The Locarno Film Festival Diaries: 'The Family', Struggles of 'The Poetess' and 'A Letter to the President'

08/09/2017 01:32 pm ET
A still from Rok Biček’s ‘The Family’
A still from Rok Biček’s ‘The Family’

Away from the main competition films featured in the Locarno Film Festival are two important sidebar sections which are filled with works of art worthy of the numerous audiences who attend their screenings. La Semaine de la Critique, Critics’ Week, and the Open Doors programs offer each and separately a fresh insight into modern groundbreaking filmmakers who will be the future maestros of our times. With Open Doors that even goes beyond the films we are watching on the big screen now, but bear with me before I get to that.

First, lets talk about the Locarno Critics’ Week which is a documentary-only sidebar General Delegate Marco Zucchi calls “a reality emporium”. Featuring seven films, from known directors such as Rok Biček as well as first time filmmakers like Lee Yong Chao, from a story hailing from the Congo, to one set in the Arab world, from more traditional formats to the Cinéma vérité feel of ‘The Family’ and even the more TV-centric approach of ‘The Poetess’, all the films easily evade the simplistic label of documentaries and become complete narratives which happen to enjoy a “validation by reality” — as Olivier Assayas said in my earlier interview with him in Locarno.

Open Doors offers instead a three-fold program to help develop cinema in South Asian countries, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal. The programs include a co-production platform “Open Doors Hub” where eight projects are featured each year and can benefit from exposure to possible co-producing partners through introductions and meetings; the Open Doors Lab which highlights producers from specific countries — this year they are Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — who have been contributing to the development of an independent film scene in their respective countries; and last but not least, the Open Doors Screenings, which showcase cinematographic creativity through features and shorts from South Asia, throughout the last fifteen years.

As Locarno Deputy Artistic Director Nadia Dresti says, “festivals, as the word itself suggests, are festive events and thus places of shared experiences.” Nowhere is that more apparent than at the sold-out, jam packed screenings of this year’s sidebar sections.

Družina ’The Family’ by Rok Biček

I remain in awe of the talent and vision Slovenian filmmaker Rok Biček possesses because it feels like he’s been making movies for the last fifty years, and beyond. Yet there is a freshness to his work, a wonderful risk-taking quality that makes his films — his first ‘Class Enemy’ a narrative I watched a few years ago in Venice, and now ‘The Family’ — sheer joys to watch. While his latest is automatically categorized as a doc by its presence in the Critics’ Week of course, calling it such does not do it justice. In his press notes, Biček mentions a moment when his own girlfriend Yulia Roschina — who is the film’s co-editor along with the director — realized this film was as much about Biček as it was about its handsome, imperfectly perfect, anti hyper-romantic hero Matej. Surrounded by a world and a family dynamic that highlight his own insecurities and broadcast them onto the big screen almost like a flashing neon sign, Biček’s transforms Matej’s life and Matej takes over Rok’s film. Where does one begin and the other one end?

Truly, if ever there was a film that is at once inexplicable yet so perfectly and understandably human it is ‘The Family’. I loved every minute and am awaiting the necessary bit of time I need to digest it further so I can watch it again. And again. I also loved being able to unwrap the film, unravel its mystery little by little without too much talking down to from the director. Biček is there, of course, he was in the midst of this odd yet somehow functioning dysfunctional family dynamic for ten years, filming around them, and yet he never once over-explains the changes in time, location, age and status of his protagonists to his audience. That is such a refreshing way to tell a story!

‘The Poetess’ by Stefanie Brockhaus and Andreas Wolff

At the center of Stefanie Brockhaus’ and Andreas Wolff’s slick and easy to view documentary in the Critics’ Week stands a charismatic female poet we never actually see. Well, we do watch Saudi Arabian Hissa Hilal’s veiled, burka-d, covered silhouette all throughout ‘The Poetess’ but to date she remains a mystery. I had to run out of the screening before the Q & A and didn’t see her approach the stage through the standing ovation she received from the audience, and then, when I arrived to meet with her a bit later, she was running over schedule, hidden once again behind a door doing a TV interview. So her words in the film when she admits about her veil that if she were “in a different nation I wouldn’t wear it” ring strange to me. She remains that veiled mysterious woman — whose poems have inflamed her critics yet inspired women in the Arab world — to me.

Courtesy of the Locarno Film Festival

What is clear as day though in ‘The Poetess’ is that media divides us, thrives on polarizing the world and fueling misconceptions. From the first shots of well-known Western journalists who describe the ‘Million’s Poet’ TV show airing from Abu Dhabi — where in 2010 Hilal became a contestant reading her touchingly simple poetry — as “oil money pouring into verse”, to the journalist in the Middle East who gets Hilal in trouble by writing an article about her poem on Fatwas, I realized more deeply what I’d always suspected. The media exist to divide and win — divide us to win the ratings. And the risk of ruining someone’s life or even destroying a fragile regional balance doesn’t matter to most one bit.

‘A Letter to the President’ by Roya Sadat

In ‘A Letter to the President’, part of the Open Doors Screenings, Afghani director Roya Sadat tells the courageous story of a strong woman, an activist for women’s rights who is herself the victim of domestic abuse. Soraya unfortunately happens to live in a country where government laws have little influence above the will of the village lords and she finds herself disgraced and imprisoned because she refuses to play that dishonest game. Will the President, moved by a letter she’s written to him while in jail, be able to save her from her dire predicament in time?

Courtesy of the Locarno Film Festival

Simply yet brilliantly shot, and showcasing some wonderful acting, particularly with her protagonist played by Leena Alam, ‘A Letter to the President’ refreshingly showcases the lives and troubles of an Afghani upper middle class that is usually absent in the movies. We are all aware of the poor and addicted in their society but I found myself relishing this slice of life into the well-to-do world, the familiar European looking dwellings and furnishings which made me feel closer to the story.

Lastly, Sadat’s film also offers a warning to artists everywhere on the power of the written word, the visual arts and of course, films. Because in the wrong hands, looked at through less than kind eyes even fiction can be twisted into reality, resulting in the most horrible consequences.

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