First, a small note welcoming readers to this newly reconstituted blog on film festivals. If you’re already a regular on FilmLinc and have been following my posts from across the festival world this year, welcome back to the redesigned site and my retitled blog. If you’re landing on this site for the first time, we hope you’ll stay and come back for more. Our goal is to provide a different, hopefully deeper, perspective on the world and culture of film festivals than might be found at many other web destinations.

And no better place to start than with the Locarno Film Festival, which—after a period of decline—has quickly asserted itself as a place in which new and old cinema meet and merge, and as a platform for essential young cinema that may be ignored or relegated to a minor position by more commercially-oriented festivals. The 65th edition ended on August 11, and rather than review the several award-winners or survey the highlights here (a second post in two weeks will get more into the weeds with specific films), I want to first give a sense of what Locarno stands for in the context of the larger festival cosmos, how its overall program is shaped and what its priorities say about the state of cinema.

During the early days of this year’s edition, Indiewire critic Eric Kohn who, with Film Society’s Eugene Hernandez, organized Locarno’s new Critics Academy this year, mused with me about how few American journalists attend the festival. Taken together, all of the American critics could probably fit inside one of the town’s Swiss Com phone booths. The lack of attendance results in a lack of coverage, and the lack of coverage results in a lack of awareness of what’s certainly one of the world’s most important and vital festival experiences. This is understandable from several regards. With outlets’ budgets already strapped and unable to provide sufficient means to send writers to many festivals at all, the notion that they could send critics to Locarno as well as Berlin, Cannes, Toronto and Venice is fairly outlandish. With Locarno wedged in the calendar between Cannes in May and Venice/Toronto in late August-early September, it’s routinely been overlooked by all except the most thoroughgoing European critics and reporters. The festival’s traditional emphasis on films over personalities, on discoveries over market-centric activity, has served to further dampen American editors’ already slight interest, which may extend to being unsure where Locarno is even located. (In the far southern, predominantly Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino, less than two hours’ drive north of Milan, three hours’ train trip south of Zurich. It also happens to enjoy more sunlight than any other Swiss city, explaining the plethora of palm trees.)

Locarno artistic director Olivier Père speaks with young critics at the festival. Photo by Eugene Hernandez.

But Eric was likely sharing my sense, since my first visit to Locarno in 2010, of being at the center of something exciting that few fellow American journalists were tapped into. Whether it’s the same sense shared by an earlier generation of Americans attending Cannes, Berlin or Venice is impossible to say; but it’s hard to overemphasize the chasm of perception and values of what mattered in the movies during this Hot American Summer and the ten days of the 65th Locarno Film Festival.

This difference begins with festival director Olivier Père, who came on board in 2010 after a superb run at Cannes’ Quinzaine, where he provided a valuable platform for such notable filmmakers as Lisandro Alonso, Pedro Costa, Julia Loktev, Corneliu Porimboiu, Albert Serra and Nicolas Klotz. Due to its limited size (typically, 23 or so films in the main lineup), the Quinzaine allowed Pere only a fraction of the range of his interests as a programmer, even as it permitted him to concentrate on mostly younger filmmakers deemed too radical or too new for Cannes’ main competition or Un Certain Regard sections. Locarno, with its far larger scope of well over 200 features, a generous shorts program, plus special sidebars including the festival’s traditional retrospective focus, has permitted Père a highly catholic selection that more accurately reflects his and his acute programming team’s tendencies. In 2011, for example, this meant a lineup for the general audience nightly shows on the town’s vast Piazza Grande (the festival’s most iconic image and spot, seating 8000 under what festival organizers hope are cloudless stars) that included not only J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 but Benoît Jacquot’s Deep in the Woods.

Understanding Locarno requires some perspective. Père’s arrival marked the righting of a ship that had been floundering for years. After a strong regime headed by Marco Muller, who effectively established his reputation as a forward-looking artistic director at Locarno (while also establishing the festival as a key safe harbor for new, groundbreaking work from Asia), Locarno went through a series of directors who were either ill-suited to the job or never fulfilled necessarily lofty expectations. Once viewed as the European festival best suited to the kind of movies deemed too dangerous for either Cannes or Venice, it had become a festival searching for an identity, a victim of the calendar such that it received both the rejects of Cannes and Berlin and the work too early or not good enough for Venice. Stuck in between, Locarno seemed to be in big trouble just three years ago. If there were a major festival that required an infusion of ideas and energy, this was the one.

Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse. Image courtesy of COLUMBIA / THE KOBAL COLLECTION.

Père’s turnaround is something I can’t personally measure, since I never attended prior to his directorship. But speaking with many longtime Locarno regulars, it becomes clear that the character as well as the shape and even the feel of the festival has undergone considerable change for the better. A festival that is Europe’s second-oldest (65 years, next to Venice’s 69) now seems like one of Europe’s youngest.

Notably, once he came on board, Pere didn’t fiddle too drastically with the festival’s overall architecture. The centerpiece, non-competition Piazza Grande lineup (about 16 titles) is a fixture, one which Pere readily admits is the most challenging section to program since it requires finesse: Striking the right combination of films with broader popular appeal and which are also not dumbed down for the largest international market (such as the plethora of summer movies those American critics not coming to Locarno are burdened with on a weekly basis). Or, if you will, the kind of movies that used to be made by the past three classical Hollywood directors selected for full career retrospectives—Ernst Lubitsch, Vincente Minnelli and Otto Preminger. It’s why the Locarno tradition of an inclusion in the Piazza Grande program of one film from the retrospective (in this year’s case, Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse starring ingenue Jean Seberg) doesn’t feel like an outlier, but as the extension of a past cinema storytelling tradition into the present. The best of the Pizza Grande films, such as Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre or Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block last year, combine a filmmaker’s signature vision with an accessible narrative structure.

Central to the interest of visiting critics and programmers are the two competition slates which comprise Locarno’s artistic heart: The international competition (around 20 titles) and Filmmakers of the Present (around 15). The former concentrates on the work of established filmmakers, the latter on younger filmmakers, sometimes debuting in Locarno; it’s worth adding, however, that these are only general tendencies in the two sections, and not hard and fast guidelines. (An additional competition, the Opera Prima, for which I served on last year’s jury, comprises all first works across all sections, effectively Locarno’s counterpart to Cannes’ Camera d’Or.)

João Pedro Rodrigues’ and João Rui Guerra da Mata’s The Last Time I Saw Macao

The international competition, though tilted toward better-known auteurs, also tends to lean far edgier and more dangerous than similar slates at other festivals of similar scale and pedigree, and it’s this aspect where Locarno begins to mark out an alternative zone in contrast to the less risky settings of Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto. The 2010 competition, for example, included films that many American festivals would think twice, and three times, about slotting in their art-oriented sidebar sections, let alone their main slate: Li Hongqi’s Winter Vacation, Isild LeBesco’s Bas-Fonds, Denis Cote’s Curling, Xu Xin’s Karamay, Bruce LaBruce’s L.A. Zombie. This tendency continued in 2011 with Laurent Achard’s Deniere Séance, Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche’s Les Chants de Mandrin, Nicolas Klotz’ Low Life and Katsuya Tomita’s Saudade. Again, this year, a strong radical strain in the lineup was unmistakable: João Pedro Rodrigues’ and João Rui Guerra da Mata’s The Last Time I Saw Macao, Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan, Nicolas Pereda’s Greatest Hits, Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, Peter Mettler’s The End of Time and Liang Ying’s When Night Falls.

Just as crucial, though, is Père's attentiveness to presenting a wide-ranging view of current cinema, not only the vanguard. This essential, and I would say defining, characteristic of his programming can be traced from his years at the Quinzaine down to the present, so that his slates always include American movies with distribution and European titles with name directors. The best example of the former in the 2012 slate is one which typifies Locarno’s ability to straddle several different trends in the film world and which also helps differentiate it from other festivals: Craig Zobel’s cause célèbre Compliance. Sufficiently mainstream that it can never be termed “experimental,” distinctly “indie” but made with an exceptionally high level of traditional American craftsmanship, accessible and intensely dramatic while also explicitly and daringly political, Compliance proved a hot potato for programmers of Cannes’ various sections, and was the object of considerable internal debate there. At the end of the day, it was ultimately rejected, opening the door for Père, who loved the film when he saw it in Sundance and immediately pounced on it once Cannes passed. This also illustrates how Locarno’s current programming team has proven nimble enough to grab up choice work inexplicably rejected by Cannes; even while it isn’t too hard to imagine Winter Vacation, Low Life, The End of Time or such fine work as Bogdan George Apetri’s Periferic (Locarno 2010), Milagros Mumenthaler’s Golden Leopard-winning Back to Stay (2011), Nadav Lapid’s Policeman (2011) or Tizza Covi’s and Rainer Frimmel’s The Shine of Day (2012) landing somewhere in Cannes, none of them did, with all of them picked up by Locarno. This is a mere selection on my part from what’s in fact a much longer list.

Fang Song’s Memories Look at Me

Though its prerogative is discoveries, the Filmmakers of the Present section is importantly not relegated to second-class status by the festival, nor is it experienced as such by audiences. While some crowds at this and other festivals tend to specialize in their favorite niches (retro/archive fans camp out with the older movies, genre/fan boys hang out at popular sidebars like Toronto’s Midnight Madness), I’ve found that the typical Locarno visitor jumps from section to section. This can mean a Preminger at the lovely Ex*Rex Cinema in the morning, followed by an international competition title at the huge Fevi Auditorium, followed by a film from Filmmakers of the Present, or perhaps a choice from the newly constituted Histoire(s) du cinema section encompassing a wide range of old and new films addressing cinema and engaging in fresh looks at past and current directors (this year, for example, included everyone from Dino Risi to Ben Wheatley). The more adventurous and energetic viewers will also work in visits to Locarno’s long-running Open Doors section, which focuses on a historically neglected world region of filmmaking activity, such as Africa this year, represented by a large group of directors led by Souleymane Cisse.

But a concentrated viewing of the work in Filmmakers of the Present probably provides the best, most intense perception of Locarno’s embrace of young cinema. Consider the 2010 class, including Paravel’s and J.P. Sniadecki’s Foreign Parts, Ana Lungu’s Burta Balenei, Alex Stockman’s Pulsar and Daniel Cockburn’s You Are Here. Or an extremely impressive 2011 with Valerie Massadian’s Nana, Goncalo Tocha’s It’s the Earth Not the Moon, Simone Rapisarda Casanova’s The Strawberry Tree, Alessandro Comodin’s Summer of Giacomo, Gaston Solnicki’s Papirosen, Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel and Mark Jackson’s Without. Although I’ve currently seen eight of 2012’s fifteen films, essential titles would include Eloy Enciso’s Arraianos, Pedro-Gonzalez Rubio’s Inori, Fang Song’s Memories Look at Me, Sniadecki’s and Libbie Dina Cohn’s People’s Park, Peter Bo Rappmund’s Tectonics and the collectively-made Russian doc on anti-Putinism, Winter, Go Away!

The ultimate effect of taking in the various strains in Locarno is being in a cinema time machine, where the past loops into the present, the present recalls the past, with a revitalized bond between the two. Too often in writing about the movies, a separation between past and present is stressed, with an underlying purpose of proving that the present fails in light of the past’s grand achievements. Locarno-style programming, not differentiating between archival and contemporary, provides a vigorous riposte to this bogus agenda.

Next time, to give this aspect further dimension and meaning, we’ll go inside some of the key films at Locarno, including some set to screen this fall at the 50th New York Film Festival.