enclave in Morocco: the march of minor youth from Morocco trying to cross to “paradise” and reach Europe by any means. By portraying with a sensitive camera and an aesthetic gaze – despite the ugliness of the situation and children living on the streets – he showed how a resistant personality gradually takes shape of his heroes.

Nada Azhari Gillon
Edited by Birgit Beumers