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How the Locarno Film Festival is reinventing itself

  • August 06, 2020

Each year in August, shortly after sunset, 8,000 film fans normally take their seats in the Piazza Grande in Locarno, Switzerland to watch the evening’s cinematic selection. Located on the shores of majestic Lake Maggiore, the large square is transformed into a spectacular open-air cinema during the Locarno Film Festival, one of the most renowned and longest-running independent film festivals in the world.

Yet, as in many areas of the cultural realm, from music festivals to opera performances, the coronavirus pandemic has caused plans to change, and the 2020 festival, which takes place August 5th to 15th, won’t happen in its usual form. Yet, cancelled it most certainly is not.

At the peak of the outbreak, the festival’s leadership decided to forgo the planned program and instead present a slimmed-down virtual version with a jazzy new title. Instead of the 73rd Annual Locarno Film Festival as tradition would have it called, it now has the forward-thinking title: “Locarno 2020: For the Future of Films.” These are unique times, to say the least, and this year’s Locarno Film Festival is sure to be unlike any other.

With social distancing measures loosened in Switzerland, artistic director Lili Hinstin and her team are attempting a hybrid approach. In addition to screening films online, three local cinemas will be playing festival selections. Yet there will be no large screenings in Piazza Grande, since so many eager cinemagoers gathered in one place could cause the virus to spread. The competition, as well as the awarding of the grand prize, the Golden Leopard, will not take place this year.

The Golden Leopard will not be awarded this year at the Locarno International Film Festival: picture of the award on a pedestal (Locarno Film Festival)

The Golden Leopard will not be awarded this year at the Locarno International Film Festival

Rescuing films in progress

Yet although there will be no top prize-winner, some productions will nonetheless receive much-needed financial support. The newly launched “The Films After Tomorrow” series includes 20 films, ten international and ten Swiss, which were forced to abandon production due to the pandemic, and which now face large financial challenges. More than 500 film projects from about 90 countries were submitted for consideration.

As to be expected, no finished films will be screened as part of this section and the jury will have to make its decision based on the description of the films and declarations of intent written by each film’s director, as well as financial planning information. Meetings to determine the winner are virtual, and projects stand a good chance of winning funding: five projects will be chosen in both the international and national selections.

As for the tangible festival offerings, about 100 screenings will be held in local venues, including the Pardi di Domani short film competition, the Open Doors retrospective section and Surprise Films, where audiences find out what they are about to see when the screening begins.

First film festival since Berlinale

The festival opens with First Cow by Kelly Reichardt, an independent filmmaker from the US. The selection was symbolic: the film was last shown at the Berlinale, where it debuted, and was one of the last moments “in which cinema could still be experienced as a grand collective experience by a large audience” festival organizers said.

Luckily, none of the Locarno Film Festival sponsors dropped out this year despite the slimmed-down offerings, shrinking audience numbers and the anticipated low media coverage. Virtual festival-goers are called upon to support the film world. A limited number of tickets for films screened online are offered free of charge, although donations are suggested. The proceeds will go to selected independent cinemas in Switzerland.

The festival will wind up with nine short films Swiss directors made during the pandemic lockdown.

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