The word on the street is that the Ticinese town of Locarno, Switzerland, comes to life only during the international film festival before returning to general cultural dormancy. The high-profile event appears in August like a planetary body, absorbing the local infrastructure and economy into its orbit; businesses are decked in the festival’s trademark yellow-black leopard patterns, gymnasiums are turned into movie halls and publicity hoardings look to cinema for inspiration. It’s indeed hard to divine the nature of the town underneath this two-week masque.

The town, however, has its own ways of asserting its identity. If the festival dominates the visual landscape of Locarno, the soundtrack remains very much of the place. Motorbikes with infernal exhausts, Sisyphean workers dragging heavy trolleys up cobbled pathways and helicopters and ambulances zooming in and out of local hospitals are constant reminders of the presence of a thriving and often abrasive local life.

The helicopters and ambulances are also reminders of health and sickness, which Locarno, despite its paradisiacal landscape ashore the Lake Maggiore, seems animated by. It isn’t just in the fact of the pandemic, which belies the unmasked crowds in the town and the nation’s now-lenient health regulations. It is also in that Ticino is a pharmaceutical hub, a detail reflected in the proliferation of hoardings for drugs and health insurance.

Medicine, disease and death, as it happens, are also recurring elements in the films of Douglas Sirk, who received a monumental 43-film retrospective at the festival. Once an accomplished theatre director at the heart of the modernist movement in Germany, Sirk left for the United States in 1937 for a chequered career in Hollywood. It was in the 1950s, when he collaborated with Universal Pictures, that Sirk made the series of lush melodramas that he is most known today for.

Curated by Bernard Eisenschitz and Roberto Turigliatto, the retrospective allowed audiences to not just observe the evolution of Sirk as a film artist, but also find underexplored cross-currents between different phases of his career. As a result, the hard-edged mystery movies he made in the 1940s come across as containing the seeds of the later melodramas, just as the melodramas pick up disturbing undercurrents from the crime pictures. At the very least, the retrospective should prove instrumental in nuancing the existing critical line around Sirk as a maker of Technicolor weepies.

“As far as I am concerned, heaven is stingy,” Sirk once said. In Alexander Sokurov’s Fairytale, the marquee entry of the competition section of the festival, four political figures from the twentieth century try to see if they can get an entry into heaven. Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Churchill find themselves in a purgatory in this hypnotic if elusive work. They make petty quips about each other, encounter doppelgängers and reflect on the tragedies they have presided over. Drawing from both classical painting and AI-based imaging technology, Sokurov’s digital chamber drama is designed like a historical fever dream, only that the twentieth-century slumber isn’t over yet.

Fairytale beholds the world’s horrors from a melancholy, even amused distance, but the wounds are still raw in Jan Baumgartner’s The DNA of Dignity, a moving documentary about the work of forensic scientists involved in identifying victims buried in mass graves during the Balkan War. They excavate bones, assemble what remains of them into a skeleton, carry out DNA tests to ascertain identities and hand over the remains to grieving families, who haven’t had closure despite the end of the war. Baumgartner’s film is a fascinating picture of the how the abstractions of science eventually take form as human stories. Its success in finding the right tone and distance for a subject as grave and delicate.

“The war was first fought with bombs, since then it has become silent,” recalls one bereaving mother in The DNA of Dignity. The notion of war as a permanent condition, a state of mind courses through Azerbaijani filmmaker Hilal Baydarov’s Sermon to the Fish. A traumatized young soldier returns to his village after the war to see it empty and desolate. Baydarov weaves this premise into a spare landscape film in which spectacular vistas of barren countryside are punctuated by human figures prostrating or scrunched up, rarely showing their faces. The film’s greatest idea involves a photobombing dog.

Locarno’s own landscape is more modest. Hemmed in by mountains, the town comes across as intimate, almost claustrophobic. The festival venues are located a few minutes from each other, a fact that makes encounters with acquaintances and friends pleasurably inevitable. The steep, narrow lanes of the town that house countless restaurants all flow into the Piazza Grande, the massive open-air screen at the heart of the festival.

Film festivals like Locarno are, however, paradoxical things. As beacons of film culture, they are supposed to allow audiences to get a sense of cinema’s future and past. Yet the ideals of a festival often come crashing against everyday realities of participating in it. Subject to unending screenings and conversations, the mind wanders, the films bleed into one another, frequently losing context. The movies seek to take the viewer on journeys to far-flung worlds, existing and imagined, but the physical reality of spectatorship resists this easy transportation. The sweat on your back as you settle down into your seat, the fight to get a half-decent meal between screenings, the inexorable gravity of undone laundry all never fail to remind you of the here and the now.

Moreover, the glut of films can result in an audio-visual bulimia at loggerheads with the goals of a festival. The state of confused reflection that challenging films leave you in are, unfortunately, washed away in the stream of thoughts that the next work provokes.

And the Locarno film festival is known for its mix of traditional and challenging programming. If the films playing at the Piazza Grande draw non-cinephilic audiences from across the region, the works premiering in competition tend to be at the vanguard of cinematic innovation. Last year, the festival, in fact, dissolved “Moving Ahead”, a sidebar devoted to more experimental fare – a bold decision that may yet prove controversial. The result of the move was that this year’s Cineasti del Presenti, a section showcasing work from early-career filmmakers, was dominated by features that may have otherwise been relegated to the experimental segment.

As part of its Green Project, Locarno also designated a Green Leopard award in 2022, intending to honour one feature that “best reflects an environmental theme.” The recipient of the inaugural edition of this award was Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Matter Out of Place, a remarkable work tracing the journey of objects not native to the environment they are found in. Shot in about ten locations from around the world including Nepal and the Maldives, the film looks at the human-generated waste at various corners of the planet. Like much of Geyrhalter’s work, Matter has neither voiceover or interviews, with the viewer trusted with the task of navigating through the film’s implications.

Matter juxtaposes the work of waste management personnel from around the world, but it does not offer glib answers about their relationship. Geyrhalter insists that his films are not activist, rather documents for future archives about how humans lived in this particular point in history. Indeed, the images in his new film are clear and sharp, but they are productively ambivalent, suspending the viewer in both amazement and repulsion at mankind’s capacity to generate and manage vast amounts of garbage in the remotest stretches of the earth. Beauty and ugliness coexist in Matter Out of Place, which has the capacity to sharpen our ecological consciousness more thoroughly than most cine-pamphlets can. It’s an essential work.

 

[First published in Mint Lounge]

 

Height of the Wave (Park Jung-bum)

In Park Jung-bum’s Height of the Wave, a cop Yeon-soo (Lee Seung-yeon) is posted to an island village. She’s going through a divorce and finalizing her settlements through a lawyer. On the island with her is her teenage daughter, who is evidently upset at not only the divorce, but also the isolation unwillingly imposed on her. Yeon-soo is doesn’t speak much and holds the world at a sceptical distance. She’s also depressed. On her first day, she visits the village dentist for some anti-depressants. The mayor of the village is also present at the clinic, and he complements the officer on her shampoo when he invites her to a welcome party. At the party, Yeon-soo notices two young men cajoling a woman, Yea-eun (Lee Yeon-hee), and whisking her away into the dark. The officer follows them, not sure if it’s romance, coercion or prostitution she’s witnessing. The threesome gives enough clues for Yeon-soo to suspect the latter and she pursues the case: Yea-eun forced into underage prostitution by her guardians with full knowledge of the village council. This spells bad news for the mayor, who’s trying to make the island a special destination for tourists. He gathers the stakeholders of the village—all men—to derail the investigation.

Park’s film is a story of three women: Yeon-soo, who experiences sexism at all levels of society despite the power vested in her, Yea-eun, an abject victim who has been groomed into a life of abuse, and Yeon-soo’s daughter, who’s dealing with her own deracination. Save for a dim-witted young boy with rudimentary conscience, every man in the village is guiltier than the other, seems to have his own reason. Yea-eun’s uncle and guardian, who is courageous enough to challenge the mayor in his plans for the island, remains a silent accomplice in his niece’s prostitution. Like the child in Loveless, Yea-eun runs away into the woods and the entire village goes up the hills to look for her. But it’s Dogville that’s a more relevant touchstone here. In Park’s disturbing, cynical view, it takes a village to abuse a child. His idea of this village, whose children kill ants in a vicarious fear of outsiders, is a place close to nature both in its austere beauty and murderous violence. On the other hand, we never get to understand Yeon-soo’s grief outside of her divorce. Her peculiar gestures—burying a toaster her ex-husband gifted her daughter, opening and closing doors constantly in wait for her missing daughter, kneeling in the woods crying—reinforce her suffering without explaining them. Outside of a few long shots of high physicality, the film mostly runs on auto-pilot with a gawking shoulder camera. The cold winds, the muted colour and the faded anoraks suggest a sullen atmosphere, but the hills, beaches and jungles aren’t put to particularly interesting use.

Earth (Nikolaus Geyrhalter)

Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Earth begins with an announcement that “humankind is the most decisive geological factor of our time” going by the volume of top soil our kind displaces every day. Geyrhalter charts these massive changes effected to the surface of the earth at seven sites across two continents: large-scale sand mining in California to make way for new townships, the construction of a 22-kilometer long tunnel through the mountains between Austria and Italy, strip mining for coal in Gyöngyös, Hungary, extraction from a marble quarry in Carrara, Italy, the dynamiting of mountains for copper ore in Minas de Riotinto, Spain, damage control of nuclear waste stored in underground salt mines in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, and open pit oil mining in a First Nations reservation in Fort McKay, Canada. Geyrhalter’s MO throughout the film is the same. A drone shot of the site from an extreme height introduces each section. Shots of men at work are interspersed with interviews with them. The filmmaker questions them about their work, its end use, its physical and moral limits, their feelings towards their job, the impact of their work on the environment, and the ethical quandaries, if any. There are patterns in the answers too. The men and women recognize that their activity might be harmful to the environment, but they declare that it’s their job, that someone else will do it if not them, that we can’t help but continue if we want to progress.

Geyrhalter captures breath-taking images of the mining sites, images that seem otherworldly in their desolate beauty. The geometric forms of the Carrara marble quarry or the vast craters of the Gyöngyös mines make for awe-inducing spectacle comparable to those in Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death. But Geyrhalter’s perspective is not Marxist; his focus is not on the workers or their alienation from their work. The mostly male interviewees, in fact, assert their passion for their job, the adrenaline rush it induces. Where the emphasis lies, instead, is in mankind’s incredible constructive capacity as well as its ultimate frailty, the two in constant conversation with each other. Looking at the gargantuan mining sites with huge moving parts, one wonders at their construction, but also at the fact that any of the ant-like workers in the vicinity could be killed were a tiny part of the facility to fall on him. Geyrhalter’s film pits man’s massive machines against the earth, which here takes on a human quality. One interviewee talks of the mountain’s virginity, another laments the hurting of “Mother Earth”. The serial explosives that are used to clear the way produce ripples on the land surface, making it look like human convulsions. Geyrhalter, who has produced and directed dozens of documentaries, doesn’t swap out nuance for quick judgment, though his sympathies are evident in his choices. He gets enviable access to private sites, which is perhaps why the last segment in Fort McKay, where he has no permission, sticks out, spells out as it does the film’s themes and proclivities.

Endless Night (Eloy Enciso)

I watched Galician filmmaker Eloy Enciso’s Endless Night in a state of anxiety. My mind was awash with news from the anti-CAA protests all over India and the brutal police response to the protestors. Given its story about a fascist regime’s crackdown of dissidents, the poisonous nationalism of those in power and the apathy of those on the right side of the government, the film should have spoken to me at this moment. But it was the opposite that happened. Enciso deliberately strips the narrative—set during and after the Spanish Civil War—of its particularities in order to impart a universal, contemporary significance. He takes an admirable, Pedro Costa-like distance from the political, which keeps the viewer at a critical distance. I could, however, not get rid of the feeling that, despite its unique stylistic choices, Enciso is leaning back on established arthouse shibboleths, both formal and narrative, to evoke pre-determined responses from the viewer. And I wholly accept the possibility that this suspicion of mine could be the product of the gap between the urgency of the situation around me and the film’s meditative treatment of a similar subject. In other words, I can’t be objective about this film. But then, what is one ever objective about?

I also suspect the structure of Endless Night is derived from the opera; an opera reimagined as a Sharunas Bartas elegy for the Spanish Republic. Divided into three acts, the film begins with an overture in which two mendicants, presumably acting as a Greek chorus, talk about the changing times. In the first act, we are introduced to various figures in the village: Falangist businessmen, relatives of resistance fighters, a mayoral candidate of the village and the powerful of the region who discuss the state of things over a game of cards. In the second, we get testimonies by those who were incarcerated or persecuted. Much like in Seven Years in May, a woman by the fire recounts her prison experience in a long shot. “Though you may forget, the body keeps its own memory of the torment”, says another. A soldier in the Franco army confesses his true sentiments. In the third act, the resistance fighter who has been the loose connecting thread of the narrative wanders the jungles, seemingly being pursued. As the camera focuses on his hands and feet moving over rocks and leaves, letters of the incarcerated are read in the voiceover—it’s not clear whether the film is conflating two time lines of the “protagonist” or creating a mosaic of dissident experiences. Endless Night becomes increasingly sparse in terms of action and dialogue, coming almost to a standstill in the final passages where the hero strikes pensive poses in artfully lit night time shots. In the first two acts, Enciso obsessively avoids shots with more than one actor, his compositions presenting profiles or three-quarter medium shots of performers interacting with off-screen characters. These stretches evoke John Ford and Manoel de Oliveira in equal measure, while Straub becomes a reference point in the third act.

Bird Island (Sergio da Costa, Maya Kosa)

It is perhaps owing to the same anxiety that I found watching Bird Island a supremely relaxing experience. Shot charmingly in 16mm in academy ratio, the film is a loosely fictionalized documentary set in a bird shelter, somewhere near the Geneva airport I’m told. Antonin is a young man who has been posted at the shelter as part of his rehabilitation programme following a long period of ailments and surgeries. At the facility, he assists Paul, who is responsible for breeding mice to feed the birds at the shelter, which arrive there presumably after being dazed or disoriented at the airport. Also present at the site are veterinarian Emilie, first-aid giver Sandra and keeper Iwan. We follow the work of the shelter’s staff in measured, long shots sewn together by Antonin’s voiceover: Emilie operating on injured birds of prey, Sandra reintroducing the operated birds into a life in the wild, Paul teaching Antonin the nitty-gritty of breeding mice and killing them. Antonin is reticent and timid at first, and his integration into the small community of the shelter parallels the reintegration of the injured birds into the wild. “Some birds prefer security to freedom”, observes Antonin about one feathered friend that decides to stay back at the shelter—a comment equally true of the humans here.

Bird Island considers with equanimity the violence inherent in human and natural processes. The mice are bred to be killed, but their meat saves the lives of the injured birds. The dazed birds, themselves, are collateral damage of technology and progress, which are also what enable the shelter. Birds are trained to hunt mice before being set free, but some of the escaped rats attack the birds fatally. This adiabatic exchange within nature, the cycle of hurting and healing, is signalled by the closing images of the film’s two halves. In the first, a heat map left behind a dead mouse on a tissue paper slowly vanishes. In the second—the last image of the film—we see the dazed owl, now cured, in similar infrared imagery, flying away. These serious themes, however, never come in the way of the film’s essentially calming quality. Bird Island is, at heart, about a helpful, soft-spoken, decent community that accepts its members as they are. The members like each other’s presence and are indulgent towards each other’s failings. They don’t discuss past or future, or anything outside of work. “Paul is like a chosen one”, notes Antonin, “he poses no questions about his work.” This utopian quality of accepting birds and people as they come, and letting them go if they want to, is in stark contrast to real communities, which are predicated on shared history and shared future. Everything about Bird Island is clean and simple: the soft-lit compositions, the spare dialogue, the sporadic flute melody that forms the only soundtrack, the narrative sparsity and the acting, which here is just being. And this Rohmerian clarity and simplicity calms your nerves about the state of the world—which is what the subject of the film is.