New Director - Average Competition By Peter Holdener

in 58th Locarno International Film Festival

by Peter Holdener

The biggest of the small or smallest of the big film festivals in Europe, as the International Film Festival Locarno, in the Italian speaking part in the South of Switzerland calls itself, ended after eleven days with a new record of sold tickets, with a surprise in the official competition and with a pale new artistic director.

The 59th edition of the Festival left a mixed impression behind. 78,000 spectators in the open-air cinema Piazza Grande and 114,200 in the cinemas made the new audience record of 192,600 possible. That means that the mainstream public, most of them tourists in the Southern part of Switzerland, becomes much more important than the cinéphiles. 4,221 accreditations, 1,048 of them journalists, is another figure that is impressive. On the other hand, reduce the newspapers and magazines from the main German part of Switzerland (including their reports about the festival) and they seem to lose their interest in this the biggest film event that happens in this small country.

New Director Frédéric Maire

For the new artistic director Frédéric Maire it was not easy to follow in the steps of Irene Bignardi. Maire, a film critic and co-founder of a nationwide children’s movie screening series, needs more time to leave important footnotes and his own signature on the festival. He had a very spectacular ending to his work during the evening before the final night of the festival on the big stage at the Piazza Grande. He collapsed and had to be taken to the hospital for several days. Festival aficionados reported that Maire’s bad condition was caused by long nightshifts together with Ari Kaurismäki. 23 of his own films screened in the retrospective section, 20 movies selected by himself as carte blanche and a very interesting book with a long interview, co-published with Cahiers du Cinéma, allowed us to re-discover the Finnish director with the special humoristic flavour.

Oversized Competition

In general the new artistic director reduced the total number of films and videos screened from 493 to 407 (short-films, middle and long-métrages). But the International Competition was too big. Why select 21 movies if there are only half of them that have the quality to deserve screening? This should be a point to address in the future. The artistic team has to do its work and make a much more serious effort to avoid a weak competition. The target has to be to make a strong competition even if it is not easy attracting premieres to Locarno shortly before the festivals of Venice and San Sebastian.

The Official Prize Winners

So, for the FIPRESCI jury it was not easy to discover the interesting and outstanding works among the ones that do not fit into such a competition. Maybe it was easier for the international jury to find a decision than for the film critics. The official jury selected Body Rice (O Céu Que Nos Impede, directed by Hugo Vieira da Silva, Portugal) as special mention, Le dernier des fous (directed by Laurent Achard, France and Belgium) for the best director, Amber Tamblyn in Stephanie Daley (directed by Hillary Brougher, USA) and Burghart Klaussner in The Man from the Embassy (Der Mann von der Botschaft, directed by Dito Tsintsadze, Germany) for the best male and female actor and Half Nelson (directed by Ryan Fleck, USA) as the special prize. These decisions seem to be fair, objective and can be discussed.

First Film and First Prize as Surprise

But why they have given the Pardo d’Oro, the first prize to The Waitress (Das Fraeulein) by Andrea Staka (Switzerland/Germany) is a real mystery. It is a smaller oeuvre, a television movie about immigration. Three women are standing in the middle of their fight for acceptance and respect around a cantina in a big city. Even if it is the first long-métrage for Andrea Staka, you can feel the strong personality of Samir who produced the movie. The Waitress is, in its pictures, rhythms and cuttings, very close to Snow White, Samir’s own latest film. The acting by the female lead characters is of a high quality, but to give the first prize seems to be a tribute to the hosting country of the film festival.

Switzerland’s Strong Documentaries

Seven days, seven films, the programme of the Semaine de la Critique, the Critic’s Week to follow was much more of interest. And it figured out, respectively proofed, that documentaries are the strong part of the Swiss film scene. Three world premieres coming from Swiss directors have been screened. Each of them is very strong, even if they are directed completely differently.

Critic’s Week as Highlight

Hardcore Chambermusic by Peter Liechti is an amalgam of 30 days concentrated live performances of a three piece band improvising their own music. An excellent work by the director and musicians, artificial but never forgets the body. Opposite that Alpine Saga (Das Erbe der Bergler) by Erich Langjahr is five years hard work behind humorous pictures of haymaking in the high Alps of the central part of Switzerland. The director is always lucky in finding strong characters and beautiful pictures apart the idyllic postcard themes. The winning film of the Critic’s Week was Zeit des Abschieds by Mehdi Sahebi. This filming document of a dying man goes absolutely to the heart. A father, also a junkie, is a strong man in a dying body that we follow during his final months until the end, passing away in the arms of two nurses. Mehdi Sahebi had the good sense to let his camera run, even during uncomfortable moments.

Into The Future

Next year will be the 60 year jubilee of the International Film Festival Locarno. Maybe then the new film tower, at a height of 70 meters with five screens, will be opened by the Major of the City of Locarno, Carla Speciali, as proposed. But the festival itself should think about the possibility of making out of two competitions only one. This means to bring together the International Competition and the Competition Filmmakers of the Present. This should guarantee a minimal quality of the films and an interesting competition to follow. It makes no sense to have two different competitions that are that close to each other. Hopefully the status of the FIPRESCI jury will also be cleared during the next twelve months as the film critics jury is far out of the focus, hidden behind several minor juries.