Locarno 2007: Celebrating Discoveries and Cinema Attractions

Festival Report by Robin Gurney, Member of the Ecumenical Jury

The Ecumenical Jury, left to right: Karen Merced Willner, Robin Gurney, Thomas Kroll, Julia Helmke, Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati, Jes Nysten, and Festival Director Frédéric Maire
© Fotofestival/Massimo Pedrazzini

There cannot be many better places to celebrate a 60th birthday than in the southern Swiss city of Locarno, especially when that birthday is the Locarno Film Festival itself. The lakeside setting of the city, amid the Alps and bordering on Italy, and the cobble-stoned picturesque centrepiece of the Piazza Grande transformed into a giant cinema, make this festival unique. With one end of the Piazza blocked off by an enormous screen some 25 metres wide and 15 metres high, plus an enthusiastic public, the ingredients for a participatory film festival are all there. The festival statistics are impressive with a total of 186,000 spectators, 4,889 professionals from over 60 countries, and a total of 338 films presented.

This then was the setting in which this year’s Ecumenical Jury assembled to make its judgement on 18 competition films. More about those later. First, reference must be made to the reputation of Locarno as a festival of new cinema and discovery. The opening film of the festival, held in that great Piazza Grande, certainly fitted the discovery category. The world premiere of Vexille, set in Japan 2077, is an advanced animated film by Fumihiko Sori whose career has included working on the special effects for Titanic. This, his second full-length feature film, explores new territory that brings to life animated characters who would fit well into even the best James Bond classics.

Competition films are not shown in the open air –  a deluge on the Wednesday of the festival shows the wisdom of that – but in a vast sports hall transformed for the occasion with an impressively large screen. Among the films chosen, discovery was again highlighted particularly with the appearance of Anthony Hopkins to introduce what he called “an experiment of mind”. The film Slipstream is described as a light-hearted poke at the movie industry and Hollywood. Hopkins’ statement that “life is chaos” could well sum up this intriguing, and certainly in editing, ground-breaking film.

The films which impressed the ecumenical jury –  Thomas Kroll (President), Germany, Karen Merced Willner (USA), Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati (Switzerland), Julian Helmke (Germany), Jes Nysten (Denmark) and Robin Gurney (UK) – were perhaps of a more traditional nature, although the sensitive eventual winner of the Golden Leopard, the international jury’s top award, was on the short-list to the end. It often happens that films shown early in a competition do not stand such a good chance of winning the final awards. Not so in this case. Screened on the first day of the festival La Maison Jaune (The Yellow House) remained in the mind throughout the festival. While some jury members including this writer waited throughout the 12-day event for the “one that cannot be ignored” all the following films seemed to be compared against the first day’s impact.

La Maison Jaune by Amor Hakkar (Algeria/France) tells the story of a Berber family in Algeria. Set in an arid mountainous landscape, a policemen delivers a letter announcing the accidental death of the family’s only son. As soon as the father is informed he sets out on his motorised tricycle to collect the body. On his return, he finds that his wife is deeply depressed and unable to care for her family. He and his daughters then try everything to remedy this sad situation. The Ecumenical Jury citation reads: “A positive vision of how images can facilitate the healing process, ‘La Maison Jaune’ portrays the triumph of hope over adversity. In the midst of mourning for a son killed while away, a Berber family in Algeria finds strength, renewal, love and support from both within the family and the wider community. Amor Hakkar’s film is poetically crafted using sensitivity, subtlety and humour.” In addition to the Ecumenical Jury award the film won prizes from two other juries, the Youth, and the International Federation of Cine Clubs.

It is encouraging to see the esteem in which th Ecumenical Jury and the associated ecumenical activities are held at this festival. Catalogued first in the list of independent juries and graced by the presence of both the President of the Festival, Marco Solari, and the Artistic Director, Frederic Maire, at the Ecumenical Reception is a clear indication of this.

Local as well as festival participants at the Ecumenical Service, where Jury member Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati was the preacher, again showed the support for both the Festival and the Ecumenical Jury’s participation.

The International Jury award of the Golden Leopard was given to Ai no Yokan (Rebirth) by Masahiro Kobayashi, Japan. This intriguing film, described by one person as “boring but irresistible”, follows the relationship of Noriko, whose daughter has killed one of her classmates and Junichi, the father of the person killed. The director tells of how while writing the script he could not get the idea of “original sin” out of his head and how he remembered Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich”, the film’s main character’s favourite reading. A film for cine enthusiasts, yes, but one cannot but ask the question if the international jury were maintaining the perhaps undeserved reputation of Locarno to award prizes to films which never get distributed. It would be a pity if that fate befell this prizewinner.

Other films to watch out for in the coming months include the Canadian Contre Toute Esperance by Bernard Edmond (who also directed the Ecumenical Award winner in Locarno 2005, La neuvaine), where the results of illness are exacerbated by the effects of globalisation; Haiti Cherie (Italy) by Claudio del Punto, highlighting the tragedy of Haitians exploited in the sugar cane fields of the Dominican Republic, and if you are into political issues, Extraordinary Rendition (Great Britain) by Jim Threapleton with its graphic scenes of torture is a must for spurring on the struggle against inhuman and unjust politically motivated violence.

One of the attractions of attending a film festival is to be able to see in the flesh some of the “stars” of the silver screen. It would then be remiss of me not to include a mention of the Excellence Award given to the veteran French actor described as an “interpreter of genius”. With credits as far back as 1963 and associated with names such as Jean-Luc Godard and Alfred Hitchcock the name of Michel Piccoli must go down as one of the cine greats. All the more interesting then that he is still winning awards. The International Jury gave him their actor’s award for his performance in the competition film Sous les toits de Paris (Beneath the Rooftops of Paris) by Hiner Saleem. In this Piccoli plays a lonely, aging, poverty-stricken man living in a rooftop room in Paris in the heat of the summer of 2003. “A film about the human condition” is how the director describes this work. A film to make us care more about those around us is how this scribe would sum it up!

The Festival’s Artistic Director, Frédéric Maire, in his summing up of this 60th birthday festival said that: “The general public as well as the cinephiles tasted the pleasure of discovery within the highly diverse programme. Locarno proved to be a celebration of art house films as well as of those for a larger public.”