And That’s Exactly How it Was: The 72nd Locarno Film Festival

By James Lattimer

The 72nd edition of the Locarno Film Festival—the first under the artistic direction of Lili Hinstin—was notable for the strength of its documentary offerings, albeit hardly in the conventional sense. Within a solid line-up whose names and general tone didn’t deviate all that much from recent years, the films that stood out most were the ones that tapped into the realm of nonfiction—which isn’t to say they were necessarily documentaries. First and foremost among them was Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela (which walked off with both the Golden Leopard and the prize for Best Actress), much of whose force derives from the fact that its astounding protagonist is performing a version of her own life story. 

Set against Costa’s singular, uncompromising vision, most of the rest of the Competition felt meek, quite possibly because their fictions felt at such a remove from matters of the real. While Les enfants d’Isidora by Damian Manivel, who won Best Director, takes the true story of American dancer Isadora Duncan losing her two children in a car accident as its starting point, only in the last of the three present-day episodes that weave around this past tragedy does Manivel manage to break out of the straitjacket of literalism and tastefulness otherwise in evidence—a case of fictional invention creating unnecessary restriction rather than freedom. There’s little resembling real life in Park Jung-bum’s Height of the Wave, which bafflingly took home the Special Jury Prize. Although the directorial skill Park evidenced in Alive (2014) shines through at times, this scripted-to-death genre piece about the rotten core of a suitably barren-looking Korean island ends up more sudsy than Shakespearean. And João Nicolau’s Technoboss repeats the supposed spectacle of an inept middle-aged businessman bursting into song at the wheel so frequently that it loses any initial bounce it had, as if having to endure yet another story of an affluent, vaguely lascivious white guy ending up with the girl weren’t a downer enough. 

Perhaps the jury only saw fit to award one austere, uncategorizable work of cinema that unfolds mostly in darkness, which might explain why Eloy Enciso’s Endless Night, the Competition’s other clear highlight, went home empty-handed. The opening part of the Galician director’s third feature unfolds as a series of conversations conducted at various locations within an unnamed city, most of which are public: outside a church, in a bus, at the bus station, in the bar, in the office of the prospective mayor. These conversations revolve around the current state of life, taking in politics, wealth, poverty, and how this present differs from the past—even if it’s initially difficult to pinpoint when all this is actually taking place, as both the images and dialogue are strangely bereft of obvious temporal signifiers. 

The next segment sees one of the many previous speakers emerge as a protagonist of sorts and leave the city behind him, moving downriver and passing through snow-covered landscapes and shadowy forests, with each encounter along the way producing new accounts of suffering and violence, until at some point they are shifted into the voiceover.  Over time, verbal and visual details proliferate to such an extent that the link to the Spanish Civil War becomes impossible to overlook, even as the film’s exact temporality remains in flux. This realization is accompanied by the growing sense that these speakers are not so much characters as vessels for other people’s words, which, as the closing titles indicate, are indeed taken from assorted documents from the era of the Franco dictatorship, including exile literature, personal memoirs, and letters written by those incarcerated in jails or concentration camps across Galicia. This idea of returning historical texts to the locations that birthed them and capturing the new sparks they give off places Endless Night in the tradition of both Ruth Beckermann’s The Dreamed Ones (2016) and Christian Petzold’s Transit (2018), which also draw considerable force from the constant friction between past and present. 

If such films are coalescing into a nascent genre, Enciso’s unique contribution is the incorporation of landscape, across which history reverberates without leaving obvious traces. As the solitary figure moves through the trees in darkness—lent a solemn, spectral beauty by the camerawork of star cinematographer Mauro Herce—there’s nothing visible from the present to dissipate all the echoes set in motion by what the voice is saying, which progressively feels as crushing as this night is endless. This is then, but this is also now, in Galicia, Spain, and beyond. So much of what is said could be referencing any one or all three, at any given time, including what the beggar remarks before the church: “This is the worst world I know.”

It’s just as difficult to determine exactly what Matjaz Ivanisin’s second feature Oroslan is doing at any one time, although the biggest, typically muted surprise it has in store is that everything here is fiction. Before the name “Oroslan” is spoken around ten minutes in, the film has been pure, wordless process, showing how food is prepared at some small industrial facility and spooned into a variety of coloured plastic containers, which are then driven by van through the misty Slovenian countryside, hung on hooks outside a variety of isolated rural homes, and finally collected by their elderly inhabitants. When one container remains conspicuously unclaimed, two men from the village pub knock on the door and call its owner’s name; his body is carried out of the house shortly afterwards. Oroslan’s demise will only be discussed in the pub later on, between car journeys, conversations about football, other village deaths, laundry being pressed, and a glimpse of the inner workings of a slaughterhouse. Later, it’s summer, the landscape is sunny and green, and each person placed before the camera has something to say about the dead man, his drinking, his laughter, and his apparent ability to predict the future, as if a verbal monument of compassion and kindness were being erected for a man never seen. 

The quiet poise with which Ivanisin captures the specificity of the setting and the wonderfully faked authenticity of the closing testimonies speak to his documentary past, although Oroslan is actually an adaptation of Zdravko Dusa’s short story “And That’s Exactly How it Was,” whose title is as gently suggestive as the film itself. For if anything, Oroslan is an attempt to represent the very opposite: that even in the seemingly smallest of places, life is composed of so many overlapping and intertwining processes, digressions, and “big” events that no one can ever say exactly how it is, let alone how it was. The offscreen, entirely nondescript death of Oroslan is made all the sadder for the fact that it is just one fleeting eddy in a much larger flow, felt less and less as the main current keeps moving downstream. In a film that remains exquisitely slippery to the end, the only sure thing is that even the dog still sitting on its master’s doorstep will eventually get up and leave. 

Maya Kosa and Sergio da Costa’s La île aux oiseaux, which screened alongside Oroslan in the Filmmakers of the Present section, has just as keen an eyefor process and the weight of the small, although the layer of fiction it places over its even more intimate setting is much thinner. The Swiss duo’s second feature is a portrait of a bird sanctuary close to the Geneva airport, which the viewer gets to know in tandem with Antonin, a young man who has been assigned there by the authorities to help him reconnect with society, with the expectation that he will soon replace Paul, the senior keeper, following the latter’s imminent retirement. Antonin learns how to fill water bottles, handle the rats and mice bred as bird fodder and, eventually the methods of killing them, while observing the tiny facility’s avian residents and the two women who care for them and treat their various ailments, commenting on his impressions in voiceover. It’s hard not to share Antonin’s growing fascination with all these vulnerable-seeming birds based on the way in which Kosa and da Costa record them, in patient, beautifully composed tableaux, the sun-dappled light of the enclosures captured on soft 16mm. 

With the employees of the sanctuary playing themselves and no dominant plotline aside from Antonin’s learning process, the film’s fictional interventions take place at a more unobtrusive, yet deeper level: the descriptions of the birds’ conditions, which allude to allegory and metaphysics without truly spelling them out; the subtle accumulation of incidents and the concurrent cycles they gradually form themselves into; the talk of how life outside makes injury inevitable, and of those residents already freed who are still trying to return. If this sanctuary is indeed an island in the midst of a hostile world, its own ecosystem is not without ambivalence. Humans breed mice and rats and birds eat them, although rats will happily devour birds too, and humans are not immune from death either. However much compassion, care, and solidarity is in evidence in this place, there are all manner of wounds nonetheless; the gaping holes in the flesh of the birds are unavoidably, upsettingly real. 

Hassen Ferhani’s 143 rue du désert, an observational documentary from Algeria far less concerned with experimentation than either La île aux oiseaux or Oroslan, ended up with the prize for Emerging Director in the Filmmakers of the Present competition. Ferhani’s crowd-pleasing second feature work is an example of a familiar format being executed with such intelligence and clarity that you wonder why it happens so rarely. The entire film is built around a woman almost as formidable as Vitalina Varela, and just as much of a magnet for the camera: the corpulent, whip-smart Malika, who runs a small roadside café on National 1, the country’s main highway, which connects Algiers in the north to Tamanrasset in the south and runs right through the Sahara desert along the way. This 20-metre-square hut in the middle of nowhere is both business and home for Malika, her dog, and her cat, as well as a welcome stopping-off point for truckers and other transients alike, most of whom are already well-acquainted with the loquacious sexagenarian businesswoman.

While the furthest 143 rue du désert ever strays from Malika’s miniature realm is the gas station being constructed little more than a stone’s throw away, this stark, isolated setting which she is never seen to leave proves more of a virtue than a restriction. Ferhani has an innate grasp of all the parameters that can be varied in and around this one location— inside/out, night/day, noise/quiet, stillness/activity, strangers/friends, distance/proximity—and keeps them moving with almost mathematical precision, throwing up more than enough different permutations to ensure that fresh angles always emerge and the interest never wanders. Garrulous encounters thus give way to periods of solitude, lengthy silences usher in traffic sounds or impromptu dancing, and neon light takes over from the desert sun. 

Each set of people that call upon Malika also functions as a slow drip-feed of information about the country and the woman herself in equal measure—a portrait of person and place as one that is at once organic, far-reaching, and unusually entertaining. And perhaps most gratifyingly of all, there’s never any sense that the film is anything other than a meeting of equals, as Ferhani’s various interventions from behind the camera to translate or clarify demonstrate an entirely different stance to that of the invisible, omnipotent presence common to so many documentaries, while Malika herself seems well aware that she’s just as capable of steering the proceedings as he is. In fact, the obvious lie she tells towards the film’s end suggests she’s perhaps even one step ahead: natural performers like her are more than familiar with the conventions of the stage.