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Locarno 2015. Impressions

An overview of Locarno debuts by Malek Bensmail, prize-winner Bi Gan, Vimukthi Jayasundara, Otar Iosseliani, Pietro Marcello, and more.
Newsroom (Real and Algerian): Malek Bensmail’s Checks and Balances
On the eve of the general election for President of the Algerian Republic in 2014, Algerian filmmaker Malek Bensmail set off to Algiers to document the campaign that will eventually lead to the 4th mandate of Abdelaziz Bouteflika. As he did in 2004 for his Le grand jeu, Bensmail uses documentary cinema to examine the struggle of his country to conquer real democracy, come out of an infernal cycle of political crisis and civil conflicts, and to break with the "old ways" (structured by corruption, confiscation of power by a caste and the lack of a modern project).
In 2004, Bouteflika campaigned for his second mandate and Bensmail was in the "war room," examining the mechanisms of control and corruption under the mask of a civilian regime. This time, the campaign is seen from the offices of the most important and respected independent French-speaking daily, the famed El Watan (The Nation). The "newsroom" is always a great set for stories, a place of tension and debate where the basic values of journalism act as almost natural guidelines to the script. Following his colleagues Raymond Depardon and Frederick Wiseman, Bensmail edits his material in order to make characters clear while keeping debates complex, describing everyday work while making precise issues emerge and develop. Columnists and reporters, editors and correspondents have to face not only the ridicule and humiliation of a political campaign where the future president does not show up at meetings (because of his fragile health, Bouteflika remains absent to his own campaign), but also to report how the young people of the Arab Spring (like the movement Barakat, one of the young journalists, belongs to) manifest against manipulations and corruption, and how the young people of the province of Kabylia rise up against the regime and suffer repression.
Through editors' meetings, decision sessions regarding front page headlines, caricature drawings, treatment of day-to-day reports, and intense one-to-one discussions between journalists and reporters, Bensmail not only describes the everyday work of a newspaper but makes it a metaphor of an "ideal" forum, where the present and future of a country can be and are concretely discussed, and where all forms of corruption and manipulation are exposed. While the newspaper gets made, its new siege is been built. On the construction site, the workers are mostly Chinese.
When Bouteflika eventually wins (again), the journalists come with one more manifestation of Algerian humor. "To romp to victory" is said in French "gagner dans un fauteuil" ("to win in an armchair"): the front-page drawing shows the president in a wheelchair under the title "Victory in an armchair." Humor as firewall against lies, and as politesse du désespoir.
Alice in China: Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues (Lubian yecan, or Roadside Picnic)
The English title of the film, as too often in Chinese cinema, does not do justice to (very) young filmmaker Bi Gan's first feature. A poet and an ex-"prince of the wedding film" in his hometown of Kaili in the tropical Guizhou province (under the status of Miao ethnic minority special territory), Bi Gan's film tells the story of local health center doctor and ex-gang member Chen Sheng, who shares his workplace—and the everyday attention two lonely people may have for each other—with an older lady doctor. The doctor likes his nephew very much, a little boy who likes to draw clocks everywhere, but fails to take him from an indifferent father, who decides to send his son away. Chen then embarks on a travel to find his nephew, who is said to live with a half-gangster, half-hermit "monk," and to fulfill a memory-mission for his lady colleague. He brings with him a yellowed photograph of the old lady's lover, a shirt that was once a gift that was never made and a tape of forgotten music. Memory, loss and the bittersweet taste of nostalgia and regret infuse the story threads, in a way that may well be recall some fundamental traits of Chinese literature: treasuring fragile objects or photographs as traces of a long gone past, keeping promises made many years ago, remembering insignificant details that hence become true emblems of entire lives and lost loves, getting lost in the multiple levels of reality as a possible dream.
In a 40 minutes (!) sequence shot, one that may appear as a cocky showing off of virtuosity but ends up being an effective device to mix time, places and levels of memory and reality, Bi Gan reshuffles all his narrative cards. The small town along a river where Chen Sheng stops on his way looks like the "other" world, one found through the looking glass where White Rabbits are many—a young woman apprentice tourist guide in a yellow dress, a charming hairdresser, a rock group, and a boy with a capricious motorcycle—and the melancholic and lonesome (male) Alice of the film experiences is that a change in place is a change in time. The viewer experiences it as well through the twirling of the camera-drone and the choreography of the characters' movements. Loops in time/space are created on the banal set of a country village, where everyday life starts to become part of a mysterious enchantment. Punctuated by a voice over reciting a few poems (from the filmmaker's own book Lubian yecan) where solitude and sadness prevail, Bi Gan's film shows a remarkable capacity to make its viewer wish for simple but striking revelations and to bring close to all an intricate and delicate network of memories, regrets, dreams and affects.
What comes to mind may well be the famous ancient Taoist philosophical parable: "Zhuangzi once dreamt he was a butterfly and did not know he was Zhuangzi; when he woke up, he did not know if he was Zhuangzi having dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly that was dreaming it was Zhuangzi."
A Night in Colombo: Vimukthi Jayasundara’s Dark in the White Light (Sulanga gini aran)
Jayasundara's new feature (after his powerful 2011 film, Chatrak) brings together various characters in a meditation on violence and death (fearing it, aspiring to it, despising it) where even the most reluctant spectator will notice (one dare not say "enjoy") some of the most powerful villains…of the Locarno selection. A surgeon who may heal by day but also rape by night and make money on organ trafficking, helped both by a heart-broken driver-helper and a middleman who sweet talks poor people into selling their kidneys: a trio that Jayasundara's mise en scène takes from days of banality to nights of despair, violence and terror where a whole society (world?) takes shape. The evil doctor (a Don Juan abstracted into pure violence) and his accomplices constantly remain more than plausible as social figures while the nocturnal mise en scèneslowly brings them to another level as concrete figures of contemporary evil. Less a metaphor than a philosophical horror film (Georges Franju for today?), Dark in the White Light ends with a remarkable twist where popular storytelling and Buddhism combine as forces of resistance. Around them are the landscapes of Sri Lanka as Jayasundara knows how to show and use them with his unique sense of air, wind and light.
Festival Impressions
Dom Juan
Watching Athina Rachel Tsangari's Chevalier is like watching an impressively gifted watchmaker at work. Script, dialog, decoupage and actors' direction have such an extreme precision and such a unique sense of being calibrated to the millimeter that beyond the efficiency of their effects (be it the upbeat of comedy, if not satire, or under the pressure of roaming violence), one constantly admires the director's rigor in filmmaking. Far from the artificial coldness or from the arty clenching (crispation) of some of her contemporaries, Tsangari takes from classical cinema in her art as watchmaking. But are they clocks or rather well crafted machines infernales that tick and tick until they explode?
Watching Otar Iosseliani's Winter Song is to all those who know his previous films a kind of meeting again with, a source of pleasure in familiarity that never gives the impression of repetition. Suffice to say that if much of the beginning of the film seem to recompose Brigands-Chapter VII and Favourites of the Moon before it unfolds its plot of plots, trafficking and powerless aristocrats, it strikes with the great filmmakers' capacity to alter, update and refine his own filmic figures. One example should be enough: after an opening scene based upon the use of guillotine during the French Revolution ("does it cut well enough?"), the film takes us to war scenes in an unnamed yet obvious part of Europe. In a masterful long shot using beautiful choreography and an elegant camera movement, a group of soldiers gets (re)baptized by an Orthodox priest with a tattooed gangster torso, after looting and raping, and before going on with war and occupation. The reference is clear, the mise en scène induces memories and provokes reflection: it is then time to jump to another space, to another representation of contemporary evils, to the duplicity and multi-faced gangsterism of today. Trust the filmmaker to use humor, empathy and sense of friendship to create some bright moments in his dark comedy.
Watching French actor Vincent Macaigne's first feature as director, Dom Juan, produces an interesting side-effect: some (like myself) may tend to forget or ignore what Comédie Française is about. Now here is a brilliant reminder. Produced as a teleplay in a collection in collaboration with Comédie Française, Macaigne's film bears witness not only to his own sense of theater and play, but mainly to the wonderful discipline and talent that persist to exist inside the old institution. Loïc Corbery (Dom Juan) and Serge Bagdassarian (Sganarelle) invent and reinvent Macaigne's adaptation at every second of a film visibly made on a tight budget and schedule yet constantly energized by the actor's dedication and commitment, and served by a remarkable camerawork (Julien Roux). This Dom Juan, I felt, does not go much further in its philosophical and moral (re)definition than Mozart's, beyond its contemporary settings and props, and even if the director adds to Molière and Da Ponte a few traditional French political-ish notes (the Father as an image of Maréchal Pétain, a sound disgust for the blood thirsty words of French national anthem, the Commander as a cardinal, in short, a satire of dear old "sabre et goupillon," the alliance between "swords and sprinklers," the Church and the Army). Famed Paris hotel Lutetia (a historically meaningful place) is the main set for the last days of Dom Juan, a zombie-dandy image of despair and rebellion, and Sganarelle, a loving yet harsh figure of life and decency. Corbery and Bagdassarian transcend all the possible trendy aspects of the project into nightmarish incarnations of doom, and the director clearly knows theater and cinema enough to make them shine and stay in the viewer's mind after the party is over.
Watching Pietro Marcello's Bella e perduta brings to mind the music of the famous Choir of the Hebrews Va' pensiero in Verdi's Nabucco that has been forever been serving as an hymn*. "O my homeland, so beautiful and lost," sing the Hebrew prisoners in Babylon. Marcello's homeland in the Italian South, humiliated by centuries of bad governance, the mafia and political corruption, it is the set to his brave and heartfelt new film.
Even if Marcello's project tends to lose itself in questionable effects and sometimes-excessive arty surmoi, no doubt it will leave to audiences everywhere the image and memory of its starting point/character. Farmer Tommaso Cestrone, who Marcello wanted to make the centre of the film, died in unclear circumstances during production. An intense person, with a face and eyes no-one can forget, Tommaso had decided to save from dereliction the historical palace of Carditello in his region of Caserta. Abandoned by the authorities, using only his own money and work, persecuted by local mafiosi but determined to give the dignity back to a palace once built by his people, Tommaso (locally called the Angel of Carditello) is clearly a hero to Marcello, and more generally to all those who in Italy fight degradation, corruption and the destruction of culture and memory.
How to tell the story of a hero once the hero has died? What Marcello definitely manages to do is to offer the viewers a precious gift: Tommaso's eyes, Tommaso's voice and the voice of a people still fighting. Beautifully shot as clearly inspired by the farmer's modesty, his knowledge in animals, plants and sky and his sadness when he walked the deserted rooms of the once brilliant palace, the film offers some strikingly vibrant moments. It bares the traces of a culture, the spirit and hopes of those who do not surrender. Never mind the partly unconvincing decorations later added to the project: mission accomplished through sincerity and dedication, from one of the few essay filmmakers of Italy. Aure dolci del suolo natal.
* In 2011, maestro Riccardo Muti had a whole theater sing it in homage to a much-threatened Italian culture.
Watching Claire Simon's Le bois dont les rêves sont faits, a documentary essay shot in Paris' Bois de Vincennes, makes you wish for a double bill with Frederick Wiseman's Central Park. Two different approaches (beyond the differences in countries, time and contexts) for many common questions: are these green spaces in our cities fragments of some paradise? Simon's starting point is more about building ephemeral but intense relationships with some of the "users" she meets throughout the four seasons of the big Parisian forest. Richer or poorer, French or foreign, older or younger, the persons Simon talks to (with a constant sense of empathy in reserve) become instantly interesting and unforgettable. You always learn a lot with people, Simon says through this film, in the forest where so many worlds coexist without ever colliding. A microcosm without a precise sociology, a planet of its own made by ordinary people that all become extraordinary because someone knew how to film, ask, listen and edit.

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