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Birdseye view of the Piazza Grande

A scene from the Swiss-US film "Birdseye", now showing at the Locarno film festival. Picture taken from "Birdseye"

Locarno's Piazza Grande has had its fair share of the weird and wonderful during the film festival, but the screening of "Birdseye" set filmgoers a real challenge.

This content was published on August 9, 2002 - 11:37

The Swiss-US co-production is not an easy film to follow, and directors Swiss-born Michael Huber and the American, Stephen Beckner, warned the audience beforehand that it would take some time to understand what was going on.

Forewarned is forearmed and the directors' advice should be well-heeded.

Swiss tourist, thief and performance artist, Urs Vogelaug, otherwise known to his American friends as "Birdseye", goes missing in the United States. He has supposedly been kidnapped by a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde who, after a series of grocery store heists, are arrested as they attempt to make their getaway to Mexico.

They claim to have released Vogelaug minutes before their arrest, but he seems to have done an impossible disappearing act from a room with no windows and just one door, right under the noses of FBI agents.

No body

The erstwhile kidnappers found guilty of kidnapping and murdering Birdseye, and sent to prison. The only problem - there is no body and no evidence that he is dead.

In fact a series of robberies caught on closed circuit television (CCTV)show Vogelaug, or someone dressed in his trademark wide-brimmed felt hat and red scarf (cleverly hiding his face from direct view), to be very much alive.

Is it Vogelaug or someone simply imitating him? Hapless cop, Nolan Sharpless (Fred Ward), and his sidekick, son Ben (Fred Koebler), follow the trail leading the audience through a maze of dead ends before discovering the truth. Or do they?

"A thriller which plays with the boundaries of truth" as the promotional blurb would have us believe, reveals itself as a series of one-liners coaxing a trickle of polite guffaws from the audience and leaving us wanting less rather than more.

Lack of feeling

Is Vogelaug dead or alive? Do we really care? The essential failure of the film is its inability to encourage the audience to have any real feeling for the characters. Vogelaug, Sharpless, Logan et al simply become the vehicles for a series of jokes the directors clearly found funny and a look at the quirkier side of Swiss and American life.

There are some stunning shots of Colorado - Beckner's home state. And as the film jumps back and forth from the US to Zurich - Huber's hometown - the two directors show an imaginative use of the array of techniques available to contemporary film makers. The story is followed through video surveillance cameras, the television talkshow format, news broadcasts and the "confessional approach" of many reality-TV programmes.

It took the directors seven years to get the financing for the film. When they pitched Birdseye to potential investors they presented it as though it were a true story, with fake newspaper articles and doctored photographs.

Beckner says some people wanted to believe in the character because they liked the story. And as unlikely a story as it might be, the film spreads enough confusion and leaves enough questions unanswered to make the filmgoer wonder whether Birdseye is fact or purely fiction.

by Jonathan Summerton in Locarno

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