Locarno festival at 60

Swiss shores beckon, six decades on

At 60, what Locarno does best, it still does very well: providing a relaxed, very European arena for debate and progressive filmmaking, giving a platform and financial support to independent production from less-developed markets (via its Open Doors mart), and programming a manageable selection of films that spans the art-to-commercial range.

Cannes, Berlin, Toronto and Sundance do their own thing, umbilically linked to the industry in an often uneasy relationship. Locarno continues to do its own thing — in a courteous way that finds space for both celebration, discussion and barter without becoming a circus. In today’s frantic, increasingly paranoid fest landscape, that’s why Locarno still counts.

“Because we don’t have the weight of a strong national (distribution) market on our back, we’re freer and more open to experiment than many other fests,” says artistic director Frederic Maire. “Showing a film in Locarno is not seen as a local launch, but it can be a launchpad for Europe as a whole, given Switzerland’s multicultural, multilanguage makeup.”

Today’s Locarno fest is a long way from the 15 pics that screened in August 1946 for a black-tie audience on the lawn of the Grand Hotel. For many years, it had a rep as the most stunningly located — but also most political — of Europe’s name fests, championing Neo-Realism during its early days, torn internally by Cold War pressures and regional Swiss ones, and building a solid base on cinema from Italy, France and Central Europe.

Locarno’s early history uncannily echoed that of its more stellar cousin, Cannes. The Gallic fest was invented as a riposte to the Fascist-dominated Venice Film Festival and received major political support from the U.S., with Hollywood shipping in movies and celebs. Locarno, at its first edition in ’46, got a major boost from Tinseltown in the form of six movies, including Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.” The Swiss-Italian lakeside event also championed filmmaking from across the border in Italy, from where anti-Fascist exiles had come for refuge during the war.

Parallels with Cannes, which finally presented its official first edition a week after Locarno, even extend to location. If the people of nearby Lugarno had not turned down the idea of building a special amphitheater, the fest would have been based there, not in Locarno. At the same time, in summer ’46, Biarritz had lost the battle with Cannes to host a French festival when the latter’s municipal government agreed to fund a purpose-built Palais.

Locarno came into its own as a purveyor of young, emergent cinema during the ’60s, as countries like Czechoslovakia and Switzerland produced their own New Waves. It pretty much remained that way for the next two decades, until Locarno was forced, by the growing number of new festivals, to become more general during the ’90s.

Various attempts were made during that decade to broaden Locarno’s base and its industry appeal, with a small, nascent market and the production fund/talkshop MonteCinemaVerita. But it hasn’t always been easy. As Venice has become entrenched as Hollywood’s preferred Euro platform for fall releases, Locarno, coming only a few weeks prior, often loses out on the preems.

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