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Locarno and American film – the sequel

John Travolta (left) is almost unrecognisable in "Hairspray" Warner Bros. Pictures.

American films – both Hollywood blockbusters and independent movies – will be taking a starring role at the Locarno film festival this year.

The abundance of American films seems to signal a change of heart for the festival, which until recently had distanced itself from the all-powerful industry.

A record nine US productions will be shown on the huge outdoor screen at the Piazza Grande, the centrepiece of the 11-day festival.

Most eagerly awaited are the action-packed “The Bourne Ultimatum”, starring Matt Damon, and the musical comedy “Hairspray” with John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Locarno’s artistic director Frédéric Maire, in his second year in the job, has played down the move towards Hollywood, saying it was “not our choice but a reality [reflecting] current production”.

None of the above-mentioned stars will be attending the festival, which as ever, remains modest when it comes to big name attendance.

Film critic Christian Jungen says the dominance of US cinema – it has at least a 54 per cent market share in Switzerland and more than 80 per cent in Italy and Spain – cannot be denied. But Jungen, who has covered Locarno for 12 years, believes that the choice to show more American films does indicate a change of direction.

Maire’s predecessor, Irene Bignardi, was more European and Asian-focused and did not like Hollywood. As a result, she managed to alienate producers and distributors, he explained.

“Maire is younger and has grown up with Hollywood cinema and has definitely brought back Hollywood to Locarno and to the Piazza Grande specifically,” Jungen, who is also a film scholar at Zurich University, told swissinfo.

Jungen says this is essential for Locarno because it is an audience festival, unlike its larger cousins, Venice and Cannes, which are critic orientated. Big films simply attract more spectators.

Independent industry

But this is only one side of the American film industry. “There is a very strong independent cinema which is probably the most vital cinema you can find in world cinema today,” said Jungen.

These films differ from blockbusters – often star-studded sequels, book or television series adaptations – in that they tackle more political or social issues and are made on much smaller budgets.

True to its spirit of discovery, Locarno champions these kinds of films as well. There are two US entries up for a Golden Leopard in the international competition: “Joshua”, a horror film by George Ratliff, and “Slipstream”, directed by and starring the Oscar-winning Anthony Hopkins.

“Slipstream” is a good example of how the independent sector is increasingly attracting big names. A-list actors like Nicolas Cage and Brad Pitt have also appeared in independent films.

Jungen says stars enjoy the prestige of these productions and the chance of winning prizes. Indeed, “Little Miss Sunshine”, a hit in Locarno last year, went on to win two Oscars.

Boost for films

Jungen says the festival has supported the American film sector for a long time.

“Locarno has always discovered big American directors: Jim Jarmusch won the Golden Leopard with “Stranger than Paradise” and Spike Lee was discovered way back in 1983,” Jungen told swissinfo.

“Stanley Kubrick showed a film called “Killer’s Kiss” in 1959. This was then an obscure film by an unknown director but he made history afterwards.”

But there are 8,000 other reasons for US cinema – both independent and Hollywood – to like Locarno as well.

“You have the Piazza Grande with 8,000 regular cinema-going spectators and if they are thrilled, clap and cheer you know you have a good picture,” said Jungen.

“Other festivals are more risky – if you take a picture to Cannes and the highbrow critics don’t like it, your picture it can get hurt. So Hollywood has always liked Locarno as a test screening.”

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson

The Locarno film festival, Switzerland’s largest, runs from August 1-11.
It is 60 years old this year.
It has been divided into five main sections: Piazza Grande, International Competition, Filmmakers of the Present Competition, Ici et Ailleurs and Leopards of Tomorrow.
80 films will be shown in these sections of which 20 are first films.

Piazza Grande:
August 2: “Knocked Up” by Judd Apatow
August 4: “The Bourne Ultimatum” by Paul Greengrass
August 5: “Planet Terror” by Robert Rodriguez and “Death at a Funeral” by Frank Oz (USA / UK)
August 8: “Waitress” by Adrienne Shelly
August 9: “1408” by Mikael Håfström
August 10: “Hairspray” by Adam Shankman and “Chicago 10” by Brett Morgen
August 11: “Winners and Losers” by Lech Kowalski (USA / France)

International Competition:
August 7,8: “Joshua” by George Ratliff
August 3,4,5: “Slipstream” by Anthony Hopkins

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR