Little Cheung (Fruit Chan, 2000)

Everyone at the party agreed: the Icelandic comedy with the hippie lesbians and the suicide attempt on the glacier was the best thing so far. This, for me, was the defining moment of the Locarno Film Festival which ran from the 2nd to the 12th of August. The party was actually just a bunch of friends from Zurich – mostly journalists, as it happened – who had gathered on their balcony, as they do every year, to drink champagne and gaze at lovely Lake Maggiore in the evening light. I was just a ring-in, hauled up from my own balcony when they spotted me alone.

We all loved cinema, of course. And we had all seen and loved this little Icelandic film, 101 Reykjavik (1999), about a slacker in his 20s whose mother is having a very inconvenient affair with her irrepressible flamenco teacher. Inconvenient, because the flamenco teacher – played by Victoria Abril almost as her wild-child self – is carrying his child. At a bigger festival, Balthazar Kormakur’s oddball film, with its edgy sense of tragi-comedy and bleak setting, might have been ignored or simply over looked in the journalists’ rush for bankable talent. At Locarno, there is time to see everything you want – almost – and then talk about it, even to strangers. That shouldn’t be rare, but it is.

Locarno Film Festival, 53 years old this year, is the biggest of the small European festivals. Its lakeside setting, plunged among the hills that mark the Italian border, is glorious and steamily hot in August. The cinema facilities are superb – this is Switzerland, after all, even if the place is full of gelati bars. Every night, the main competition film of the day screens in the vast cobbled piazza. Eight thousand people, roughly, watch the giant screen from rows of plastic chairs, from the surrounding cafes or from casement windows in the surrounding 17th-century houses as bats wheel across the clear sky. Then there are the films. The focus is determinedly international: the festival’s top award, the Golden Leopard, went to Baba (1995), Wang Shuo’s film about the difficult relationship between a father and his son that remains banned in China.

Another Chinese director, Fruit Chan, took the Silver Leopard for Xilu Xiang (Little Cheung) (1999), a story of the Hong Kong handover seen from the eyes of a nine-year-old child. The real eye-opener, however, was the material coming from the margins of European filmmaking. Marco Muller, the director of the Festival, programmes the kind of obscure, provoking, stimulating and exploratory films that festivals should show but often don’t. “This is a real European festival”, as the Variety critic, who has been coming for 13 years, told me. “They make no concessions”. Nowhere but a festival like this could you see a film such as Romuald Karmakar’s Das Himmler-Projekt (2000), a three-hour reading of Himmler’s most crucial anti-Semitic speech. Personally, I was intrigued by Clemens Klopfenstien’s WerAngstWolf (WhoAfraidWolf) (2000) in which a troupe of actors, all trying to get to Rome in time for a performance in German, play out their relationships entirely through quotation and recitation. And I loved Vies (Lives) (2000) by Alain Cavalier – a film-school contemporary of Louis Malle’s – an instalment in his ongoing project to record people talking about their work. Humble and matter-of-fact, these monologues seemed to catch an essence of what it means to be human.

It is great, too, to see this kind of material juxtaposed with more conventional, but intriguing films that are likely to make it to the arthouse. Terence Davies’ grave, gloomy adaptation of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth (2000) was his best since Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). Mike Figgis’ experiment in split-screen storytelling, Time Code (2000), with Holly Hunter, Salma Hayek and Stellan Skarsgard, provided an interesting parallel to the work of lesser-known directors exploiting video’s possibilities.

Another dimension to the European perspective came from the retrospective of alternative Soviet cinema: films that had been blocked or changed by the censors. It was accompanied by an excellent book of essays – in French, the international language of choice in Locarno. There is something wonderful even in this, the Festival’s resistance to Anglophone domination. There are no planned themes in the Festival. Connections between films may emerge, Marco Muller says, in the course of watching them.

I thought I could draw a thread between films that were a commentary, in one way or another, on the ways art and life reflect each other. There were several documentaries or film essays about film personalities – Delphine Seyrig, the German actress Marianne Hoppe, Fassbinder and Raul Ruiz. WerAngstWolf was one example of life and art interwoven within a fiction. And Stefan Schwieter’s film El Acordeon del Diablo (The Devil’s Accordion) (2000) was about the Colombian accordion player Pacho Rada, who was memorably fictionalised as Francisco El Hombre in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Of course, you can find plenty of films about other films around the traps; half of Hollywood’s product is stitched together from remnants. These films are doing something different from that kind of reconstruction. They are part of a cultural conversation between the past and present, fact and fiction that you, as an audience member, can join. Come out and your head is buzzing.

And, against all modern wisdom, they get plenty of bums on seats. Locarno may be a small town, but the Festival audience is literate, curious and enthusiastic. Admittedly, most of Switzerland is here. Who wouldn’t be? Not that everyone is satisfied. Locarno, like any festival, is strapped for cash; accordingly, the organisation has been revamped over the last year under a new president, Giuseppe Buffi, who sadly died in July. “Without him”, wrote Muller, “everything will be more difficult”. Perhaps, some say, the Festival is too much of a lonely goatherd, out there in the Alpine foothills. With a bigger profile, it could attract more funding. But profile, ultimately, means the whole squirming grab-bag of American movies, stars and their attendant celebrity press; I was invited, I was told, because if the studios realised the international press corps was waiting for them in Locarno, they would come. Well, that’s not my field of dreams. In as much as they have already succeeded – by bringing Bryan Singer to introduce The X-Men (2000) as the opening night splash, by securing Hollow Man (2000) and the truly international Dutch director, Paul Verhoeven, as the festival’s most celebrated guest, by showing John Singleton’s flashy, funny new Shaft (2000) with smooth ol’ Sam Jackson in the title role – they made the festival fun. A bit of Hollywood is wonderful, especially when it’s made with the brilliant cinematic craft of a Verhoeven or a Singleton.

What would be awful, really awful, would be seeing Harvey Weinstein using Locarno as a testing ground for all Miramax’s next season of artbusters. Or a succession of Europudding films, probably all starring Gerard Depardieu in a frock coat and so blandly milked of character they seem to have been pieced together by some EC sub-committee. Films that you would see anyway. Films with modestly starry casts who can be flown in for a few solid days of back-to-back interviews, thus ensuring some sort of media coverage down the track. Fortunately, the festival’s timing works against this and, by extension, in favour of Marco Muller’s quirky, serious programming.

The Venice Film Festival, which runs from 30th August to 9th September, now rivals Cannes as a launching pad for big-budget product. The San Sebastian Festival in Spain, two weeks later, is another A-list festival, but smaller, friendlier and less commercial than Venice: an excellent showcase for independent film. With these two titans waiting a few weeks down the season, Locarno will never attract a battery of big guns. Thank goodness. That cobbled piazza with its little alleys winding away up the hill behind it, its cable car up to the cool peaks just behind with their myriad hiking trails through woods and mountain pastures, the lakeside lido full of splashing Swiss families, the open-air restaurants and locandas that swing lazily into action each balmy evening and, above all, movies as brain food: this is Locarno. Add a flurry of squawking sales agents and it wouldn’t be Locarno any more.

About The Author

Stephanie Bunbury is an Australian journalist living in London where she writes regularly on culture for the Melbourne Age.