Interview with Carlo Chatrian, the Locarno Film Festival's Artistic Director

The director of one of the world's best festivals on its mix of innovation & tradition, the challenge of programming, & its unique identity.
Gustavo Beck

This year Locarno International Film Festival celebrates its 70th anniversary. It is one of the most admired and respected film festivals in the world and historically a festival that has been combining tradition and innovation. We had the privilege to discuss some ideas on cinema, curatorship and festivals worldwide with its artistic director Carlo Chatrian, who has been running Locarno for 5 years now.

NOTEBOOK: Can you share a few thoughts of what we can expect from the 70th edition of the Locarno Film Festival?

CARLO CHATRIAN: Locarno reaches its 70th edition, but we do not want to make a simple celebration. Instead, we want to look ahead rather than look back to the great history of the festival. That's why we decided to have a special section called the Locarno70 which will show debut films that have premiered in Locarno all through its long history. For me, it’s a way to point out the fact that the festival has always been a place for discoveries—and I hope this edition will be as well. Other than that, I think the audience will notice that this year we will have new venues, which is a big improvement for Locarno history. By that I mean three theaters at the PalaCinema and the renewed theater Grand Rex. This is a turning point in the history of the festival.

NOTEBOOK: The retrospective this year will be dedicated to Jacques Tourneur. Jean-Marie Straub and Todd Haynes will receive the Pardo d’onore. What inspired these choices?

CHATRIAN: I will start with the retrospective because this is the starting point of the programming line of this edition. I have many reasons to dedicate a tribute to Jacques Tourneur. First of all, it’s that I really like his films. They were and they still are inspiring to me—and I hope not only to me. Another reason is that he is a director that is often quoted. Some of his films are quite well known but not most of his films, and that is why he is a director that deserves to be discovered in its all career and not only in the most famous films such as Cat People (1942), I Walk With a Zombi (1943) or The Leopard Man (1943). Another reason is that I think that the poetic of Jacques Tourneur is very much related to the theme of the fear. Fear for the foreigners, fear for the animal that lives inside us, fear for not being able to survive our own desire. I think that is something very much up-to-date. Then, I have another reason which, at least for me, is more related to the evolution of the cinema language—which is that Tourneur is a director very well known for having worked within the genre system and to me, also nowadays, the independent directors are looking back to genre as a narrative to convey their owns stories.

Regarding Jean-Marie Straub, it was a desire, a wish, that we had for a long time and we were a little bit afraid of his health conditions. I was very happy when I had the confirmation that he could attend Locarno. Why him? Because he is the most influential director in modern cinema and also because his and Danièlle Huillet’s films were screened many, many times in Locarno, so he is a kind of companion to the festival.

Todd Haynes is a little bit different. He is, of course, a director belonging to another generation. His presence in this year’s edition is very important because, on the one hand, he is related to the Locarno70 series because his first film Poison (1991) was screened at Locarno. On the other hand, because he is a director that is quite unique in the way he creates his own universe. Nowadays I think we need directors such as Todd Haynes that are able to work within the star system but also to convey his own personal images an ideas.

NOTEBOOK: You have now been the artistic director for five years. Before, you were already working for the festival and were in charge of the retrospectives. How has this change affected your work as a film programmer?

CHATRIAN: Well, as you said, it’s already five years now that I’ve been working as a director, so in a way I may say that I am getting used to this new position. The change has been very big and it’s something that you should have asked me four or five years ago. Now, I have trouble in answering this question because I’m really into this new kind of job—even though I haven’t forgotten the years I spent as a programmer and as curator of the retrospectives. It’s really difficult to compare both because the tasks are different. As a director, I have to take care not only of selecting films or watching films but also of dealing with other issues that are maybe less interesting but very important in order to make the festival possible. Also taking into consideration the venues where the festival takes place, taking into consideration the guests and the juries and the relationships with the big stars coming to the festival. So it’s a much more complex work. It’s different and what more could I say, I don’t know. It’s very hard to compare the two jobs and also it is very hard to abstract from the person I am. I started being interested in cinema when I was 15, so my knowledge of cinema history didn’t start with the work at Locarno. I believe that my taste and my selection are shaped with my knowledge of cinema but again, when I do select films I try to watch them with new eyes. I think it is unavoidable that the things I’ve done in the past influence me now.

NOTEBOOK: To what extent does the festival selection reflect your personal taste and how would you characterize the festival’s relationship with the public?

CHATRIAN: I believe that, in the end, the lineup of Locarno is like a mirror of my taste. I try to include a quite big diversity of films, but my taste is pretty wide. What impressed me at Locarno when I attended in the past as a film critic was that I was able to watch the Farrelly brothers at the Piazza Grande and at the same time to discover the diaries of Jonas Mekas. That is really what appeals to me as programmer, as a viewer and now as a festival director, so I try to be faithful to this kind of tradition.

Regarding the public, I would say that in Locarno we have more than one public. We have at least three different categories of public: The Piazza Grande is composed of cinephiles but also by people that come to the festival only for these films, so it’s very popular. On the other hand, the competition sections are really for cinephiles so even though we try to combine films that are more audience-oriented than others, I think that this kind of diversity of public is reflected in the sections we have. The third public, if I may say, is the public composed by professionals. People that work within the cinema, within the film industry and they come to Locarno in order to discover new films or to follow some tribute and eventually pick up some idea or exchange ideas of programming. If we count all of them together, we reach 4,000 people attending, which is quite a lot.

NOTEBOOK: Is there an ideal size for a film festival?

CHATRIAN: I inherited a festival that has more or less the same sections as now. We only added one new section. I think we didn’t increase the number of titles. I think that the structure of the festival is good for the festival according to the place where the festival takes place and its goal. I’m sure, in order to be always updated, a festival always need to rethink or to reshape itself. What seems to be ideal now maybe it won’t be in two or three years time.

NOTEBOOK: What do you think about the premiere policies that the leading festivals adhere to these days?

CHATRIAN: I have mixed feelings. On one side, I think it is a little bit crazy. I mean, going always for the world premiere is something that is not healthy. At the same time, I think and I know that going for a completely new film is a way to help those films to be recognized. If Locarno wouldn't have the world premiere policies, maybe our work of scouting would be less strong because we would pick films premiering in other places and it will be less daring in giving a chance to new films. When you do the selection sometimes the films are in post-production and also you see the films without an audience and you really don’t know whether it is the right choice to select a film or not. So sometimes adding the obligation to pick up a new title is a kind of extra push to go for the most daring proposition. Maybe the world premiere policies for festivals that are less important than Locarno is something, let’s say, less acceptable. But again, I think this is gonna change in few years time because also, production-wise, the films are made in different ways. Sometimes they need a help of an institution or VOD platforms. What is important to me is the experience we provide the audience on the one hand and on the other hand is to be a good home to premiere and promote a film.

NOTEBOOK: How many programmers work with you and how do you decide who watches which films?

CHATRIAN: We have two selection committees composed of four people each, so we have eight programmers. Four of them for feature films and four of them for short films. We don’t have a kind of strict rule on how we share the big amount of submissions. Of course, most of the time the sharing is done according to the languages that my team do speak or understand, but sometimes it happens that it’s random because it’s also due to the amount of films submitted in a short period time. Then, of course, there is the scouting thing, which its basically something that is related to the nets that my team have, specially my head of programming, Mark Peranson, but also the rest of my team.

I overview every section. First of all, we need to make a separation between the new films with the others. So, the new films is my team of programmers for the feature and short films, with me. In the Piazza Grande, I sometimes do ask another opinion to Nadia Dresti, who is head of the industry and now also the festival’s deputy director. And, of course, we have consultants. People that can advise me on specific territories. So this is for the selection of the new films.

For the répertoire films, most of the times they are my choice, but it depends on the filmmaker in tribute. I ask for suggestions to my programming team or also from some of my friends. For the retrospective, I always have a person who curates the retrospective but in the end, the choice of doing a retrospective on one director or on one cinematography is upon me. The curator related to the retrospective is Roberto Turigliatto since the time I arrived at the festival.

NOTEBOOK: Is it essential for a programmer to continue traveling today? Which are the key festivals or events a programmer should attend? Personally, which is your favorite festival?

CHATRIAN: I think it is still very important to travel, even more important. First of all, because 90% of our selection is made out of our scouting and not of the spontaneous submissions. Secondly, because it is an ongoing work of being known and knowing other people. So it’s essential. The people who are traveling most of the time is me and Mark Peranson, but of course our other programmers, too.

There are so many festivals or co-production markets where we go every year. I think we cover more than 50 in total. They can be very diverse markets, such as Toronto or Cannes, or co-production events like Les Arcs or Ventana Sur, or they can be also smaller places, where we are invited to see a smaller group of films and they can change year to year because it’s also depending on our work of scouting. So, sometimes, we do understand the recent regions of the world where things are happening and we want to be there. Or sometimes we have been invited to do a special event like a special showcase of Locarno and that gives me or my team the possibility to scout a little bit more.  

Before I used to go to festivals as a film critic and enjoyed the programming lineup of this festival. Nowadays, is not possible anymore because basically my daily life has changed a lot. So whenever I go to other film festival, it’s because either I’m part of the jury or I go there with an specific goal, which means that I can hardly enjoy other festivals as I used to do. So the festivals I enjoyed a lot to go to in the past I can’t go to anymore, or if I go there I go with different expectations. I used to like Rotterdam a lot and I’ve not been able to go there in the last 4 years. I used to like Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato, and I can't go there anymore, just to give you a couple of examples. I used to go to film festivals to discover films and to chat with friends. Now, if I go to a film festival, I stay only for a couple of days to mainly do meetings. That’s it.

NOTEBOOK: Film criticism seems to be the most typical background for programmers working today. Can you think of reasons for this?

CHATRIAN: Yeah, there are reasons for sure. One of the reasons is that film critics are crazy about films and they are able to watch a lot of films in a way that is not ordinary. As you know, working for a festival implies that you watch sometimes 30 films a day, 40 films a day, which is completely insane. Maybe the other reason I would point out is that film criticism gives you some basis, some knowledge that in one way or in another help you to be more sure in your judgements. I also think that film critics, not all of them, but most of them, have a good knowledge of the history of cinema which I think is one of the most important parts in selecting films. So, on one side you have to be good in finding the new elements or techniques in a film but in order to discover or appreciate them, I think that the knowledge of the history of cinema is very much important.

NOTEBOOK: Historically, Locarno has been combining tradition and innovation. What do you understand to be your role in this challenge?

CHATRIAN: I think this pretty much a mix of tradition and innovation. I think that in order to discover the new films for me, at least, being the director at Locarno, it’s very important to look back and look at the choices that the festival has done in the past. The tradition of Locarno is to have presented Salò o le 120 gionate di Sodoma (1975) by Pier Paolo Pasolini which was not—at all!—an easy choice at the time and now seems evident, or to present even before the films of  Neo-Realism or the films coming from the Eastern Europe in years where it was very much complicated to show this kind of films. So, in Locarno, the chance to be provocative or to go for the most experimental position belongs to the Locarno tradition.

That’s why I think innovation and tradition are the same in Locarno. It’s not the only festival, for sure, but maybe because maybe we have less pressure, maybe because the festival belongs to a country where the market is not as big, and so I’m pretty sure that I have more freedom than other festival directors. And therefore I think that my role is really to go for and support the most challenging propositions—of course having a good balance, but at the same time to go for the more challenging ones.

Just to finish up: I think a great example of how tradition goes with the innovation is the new Raúl Ruiz film we are going to show. It wasn’t expected at all but to me, is the perfect example of that. To be able to show in competition a film that was shot in the 1990 and finished only now. I think is the perfect example. Also, because the film to me, even though it has been made in the 1990, is very much up-to-date and talks about a life we are living in 2017.

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Carlo ChatrianFestival CoverageLocarnoLocarno 2017InterviewsJacques TourneurJean-Marie StraubTodd HaynesLong Reads
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