Locarno Film Festival 2004

Report by Lavinia Mohr

The 2004 Locarno International Film Festival took place 4 to 14 August in one of the most rain-filled 10 days of its 57 years.  The outdoor evening screenings in the Piazza Grande surrounded by mountains are one of the most enchanting experiences of the Locarno festival.  No doubt it is the most beautiful open air theatre, and also one of the largest.  On a good night, 7000 cinema lovers fill the town square to watch a film on the 4 story high screen.  This year, it rained on no fewer than 8 of the 11 evenings, forcing several screenings to be moved to a converted sports arena. 

The Syrian Bride (Hacala Hasurit) by Israeli director Eran Riklis won this year’s Prix du Public for the evening Piazza Grande film voted the audience’s favourite.  The film tells the story of Mona, a young Druze women who lives with her family in an Israeli-occupied village in the Golan Heights.  Mona is about to be married to a Syrian television star she has never met.  Her wedding day is the saddest day of her life.  Once she crosses the border to meet her future husband, she will never be allowed back to her ancestral village to see her family.  The humour and poignancy of the film illustrate the tensions in the lives of the village people, most of whom refuse Israeli citizenship, and thus officially are of “undetermined” nationality.  The 50 meters of no-man’s-land between the Golan Heights and Syria separate families who communicate by bull-horns and loudspeakers.  The wedding is to take place on the Syrian side of the border as her family watches from the other side, but bureaucratic wrangling between the opposing border guards threatens to prevent the wedding.  The film makes a strong statement on women’s rights in traditional patriarchal society, particularly through the character of Amal, Mona’s older sister who is determined to go to university over her husband’s disapproval, as well as through Mona herself.  Mona’s sadness on her wedding day is amplified by her terror of the unknown and of what will become of her in Syria without her family if her marriage to a stranger ultimately fails.  Director Eran Riklis says the film questions the legitimacy of borders, and ridicules bureaucracy. 

Also shown in the Piazza Grande was the unforgettable Der Neunte Tag (The Ninth Day), the latest film by Volker Schlöndorff.  In February 1942 a Luxembourg priest is suddenly released from the horrors of the Dachau concentration camp and sent home.  He soon comes to understand that his release by the Nazis is part of a plan to discredit the Bishop of Luxembourg for his refusal to cooperate with the occupying Germans.  He is given nine days to make up his mind to take a stand publicly supporting Hitler’s policies towards the church, or be sent back to Dachau.  We follow the priest’s struggle to come to terms with this ultimatum.  Based on the true story of a priest who spent two years in Dachau before becoming the Bishop of Luxembourg, the film alludes to the controversy about the role of the Church during the war, as well as portraying in eloquent detail the facets of the priest’s ethical dilemma.

The Locarno Festival is characterised by a strong commitment to discover and display new talent and to present perspectives outside the mainstream.  This year’s festival included a human rights film series for the second year and a special series in cooperation with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation devoted to introducing Cambodian, Vietnamese and Laotian film directors and their work to the European audience and film industry.  Work by new and young directors was showcased in several series of video programmes.

Eighteen films were screened within the official competition.  The official competition selection included 8 first and 5 second films from 17 countries.  The majority of films came from Europe and Asia. 

Several films dwelt on the challenge of coming to terms with oneself and relationships with others.  The most cinematically elegant among them was Jun Ichikawa’s Tony Takitani.  An adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, the film examines the shifting border between solitude and loneliness as experienced by a solitary child who grows up to be a solitary man.  His inability to understand the personal perspective and subjective act of artistic creation (he sees it as “inaccurate”) leads him to devote his painting talent to technical illustration that neither demands nor admits a personal touch.  Tony Takitami exists in a kind of emotionless self-sufficient state where nothing much happens day after day until he unexpectedly falls in love, marries, and begins to experience something approaching happiness.  After the sudden accidental death of his wife, Tony once again is alone, but this time it is not solitude but loneliness he experiences.  The combination of slow meditative music and the special repetitive motion of the camera creates a contemplative atmosphere perfectly suited to this story.

Contemporary political and social issues were the subject of many of the official competition films.  Wesele, a second film by Polish director Wojtek Smarzowski, skewers the importance given to money and appearances in Poland today through the unravelling of a wedding.  US Director Zak Tucker’s first film Poster Boy condemns the lack of principles and raw ambition for power in contemporary US electoral politics as seen through the eyes of a Senator’s gay son.  Forgiveness, a first film by Ian Gabriel, takes up the complex subject of forgiveness, justice and reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa.  The harrowing experiences and mixed motivations of a group of would-be illegal émigrés from Iran are the subject of Hasan Yektapanah’s second film Dastan nataman (Story Undone).  Anurag Kashyap’s second film Black Friday examines the cycle of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in India through an excruciating re-enactment of the police investigation of the 1993 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.  Kashyap has the chief inspector tell one of their captured suspects that anyone who takes up violence in the name of religion is an idiot.

The Ecumenical Jury Prize was awarded to Yasmin by the UK’s Kenny Glenaan.  This first feature film by Glenaan exposes the consequences of the September 11 attacks in the US on the Muslim community in England through an increase in Islamophobia experienced by Yasmin, a young woman of Pakistani origin living in northern England.  Yasmin rejects the culture of her native country.  She lives between two worlds, at night behaving as a proper daughter in her father’s home where she is married in name only to her recently arrived cousin, and by day changing in and out of her traditional clothes and head scarf in her car as she goes to and from work.  After 9/11 the increasing harassment by her work colleagues, the arbitrary arrest of her husband as a suspected terrorist and her experiences with the police in trying to contact her arrested husband all combine to destabilize her carefully balanced Asian, Muslim, British identity.  The Ecumenical Jury’s citation says, “After September 11, Yasmin experiences an awakening and a reconciliation with her cultural heritage. The rediscovering of the Koran starts an authentic faith journey and gives her the possibility to affirm herself truthfully. Yasmin courageously seeks a way to be herself both in her Pakistani immigrant community and in the surrounding Western society".  The award includes prize money of 20,000 SFr. provided by the Reformed Church and Catholic Church of Switzerland for the film’s distribution in Switzerland.

Yasmin is played by Archie Panjabi, possibly best known for her role as the older sister in Bend It Like Beckham.  The script was created by Simon Beaufoy, screenwriter of the hit British comedy The Full Monty.  The film presents a witty and appealing portrait of the British Muslim community with humour and the ring of authenticity.  Glenaan says, “It was important that the film’s voice should come from within the community so we researched the project for over a year before we put pen to paper and what we found was stranger than fiction:  an invisible war being played out before our very eyes on the streets of Britain against an already marginalised community…None of it is made up.  I used a mixture of people from the community and professional actors to play the main roles to deliberately blur the line between fiction and documentary.”

The Ecumenical Jury commended Private by Saverio Constanzo (Italy) which also won the Golden Leopard as well as the Best Actor for Mohammad Bakri.  Shot entirely within the confines of the property of a Palestinian family whose home in a strategic location has been commandeered and occupied by the Israeli army, the film adopts the point of view of the family members, showing only what they can see as they are restricted to a small part of their house.  The mother and children do not accept the father’s decision to stay in their home and wage a peaceful resistance under almost intolerable conditions.  His non-violent resistance contrasts curiously with his domination of his terrified and angry family.  The family tensions add to the tension of the occupation.  We see the young Israeli soldiers secretly observed by the daughter as she disobeys both her father and the occupiers to enter the forbidden zone of the house.  From her hiding place, we learn a little about these young men and the ordinariness of their desire to return to their own homes.  In the end, the soldiers leave (but for how long?) and some of the family members begin to understand their father better.  The power of the father over the others in his family is crucial to the drama.  The story is almost as much about the father’s struggle to control his family as it is about their resistance to the occupation of the family home.  Based on a true story using a brilliant cast of Palestinian and Israeli actors shot in Italy in a docu-film style, the film makes for a powerful emotional experience.  It is an unusual and compelling view of what happens in private during the long Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.