Beyond the Benchmark of Success

Locarno Film Festival Report 2014

Travel by train from Basel to Locarno, and the beauty passing by the windows holds you mesmerized like a four hour film.  The interior of the train has vivid snatches of conversation, dogs travel first class with their people, while lakes, towns, trains on the other side of the valley pass by the window steeped in light that rolls through all the senses.  The sensory feast pauses at stations, and when tunnels place black leader between the moving images.  Far above the train, a church is visible towering over a village; the same church appears again, closer but still above the train, appears yet again, this time below the train, and again, far below.


Cinema takes the town square

The arrival at the Locarno train station is like arriving at a street party that has already been going for days.  The town’s summer dress of blooming oleander, bougainvillea, hibiscus, palm trees, changing blues of lake and mountains, intense grape scents as you climb a narrow street, all say, relax, enjoy, relax.  The town—originally built around the Piazza, a public meeting space, a place for exchange of ideas and goods—fits the aims of the festival.      

Carlos Chatrian, the festival director, in a conversation with the Ecumenical Jury, said that the festival intends to create meeting points: to give film back to the community (the Piazza Grande alone can host 8000 spectators) and to create a dialogue between masters of cinema and new generations of filmmakers.   While he readily admits that being in the relatively small Swiss film market has its disadvantages (the festival cannot always get the films it wants), it also has advantages in terms of a greater freedom in creating a program because the pressure from film distributors is a less important factor.

Many of the films screened at Locarno had “religious themes” and symbolism embedded in their narratives and mise-en-scène. These include biblical motifs and narratives, the issues of life and death, self-deception and faithfulness, otherness and communion, in the context of a worldwide economic crisis. 


Ecumenical Jury Prize: Durak (The Fool)

The Ecumenical Jury awarded its prize to Durak (Russia), directed by Yury Bykov.  Artem Bystrov, in the lead role of Dima Nikitin, won a Leopard for best male actor. Working in a small Russian town as a plumber, studying for an architecture degree at night, Dima discovers that a building he works in has structural issues due to years of inadequate repairs, and could collapse at any moment.  He attempts to alert the town council of the plight of the people in the building (all of whom live a marginal existence), efforts that are not only futile but ultimately, deadly for Dima.  Filmed close to the characters, with virtually no establishing shots, the film creates a sense of claustrophobia and limited vision, while at the same time, through the characterization of Dima, faint possibilities of hope.

Having escaped one attempt to kill him, his wife insists that they save themselves and their infant son, declaring that the people in the building are just nobodies.  Dima refuses: “we live like animals and die like pigs because we are nobody to each other.”  Despite Dima’s concern for them, the people at risk of dying in the compromised building refuse to heed his warnings, turn on him and beat him to death.  At a press conference, the director responded to questions about the harshness of the film with his impression of the main character as a “shooting star, shedding light on the earth” since he follows a moral code that is not apparent in society at large where politics involve survival at any cost, and perpetrating whatever evil is necessary to maintain power.  Neither success nor lack of success matters, according to Bykov, but rather Dima’s attempt to do something, against all odds.  That attempt colours the director’s impression of life as “optimistic and pessimistic at once.”

Dima is an anti-thesis of Dostoevsky’s Mishkin from The Idiot. In the director’s words, “Mishkin was almost not capable of acting wrongly,” while Dima has “rational choices”: he can choose to do what is “wrong” and save himself and his family. The director explores moral judgement, posing a central question to the audience of what really is the right and wrong thing to do in such complex circumstances. Dima has the ability to choose, and he chooses a good deed, an act that he performs not because of his inability to do otherwise (unlike Mishkin, an unselfish Christ-like person), but because he follows his conscience.  The director shows that to act righteously requires us to “answer” both to our conscience and to others.  

Bykov also avoids romanticizing the poor—the cheated and marginalized are just as real and unscrupulous as the corrupted elite in power. For instance, one of the criminals saves Dima’s life, perhaps recognizing his integrity, while “the poor” are the ones who kill Dima.  The director doesn’t romanticize the Russian peasant, thereby avoiding a common pitfall of films, that of “othering the poor,” and the film offers no mythical salvation.  If there is any salvation, it comes from small, possibly futile acts that put others before one’s own self-interest, without concern for self-protection, as we see with Dima.  The film becomes a political work by communicating how good deeds create effects in society.  In Bykov’s words, the film is not a critique of Putin’s Russia but “of a mentality”: when we treat each other like nobodies, we also become “nobodies.”  This cinematic feat is an auteur work that partially stems from the director’s personal experiences, marking the film as a refreshing change of pace for contemporary world cinema. 


Nature is the greatest actor in my works

Lav Diaz won the Golden Leopard for best film in International Competition for his film Mula sa kung ano ang noon (From What Is Before, Phillipines).  Diaz says his film “is based on the memories of my own childhood, two years before the Martial Law was declared in the Philippines.  It was the advent of the darkest period of our history, which was cataclysmic.  Everything in the film comes from my memories, all the characters are real, I just changed their names.”  

The 5 ½ hour Black and White film invites the viewer into the life of a remote barrio just as changes are beginning to be felt there—changes that seem small at first, but build and gradually break the ties that have long held people in the community together.  The coming violence is understated (and therefore more sinister) in a scene in which the people of the barrio are asked to assemble in the school house, grown men and women sitting in the small desks, while a military commander stands at the front of the room and tells them why a military presence is needed in the area.  Objections raised by the people are curtly dismissed; Diaz’s leisurely pace of filming the sequence gradually builds a sense of threat with which the orderly discussion is suffused.

The film’s long takes and static camera invites the spectator to become present to the characters, and to find her or his own way into scenes rather than being directed by editorial cuts.  I asked the director about his filming of nature, as it seemed to me both omnipresent, but also something to be contended with as much as any of the characters in the film.  Diaz replied, “Nature is the greatest actor in my works.” He went on to describe a kind of fluidity of people in South East Asia, governed more by space and nature than time.

Mula sa kung has four sequences that suggest endings rather than an ending.  In fact, when the film ends, it seems abrupt and surprising.   The other three “endings” seem like more conventional endings, while the fourth gives the impression of not of an ending but of stopping in the middle of something.  The first “ending” has scenes of the countryside with a voiceover detailing the broader context of the newly instated Proclamation No. 1081, bringing martial law to the country.  The second “ending” shows a conversation in a rice field; a dying man visits the only person still living in the barrio to ask him to perform a traditional funeral for him when his life ends.  The third “ending” patiently unfolds a funeral rite on a river.  The fourth and actual ending shows a small group of guerrilla fighters talking, bored, standing near two men hanging from a tree; eventually one of the men rises up in his last gasp.  The last scene suggests both realism (boredom in such extreme circumstances) and magic realism (the ambiguity and strangeness of the suddenly rising man).


Film as forgetting

Pedro Costa’s film, Cavalo Dinheiro (Horse Money, Portugal), winner of a Leopard for best director, is visually stunning, the movement of the film not narrative but lyrical, the space within the frame a play of frames within frames, and contrastive filming.  The description of the film in the festival guide is only one sentence long: “While the young captains lead the revolution in the streets, the people of Fontainhas search for Ventura, lost in the woods.”  Ventura is one of a group of people living in a poor district in Lisbon (Fontainhas) after leaving Cabo Verde, islands which ceased being a Portuguese colony in 1975.  The spectator never gains a sense of mastery in watching this film, and therefore shares the disorientation and bewilderment of the characters, and through very different techniques from Mula sa kung, the characters become resonant for the viewer rather than being followed in a narrative.  The film also offers a different sort of meditation on traumatic memory and suffering, as Costa observes, “Some say they make their films to remember. I made my film to forget.”


The importance of futile gestures

Ventos de Agosto (Winds of August, Brasil, director Gabriel Mascaro) takes the everyday to a level of visual blurriness and ambiguity.  Shirley, a young woman from the city, has moved to a coastal village to look after her grandmother, and has become involved with Jeison, who lives there, and works on a coconut farm with her.  Moments of visual blurriness or fogginess in the film (night shots of a weather specialist attempting to ‘record’ the wind, a sleeping net, the grandmother’s hair) juxtapose Jeison’s humorous and lugubrious preoccupation with for caring for a corpse that he finds on the beach.  His father nags him about success, progress and getting to work on a wall that will protect the house, and instead, he spends his time carting rocks to a cemetery on an eroding coast in an effort to prevent more bodies from washing out to sea.  Like Durak, the film raises questions about why apparently futile actions matter for our sense of ourselves and community.

A documentary, L’Abri (Shelter, Switzerland, director Fernand Melgar) looks at the other side of the “Rolex country,” the plight of the homeless in Lausanne, facing the same scene every night at a shelter known as the bunker—a triage of the people who will be given a bed and a meal for the night.  There are always more waiting at the door than the shelter can accommodate.  Attempts to create a pass-card system does little to alleviate the strain and violence, the nightly scene a microcosm of the problem not only in the country, but in Europe as a whole.  No one knows how to deal with refugees, and so they are treated as an emergency, responded to with short term solutions, exclusions, and moralistic attitudes.  A man who was a shopkeeper in Africa calls his mother every evening, but he says he cannot return to Africa empty handed.  Offered a job, after a long wait he is rejected by the state.  As in Durak and Ventos de Agosto, the theme of futility emerges here, and with it, an awareness of the importance of small acts of kindness in a sea of unanswered need.  

Gyeongju (South Korea, director Zhang Lu) filmed with steady long shots, gives the impression of theatre.  The film follows a professor Choi Hyeon as he returns to Korea from China to attend the funeral of a friend.   Filmed almost like a wandering meditation, with quirky encounters with people about to die, Choi continues his pilgrimage home with an impulsive trip to the city of Gyeongju to look for an erotic painting he and his friend saw in a tea house years before.  A massive lush green mound in a park—forming a backdrop to a group of children early in the film, in a later scene the place where lovers meet, and are asked by security guards to leave the “national treasure”—is a tomb.  A character comments, “You can’t go anywhere around here without seeing a tomb.”  The erotic painting is eventually seen in a flashback, an everyday object, now touched by death, as, it is implied, so is everything else in the film.  True also of a touching scene: Choi goes home with the tea house owner, a widower, and while the viewer may expect more eroticism, she only wants to touch his ears, and having done so, decides that they are not the same as her dead husband’s ears.

Another Korean film, Alive (director Park Jungbum) focuses primarily on the precariousness of the existence of the working classes in the countryside, a way of life further compromised by a landslide.  The film’s main character Jungchul struggles with survival after the death of his parents in the landslide, attempting to care for his sister and niece, sometimes trying to control his sister’s wandering and sexual promiscuity with excessive violence.  The visual imagery of the film repeatedly presents a clash of hopelessness and the struggle to live.  There are many dark, cluttered scenes of hard physical labour; Jungchul steals the front door of a person’s home because of money owed him; at the end of the film, he returns the door, the action almost invisible, but the power tool securing it back in place can be heard.  He also climbs a tree to place lights in it, telling his niece that her mother (having run away again, and still missing), needs the lights to return home, because she is afraid of the dark.  Another small, seemingly futile gesture of slender, yet real importance.   

The Locarno film festival’s feast of films meant that the Ecumenical Jury had a difficult time reaching a decision. Each of the films discussed above, all of them  screened in the International Competition, would foster rich discussion in church communities.