Surrounded by mountains and cozily situated in a picturesque northern cove at the Swiss end of Lake Maggiore, the small Italianate resort-town of Locarno would seem like the ideal haven from urban unrest, protests against various forms of injustice, and similar pressing social and political issues. Film festivals, which occasion a city’s annual influx of international cinema, foreign journalists, and moviegoing tourists in grand tribute to the preeminent form of cultural escapism, would seem even more sheltered from the preoccupations of the real world, generating as they do their own fleeting hermetic bubbles of news, buzz, and gossip.
And yet this year’s iteration of the Festival del Film Locarno seemed strangely relevant to these concerns, albeit in an unlikely setting. Coming after many months of popular uprising throughout the Arab world, and oddly coinciding with last month’s week of protests and riots in the United Kingdom, the festival’s program offered a surprising number of films that addressed the issue of insurrection and political change, along with those questions of race, class, and especially immigration that characterize debates around these issues in a European context.
The festival’s most explicit engagement with recent events came in the form of Tahrir: Liberation Square, Italian documentarian Stefano Savona’s hasty, if no-less-fascinating record of several days inside Cairo’s famed locus of demonstrations and clashes. The film captures marches, chants, and rock-throwing battles, as well as conversations about Egypt’s history and future, and hints at the much-touted role of social media in the uprising’s organization. But as engaging as the film is as an on-the-spot document of the events leading up to Hosni Mubarak’s departure, more recent developments throughout Egypt suggest that the film is somewhat premature, and wants for both broader perspective and more critical insight.
If Tahrir indicated an immediate, if superficial curiosity about recent revolutionary fervor, the festival’s offerings of European art-cinema testified to a more long-standing engagement. Smugglers’ Songs (Les Chants de Mandrin), the fourth film by Franco-Algerian actor/director Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, impressionistically restages the legacy of the 18th century brigand and bootlegger Louis Mandrin as a model for future European insurgency. Mandrin himself has already been executed at the film’s outset, but his legendary status as a kind of Robin Hood, flouting the taxes, modes of exchange, and border control of the decadent ancien régime, lives on in songs and folklore proliferated by his followers. Many of these acolytes—who form a small army that sells subversive literature and treasures from the Orient to small villages with cries of “Vive le contraband!”—are clearly of Arab lineage, including the ringleader played by Ameur-Zaïmeche, This is just one example of the film’s pointedly anachronistic casting that suggests subtle allegorical intentions over any generic interest in historical verisimilitude. (Its cursorily staged battle sequences, which recall Brecht by way of Watkins’s La Commune, drive this point home further.) Similarly, Jean-Luc Nancy appears in a wonderful cameo as a printer who helps disseminate the bands’ revolutionary songs to all of France, hinting at the film’s particular alliance with the philosopher’s interest in questions of community in the face of globalization.
Through its rich details of landscape and clothing, Ameur-Zaïmeche’s film follows Nancy’s work in its emphasis on touch and sensuality as a means of resisting various forms of social control. Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Perceval’s Low Life, a more explicitly modern, even futuristic exploration of these themes, advocates a similar form of subversion. The film seems as devoted to its fashionably gray palette as it is to its somewhat stylish countercultural politics, and similarly its diffusely collectivized Parisian student-activist protagonists spend as much of their nocturnal waking hours partying as they do helping out subterranean groups of undocumented immigrants and tossing molotovs at the police. With its arch dialogue and model-pretty cast, Low Life nearly veers into French arthouse self-caricature, but elements of the supernatural and a sinister witch-house soundtrack keep the film engaging even in its more preposterous moments, and its semi-Deleuzean discourse of surveillance and control suggest an intellectual pedigree that stops just short of political importance.
But perhaps Locarno’s most surprising occasion for reflection on these issues—if not actually the festival’s best film—came with the screening of a home-grown work, Special Flight, the new documentary by Swiss filmmaker Fernand Melgar. Melgar’s prior film, The Fortress, which took home Locarno’s Golden Leopard award in 2008, investigated a detention center for asylum-seekers in Switzerland; his new film concerns a group of foreign nationals at a rather darker place in the process. Many of the film’s subjects—a couple of dozen men, mainly originating from Africa and Kosovo—have lived in Switzerland for decades, working, paying taxes, and raising families. Now, at a detention center in Frambois, near Geneva, they sit in clean, gray institutional buildings, waiting to hear about the status of their appeals for citizenship, or else to be forcibly shipped out to their countries of origin, the “special flights” of the film’s title.
Played to a packed house of some 3,000 festivalgoers, Vol spécial may be most striking to an American viewer for its very existence: the degree of access afforded Melgar and his crew would be unthinkable for a filmmaker seeking to document deportation centers in the United States, and in many other parts of the world. (This degree of access occasionally gives the film a professional polish that makes it seem almost staged. Stills from the film, which resemble a slightly sunnier Pedro Costa film, made more than one non-Swiss festivalgoer I spoke to think the film was a work of fiction.) Stranger still is the interaction between the detention center’s staff and the inmates (whom the former prefer to call “residents”), which is cordial, warm, and often even apologetic. Members of the staff welcome the detainees, express remorse for their situations, and hear out their grievances sympathetically, forming relationships that border on friendship. And when the orders come down for deportation, staff-members carry them out with an odd mix of duty, helplessness, and regret.
The paradox of these close relationships and the no-less-streamlined institutional process in which they occur are captured by Melgar with something of the subtle editorial bent of Wiseman, whose films often reveal the glints of humanism that are otherwise buried in the inexorable machinery of governmentality in motion. But this efficiency and geniality still fails to mask the detainees’ desperation, which mounts over the months and even years of their incarceration. One of these “residents” vents his frustration in the lyrics of a rap song: “One day the world will explode and things will be different.”
Some hours after the crowded premiere of Melgar’s film, another group numbering roughly 300 people amassed outside of a police station in the North London neighborhood of Tottenham to protest the death of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old man killed by police during an arrest by a special armed unit investigating gun crime in the African and Caribbean communities. In the days ahead, riots and lootings would spread to cities throughout England, followed in short order by a series of debates that variously claimed this unrest as a product of popular insurgency, petty thuggery, or the pernicious effect of disgruntled immigrant populations. Far more subdued, the mobs invading the festival at Locarno gathered not to protest, but to watch films, and yet many of these works suggested that these questions were already preoccupying Europe well before the riots began.