‘I am not a filmmaker, I am a filmer,’ said legendary Lithuanian-American filmmaker Jonas Mekas during his address to the audience at L’atra Sala, one of the smaller, more alternative venues of the 69th Festival del Film Locarno, which runs until 13 August. Mekas was introducing Walden (1969), an intimate portrait in 16mm of his beloved New York, and his friends’ comings and goings. Mekas, who is also the subject of I Had Nowhere To Go (2016), a meandering retelling of wartime experience and emigration by artist Douglas Gordon, which premiered this year in Locarno’s Signs of Life section, challenged the audience to envision cinema as willfully amorphous: fresh, intimate, visually incestuous. Mekas’s opulent, Leaves of Grass-esque listicle of all things New York dares to risk the mundane yet, just as with Walt Whitman’s poetry, soars due to its exquisite sense of movement and form.
The festival does not lack for expansive gestures, such as from Brazilian underground auteur, Júlio Bressane, who premiered his latest film. Beduino (Bedouin, 2016) is a surreal romp, in which lyricism meets pastiche. In Bressane’s hands, art consumes itself, and kitsch is a way of reaching the sublime. Bressane spoke at the premiere of wanting to redeem cinema in the digital age, by once again making cinema a place of bricolage, in which the useless, irresponsible and subconscious impulses find their rightful place. Confined mostly to interiors, the two characters in Beduino play a frolicking game of erotic fantasy, spiced up with footage from Bressane’s earlier film, Memórias de um Estrangulador de Loiras (Memories of a Blonde Strangler, 1971). Just like Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012), Beduino celebrates role-playing, and delivers a veritable ode to the art of cinema, including the filmmaker’s own strand of cinema marginal.
Cineasti del presente, which highlights first and second features, is one of the most promising sections in the festival, showcasing films with an invigorating intimacy and a sense of discovery . Lina Rodriguez, a Colombian-born Canadian filmmaker, whose first feature, Señoritas (2013), played in the Latinbeat Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, opened in Locarno with Mañana a esta hora (This Time Tomorrow, 2016), about a tight-knit family, whose symbiosis is suddenly disrupted by a tragic illness. Thanks to a capable cast and to Rodriguez’s confident writing, Mañana a esta hora feels fully realized. As in a Chekhov play, Rodriguez enthuses trivial moments with unexpected poignancy: there is a kind of poetry to the way the two parents and their teenage daughter fold laundry together, just as there is palpable tension in their glances and gestures. Even the most mundane activities, such as house cleaning, seem loaded with meaning. A film about marriage and parenting, Mañana a esta hora is also a meditation on acceptance. In her documentary-like approach, like Mekas, Rodriguez elevates the unremarkable, so that, in the end, her film becomes a delicate memento mori.
Gorge Coeur Ventre (Still Life, 2016), by Maud Alpi, bears a documentary aesthetic but with fantastical flourishes. Virgile (played by non-actor Virgile Hanrot) takes care of animals in a pigsty before they are slaughtered. In spite of the morbid setting, Alpi’s film is characterized by luscious textures, soft light, and great tenderness and proximity to living things. Virgile, as scripted by Alpi, is a tormented character – unlike the real-life Virgile, a drifter who had played in one of Alpi’s earlier shorts – he cannot reconcile his meat consumption with his concern for the animals. Alpi required her actors to learn the trade and to work at the slaughterhouse during the three-week shoot, along with the regular employees. Because of this, the routine of feeding, resting, washing and killing has an authenticity that is offset by the dreamy cinematography. Essentially Alpi has made a documentary about animals – no small feat, considering the daring parallelism that she establishes between their selfhood and that of humans. Alpi’s film cannot help but prod viewers with questions, yet it is never dully reductionist. One of her main protagonists is a dog (which belongs to Virgile): joyful and sensuous, Boston is like the Underworld’s Cerberus in benign form; a guardian and empathetic observer rather than a ruthless guard. The most poetic film I saw at the festival, Alpi’s approach is savage and mournful yet bracingly humanistic. While it alludes to Dante’s Inferno, it also celebrates the purity of flesh, the kind of naïve pleasure that humans are capable of when they shed their shame. An elegy for animals, Gorge Coeur Ventre is nevertheless mostly about the arbitrary contract we have with nature – about our responsibility and guilt.
Another richly elegiac work, All the Cities of the North (2016), by Berlin-based Serbian filmmaker Dane Komljen, was shown in the Signs of Life section that focuses on experimental forms. If with Alpi we are confronted with the carcasses of animals, Komljen presents us with the remains of utopia. In a mysterious setting, in which boxy concrete buildings are overrun with weeds, two men go about their daily routines. While their relationship remains undefined, context and timeframe are established: Komljen inserts images from Lagos, where Yugoslavian architects, erected concrete structures in the newly independent, optimistic African country in the 1960s. We see the Lagos International Trade Fair complex, which Komljen’s character compares to a galaxy – a glorious wreck of another time, not unlike some of the phantom stadiums that have been erected for a World Cup or an Olympic Games, only to immediately fall into disuse. Relatedly, Komljen weaves Brazil into the film, citing Brasilia as a spectre-city, driven by concept rather than by the organic needs of the workers that built it. In this way South America, Africa and the former Yugoslavia permeate each other, as do forest and city, progress and decay. At the same time, Komljen is more interested in how local populations re-appropriate the modernist structures, building up around them and creating new spaces, new narratives. This in turn becomes a metaphor for the creative process, the filmmaker creating his own autonomous space, inhabiting the physical location for the duration of the shoot. In the foreground, meanwhile, a stranger appears in the two men’s lives, and an ambiguous love triangle forms then disintegrates, extending the idea of utopia to love itself. Komljen’s work perhaps comes closest to the bricolage envisioned by Bressane, fluidly toying with ideas and concepts while remaining deeply personal.
The 69th Festival del Film Locarno run 3–13 August.
Ela Bittencourt works as a critic and curator in the United States and Latin America. She writes for publications such as Art in America, Film Comment, frieze and the Village Voice and runs a film site, Lyssaria.