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Locarno breaks new ground

Irene Bignardi insists that films at Locarno must challenge audience's perceptions of the world Keystone

Irene Bignardi wants the Locarno film festival to continue exploring new territory, leaving the tried and tested to rivals like Cannes and Venice.

It is Bignardi’s second year as the festival’s artistic director and she is hoping that visitors will go away feeling as though they have been on a “voyage of discovery”.

“I would love people who come to Locarno to feel as though they have travelled through unknown worlds,” she told swissinfo. “Not in a romantic way, but in a political, human and social way.”

Bignardi is confident that the festival will touch audiences, and that the range of films will encourage them to think about the world in a different way.

“Nobody can remain indifferent in front of a film about religious conflicts in India or what happens to children in Afghanistan.”

When Bignardi was appointed artistic director last year, she said the festival should continue to promote the work of young and unknown filmmakers as well as being a platform for films from countries and cultures with a lesser-known history of cinema.

To that end she has added films from Sri Lanka, Mongolia and Afghanistan to the long list of international participants.

“National cinemas like us and trust us,” she says. “They know that we will be able to provide more exposure for their films than some of the other festivals.”

Wedged between the big boys

Bignardi says there is no denying the impact that both the Cannes and Venice film festivals have on Locarno. But their influence, she says, is not necessarily a negative one.

Many filmmakers are unwilling to commit themselves before Cannes. But once the line-up for the festival on the French Riviera has been finalised, Locarno can step in and take what is often seen as “the best of the rest”.

For Bignardi, it is all a matter of interpretation: the best of the rest can sometimes be the “best of the mistakes made by Cannes”, she says.

“Sometimes Cannes rejects films which are not part of the star system, or films which the festival simply does not understand.”

Once Cannes has made its choice, Locarno still faces competition from Venice, whose prestigious international film festival takes place at the end of August. But Bignardi says her taste in films is sufficiently different from that of Venice artistic director, Moritz de Hadeln.

There are of course times when the two directors are interested in the same film, and it is clearly Venice that has the greater appeal for many filmmakers.

“If that situation arises,” says Bignardi, “Moritz de Hadeln will tell me his decision, otherwise I would only find out at the beginning of the [Locarno] festival.”

September 11

The events of September 11 have not really had an impact on the choice of films being shown at this year’s festival. But Bignardi admits they were a factor in the decision to dedicate one day to Afghanistan’s film industry.

The rediscovery of Afghanistan’s film archives in Kabul in January was followed by discussions between Bignardi, Locarno president Marco Solari and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) as to how best the unearthed material could be incorporated in the festival.

“Even though many of the films are in very bad condition they give us a chance to learn more about Afghanistan – pre-Taliban,” says Bignardi.

Apart from the films on traditional celluloid, the festival will also be showing 40 video films and holding a special podium discussion with political and cultural speakers and representatives from aid agencies working in Afghanistan.

“Although there are no films relating to the events [of September 11],” says Bignardi, what happened afterwards has in a way helped form the festival’s programme, in the sense that the world’s attention was focused on Afghanistan.”

Sending a message

While Bignardi is keen to focus on lesser-known filmmakers, the festival also screens films with a broader appeal.

Bignardi says she does not consider herself an “intellectualist”. She has no time for what she describes as the “fake and extreme way certain film festival directors have in searching out the intellectual”.

Instead she chooses films that provide a “good story” and challenge perceptions of the world. She does not exclude mainstream films, but insists that they must have something extra to offer.

“If a film is mainstream but speaks strongly about something, it is welcome at Locarno,” she says.

“The British film ‘Bend it like Beckham’ is certainly mainstream. But it says so many more things about the relationship of girls with their families, hopes and the outside world.”

By Jonathan Summerton

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