Stories on refugees and migrants

Report on the 64th Festival del Film Locarno by Hans Hodel

As a professional in a press screening at a film festival (at least three times a day or more) watching films, sometimes you think you know the story, even if you haven’t previously read the synopsis in the catalogue. Then something unusual occurs. Several times this happened to me during the 64th International Locarno Film Festival and it was a very good sign for the films in the official competition, selected by Olivier Père in his second year as artistic director. In fact, the international press gave him a warm welcome and ranked Locarno fourth after Cannes, Berlin and Venice. Olivier Père reduced the number of films but, nevertheless, attracted 159,500 spectators (including 61,700 visitors to the Piazza Grande, where it rained during the first days of the festival) – 7.5% more than last year.

Twenty films in the international competition

In the context of the struggle between all the international film festivals and their regulations, it is not easy to find a convincing selection for the official competition. But Olivier Père succeeded in securing films from many different countries and in different genres with touching stories. Crulic – drumul spre dincolo (The Path to Beyond) directed by Anca Damian (Romania) was a surprising animated feature-length documentary. It tells the life story of a 33 year-old Romanian, who died in a Polish prison while on a hunger strike protesting against being accused of an unproven crime. Claiming he was in Italy on the day of the theft, he failed to convince the authorities of his innocence. Terri directed by Azazel Jacobs (USA) is a big kid in a small town, overweight, sensitive and awkward, who doesn’t seem to have room for anyone who is different. Abandoned by his parents, he is left with his ailing Uncle James, who needs the boy’s help more than Terri needs his. The Loneliest Planet directed by Julia Loktev (USA/Germany) has Gael Garcia Bernal as Alex and Hani Furstenberg as Nica, two young people in love and engaged to be married. They hire a local guide to lead them on a camping trek in the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia, a landscape that is both overwhelmingly open and frighteningly closed which leads them to confront themselves.
Sette opera di miseriacordia (Seven Acts of Mercy) directed by Massimiliano and Gianluca De Serio (Italy/Romania) is the dark story of Luminita, a young illegal immigrant living on the edge of a shantytown, who devises a way to escape her misery. While putting her plan into action, she runs up against Antonio, a mysterious and very sick old man. Hashoter (Policeman) directed by Nadav Lapid confronts the viewer with Yaron, one of an elite group of police officers working in an anti-terrorist group in the Israeli police force, who is suddenly involved in a clash not with the "Arab enemy", but with young Israeli radicals protesting against injustice in Israeli society. One of several films with contemporary resonance, it was awarded a special jury prize. Winner of the Pardino d’Oro in 2007 for Wave, Adrian Sitaru from Romania returned to Locarno with the impressive dark drama Din dragoste cu ceke nai bune intentil (Best intentions) and won the prize for best director.

Golden Leopard Award for Aprir puertas y ventanas (Back to stay)

Abrir puertas y ventanas (Back to Stay) directed by Milagros Mumenthaler (Argentina/Switzerland) was given a Commendation by the Ecumenical Jury and was the surprise big winner of this year’s Golden Leopard. It also won the FIPRESCI Prize (International Federation of Film Critics) and got a special mention from the Youth Jury. Maria Canale, one of the film’s three protagonists, was given a Pardo for best actress.
Milagros Mumenthaler, the young female director of the film, was born in Argentina in 1977 and then moved with her family to Switzerland. Aged 17 she studied film in her native country at the University del cine in Buenos Aires and graduated there in 2004. Abrir puertas y ventanas is her first long feature film and was supported by a writing residence at the Cannes Festival’s Cinéfondation. The story of the film takes place in Buenos Aires at the end of one summer. Following the death of the grandmother who raised them, sisters Maria, Sofia and Violeta live alone in their family home full of past memories, each trying to deal with her absence in their own way. Marina buries herself in her studies, while also taking care of the house; Sofia concentrates on her appearance and material possessions; and Violeta wanders from her bedroom to the living room, receiving occasional visits from an older man.
This period of transition and uncertainty is marked by disagreements, laughter, mean remarks and affectionate gestures, until one autumn day Violeta suddenly disappears without a word. "Evoking a dense atmosphere, Mumenthaler shows that there are various, sometimes painful ways to becoming an individual and that, although memory guides us to accept the present, one still has doors and windows to open," said the Ecumenical Jury.
A second Commendation of the Ecumenical Jury (and the CICAE Prize of the International Art&Essai Cinema Confederation) went to the film Onder ons (Among Us) directed by Marco van Geffen (Netherlands). It shows in different ways the situation of a shy and inhibited Polish girl, working as a babysitter in the Netherlands. While everything in that new country is unfamiliar to her, she chances upon the identity of a rapist who has been prowling about the town, but she doesn’t know what to do with this information. The Ecumenical Jury wrote, "Done with considerable craftsmanship this film shows us that the subtle xenophobia of western people, often covered only by a thin layer of cultural conventions, distracts from the fact that violence and lack of communication are generic issues of the clean and ‘well organized’ suburbs."

Award of the Ecumenical Jury for Vol spécial (Special flight)

Awarding its Prize to Vol spécial (Special Flight) directed by Fernand Melgar (Switzerland), the only documentary in the official competition, the Ecumenical Jury showed its critical capacity, identifying the film’s high quality with its sensitive camera-work and its strong political and human message. To everybody's astonishment Paulo Branco, president of the international jury, labelled the film as "fascist" after presenting the verdict of his jury. But it became clear that the international jury saw the film with different eyes from most of the press and the audience, who received it with warm applause, naming it one of the best films in competition. Fernand Melgar had already been awarded the Pardo d’Oro in 2008, when his film La Forteresse was in the "Filmmakers of the Present" competition. In that film, in the context of recent political discussion and decisions in Switzerland concerning the law dealing with foreigners and asylum-seekers, he introduced the audience to a Registration Centre following asylum-seekers throughout the process, limited to sixty days, that will result in their being granted refugee status or not.
In Vol spécial he goes to an administrative detention centre where men are jailed while awaiting deportation from Switzerland. Both the Youth Jury and the Ecumenical Jury gave awards to this film for its "touching and authentic documentary", which "leads the audience into the Frambois detention centre where ordinary people never go and where hopes and fears of different men culminate. Guards as well as detainees act humanly under inhuman conditions, so the spectator is enabled to see them all as individuals with a family, religion and their own dignity, lacking only justice". The Ecumenical Jury award includes a prize money of 20,000 CHF provided by the Reformed Church and the Catholic Church of Switzerland assigned for the film’s distribution in Switzerland. But, as the distributor at the award ceremony said, the money will also be used for a new documentary by Fernand Melgar reporting what happened to the men deported from Switzerland.

Piazza Grande

The most appreciated award for many film director is the "Audience Award". This award, sponsored by UBS with CHF 30’000, in Locarno is given to a film of the program in the Piazza Grande, where every evening an audience between 5’000 till 8’000 visitors (including all kind of sponsors) are watching films on a big screen. To select films for this event is a special provocation for the artistic director and always provokes a lively discussion and heavy critic of the public. It seems that this year Olivier Père succeeded in finding a good mix. He proposed on Saturday of the first weekend with Cowboys&Aliens by Jon Favreau, USA, a not really important film, but the performance had its big public while presenting on stage Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford as the big stars. Other stars where present too, and festival president Marco Solari was happy about her presence, because the press was reporting about. The American director, poet and writer Abel Ferrara accepted to receive a lifetime achievement award, as well as the French actress Isabelle Huppert , named one of the finest actresses of her generation, received the Excellence Award Moët&Chandon. Finally the festival presented on the Piazza the greatest Swiss actor Bruno Ganz with a Pardo alla carriera just before the world premiere of his new film Sport de filles by Patrice Mazuy’s, France/Germany. The closing film Et si on vivait tous ensemble (And If We All Lived Together) by Stéphane Robelin, France/Germany, about five close elder longtime friends, five different characters, is a wonderful serious and in the same time humoristic arrangement to think on the needs and wishes in the old age. But the most wonderful films where Le Havre, by Aki Kaurismäki, Finland/France/Germany, who had its premiere in Cannes, and Bachir Lazhar by Philippe Falardeau, Kanada, who won the UBS Publics Award. While Kaurismäki is telling in strong colors the story of a underage refugee from Arica helped by a retired writer and bohemian to escape the police as an  optimistic fairy tale, Falardeau introduces the name of the new Algerian primary school teacher who hides a painful pat and his condition of political refugee to everyone; on the other side of the fence, a class which is embarking on a long healing process after the suicide of Marine, their ex-teacher. Working with natural lighting for the scenes and with realistic dialogues, the film shows in a touching way how does Bachir transforms his cold and almost aseptic class into a place where trust and solidarity can arise between scholars, exorcizing at the same time his and their personal fears.  

Open Doors: Highlighting the other Indian cinema

With an output of 1,274 feature films in 2010, the Indian film industry does not exactly look languishing. "However, Bollywood pictures are so dominant that Indian independent filmmakers often find it difficult to realize their projects," explained Martina Malacrida, head of the festival’s Open Doors section, supported by the Swiss Foreign Ministry’s Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).
With 13 films from 1929 (Prapancha Pash/Throw of Dice by Franz Osten) to 2010 (Udaan, by Vikramaditya Motwane and Kanasemba Kudureyanen/Riding the Stallion of a Dream by Girish Kasaravalli), it was the aim of this programme to reflect the global challenge of marrying growth with development and globalization with cultural diversity. It was amazingly diverse and vibrant thanks to directors who are deeply committed to realizing their filmic visions on the margins of the commercial circuit.