Finding Focus in the Midst of a Film Festival

A report from Locarno, 2021

Locarno 2021: S. Brent Rodriguez Plate and Lorenz Merz at the Award Ceremony (© Locarno Film Festival / Ti-Press / Marco Abram)

It is my last night in Locarno. As President of the Ecumenical Jury for the film festival, I’ve just given the Ecumenical Jury Award to the director and now things are winding down. But also winding up. There’s a party atmosphere in the streets and everyone is out, looking sharp, ready to play and be part of something. Bar after bar is playing live music: American blues, some jazz, some Pop, some Italian music I don’t understand the lyrics to.

As I make one last walk through the Rotunda—the laid-back site on the edge of the festival filled with food trucks and live performances—I hear many voices and many sounds. People are laughing, having fun, engaged in serious and silly conversations.

In the midst of the chaos, I hear the sound of a single clarinet, its crystal cadence mixing with myriad voices and sounds. It catches my ear. I quickly do a visual scan of the crowd to find its source, eventually locating one person simply standing there in the middle of a swarm of activity. She’s holding a black wand in her hands, with her back to me. The wand works its magic and I focus my attention on the staff in her hands. My mind begins to fuse together the image and the sound until I realize this is the source of the music I’ve been hearing, the conjuring sounds that are drawing me in. I see her arms moving and I watch her elbows move in and out from her waist and I see her shoulders go up and down and side to side and it moves with the music even if I can’t see her fingers moving on the clarinet. I feel calm, composed, centered.

The Ecumenical Jury Locarno 2021, from left: Anne Le Cor, S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate, Pascale Huber, Eva Meienberg (© Locarno Film Festival / Ti-Press / Marco Abram)

I wanted to start this short essay by offering some of the physical and sensual engagements that occur as part of a film festival such as Locarno. Although I’m describing a scene outside the movie theater, the clarinet player provides a snapshot of many of the experiences I felt watching films as part of an Ecumenical Jury. My notes here are not to speak for my wonderful co-jury members, but hopefully to provide some insights into what we saw and heard and felt, and how we found focus in the midst of seeming chaos.


The jury members watched seventeen films in competition over ten days (full list is here), and then several other films that were compelling to each of us. Then we spent time discussing the merits and downfalls of each of the films. Within these deliberations, one key issue was the continuous need to keep focus, as inevitably many of the sights and sounds blurred together.

We met regularly as a jury to help each other sort it all out, to make sense of the sense perceptions, the narrative entanglements, and the cinematographic points of view we’ve each experienced. And through all this, we aimed to keep centered and ask questions like: What drew me to this film? Why did I find this acting performance compelling? Does this film match the criteria we have in place for the Ecumenical Jury Award? Why, or why not? We needed to find our clarinets, our clarity in the midst of seeming chaos.

For this year’s award cycle, the films brought us to encounter moments of sonic, visual, and other bodily affects. We laughed, we cried, we squirmed, we sat on the edge of our seats. From time to time we even dozed off for a minute. Some films were a unanimous pass, as they failed to keep our focus. Several others had us each intrigued for certain reasons but not enough to be in the running for our specific award criteria. And then there were four or five that we spent time talking about again and again.

Our write up of the winning film, Soul of a Beast, has already been posted, and so here I note a few other significant films, with attention to the ways these helped each of us find some clarity in the midst of chaos. Or, so it seemed at times. Instead of mentioning all seventeen films, I highlight five that run a range of genres, styles, and, most importantly, our reactions to them.

Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash

Winner of multiple awards, including the Pardo d’oro, Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (Indonesia, Singapore, Germany; dir. Edwin) is a mix of martial arts movies, with a dash of slapstick, romance, and drama. It is a thoroughly enjoyable film, though has its share of violence and gore.

Through it all, the film provides a strong critique of toxic masculinity, playing with male stereotypes through the “macho” protagonist, Ajo (Marthino Lio). Ajo is impotent and strains to display his virility through street fighting, while his encounter with Iteung (Ladya Cheryl) has him falling in love and beginning to change his ways. Yet, it’s not until his final encounter with Jelita (Ratu Felisha) that his full transformation is enacted.

Besides mixing genres, the Indonesian setting also brings in several cultural elements, merging South Asian and Chinese mythologies, showing larger cultural forces acting upon the characters. In the end, it’s the female characters Jelita and Iteung, who wield their skills in vengeance against former war criminals. Jelita is a stand in for the great goddess in the Hindu tradition, Kali, and she transforms the plot and characters through her violent power.

The jury was left with praise for the film while questioning how "justice" and "vengeance" might be related. Edwin’s film, Vengeance, questions this linkage. There is a legal justice within the film, in that those who conduct actions outside the law end up in prison. But this is not the same as Justice (with a capital-J), at least not as those of us from a modern Euro-Christian perspective might construct it. In intercultural and interreligious settings, we wondered how we might talk about Justice in ways that give credence to the religious and cultural variances of that term. 


The titular character (played by newcomer Anastasiya Krasovskaya, who deservedly won the Pardo for best actress), offers viewers something of a Rorschach test. Her face supplies a psychological screen that we the audience project our thoughts and emotions on to.

Somewhere between adolescence and womanhood, Gerda is also caught between despair, the mental illness of family members, drug-addicted friends, and bleak prospects for a future in Russia. She doesn’t smile, rarely shows signs of fear or desire, but it’s clear she’s boiling over with turmoil inside. She reacts but seldom acts, being affected by the situations around her, but is almost never the cause of the effects—until the end.

With Gerda, writer and director Natalya Kudryashova gives us a young woman who, in spite of her circumstances, retains a certain control of her life. While she reacts to situations, it is also clear that Gerda is the one doing the choosing, choosing to help her friends and family, or not. Gerda’s psychic walls protect her, giving her a space to develop her own self.

Meanwhile, the mise-en-scene of the film continually brings us back to windows and doors, as her walls find openings, places of connection with others. She passes through some doors, closes others, seals up and opens windows. As she does she impacts other people, like a guardian angel.

The jury returned to this film again and again in our conversations through the festival. Some found it difficult to empathize with her as she displayed little emotion on the surface, and other jury members ignored the surface and felt the turmoil below. In either case, it became a focus for us as a jury, a measuring point by which we talked about other films.

Petite Solange

Like Gerda, Solange (Jade Springer) wrestles with familial and social forces that make growing up difficult. Axelle Ropert wrote and directed the story of a 13-year old girl in France, giving audiences both a specific, individual story while pointing to universal coming of age themes. 

The structure of Petite Solange is traditional, with beautiful images and warm colors throughout. Unlike many of the films in the running that left us scratching our heads at certain scenes, Petite Solange was a straightforward coming of age story. We the viewers are given Solange's point of view. We see friends who delight and disappoint, and ultimately see the strength of Solange herself.

As her once coherent world shatters, the adults who were supposed to protect and nourish her fail at their task. Solange is left to build her own world through her own stories. She narrativizes her life and learns to tell her own story. The final moments have her offering a speech that affirms her own volition, her own acceptance of the chaotic, often uncaring state of the world, but she suggests that life is about accepting the bad and moving on. Maybe it’s all a game after all, and the aim is simply to be the best player.

I think it’s fair to say that each of us jury members left the theater in tears. We saw ourselves in Solange, or saw our children in her. She provided a clear focal point on a warm summer afternoon in Locarno.


With a title like Medea, we enter the theater with a set of expectations about what’s going to happen to the family. This Russian film—much of it set in Israel—is another story with a woman at the center, though this film was written and directed by a man, Alexander Zeldovich. This, I believe, makes a difference.

The unnamed main character (Tinatin Dalakishvili)—unlike the other Russian protagonist, “Gerda,” noted above—acts on the world around her. She is a cause, and not just an effect. But in Medea, the woman’s actions are constantly met with suspicion. The suspicion comes both from the other characters in the film but also from the audience. Everyone around her, and around the film, is simply unsure how to read her and no one really understands her.

Like all myths, it is in the retelling that the power of the story comes. Following a general script of the ancient story we find numerous updates that confound any simple reading of the myth. Wealthy Russian businessmen, the landscape of the Judean desert, and sadomasochistic sex scenes update the story in strong ways, though it’s not always clear if there are socio-political points being made at each of these turns. 

The woman’s actions—sexual, violent, and religious—left the jury with questions about her mental stability. The film pushes the question of her sanity, and while it seems we could easily offer an interpretation of it that was pro-woman, there was also the reality that this may simply be another film made by men about an unstable woman.

As with Gerda, the performances and cinematography stuck with us and we discussed this film multiple times, especially as it allowed us to focus on strong female protagonists that were prominent in several of the films.


Nebesa, directed by Srdan Dragojević, is built on three chronologically progressing, interrelated stories. Through this structure, viewers are given insights into intergenerational meaning and the shaping of society in the post-communist milieu of Serbia.

In turn, the film runs through various social systems, at first offering praise and then showing the extremities of politics, religion, and art. All have their place, but none will save us. I’m still not sure if it is cynical, critical, or resigned, or maybe all of the above. It’s a film to be taken seriously, but also with a grain of salt.

This probably could have used a strong edit, as there were not enough darlings killed off. But it sustained our attention for its two-hour runtime.

With strong nods toward the farcical, and blatant Christian symbols of bleeding hands, references to carnal sins, and the genius neon halo that appears on one main character’s head, Nebesa offers a bleak humor with potential for hope at the end. We left unsure of what this hope consisted of, other than possibly an existential tribute to small-scale family life, the importance of individual action in oppressing environments.


As might be expected of films chosen by the Ecumenical Jury, tensions exist between genders, between the individual and communal, adults and children, and the religious and the secular. Each of these five films, along with the Ecumenical Prize winner, Soul of a Beast, come recommended as resources for discussion. We in the audience are left to find our focus, to hear the sounds of the clear clarinet in an otherwise cacophonous swirl.