The New Locarno-Toronto Connection

Posted by Robert Koehler on 9.11.2012


Robert Sommer in Jeb Cohen's Museum Hours

There will doubtless be a wonk out there in cyberspace who will look into this, but as far as can be detected, this year marks as high a number of Locarno festival premieres transferring to Toronto as ever. This is more than a statistic. It means a few things at once: Locarno is programming more films that matter and more films that travel; the major festivals are paying greater attention to similar clusters of adventurous, less conventional films ready for premieres; Toronto has marked out a larger space for the kind of films that Locarno is now likely to screen first; North American audiences, critics and film industry members are now able to take in a good percentage of what marks the cream of Locarno’s selection, which translates into greater exposure and possible North American distributor interest for films coming from a major festival that tends to be overlooked by North Americans in general—a point explored in the last blog on Locarno’s essence and Olivier Père’s critical role.

For a moment, re: Père. His sudden departure from Locarno, after a triumphant three-year run as artistic director, startled not just observers, but the festival’s own staff. (It’s possible to consider that it startled Père, too.) Newly-announced director Carlo Chatrian, a highly respected film scholar and critic, as well as a keen programmer (he has served previously on Locarno’s selection group, and now serves in a similar capacity at Cinema du Reel), will make a solid transition, from all indications. But Père’s absence will undoubtedly be felt, and his arrival at Arte France Cinema may mean a boost for the production funding of some of the best younger filmmakers in the world. For the first time in over a decade, Pere’s programming acumen will be absent from the international festival scene in 2013, and that will be a bit weird to adjust to.


Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mekong Hotel

But Père's legacy—and just as much the work of his rigorous and highly talented programming team--can nevertheless be solidly felt in Toronto. Here’s a sample of Locarno’s premieres on view at TIFF: Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Mettler’s The End of Time, João Pedro Rodrigues’ and João Rui Guerra da Matta’s The Last Time I Saw Macao, Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan, Athina Rachel Tsangari’s The Capsule, Tsai Ming-liang’s The Walker, Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, Heinz Emigholz’s Perret in France and Algeria and Kazik Radwanski’s Tower, the last of which I haven’t seen. By any measure, this is a powerful roster of films, several set for the New York Film Festival, many of them easy to forecast as sure bets for end-of-year critics’ list. Beyond these, there’s an equally remarkable group of European premieres in Locarno landing in Toronto, including Denis Cote’s Bestiare (from Sundance), Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mekong Hotel (Cannes), Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers (Cannes) and Ying Liang’s When Night Falls (Jeonju). Taken together, this Locarno cluster in TIFF is a smart starting point of reference for the dazed festivalgoer trying to navigate through one of the most complex of all festival viewing schedules.

The sheer mass of Locarno imports speaks volumes about how it has become a significant launch pad for filmmakers working outside the conventions of what the commercial marketplace expects from the standard festival movie, and even working outside the usual boundaries of what a fiction or non-fiction film actually is. Traditionally, while Locarno has always provided a safe harbor for these kinds of works, they tended not to travel. Things have changed, and the Locarno-Toronto connection is proof. The Last Time I Saw Macao playfully folds together elements of noir, romance and spy movie with the observational city film, while Leviathan’s audacious technique of letting tiny digital cameras loose on the deck of a sea-whipped fishing boat results in something like a “Deadliest Catch” episode gone hallucinogenic with horror movies, which is exactly what Castaing-Taylor thinks it is. The Walker places Tsai’s regular star Lee Kang-sheng in full (Buddhist monk) costume amidst actual Hong Kong streets, and observes what happens. Museum Hours utterly destroys the line between doc and narrative with characters (a Viennese museum guard, a Canadian visiting Vienna) on and off script, playing out a story in real “documentary” situations. Mekong Hotel shifts, as always for the Guy Named Joe, between magic, myth and a diary for larger filmmaking projects.


Ariane Labed in Athena Rachel Tsangari's The Capsule

This aggregate represents a signal of the future of cinema, the delivery of which is part of the reason why festivals exist in the first place. The fact that the work is on the road and crossing continents at a rapid pace speaks well for both Locarno and Toronto, but it also underlines that Toronto now has a more meaningful place for these films to land. A closer examination of the TIFF program reveals that a high percentage of the Locarno imports are in the newly expanded Wavelengths program, which now encompasses both its traditional avant-garde lineup as well as films which may have previously gone to the now-defunct Visions section. The changes have raised Wavelengths’ profile, particularly given the inclusion of movies like Leviathan and Macao that have garnered so much heat off of Locarno.

This doesn’t mean that TIFF programmers are simply cherry-picking off of Locarno’s program; in fact, that’s impossible, since TIFF’s program is locked before Locarno begins. As Wavelengths chief programmer Andrea Picard has pointed out to me, she’s paying attention during the year to the same kinds of films and filmmakers that the Locarno programmers are watching, so it doesn’t surprise that there ends up being notable overlap between the two.

Since the market is now such a dominant fact of life at a massive event like TIFF—which FIAPF, the International Federation of Film Producers, actually classifies as a “market”—the mere exhibition of the films in the Locarno-Toronto express is, in the eyes of some, not enough. That’s not the case for these eyes, since the act of exhibiting a film like Tsangari’s astonishing, gorgeous and somewhat blood-curdling (another horror movie!) The Capsule, which is too short for theatrical release anyway, is important enough. But a typical test of success in the TIFF environment is if some of these films will get picked up for North American distribution on multiple platforms. A new game now is to see when and if these films find a distribution home; it happened for Leviathan on Friday, so why not the rest?

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