Although the Locarno Film Festival is best known for showcasing elite European and Asian auteurs, this ‘biggest of the small festivals’ or ‘smallest of the big festivals’ maintains a commitment to documentary cinema. Despite grumbling about the quality of new feature-length work, this was quite a good year for non-fiction cinema, excellent examples of which could be found in some surprising parts of the festival.
One part of the festival where it was no surprise to find such cinema was in the Critic’s Week selection. Sponsored by the Association of Swiss Film Journalists, their annual tradition is to showcase seven documentaries deserving of a wider viewership. The most moving of these was Johan Kramer’s The Other Final: Bhutan vs. Montserrat. Kramer organised a football match between these two lowest-ranked teams, seeing it as an opportunity to recover the peaceful, internationalist essence of sport. His film has some moments of comedy, and a keen analysis of third world politics runs throughout. There is not a single moment of Jamaican-bobsled-style condescension. Other notable Critic’s Week entries included The Peter Sellars Story – As He Filmed It, produced by the BBC’s Arena studio and directed by Anthony Wall and Peter Lydon (Sellars obsessively shot Super-8, and Wall and Lydon make highly efficient use of what must have been a huge mass of film), Sam Green’s *The Weather Underground (which featured great interviews with aging American militants and fascinating footage from the 1960s, including bits from Chris Maker’s The Sixth Face of the Pentagon) and Didier Nion’s Dix-Sept Ans (which centred on a troubled seventeen-year-old in Northern France who sometimes seems to be held together solely by his incredibly supportive and wise-beyond-her-years girlfriend; Nion himself becomes a character at the end of the film, when it becomes clear that his presence in their lives was not always welcome).
The festival hosted a huge programme of post-Soviet work sponsored by the Soros Institute’s Open Society Institute; they showed their entire series Gender Montage: Paradigms in Post-Soviet Space. There were some fascinating entries here (including Liana Jakeli’s Invisible, about gender politics in Georgia’s Azeri minority community and Gaukhar Sydykova and Dilia Ruzieva’s Red Butterflies Where Two Springs Merge, about an old Kyrgyz rug-weaver), but there was just too much to take in during a single sitting.
This screening was preceded in the same programme by Return to Kandahar, co-directed by Paul Jay and Nelofer Pazira (Pazira was the star of and inspiration for Moshen Makhmalbaf’s 2001 film Kandahar). This was an interesting piece, although its sometimes overbearing voice-over betrayed its televisual origins (it was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation).
Locarno’s ‘Main Event’ is generally acknowledged to be the outdoor screenings on the Piazza Grande, which are often attended by 6000-7000 people. This year the outdoor programme featured a fascinating Swiss documentary called Mais Im Bundeshuss – Le génie helvétique, by Jean-Stéphane Bron. The subject here was the passage of a law governing genetically modified products in Switzerland, as seen from the perspective of members of five different parties, all along the left to right spectrum. The concluding series of votes is presented here as a real nail-biter, and Bron is unapologetic about showing us the finest details of political wrangling. What could have been a dry or pious political exposition turns into a deeply compelling, and yet somehow not-terribly-partisan tale about a part of Swiss life that few people spend much time thinking about.
The other major Swiss contribution documentary-wise was Richard Dindo’s Ni Olivido ni perdon. Playing as part of a showcase of human rights films, this examined the violent suppression of student protests in Mexico circa 1968. Like Sam Green’s Weather Underground film, Dindo depends here mostly on interviews and period footage, but like Green he’s managed to find some visceral contemporary footage and some eloquent interviewees. Unlike Green’s (or fellow Swiss Bron’s) cooler perspective, though, this is more clearly conceived as a partisan film, as a piece of political and historical activism, and in that way is much in line with Dindo’s previous work.
Another highlight of the Piazza Grande programme that I cannot resist mentioning in a magazine based in Scandinavia was a screening of Morten Skallerud’s short time-lapse documentary *A Year Along the Abandoned Road. Evoking a year in the life of a remote Norwegian fishing village in the space of twelve minutes, and shot on 35mm, this was a visually stunning example of the great paradoxes of documentary form: simultaneously epic and intimate, both highly artificial and intensely realist. It is a film for which the word ‘masterpiece’ is not an overstatement, and seeing it on a huge, outdoor screen was surely the ideal way to experience it.