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Locarno took an explicit political turn this year

Locarno International Film Festival 2004

It is common knowledge since Lenin's famous statement that film and politics are very intricately connected. This was nicely demonstrated by this year's Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. More surprisingly, this year even the Locarno Film Festival, traditionally associated with young, off mainstream and world cinema, also took an explicitly political turn.

The Locarno Film Festival was always the odd one out on the European festival scene. After the three big festivals (Cannes, Venice, Berlin) Locarno is undoubtedly the most highly regarded one in (Western) Europe. At the same time, Locarno has always been known for its preference for experimental, off mainstream films and for young and world cinema. Perhaps it is exactly this preference that made Locarno gain the reputation of being the film festival where only artistic quality matters. As the three big festivals became increasingly market-oriented and dominated by films that are catering for conventional taste, Locarno turned more and more towards less conventional films. An important aspect of this process is the growing number of films from countries that are not considered traditional film-making countries. It was Locarno where the new Iranian cinema took off and Locarno introduced Central Asian and Subsaharan African cinema to festival audiences.
This opening up proved to be a very good strategy indeed. The most memorable and the most artistically valuable films of the last couple of years are not from countries that are considered to be the traditional centres of cinema. They are not from Italy or France. Not even from England, Germany or the USA. They tend to come from relatively peripheral places such as Iran, Argentina, Bosnia, Taiwan, Georgia, Central Asia, Turkey or Korea. Because of this tendency, in the last decade or so, more genuinely artistically valuable films could be seen in Locarno than in Cannes or Berlin. Locarno drifted away from the three big festivals and its profile became more and more similar to that of the explicitly avant-garde and experimental Rotterdam Film Festival. We might add that Locarno has a significant advantage over Rotterdam as far as the actual event is concerned: just compare the rainy and windy Rotterdam in January and the Italian small town on the coast of Lago Maggiore in August.

In 2002, Locarno was promoted to be an 'A' category film festival. This means that now it has much more finantial and market impact if a film opens (let alone wins prizes) here. Some interpreted this change as a move away from the non-commertial traditions of the festival. Because of this widespread opinion, some of the more experimental, less conventional filmmakers no longer send their films to Locarno, thinking that the festival now would give preference to mainstream movies. On the other hand, the established festival-winning film directors would still rather win in Venice than in Locarno; therefore, since Venice starts not much after Locarno, they do not send their films to the festival either.

Thus, the festival finds itself in an awkward situation: it lost some of its traditional basis, but failed to gain new ones. Perhaps this explains why this year's (and also last year's) competition lineup is, at least according to most critics, weaker than usual. It is very important to emphasize, however, that this is only true for the international feature film competition. Paradoxically, the international feature film competition was the least interesting part of this year's festival - a scenario we know well from Cannes. Fortunately, all the other sections of the festival showed the freshness and experimental spirit that has always characterized Locarno.

Firstly and most importantly, the video competition needs to be mentioned. The Locarno Film Festival was one of the first festivals that gave out prizes to films shot on video. In line with these traditions, the video competition this year was very strong with better films (and better jury) than the main competition. From the video lineup, one of the most memorable pieces was a short by the Argentinian Diego Lehrman, the La Guerra de los Gimnasios. Tan de Repente, Lehrman's first feature, a sad, slow and grey road movie about two lesbian girls, Lenin and Mao won the Silver Leopard in Locarno two years ago. The La Guerra de los Gimnasios leads us to an entirely different world, to the shiny, aggressive world of gyms, which gives an uncanny contrast to the not at all shiny but equally aggressive images of the streets of Buenos Aires.

The focus of this year's festival program and the event that attracted the most interest was the retrospecive 'newsfront'. This unusual retrospective that focused not on a director or a country, but on a specific theme presented almost one hundred films that addressed the intricate connection between film and media. Besides great classics by Antonioni, Kierostami, Angelopoulos or Wenders, there were real rarities as well, for example the early films of Tsai Ming-Liang that were shot on video using a style usually associated with documentary filmmaking instead of the signeture slow long takes that characterize his later films. Interestingly enough the situations and even the characters in these early films are almost identical to the ones we see in his later works.

In the section 'filmmakers of the present', a section mainly devoted to international premieres, one of the best films was the new opus by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, the Une visite au Louvre. Straub and Huillet uses the painting of the Louvre to give us a subjective art history presented from the perspective of Cezanne. The most interesting stylistic means of the film is the tension between the stills of the paintings and the moving images of the world outside the museum. After having stared at the same painting for a couple of minutes, the moving images of William Lubtchansky radiate unexpected freshness and appear equally well-composed as the canvases of Veronese or Ingres.

The Une visite au Louvre resembles Godard's Notre Musique, which was presented in the 'human rights' competition, in several respects. Both films are about images and the relation between images and word. More importantly, the images of these films are also very similar in style - in spite of the fact that this time Godard did not work with Lubtchansky. The ending sequence of the two films is also surprisingly similar - a long slow panning shot in a forest without any dialogue. However, Godard's film is, at least on a cerain level, a political film, which wants to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - of course in Godard's typical enigmatic way.

Godard's film was not the only one in Locarno that addressed this problem. In fact it is one of the almost one dozen of films at the festival that were about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a surprising amount. Even more surprisingly, a very significant proportion of the films in the main competition lineup were, explicitly or less explicitly, political films. The same is true for the most popular event of the festival, the open air screenings on the medieval square, Piazza Grande. Moreover, all the three big prizes, the two Golden Leopards and the audience prize, were given to films that were addressing explicitely political questions (interestingly enough, this question was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in all three cases).

In other words, the Locarno Film Festival took an explicitly political turn. This change, of course, did not happen from one year to another: last year's Golden Leopard went to a nicely shot, but at times very didactical Pakistani film about Islam fundamentalism. One of the new sections of the festival, the 'open gates', which presents films from parts of the world that are little known in the world of cinema, introduced Cuba last year, and this years it turned to Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. The 'human rights' competition is several years old; this year the festival added a couple of round table discussions in the same topic. The Locarno Film Festival bacame an explicitly political festival.

This, of course, would not be a problem. In the last couple of years politics became more and more important and not only in the domain of cinema. It would not be a problem either that a film festival tries to make political statements - Locarno itself did the same in the seventies when films from the Eastern block won almost every year. The problem starts when political considerations obscure artistic ones and the propaganda becomes more important than the film itself.

This did not happen at Locarno this year, but there are signs that this is the direction the festival is heading towards, perhaps because of the awkward situation the festival has cornered itself into. If Locarno loses its traditional off-mainstream character but fails to become a second Venice, then an obvious and tempting possibility is to transform the festival to an event which is important and interesting politically, but the actual quality of films play only a secondary role.

Let us hope that this is not the route Locarno will take in the future.

Bence Nanay


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