At the same 66th edition of Festival del film Locarno where Werner Herzog received an honorary award, there debuted a programming strand in the regular Fuori concorso section named after the Bavarian filmmaker's first feature, Signs of Life. Consisting of five world premieres, the strand was devised as an alternative to the films screening every night during the festival in the Piazza Grande, Locarno's 8,000-seat open-air theatre.
Such decisions have a political edge. These films, in aesthetic as well as theme, were at a palpable remove from any idea of a commercial cinema. They were more personal, more intimate; their experimentation was confrontational and unapologetic (at least four of them broke the fourth wall). Furthermore, as the name of a programming strand, "Signs of Life" might double as some kind of general complaint: Is the mainstream lifeless? It's difficult to say, but if attendance figures in the 270-seat PalaVideo were anything to go by, those films found toward the margins of film exhibition are healthily received -- in Locarno at least.
Across the quintet of works programmed as part of the Signs of Life strand, pilgrimage emerged as a strong theme. Perhaps the most obvious example of this was in Swiss filmmaker Lorenz Merz's debut feature, Cherry Pie, in which Zoe (Lolita Chammah) flees a violent boyfriend, heads north through depopulated places without a franc to her name and, in an increasingly catatonic state, crosses the Channel into Brighton, England. Cherry Pie barely gives its audience or its protagonist room to breathe; at several points, a hand reaches out from behind the camera and literally molests Zoe. Merz -- also cinematographer -- shoots the whole thing in a silvery miserablist palette and often with an extremely shallow depth of field. On the surface, then, the film promised very little, but it is compelling, mostly due to Chammah's performance and her willingness to fulfill the curious demands of her director -- speaking of whom, on this evidence, Merz clearly has talent to burn.
Ben Rivers and Ben Russell's feature A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, meanwhile, pairs ideas and themes from each of its directors' previous solo work. A triptych whose programm notes reveal more about its plot than the film itself, Spell presents three chapters in an unnamed character's life: as part of a commune in Estonia, on a one-man pilgrimage in northern Finland and as the lead performer in a metal band in Norway. Put another way: our protagonist (played by musician Robert A. A. Lowe, who performs as Lichens), emerges from a collective context, embarks upon a solitary and spiritual navigation of untouched terrain, and rejoins society only to mesmerize and confound it with an intense performance piece that seems to go on forever (doubly so for me, as the film was longer than advertised and I was conscious of making another press screening I had to attend elsewhere). Meandering and unwieldy, the film resembles in its middle segment Rivers' Two Years at Sea (2011), and its concluding scene reaches the intensely cathartic heights of Russell's own ethnographic foray, Let Each One Go Where He May (2009).
In Illinois-born James Fotopoulos' Dignity, Agents Rainbow (Nathan Zellner) and Lamb (David Zellner) go on a belated pilgrimage to a mysterious world in search of "the secret language of color and light." Beckettian in its deadpan style and stop-start repetition, this amusing riff on bodily imprisonment and spiritual escape chimed well with others in the strand, and appeared as a refreshingly lo-fi comedy alongside the more somber pretensions of the two already mentioned. Its themes of stasis and progress, meanwhile, were echoed by fellow Signs of Lifer How to Disappear Completely, the latest film from Filipino director Raya Martin. In that film, opening images of the Philippine islands prefigure an exploration of political fragmentation as framed through a domestic division. "What do you want?" the film asks us at its very beginning. A provocateur, Martin demands patience -- the title card appears an hour in -- and offers little reward, but for the intermittent indelible image, such as that of a young boy falling in slow motion from a tree branch. Excellent soundtrack from Filipino electro artist Eyedress.
The film that encapsulated the tension between progress and stasis most effectively, though, was Luis Lopez Carrasco's El futuro. As opening soundbites establish, the film takes place in the aftermath of Spain's 1982 general elections (Carrasco was born in 1981), in which the Spanish Socialist Workers Party won 48 percent of overall votes. Thereafter, the film presents to us -- but for bookend sequences of an empty flat and an interlude of still photographs -- a house party full of twenty-somethings clad in glad rags that scream the fads and colors of the period.
Like How to Disappear Completely's, El futuro's soundtrack is excellent. Effortlessly evoking time and place, it also captures that party vibe when, for a few brief moments, everything seems possible. And in a way, everything does: Here we have people brought together in a square frame in which to physically interact with one another and engage in debate. Texturally, meanwhile, the grainy imagery seems busy with life. And yet, said grain also imbues a retro feel, reminding us from start to finish that the optimism on display here seems already to have passed.
I saw El futuro on 15 August, a public holiday in Locarno and other Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland. I hadn't realized at the time, but it made sense upon learning, as I had noted on my walk to the screening venue at half-eight in the morning how eerily quiet the route was. It was the kind of abandoned space in which one feels free to ruminate on the finer things in life -- those perishable nuggets of positivity that the usual hustle and bustle of a commute precludes. Heading into the final days of the festival and my time there as part of its Critics Academy, I wondered about the people I had met and the opportunities to come.
Consequently, I saw El futuro with something resembling its own optimism brimming within. At one point, just before the film's midway interlude of still photographs -- to the beguiling sound of Aviador Dro's "Nuclear Si" -- I became transfixed by one image in particular, of a young woman, perhaps my own age. Framed in profile to the left of the image, she listens, watches, smiles. She is beautiful and makes me want to be there and to know her. Perhaps in some alternative future, I might.
Click here for more on Michael Pattison and this year's Critics Academy.