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Films, video, bustle and a great popular spectacle

The digital animation "Final Fantasy" is one of the films expected to grab the headlines in Locarno

(Keystone)

With retrospectives, specials and open-air screenings of popular films added to its official competitions, the Locarno film festival, now underway in the southern canton of Ticino, can prove a nightmare for those who try not to miss anything.

The chief category of any film festival - the element likely to capture most headlines - is its official competition. The jury of the 54th Locarno festival, which opened on Thursday, will have to choose from among 19 films to decide which director will win the golden leopard for best film.

A first honorary award was announced on Friday. A Chinese film-maker, Chen Kaige, won his prize for the 1991 film "Life on a string".

As is traditional in Locarno, many films selected for the competition are from lesser known countries, holding out the promise of a number of surprises. Asia is represented with four films (India, China, Iran, Hong Kong), Latin America with one (Brazil), the US with two, Africa with one (Senegal), and, from Europe, three films each come from France and Italy, two from Switzerland and Germany, and one from Britain.

Some films, such as "Baby Boy" by US filmmaker John Singleton ("Boy'z in the Hood") and "Bichos de sete cabeças" by the Brazilian Lais Bodanzy, are already being tipped as possible winners.

Blockbusters versus social issues

A majority of the films in the festival's main competitions - for "golden leopard" and the "leopards of tomorrow", awared to young filmmakers - deal with social and political issues in one way or another. But a popular category with 16 mostly mainstream films will be screened in the 6,000 seat open air cinema of Locarno's Piazza Grande. Five are world premieres.

Unlike in previous years, when some of the competition films were also shown in the Piazza Grande, the venue in one of Switzerland's most beautiful medieval squares is now restricted to the popular category.

"That way, none of the competition films gets any unfair advantage", says festival spokesman Simon König. The festival organisers also want to make sure that the prestigious Piazza Grande venue is sold out every night.

Among the Piazza Grande films that stand out is "Final Fantasy - the Spirits within" by Horonobu Sakaguchi, a film that uses digital technology to a record-breaking extent, "Bridget Jones's Diary" by British filmmaker Sharon Maguire, and "The Deep End" by Scott McGehee and David Siegel.

The festival's new director, Italian film critic and expert Irene Bignardi, has continued all of her predecessor Marco Müller's special sections, such as "film-makers of the present", a selection of avant-garde, sometimes experimental films, many of which are filmed in video.

Retrospectives

One of two retrospectives - another programme slot held dear in Locarno - was initiated and planned by Müller more than a year ago. "Out of the Shadows: Asians in American Cinema" offers 55 films made between 1915 and 1995 by Asian-American directors or films that feature Asian-American actors and actresses.

The other retrospective is smaller but no less interesting - 10 films that epitomise kitsch in the eyes of the selectors, dating from 1914 to 1962, are shown in a selection dubbed "Peplum".

Two more special selections, "La semaine de la critique" and "Appelations Suisses", focus on documentary films and the Swiss cinema scene.

All in all, film buffs can choose from 250 films during the 10-day festival. Locarno is also known for producing the best and most informative catalogue of any big international film festival - an achievement that makes many visitors want to see a maximum number of films.

That ambitious goal, however, usually conflicts with Locarno's other appeal - of being a summer film festival held in a charming town with a huge number of Italian style cafés and excellent restaurants. In other words, a festival that should be enjoyed at a leisurely pace

Festival visitors can usually be divided into two groups: newcomers who give up their ambitious cinematographic plans after a few days and head for the Piazza and lakefront bars; and those who return time and again, trying from the outset to balance their interest in the Seventh Art with having a good time.

by Markus Haefliger


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