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Film-festival director leaves a mixed legacy

Irene Bignardi (right) joined actress Geraldine Chaplin on stage on Saturday night (Fotofestival/Pedrazzini)

The departing director of the Locarno Film Festival has done much to broaden the event's appeal, even if that approach has not been welcomed in all quarters.

Irene Bignardi has been criticised for putting emphasis on political issues and other forms of cinema rather than on the festival's showpiece, the international competition.

It was announced on Sunday that Frédéric Maire will take over from Bignardi as director of the festival.

Maire's appointment marks what festival president Marco Solari has called "the end of an era" at Locarno.

Bignardi, an Italian journalist and critic, started at Locarno in 2001, taking over from Marco Müller, who left to run the Venice Film Festival.

"She did not have an easy act to follow with Marco Müller, but when she arrived she brought her own ideas and put her own stamp on the festival," said Giò Rezzonico, a publisher, who, as the son of the previous festival president, Raimondo Rezzonico, grew up with the event.

Under Müller, Locarno was placed on the International Federation of Film Producers Associations' A list of festivals, putting it in the same league as its larger rivals Venice, Cannes and Berlin.

This meant there was more pressure on Bignardi to bring bigger films into both the competition and the Piazza Grande, the huge open-air screen on the town square.

Own way

But Bignardi was determined to go her own way. She strengthened the video competition and introduced a new section, In Progress, which featured video-art installations and screenings.

She also instigated, with the support of the Swiss foreign ministry, a special human-rights programme, which has touched on issues such as the war in Iraq and the treatment of ethnic minorities.

"Bignardi brought human rights to the festival and gave the event a political imprint during these difficult times," said Rezzonico.

Bignardi's decisions seem to have gone down well with the public. In 2004 there were around 186,000 admissions - just short of the 2003 record of 190,000 spectators - but well over the figure for 2001 (170,226). The festival has also been attracting more national and international media coverage.

Criticism

But not all observers have agreed with her policy of widening the scope of the festival.

"Under Bignardi it was not a very happy period for Locarno," said Alfredo Knuchel, a former journalist and now film-maker who has been involved with the festival for 35 years.

"She followed the wrong strategy. She wanted to cover all films, from feature films to video installations, instead of concentrating her efforts on the competition and on the Piazza Grande, which have the big audiences."

"These are the two main dishes Locarno offers and these two sections haven't been very good over the last five years," Knuchel told swissinfo.

The quality of these two sections and the lack of big-name films have been major discussion points in recent years.

Bignardi has countered that Locarno can't attract such films due to its size and lack of funding.

She has also maintained that Locarno has made some discoveries in the last half decade, notably the hugely successful Bollywood film, Lagaan, in 2001.

Charismatic

Bignardi was the first woman to direct Locarno. Charismatic with a strong leadership style, she built up a close-knit – and mainly female - team over her five years.

Her deputy, Teresa Cavina, Bignardi's choice to take over the helm, is also leaving this year.

In an earlier interview with swissinfo, Bignardi said she had enjoyed directing the festival but that it was time for her to find new challenges.

And the Rome-based journalist added she had no regrets about the choices she had made at Locarno.

"They have been five wonderful years and I believe I shall be leaving a distinctive legacy," said Bignardi.

"I have no complaints, except that the life of the festival director is very tiring. Now I want to take charge of my life again."

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Locarno

In brief

Irene Bignardi was born in 1943. She studied Modern Literature in Milan and Communications at Stanford University in the United States.

She worked as a copywriter for Olivetti and Italian state broadcaster RAI. She has also worked as a film critic for Espresso and La Repubblica.

Bignardi took over as director at Locarno in 2001. Earlier this year she announced her departure after five years at the festival.

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