Fest chief faces criticism, illness

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U.S. and German-language filmers were among the big winners at the 59th Locarno Film Festival, which wrapped Saturday amid many issues to be resolved under new topper Frederic Maire.

Ryan Fleck’s Brooklyn high school drama “Half Nelson” won the special jury prize in the main competition, while Amber Tamblyn nabbed the actress gong for her title perf in “Stephanie Daley,” helmed by Hilary Brougher. Both premiered at Sundance in January.

Swiss-German helmer Andrea Staka’s “Das Fraulein” copped the top Golden Leopard prize, and German thesp Burghart Klaussner took the actor award for his role in Georgian-set drama “The Man From the Embassy.” Stasi drama “The Lives of Others,” a German B.O. hit, won the audience award, while German-born Angelina Maccarone’s sexual drama “Hounded” copped the top prize in the new Filmmakers of the Present competition.

Italian movies — generally reckoned feeble — went home with nothing from the Swiss-Italian lakeside fest. French cinema landed one major award, to director Laurent Achard for the grim but powerful “Demented.”

In his first year, Maire had a rocky 10 days. In fact, he missed the closing night after fainting while giving out an honorary award and is still hospitalized. Most of the press (apart from the French) criticized the main competition’s shortage of standout titles and the senselessness of adding another competition to the fest when there weren’t enough good titles to fill one. In all, a humongous 46 titles competed in the two meets.

Swiss-born Maire, who’s been connected with the fest for some two decades, remains very well liked. But there was surprise that, as the first movie buff to head Locarno in some time, he hadn’t imprinted his personality more on the main selection, which was mostly the standard Locarno artsy mix.

The open-air Piazza Grande screenings — none of which, miraculously, were rained out this year — provided the undisputed highlights. Among the plaudit drawers in the huge, 8,000-seat ozoner were “The Lives of Others,” Swiss oldsters comedy “Die Herbstzeitlosen,” Austrian slasher movie “In 3 Days You’re Dead,” Kazakh historical epic “Nomad” (recently acquired by the Weinstein Co. for the U.S. and some other territories) and Sundance charmer “Little Miss Sunshine.”

Opener “Miami Vice,” robustly defended on the Piazza stage by Maire, got a ho-hum reception. Helmer Michael Mann, who was just across the border in Italy at the time, sent a brief video message as no one was there to rep the movie at the fest.

However, the Piazza was the scene of a more serious embarrassment nine days later, when Maire fainted onstage while presenting Russian director Alexander Sokurov with an Honorary Leopard. Topper was taken to a hospital for observation and did not appear on closing night. Fest sources reported that Maire was resting and not seriously ill.

Other pressures on the 44-year-old Maire included the loss of two members of the main jury. At fest’s start, French actress Emmanuelle Devos pulled out for personal reasons; near fest’s end, Austrian director Barbara Albert resigned when a local paper “revealed” she’d had script involvement on competitor “Das Fraulein.” The remaining five members of the jury, led by Hong Kong director Ann Hui, gave “Fraulein” the top prize anyway.

Though the festival is comfortably funded for its size at $8 million, prexy Marco Solari repeatedly stressed to the media that, unless the event received 1 million Swiss francs ($800,000) more, it may not be able to celebrate its 60th anni in fitting style — or even exist in its present form.

However, most observers agree the veteran Swiss fest has more immediate priorities. These include reconsidering the existence of a second competition, bringing some pep to the main meet and rethinking a clumsy press screening/conference sked that made hacks see red.

Admission figures for the 10 days, at 192,000, were around the same as last year’s, though Piazza screenings showed a 14% jump, to more than 78,000. Accredited guests were stable at 4,200, of whom 1,000 were journalists.

And the winners are…

MAIN COMPETITION
Golden Leopard: “Das Fraulein” (Andrea Staka, Switzerland-Germany)
Special Jury Prize: “Half Nelson” (Ryan Fleck, U.S.)
Directing: “Demented” (Laurent Achard, France-Belgium)
Actress: Amber Tamblyn (“Stephanie Daley,” U.S.)
Actor: Burghart Klaussner (“The Man From the Embassy,” Germany)
Special Mention: “Body Rice” (Hugo Vieira da Silva, Portugal)

FILMMAKERS OF THE PRESENT COMPETITION
Golden Leopard: “Hounded” (Angelina Maccarone, Germany)
Special Jury Prize: “A Few Kilos of Dates for a Funeral” (Saman Salour, Iran)
Special Mention: “Birth/Mother” (Naomi Kawase, Japan)

OTHER MAIN AWARDS
First Film: “The Year After” (Isabelle Czajka, France); special mention: “While You Are Here” (Stefan Westerwele, Germany)
Public Award: “The Lives of Others” (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany)
Netpac Award: “Don’t Look Back” (Kim Young-nam, S. Korea), “Bliss” (Sheng Zhimin, China)
Fipresci Prize: “Don’t Look Back”
Ecumenical Jury Prize: “Water” (Veronica Chen, Argentina-France)
Intl. Federation of Film Societies Prize: “Das Fraulein”
CICAE/Arte Prize: “Jimmy Della Collina” (Enrico Pau, Italy)
Critics Week prize: “Zeit des Abschieds” (Mehdi Sahebi, Switzerland)
Leopards of Tomorrow (Golden Leopard): “Nachtflattern” (Carmen Stadler, Switzerland)

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