This year’s Festival internazaionale del film Locarno featured several examples of the curious – and, I daresay, distinctively Swiss – phenomenon of the blockbuster documentary. Some of these were traditional documentaries – Marcel Schüpbach’s portrait of Carla Del Ponte “Carla’s List” (Switzerland) was part of the prestigious outdoor screenings on the Piazza Grande – and some were narrative films that freely mixed fictional and documentary modes. The latter category included Michael Steiner’s “Grounding” (Switzerland), one of the most popular Swiss films of the year, which chronicles the financial troubles of Swissair with a level of detail that can only be called breathtaking. But as with all film festivals, some of the best moments in Locarno came in the surprises that were found in the less hyped screenings.

One such discovery was Joseph Péaquin’s “Il était une fois…. Les délices du petit monde” (Italy). This was a portrait of an older couple in a small village in the Val d’Aoste. They speak Franco-Provençal (what many Francophones would call a patois) and seem to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the traditional cooking of the region. The film is structured around their slow, graceful preparation of a number of dishes, dishes whose complexity mandates an intense patience and attention to detail on their part. Indeed, “Il était une fois” is itself a patient, gentle evocation of a few days that they spent with their grandchildren. Péaquin’s attempts to connect the rhythms of their speech, the rhythms of their lives and the rhythms of his film recall the great Québécois filmmaker Pierre Perrault’s notion of “un cinéma de la parole”, a cinema of speech. Both filmmakers are intensely curious about the connections between tradition and modernity, between life and language, and both seem to be looking for genuinely new paths for ethnography, and indeed for documentary itself.

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