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Locarno in L.A. Brings Outré International Cinema to Tinseltown

L.A.’s cinematic landscape finally feels boundless with the addition of Locarno in Los Angeles, now in their second year.
Damned Summer
L.A.’s cinematic landscape finally feels boundless with the addition of Locarno in Los Angeles, now in their second year. For its second edition, beginning Thursday at the Downtown Independent, the festival—curated by Acropolis Cinema founder Jordan Cronk and co-artistic director Robert Koehler—is focusing on award-winning films from Switzerland’s 70th Locarno Festival. The program includes opening night selection Ilian Metev’s 3/4 (Filmmakers of the Present Golden Leopard), Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias’ Cocote (Signs of Life Award), and Wang Bing’s Mrs. Fang (International Competition Golden Leopard).  
Locarno in L.A. includes 14 nonfiction and narrative films and 5 shorts, including this year’s centerpiece film, Ben Russell’s Good Luck. Shot on 16mm film, the documentary follows two mining communities: one, a government-owned copper mine in Bor, Serbia, operating 400m underground where dank darkness pervades. At the other, in the Brokopondo district of Suriname, laborers work above ground on an illegal gold mining operation. Russell’s documentary finds a mystical solidarity in both group’s backbreaking toil and sacrifice.
The urgency of Locarno in L.A.’s first year is heightened for year two. Since the first edition, Cinefamily permanently shut down following a sexual harassment scandal, and the New Beverly Cinema appears to be in a perpetual state of refurbishment. With even less experimental and foreign film options than L.A. had a year ago, Locarno in L.A. and partner Acropolis Cinema’s mission is primed to fill the gap and take cinephiles in an entirely new direction. This year features an extra day of screenings, multiple sponsored late night receptions and filmmakers in person. In their second year, Locarno in L.A. is making an intervention in terms of accessibility of this kind of art cinema which so rarely screens in the city.  
Pedro Cabeleira’s Damned Summer (Special Mention: Filmmakers of the Present) is a compelling story about the spirit of youthful play as adulthood looms looming adulthood. We follow Chico (Pedro Marujo) over the summer, going from home with his grandparents to Lisbon, where he hopes to (eventually) start a career. Lined against the backdrop of his grandparents, Chico parties with his friends and hooks up night after night. We don’t see the characters develop the ideological and moral rigidity expected of adulthood, and the film doesn’t judge them for it. Their lives are an experiment of delayed adulthood and Cabeleira captures these specters in their hedonistic purgatory.
A different tone is set in Xu Bing’s Dragonfly Eyes (FIPRESCI Prize and Prize of the Ecumenical Jury - Special Mention). The film opens with a title card that reads “This is a film without actors or camera crews. All the visual material has been taken from public surveillance videos.” Conceptual artist Xu sorted through and edited 10,000 hours of disparate Chinese surveillance footage and, with the help of screenwriters Zhai Yongming and Zhang Hanyi, created a story. Physically “acted” by many different people (and voiced by Liu Yong Fang) Qing Ting tries vocations at a Buddhist temple, dry cleaner and dairy factory—all to her disappointment. At the dairy factory, Ke Fan (voiced by Su Shang Qing), a technician, falls in love with her and breaks the law, landing himself in jail. While Ke Fan is jailed, Qing changes her appearance to transform her flailing identity into online celebrity Xiao Xiao. In Xu Bing’s fable, the real world cannot sustain real people. Further, the use of conscripted surveillance footage gives the viewer awareness of their own shape shifting in order to get by. 
Shevaun Mizrahi’s Distant Constellation (Special Mention: Filmmakers of the Present) plays like a perverse crowd-pleaser. Though homebound with nothing left to live for than their memories, you empathize with Mizrahi’s subject’s “existential energy.” The documentary follows (if you can say an unmoving camera follows anything) one member of an Istanbul retirement home at a time, as each recounts memories and life anecdotes. Their feeble bodies are set side-by-side with a massive and sturdy infrastructure being built next door. Mizrahi’s pace is unhurried so as to mimic the slowing of her participants. The documentary isn’t mournful of their station—it’s aware that passage is the cost of wisdom. 
When Kim Dae-hwan’s delicately observed The First Lap (Best Emerging DirectorFilmmakers of the Present) opens, we learn that Ji-young (Sae-byeok Kim) and Su-hyeon (Hyun-chul Cho) might be expecting a child after six years together. Their respective parents suggest they marry to realize their potential as people and a family. To this suggestion, the couple give a proverbial shrug. The couple are happy together in their quiet existence. But the story reveals their happiness as a ennui over their inability to transcend becoming like their parents. Dae-hwan’s straightforward approach allows the parent’s passive-aggressiveness and the couple’s quirks create perspective in what would otherwise be a placid story.  
It’s difficult to describe Narimane Mari’s Le fort des fous, one of the best projects at this year’s festival. The film is a triptych of sequences: a parody of French colonial soldiers in Algeria (played by Algerian men) preparing to trounce citizens in the countryside, a utopian island made up of every tribe and tongue, and conversation discussing the state of Europe with a Greek lawyer and poor man. The first two parts escape the history of colonialism with a rose-tinted view of the Europe that was and what Europe could be. The two conversations that close out the film reveal Europe’s troubles as a result of lofty thinking, dramatized by its two opening chapters.
Some type of gnosticism is a trend among this year’s films. Damned Summer, Dragonfly Eyes and The First Lap depict the means of ignoring, changing, or being indifferent to unquestionably miserable circumstances—all types of denial of one’s bodily existence. Projects like Distant Constellation and Good Luck offer back cosmic reconciliation toward the general-to-extreme shittiness of being alive. Both seem to say we’re to dig in instead of opt out. And that’s exactly what the bold programming of Locarno in Los Angeles encourages in their second edition.

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