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Swiss FilmFest Presents 10 International Cinema Premieres in the World’s Movie Capital

Ed Rampell: The Locarno Film Festival “is marked by bold, eclectic programming that doesn’t make its way elsewhere as reliably as selections from the likes of Cannes and Sundance.”
lacarno film festival


What is the Locarno Film Festival?

I met Orson Welles in Paris and while he may have been a cinematic and theatrical genius, the fact is he was inaccurate when, as the self-justifying criminal Harry Lime, Welles’ character rather famously said in the 1949 film noir classic The Third Man: “in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

This may be a famous, funny bit of dialogue but it doesn’t happen to have the virtue of being true. While Switzerland is indeed the home of luxury timepieces such as Rolex and “Swiss precision timing” is a well-known term, detractors are quick to point out that Germany invented cuckoo clocks. But Welles’ character’s bigger faux pas is in stereotyping the Swiss by implying they’re staid, conservative and unimaginative. This, like banking, may describe a side of the Swiss character but the fact is that the Confederation Helvetica, as it is formally known, is now commemorating the 500th anniversary of that little historical hiccup called “The Reformation.” The Alpine democracy has also given haven to refugees such as anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and Bolshevik V.I. Lenin.

More to Harry Lime’s cultural point, the painter Gustave Courbet had to flee to Switzerland, where he died, for his leading role during 1871’s Paris Commune, the world’s first workers’ state. Taking advantage of that “democracy and peace” Lime mocked, during World War I the avant-garde arts movement Dadaism was born 1916 in neutral Switzerland, a mountainous nation that has also played a role in film.

Jean-Luc Godard, possibly cinema’s greatest living genius still creating, is Swiss/French and has lived in the French-speaking canton of Vaud since the 1970s. Like Courbet before him, during America’s Red Scare, Charlie Chaplin left the “land of the free” to live out his life in splendid exile above Lake Geneva in Vevey, where last year his former mansion became part of what is arguably now the world’s greatest movie museum. The motion picture patrimony of Switzerland has a rich history that is beyond the scope of this article but brings me to another point, that since 1946 - three years before Welles’ well known (mis)quote - the Locarno Film Festival was founded in Ticino, an Italian-speaking canton in southern Switzerland.

The Locarno Film Festival “is marked by bold, eclectic programming that doesn’t make its way elsewhere as reliably as selections from the likes of Cannes and Sundance.”

As opposed to glitzy Hollywood, big budget studio fare, LFF focuses on international cinema. According to Indiewire critic Michael Nordine, the Locarno Film Festival “is marked by bold, eclectic programming that doesn’t make its way elsewhere as reliably as selections from the likes of Cannes and Sundance.” Taking place in Switzerland’s sunniest region during summer (there are actually palm trees in Locarno!), LFF is renowned for its outdoor Piazza Grande screenings, where up to 8,000 viewers can watch one of the planet’s largest open air screens.

Last August, the 69th LFF screened 279 films and Bulgarian director Ralitza Petrova’s Godless won the grand prize, called The Golden Leopard, while another female helmer, João Pedro Rodrigues, won the Best Director accolade for O Ornitólogo. Eight of the 17 debuts contending for the top prize were directed by women. Perhaps the only award winner of the 69th LFF that was theatrically-released in L.A. - and which American readers may have even heard of - was British director Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake.

Carlo Chatrian, LFF’s artistic director, told Indiewire’s Liz Calvario the Festival “gambled on a number of fronts, from a more adventurous program on the Piazza to the competitions that gave pride of place to young filmmakers. The positive response, from both audiences and critics alike, has encouraged us to continue with this approach. We want Locarno to be, as it has been over these eleven exciting days, a place to show films which place human beings, in all their multi-faceted dimensions, front and center, films that provoke both discussion and strong emotion; and at the same time, a meeting place for major artists who are able to deliver strong messages, and a warm and receptive audience.”

LFF is one of the two top Swiss cinema-fests, the other being a relative newcomer called the Zurich Film Festival, which starts this year on September 28 and is located in the German-speaking region of this multi-culti country which has four official languages and a sizable population of immigrants. (To read my interview with Oliver Stone about his presenting of Snowden at the 2016 ZFF see the upcoming summer issue of the Swiss magazine Ambiance, to be published in May.)

Locarno Does La-La-Land

For the first time ever, as the Locarno Film Festival prepared to mark its 70th anniversary, LFF “invaded” the world capital of moviedom (if not, of “world cinema” per se) at L.A.’s eclectic Downtown Independent. A joint undertaking co-organized by LFF and the Swiss Consulate in L.A., the April 21-23 “Locarno In Los Angeles Festival” screened ten films, all L.A, premieres, from nine different countries. They were selected from the 69th Locarno Festival’s Competition, Signs of Life, and Filmmakers of the Present programs. Locarno In L.A. was curated by its co-artistic directors, Jordan Cronk, founder of the Acropolis Cinema roving specialty screening series, and critic and filmfest programmer Robert Koehler.

In addition to screenings, Locarno In L.A. presented parties, a rooftop lounge plus panels, including “Framing a Festival: How Locarno Presents International Cinema,” with Koehler, Mark Peranson (Head of Programming, Locarno Festival), Dane Komljen (Director, All the Cities of the North), and Theo Anthony (Director, Rat Film). Fest films included:

Dark Skull

Dark Skull

Dark Skull

Young Bolivian director Kiro Russo’s Dark Skull (Viejo Calavera) may be the best movie about the conditions and hardships of miners since the 1954 classic Salt of the Earth. Like that movie co-created by blacklisted U.S. talents, in the Neo-Realist style actual miners also play roles in Skull, which was co-made by a Bolivian union and Qatar (what a unique co-production hybrid!).

Skull’s numbskull Elder Mamani (well-played in what may be Julio Cezar Ticona’s screen debut) is a perpetually drunk or stoned ne’er-do-well who, following his father’s death, takes his place in the mines. With great you-are-there cinematography, Skull’s probing camera reveals the harsh underground workplace Bolivia’s miners endure. Although Skull is a feature film it does have a documentary-like vibe. And as Koehler pointed out in his incisive intro before its screening, Skull includes a well-done Sergei Eisenstein-like montage sequence.

Having to undergo this nightmarish labor may be what drives Elder to substance abuse and for his erratic behavior, which (literally) pisses his fellow coalminers off. Conditions above ground aren’t much better - the dire poverty of the impoverished peasants and miners, living stark existences in huts with stone walls and thatched roofs, reminded me of Che Guevara’s descriptions in his Bolivian Diary, written in between his valiant if doomed efforts to overthrow Bolivia’s then government.

After an accident in this hellhole, the youthful Elder’s companeros decide to take action and stand up for their rights. Unfortunately, unlike Salt of the Earth, Russo’s movie does not unfold to its logical conclusion and we do not see their job action, etc. Nevertheless, Dark Skull transports viewers thousands of miles south of the proverbial border to show us a world we’d probably never see, if not for ventures like the Locarno Festival (in Switzerland and its L.A. transplant).

The Human Surge

The Human Surge, 

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The Human Surge

Locarno In L.A.’s other panel was entitled “The Big Question: How to Get Art Cinema in Front of L.A. Audiences?” Unfortunately it blithely never defined what “arthouse” means. In any case, just because a movie is non-commercial, indie, experimental, foreign, cult and the like doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good (or artistic, for that matter). And some viewers may feel that way about Eduardo Williams’ The Human Surge, which was shot on location (NOT on a soundstage or studio back lot) at the director’s home country of Argentina, Mozambique and the Philippines.

Williams breaks many standard cinematic rules during his motion picture peregrinations, including basics such as focusing, lighting, few close ups and the like for this documentary which, according to the Festival’s website, was “shot in Super 16, then Blackmagic reshot off a monitor on Super 16, and finally Red.” Williams spends most of the seemingly interminable 100 minutes on young men, although young females are briefly focused on during the shortest segment, on the Philippines.

Work (mostly manual labor type jobs) and digital technology seem to be recurring themes of the youth depicted at the three locales. For example, a young lady walks around a Philippines village pestering residents, inquiring if there’s an Internet café in town. In another segment (methinks way down Argentine way), young males in their teens or early twenties mug for a computer camera, strip and perform half-assed sex acts (no pun intended) on one another as part of a live streaming type porn site. While the males are graphically depicted, even when the females swim in a swimming hole at Bohol, P.I., they are wearing clothes. The film seems to have a sexist double standard, with women getting short shrift.

(BTW, the Festival’s write up about Surge makes the unfortunate comparison between Ferdinand Magellan and Williams as a sort of cinematic discoverer, completely overlooking the fact that to the Filipino and Chamorro people of Guam, Magellan was an invader and murderer who got the fate he so richly deserved in the Philippines. The Surge blurb also doesn’t warn viewers of the strong explicit sexual content of Surge, which is definitely inappropriate for children and many adults may find offensive. Filmmakers have a right to shoot what they want, but viewers also have a right to know what to expect before they buy a ticket for themselves and, perhaps, their children.)

Some may feel that The Human Surge exemplifies Locarno’s cinematic ethos. There is some dialogue of a whimsical nature that I assumed was extemporaneous. The close up of ants, perhaps in juxtaposition to the human “insects” appearing onscreen, is an interesting digression into another realm.

From a Hollywood commercial point of view, theatergoers may consider it to be, at best, pretentious claptrap that is hard to watch in every way. There are no car chases or gunplay, and the natural disaster depicted at the beginning disappears quickly, without it being dramatized to good effect. The graphic homosexual sex acts would likely turn off typical multiplex popcorn munchers who would presumably also like to see some naked young females thrown into the movie mix. One could argue there is no plot and the dialogue is dull, if at times reflective of magical mindsets (of ignoramuses?).

Overall, Surge makes the late work of Jean-Luc Godard seem easy to understand in comparison (at least they have the virtue of being well-shot and exquisite to behold, even if Goodbye to Language, Film Socialisme, etc., may be totally incomprehensible). Hardcore cineastes may splurge on Surge and champion it, while more traditional filmgoers may want the two hours or so spent viewing it and their hard earned bucks back.

Panel Discussion: “The Big Question: How to Get Art Cinema in Front of L.A. Audiences?”

On Saturday, April 22 the above panel took place at the Downtown Independent with: Gregory Laemmle (President, Laemmle Theatres), Mark Olsen (Staff Film Writer, Los Angeles Times), David Schultz (President/CEO, Vitagraph Films), Michael Nordine (Contributor, LA Weekly/IndieWire), K.J. Relth (Programming Assistant, UCLA Film and Television Archive), moderated by Acropolis’ Jordan Cronk. Emyl Wyss, Swiss Consul General in L.A. and a big film industry booster, attended the panel (as he did other Festival events).

One would think that there would be a substantial aud for arthouse cinema in the city that fancies itself to be the world capital of moviedom, but, alas, this is not necessarily so. According to Nordine and Relth nuts and bolts L.A. logistics mitigate possible turnout, including Los Angeles’ sprawling geography, traffic, the lack of mass transit, parking problems, etc. Laemmle quipped: “There’s something for people who want to see movies at a convenient time - it’s called Netflix.” Maybe so, but this is not on a big screen or in groups, the way most motion pictures are intended to be viewed.

Olsen commented on the changes in distribution and exhibition, which impact on how, where and when ticket buyers can (and cannot) watch movies. Schultz observed that foreign language films often earn less than $3 million when distributed in the enormous U.S. market, citing Elle as an example - even though Paul Verhoeven’s thriller earned the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and its star won the Globe and was Oscar-nominated for Best actress. (Well, if 64-year-old Isabelle Huppert had been in her mid-thirties like Sharon Stone was in Verhoeven’s 1992 Basic Instincts and Elle included nudity - and was dubbed into English - more parochial, insular American moviegoers might have seen the excellently made Elle.)

Olsen added that there’s a “ceiling” for the box office of foreign films and that often “it’s the same audience, the same core group of people into rep[ertory]” who make it a point to attend art cinema. Regarding turnout Relth mentioned the importance of trailers, while Laemmle noted that it was advantageous for L.A. release dates to coincide with N.Y. openings (Acropolis also ties its roving screenings to Manhattan, Brooklyn, etc., premieres).

This critic suggested economic incentives such as tax rebates for theatergoers who attend arthouse films. Plus, inspired by Hawaii’s 1% law that requires 1% of budgets for public buildings be earmarked for art, such as murals, that the entertainment industry should be taxed 1% of its profits to support specialty cinema. Relth advocated similar measures along these lines.

Overall, Locarno In Los Angeles provided a welcome introduction for Angelenos to the venerable Swiss cinematic extravaganza that celebrates its 70th anniversary August 2-12 at Switzerland’s southern canton of Ticino.

Ed Rampell

Film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Esther Shub’s documentary The Fall of the Romanovs on Friday, 7:30 p.m., April 28, 2017 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. This is part of the ongoing “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution, taking place on the fourth Friday of each month through November. For info: