Because of COVID-19, the structure of the 74th Locarno Film Festival was rethought. Under the motto “For the future of films” and opting for a hybrid form, Lily Hinstin and her team proposed a limited number of films to be screened live for local audiences, while offering a much broader spectrum of movies to the online (mainly international) community.
In this new configuration, only the Pardi di domani short film section remained unchanged, albeit additionally available online. The two main competitive strands, the International Competition and Filmmakers of the Present, were replaced by a line-up of twenty high-profile feature projects, international and Swiss, still to be completed. Local audiences were able to enjoy A Journey through the Festival’s History – twenty features chosen by the selected directors in Locarno’s film archives from 1948 to 2018. Lastly, the festival presented Through the Open Doors, ten films that paid tribute to the Open Doors initiative, dedicated to supporting filmmakers from the South and East, places “where independent filmmaking is vulnerable.”1
Despite all the changes and limitations, the Open Doors program turned out to be unexpectedly intimate, intense and vivid. Far from the madding crowd, free from hectic work meetings and interviews, cut off from all the diversions of the festival and secluded in the comparatively quiet surroundings of home, virtual audiences were able to give their undivided attention to the films offered online. Available on the web exclusively during the festival, the Open Doors Screenings seduced global viewers through an exciting selection of 10 feature and 10 short films from the Philippines, Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Skilfully curated by Open Doors team members Paolo Bertolin and Delphine Jeanneret and considerably enriched through a series of truly insightful conversations between the directors and the programmers, the Open Doors Screenings section took us on a journey of discovery. While the focus was to some extent on aesthetics and crucial production issues, ultimately, political themes took centre stage.
As a matter of fact, this is the core mission of Locarno’s Open Doors, a multifaceted initiative aimed not only at showcasing films, but also fostering the creation and production of independent cinema through the specific industry tools offered by the Opens Doors Lab and the Opens Doors Hub. Launched 18 years ago, today Open Doors can be considered one of the Festival’s more significant and distinguished achievements in terms of cultural support and worldwide cinema development.
Built on the collaboration with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Open Doors evolves in a three-year cycle and focuses on a different region of the world each time – presently South East Asia and Mongolia. It offers advice, professional training, international co-production, funding and distribution collaborations to the participants, as well as grants to a few winning projects.
Consequently, Open Doors opens cinema up to the diversity in the world, offering a forum and creating the conditions for new, unheard voices from afar (from a European perspective) to find their place on the world map of cinema, to express their sensibility, sorrow or anger, to rise up against the harsh realities of social marginalisation, prejudice, intolerance or censorship, often surprising us with original and daring cinematic approaches.
Side by side Open Doors screenings shine a spotlight on newcomers from the short film sector as well as veterans whose work, eventually supported by or shown in the festival’s past editions, is worth rediscovering.
Faced with the baffling task of choosing from among the various seductive possibilities offered by the festival route planner, I was first drawn to a relatively well-known cinematic destination, the Philippines.
Without a shadow of a doubt, in these last two decades, independent Filipino cinema has contributed heavily to shaping a far-reaching narrative around the country’s past and recent history for audiences abroad; powerful images and thrilling stories with a strong grip on reality have created the canvas for a tense and disturbing national portrait. Beyond their distinctive aesthetics and individual approaches, the four features presented in this country’s overview all offer a disquieting look at their environment. The idea of a confined space, that runs like a guiding thread through these films, is a pivotal metaphor for a malaise that is not only existential, but essentially political.
Masajista (The Masseur, 2005) by Brillante Mendoza is a powerful meditation on love and loss, affection and desire, life and death. Awarded the Golden Leopard in Locarno in 2005 for the video competition, The Masseur paints a gritty, realist portrait of a marginal hero. Shot with a digital camera in a cinéma-verité style, the film had a great influence on the aesthetics of independent Filipino cinema for the next decade. On a more personal level, as the first movie-experiment by a late bloomer, The Masseur also and unexpectedly launched Mendoza’s prolific filmmaking career.
Iliac, the film’s protagonist, is a provincial young man in his twenties who works as a masseur in a gay brothel in Manila. When he rushes back home to visit his estranged, ill father, he learns that his father has already passed away, and that he must handle his burial. Mendoza’s sensitive, perceptive observation of Iliac’s reactions, the fleeting but precise study of the microcosm that surrounds him, at home in the village during his father’s funeral and in the closed, lascivious word of the massage brothel in the city, transforms a simple life event into a mesmerising tale. A skilful mise en scène, surprising shots, impressive camera movements and the extended use of parallel editing, shape the film’s distinctive universe.
Space is a crucial element. Mendoza creates the sensation of a suffocating, claustrophobic atmosphere. The brothel’s rooms are a series of very narrow cubicles only separated by a thin bamboo wall that is permeated by a range of noises; screams and moaning from next door invade every single parlour. The air is stuffy, dense with perspiration, oil and baby powder that almost choke one of the boys. Far from being a temple of joy, the brothel is dark, gloomy, convoluted and crowded with male bodies. Mendoza constantly intertwines these images with the burial of Iliac’s father, thus creating a mind-bending psychological short-circuit. Lying on a tiny bed in the massage parlour, on the metal table of a hospital morgue, or finally, in a grave, these bodies are trapped equally by their lust or by the sudden blow of death, it really makes no difference. The customer’s body in the massage parlour and the dead father’s body are mirror images in the film: Iliac has to take care of both of them and while doing so, he painfully realises that life and death are equally rooted in the mystery of love.
There is some breathing space and a liberating outcome at the end: Iliac accidentally rediscovers his father’s lost affection buried deep in childhood memories. Earlier, Iliac had begged a customer to give him a pair of rubber shoes for Christmas. After his father’s funeral, he’d found a box of pictures and a piece of paper with a drawing of his small foot made by his father, in order to buy him a pair of his beloved ‘rubber’ shoes.
Choosing to continue my journey by simply following the film production year, I stumbled onto Engkwentro (The Clash, 2009) by Pepe Diokno. With the rigour and inexorability of a Greek tragedy, The Clash tells the story of Richard, a young drug dealer, who frantically tries to escape the “death squads” that are targeting him. With powerful visual means, Diokno describes the oppressive reality of the slum where his ill-fated heroes live, like a gruesome maze with no way out. The film opens on a small idyllic harbour; the camera gently takes in the horizon of the open sea where a fisherman works on his boat. This is the last glimpse of hope and freedom we see for the next 60 minutes. The camera turns slowly around to reveal a shantytown located just behind this location; it is the starting point of a truly remarkable long shot that lasts almost one third of the movie, leading us deep into the underbelly of the slum. The handheld camera starts running forward, chasing after something or someone in the dirty, narrow, overcrowded passageways. The point of view is unsettling, that of an entity we cannot define. Whoever enters this area is trapped forever; there is no Ariadne’s thread. With masterful dexterity, Diokno’s camera prowls all around this maze in a fluid, unstoppable movement, following and meeting the story’s different characters, one by one. Like a macabre ballet, the lens captures transient moments of sorrow, hope, fear, greed, ambition and love. Brainwashing messages from the Local mayor promising to establish law and order – by any means – echo everywhere. Richard’s fate is entangled with that of his younger brother Raymond, a kid who should go to school, but who joins his brother’s rival gang instead. The heroes roam this desperate microcosm relentlessly hoping for a way out, only to meet with pain and deception.
Once the night falls, the camera-eye takes a jolting, lonely, agitated walk through the turns and twists of the footpaths, creating a powerful sense of distress and disorientation. When it finally comes to a stop in front of the seaside, the tragedy is fulfilled. “In the last decade, over 814 people have been killed by alleged state-sponsored ‘death squads’ in the Philippines”, states a message in the opening credits.
When Pepe Diokno shot The Clash, starting with a 10,000-dollar grant from the Cinemalaya film festival in the Philippines, he was only 21 years-old and this was his first feature film. The striking audacity of his aesthetics and the vital relevance of its subject earned him both the Lion of the Future and the Orizzonti Prize in Venice. The Clash is still topical today, exactly as it was when it was shot. “Presently, it is difficult to make any plans for the future,” Diokno admitted sadly referring to the current political situation at home, in his troubling web-conversation with Paolo Bertolin.
After a remarkable film debut in Locarno Filmmakers of the Present (2011) with her vibrant, colourful transgender action-thriller film Señorita, in which she also played the leading role, director Isabel Sandoval changed genre and style, creating a stirring drama set in a monastery: Aparisyon (Apparition, 2012). The self-chosen retirement of a group of Catholic nuns in a cloistered, isolated and allegedly protected space devoted to prayer and meditation is the battlefield that Sandoval chooses to explore through this elegant and austere oeuvre one of the darkest times in recent Filipino history. Sensitively directing an outstanding group of actresses, the director casts a perceptive eye on the human soul and its attitude towards responsibility.
From the start Sandoval’s work has been motivated by a strong political concern. While Señorita’s fearless protagonist was fighting against corrupt local politicians, the nuns of Apparition, in their secluded place, are faced with the rise of President Ferdinand Marcos and the subsequent terror. When a young nun is raped in the surrounding woods by a group of armed men and becomes pregnant, the fragile equilibrium within the community is definitely threatened. Contrasting reactions and differing ethical approaches break out at once; each and every woman must stand up for her own beliefs and conscience. The nuns are faced with the need to make radical decisions. Collusion, cowardice and hypocrisy, provide a counterpoint to resistance and rebellion; in the end, the small community of the monastery is a microcosm reflecting Filipino society.
Apparition is a low budget film, produced through a Cinemalaya festival grant that gave Sandoval the autonomy and creative freedom to pursue her vision without compromise and to explore female power dynamics within a singular and isolated setting: “Nuns are pushing against an invisible but strong and suffocating patriarchal structure; the Catholic church and the looming dictatorial regime!” she further explained during her video–interview. Sandoval plans to pursue her sharp exploration of Filipino history in her next film, Tropical Gothic, presented this year as a project in the Open Doors co-production forum, with a story set in the early years of the Spanish colonial regime.
Fresh and uncompromising, hitting a completely different tone from the films mentioned above, Antoinette Jadaone’s debut film Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, (2011) is a pure delight. This masterful, uncommonly witty film is a melancholic mockumentary about Lilia Cuntapay, a disregarded extra and actress who achieved a certain cult status by appearing alternately as a witch or ghost in several Filipino horror B-movies. The film does not openly tackle any political issues, but nevertheless, even here, the prevalent feeling is that of stagnation.
In her heroic struggle to keep on working, and hoping to one day receive public recognition for her talent as an actress, Lilia Cuntapay, with her remarkable face, looks like the prisoner of an endless vicious circle. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel for the brave old lady, who, smiling with her distinctive toothless mouth, never gives up? Jadaone imagines that Lilia is one of four actresses nominated by the AFAP Silver screen awards (fictional) for best supporting actress. Scattered throughout the film is a series of hilarious and touching scenes where Lilia imagines her thank-you speech in front of the audience. The closer we come to the crucial moment, the more we sense that the chosen one will not be her. And yet, despite her not receiving her imaginary award, in this half-real, half-fictional portrait, Lilia Cuntapay, who passed away in 2016, is finally given all the fame and recognition she deserves.
Produced on a very low budget through the support of the Cinema One Originals festival, a very specific Filippino initiative meant to foster first and second features, Antoinette Jadaone’s colourful and sensitive film is a hidden gem that deserves to be known and shown. More than merely a tribute to Lilia, Six Degrees of Separation is ultimately an homage to the unstoppable resilience of independent Filipino cinema.
Continuing my online journey through South East Asian cinema, my desire to learn more about a country that has been inaccessible for years guided me towards Myanmar’s shores. Only recently freed from a very long military dictatorship, Myanmar faces a dual paradox: while young talents struggle with filmmaking due to a lack of necessary funding and technical means, on the film heritage side, the situation is dramatic. We must realise that Burma, from 1920 onwards, produced about 50 films a year, and even as many as 100 a year during its golden era, from 1950 to 1970. Today, according to Maung Okkar, founder of the association Save Myanmar Film and son of director Maung Wunna, 90% of this precious cultural heritage has already been lost. The reasons behind this disaster are factors such as degradation due to climate, lack of suitable archive spaces, non-existent cataloguing, and finally, lack of funding and structures for restoration. Given this context, the decision to show Tender are the Feet (1973) is particularly significant. Restored by the Yangon Film School, Tender are the Feet premiered internationally at the Berlinale Forum in 2014.
Tender are the Feet is not merely a remarkable film that pulls us into the fabulous world of traditional Burmese theatre, but also an invaluable document of daily life in the Burma of the 1970s. The work, by Maung Wunna, a prominent director of the new Burmese cinema, is touching, mournful, and steeped in poetry and grace. The tale of Tender are the Feet is a blend of love, vanity and ambition. However, what is memorable is not so much the plot as the intense and poignant performances by the actors, and particularly the male lead, Zaw Lwin, who plays the percussionist Sein Lin. Talented, sensitive and proud Sein Lin falls madly in love with his boss’s daughter, Khin San (San San Aye), the troupe’s leading actress and singer-dancer. This is after having harshly criticised her dancing style and open-minded ideas about art.
Filmed in black and white, Tender are the Feet employs a style of photography that accentuates the contrast between light and dark, often creating the impression of a suspended world, where the characters, as though by magic, rise from the surrounding blackness to shine on the stage of a theatre. What strikes us the most are the actors’ intense expressions and glances, rather than the dialogues and words; there is a preference for bold high angle shots with the camera focused on the faces, masterfully capturing their expressions. Historically set in an era of transition, with ties to the traditional values of the past but moving towards the modern future, the story reflects this duality in every aspect, transcribing the clash between the archaic rural universe and the casual progressive urban environment. The two protagonists-antagonists embody these two faces of Burmese society: while Sein Lin wants to be the guardian of the atavistic values of theatre-dance, Khin San dreams of having a career in the world of cinema.
Music, singing and dancing permeate the film from start to finish. Creating the magical impression of coming and going over time, the film launches us seamlessly from one frame to another, from the past to the future. This contrast is cleverly mirrored by the structure of the film’s soundtrack: the traditional Burmese dance-theatre music that dominates the first half of the film is suddenly replaced by dissonant sounds, then by jazz and finally by rock and pop songs. Tender are the Feet is a touching work, steeped in nostalgia for a world of traditional culture that seems threatened by the advent of new fashions and trends arriving from elsewhere that have the power to overwhelm the Burmese national identity. While the heart of the film expresses concern for the preservation of the country’s cultural heritage, there is also a clear need to be open to progress and the outside world: the film’s protagonists, poised between these two opposites in their life choices, must find a way to reconcile them through the right balance. Whether it is the luxuriant multi-genre musical explosion of Tender are the Feet, the urge to listen to the protagonist’s testimony in the homonymous short film, or the richly-textured soundtrack of Void, the element of sound thematically and formally, is a leitmotif that underpins all the films presented in this group.
Shot on a very low budget, Mg Bhone’s second short, Void (2018), is proof of the vitality of Myanmar’s young cinema. In this film about loneliness and longing for true affection, the two young protagonists are like the heroes of a silent movie, with only a few lines of dialogue. The thoughts and feelings of the reserved guitar player who lives alone in a small flat, and the secretive girl next door, are primarily expressed through the intensity of their gazes, their facial expressions and small but significant everyday gestures. The way they share the same cup of coffee or pass a packet of cigarettes to each other is aloof but intense. Both of them are worried, wounded, perhaps afraid of something. Both cautiously long for the warmth of a friendly look, for some company and comfort. Everything in this environment is delicate and fragile. We immediately feel that this precious, fleeting moment of warm-heartedness that they are hesitantly trying to construct could break at any time. The choice of static shots fully reflects the story’s core, where everything crucial happens off-screen and behind closed doors. The film’s aesthetics create a very melancholy mood: the pace is slow, the colour palette a greyish and constantly overcast sky radiating a milky light. Most notably, Bhone tells his story through the film’s sound score. The atmosphere is created through an oversaturation of various noises, as though the couple’s building were buried in an odd city jungle. In this vivid soundtrack, the chirping of numerous bird species mingles with the sound of pouring rain which we cannot see, with the wind and the persistent buzz of countless air conditioners, the sound of a guitar, the sudden banging of a door and the girl’s desperate screaming. The scenario worsens when visible traces of blows appear on the girl’s face. The drama escalates in a disturbing way; there is no overplaying, but a cold feeling of danger and finally, a defeating sense of fatality. After a desperate attempt to save her from her brutal husband, the boy must let her go: the girl’s departure in the last sequence is that of a designated victim.
Listen (2017) by Min Min Hein is an insightful homage to Chaw Ei Thein, an iconic visual artist and prominent Burmese activist living in exile. This rigorous and inspired art-documentary invites us to listen to her painful experience and delve into her liberating artistic world. “Since the moment I came into this world, the grim legacy of military dictatorship was: fear and mistrust, insecurity and hopelessness. Being trapped in a monotonous cycle, I have come to terms with this bitter legacy…”, says Chaw in the opening sequence. Historical traumas are deep and everlasting; if they are disregarded and ignored, they keep on spreading like poison in society. Chaw’s work is a testimonial and an admonition, both relevant and necessary for raising a new political awareness in Myanmar. Femininity is crucial to her artistic approach as well: “Some women’s lives resemble these wood planks; no matter who has stepped on them, damaged them, dumped them, their beauty always endures.” She explains this while finely decorating a series of wooden artworks. Min plays on vivid chromatic contrasts to display the rich palette of her creations and cleverly synthesises her complex artistic universe. Animated images as well as a sensible editing are used to fluidly shift from her drawings to her impressive body painting and stirring performances. In 2015, Chaw was able to visit Myanmar for the first time in years. As she rides through the streets of Yangoon in a taxi, she recalls her father teachings. Following this beautifully poetic moment, the film’s closing credits remind us that: “In November 2015, Myanmar held its first free election, ending over 50 years of military rule. The constitution drafted by the military government is still in force.”
My last stop on this thrilling cinematic journey was Indonesia. With strong contrasts and looming conflicts, Indonesia’s explosive reality is undoubtedly the beating heart of its national indie cinema. Represented by acclaimed masters such as Garin Nugroho and Riri Riza, and a very active, up-and-coming younger generation, Open Doors’ selection highlights a number of films that centre on the importance of the human body as the bearer of cultural and sexual identity. In this specific context, the body becomes the privileged arena for socio-political confrontation: it is a displaced and raped body in Riri Riza’s Timor-Leste drama, Atambua 39° Celcius (2012), the disregarded and derided body of a transwoman in Luhki Herwanayogi’s short, On Friday Noon (2016), the hidden body of a young transgender boy in Aditya Ahmad’s A Gift (2018), and the gender fluid body of an intrepid dancer in Garin Nougroho’s Memories of My Body (2018). Boldly expressing every form of diversity, the human body – notwithstanding the injuries and fear it might be subject to – is a powerful tool of resistance.
Open Doors chose to spotlight Atambua 39° Celcius by celebrated director Riri Riza, allowing us to re-discover an essential film that with rare authenticity and a remarkably lyrical touch, tackles the sensitive topic of Timor-Leste. Riri Riza vividly recalls how risky it was to make this film, dealing with vast geographical distances, the tough logistics and potential danger of shooting in this politically sensitive area. In the end the disadvantages turned out to be crucial for creating a rather unique film with local people. Atambua 39° Celsius is a low budget film and was made possible partly through crowd-funding and the invaluable collaboration of Riza’s long life producer, Miri Lesmana.
With a strong documentary feel, Riza builds the film’s story around three main characters. The fictional lives have many similarities to the real lives of the non-professional actors who play them, all speaking their native Tetum language. Using a small digital camera, Riza observes his protagonists in their setting at a slow perceptive pace. Ronaldo (Petrus Beyleto), the father, a haggard, jumpy man in his 40s, is driving a bus along a road. His son João (Gudino Soares), a young, quiet, athletic boy, runs errands with his motorcycle after school, then strolls from the gym to the stadium, seemingly killing time before heading home. Nikia (Putri Moruk), a new girl in the neighbourhood, struggles under the sun, carrying heavy stones to the local cemetery every day to offer her deceased grandfather a proper burial. They are all continually on the move. Beneath the settled surface of an everyday routine is a disquieting restlessness in their hearts. In a country divided and ravaged by decades of conflict, Ronaldo, João and Nikia, displaced, wounded and profoundly harmed, long to find their place again.
Despite being wide and open, the landscape in the rural world surrounding Atambua, a city close to the border, feels like a prison under the sky to Ronaldo and his son, who were forced to flee their hometown when Timor-Leste declared its independence 13 years earlier. The photography vividly captures the light, dust and dreariness of the scenery. In the bare tin shack where the two men live, there is almost nothing that gives them the sense of a home, except for two beds, a table and some faded pictures on the wall. They hardly speak to each other. Each one of them is lost in his own pain and loneliness. In this chasm looms the memory of broken family ties, the sorrow of loss and separation when the wife and daughters of the family decided to stay back in Timor-Leste. João’s most cherished possession is a tape recorder with his mother’s voice on it. While Ronaldo tries to forget everything by getting excessively drunk every night, João plays the tape over and over again, like a mantra, hoping to relieve his pain.
The arrival of Nikia brings a ray of hope into João’s life. Proud, reserved and determined, Nikia also carries a dark secret and a wound, deep in her body and soul. Through his gentle and cautious approach, Joao wins the girl’s trust and they become friends until one night, losing control over his desire, he risks losing everything. It all seems to be falling apart: Nikia rushes back to the city of Kupang, Ronaldo is thrown into jail after a violent fight, and João is left completely alone. Riri Riza imagines a happier end to this story. On the road again, completing their life’s journey, João and his father cross the border into Timor-Leste to seek peace of mind and reconciliation, thereby closing the circle of their grim vagrancy.
Locarno Open Doors
5-10 August 2020
Festival website: https://www.locarnofestival.ch/