Films to watch at this year's Locarno Film Festival

At a press conference held on 1 July, the official programme of the 74th edition of the Locarno Film Festival was unveiled, the first to be held under the artistic direction of Giona A. Nazzaro -- and the lineup includes quite a few cool SWANA titles we love.
Films to watch at this year's Locarno Film Festival

The Locarno Film Festival has officially announced that it will return to its original physical format under the guidance of new Artistic Director Giona A. Nazzaro, who worked with the Selection Committees to pick out the titles screening in Locarno from 4 through 14 August. Alongside the welcomed return of long-established favourites, there are also new items such as the competitive short films programme Corti d’autore in the Pardi di domani section, as well as a dedicated programme for younger viewers called Locarno Kids.

In full compliance with current health and sanitary regulations, Locarno74 will once again be an in-person event, with the return of evenings in the stunning Piazza Grande and screenings in twelve more theatres around the city. The venue for all meetings and panel discussions with guest personalities accompanying their films will be the Rotonda by la Mobiliare, the new home of the Forum.

The juries for the festival were also announced and include Sudanese director and producer Amjad Abu Alala heading the First Feature jury, as well as Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Aljafari on the jury for the short films in the Pardi di domani section.

Special prize awardees were already announced in the past weeks and will be attending Locarno in person including Pardo d’onore Manor, John Landis; Excellence Award Davide Campari, Laetitia Casta; Vision Award Ticinomoda, Phil Tippett; Best Producer Award (Premio Raimondo Rezzonico), Gale Anne Hurd; and for the Pardo alla carriera achievement award, Dante Spinotti.

But the real discoveries at this year's Locarno lie in the titles from the MENA region which include works from Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Palestine, Iran, Egypt, Iran and Syria (by way of Switzerland -- read on).

The stunning Piazza Grande where films are screening under the starry sky

Let's start with the Piazza Grande screening of Bassel Ghandour's The Alleys, which is Ghandour's feature directorial debut, after having co-written the script for the Academy Award nominated Theeb in 2014. The Alleys is a Jordan/Egypt/Saudi/Qatar co-production, already a feat of wonder right there, a thriller which going by its synopsis on IMDb got us at "hello" -- "In a claustrophobic neighborhood where gossip and violence police people's behaviour, the lives of residents intertwine and collide as some try to maintain social norms while others try to break them." The film stars Jordanian actor Emad Azmi and Baraka Rahmani (known for Denis Villeneuve's Incendies) along with an ensemble cast.

Ghassan Salhab's Al Naher ("The River") is a Lebanon/Germany/France/Qatar co-production which is part of the International Competition, and is co-financed by the Doha Film Institute. The film stars Palestinian superstar Ali Suliman alongside Lebanese film and TV actress Yumna Marwan, who already worked with Salhab in his haunting 2014 film The Valley. The film synopsis runs like this: "A young woman and an older man are having lunch on the terrace of a restaurant located in the midst of a mountainous landscape in Lebanon. Suddenly the sky darkens, followed by rumbling sounds. Fighter planes crisscross the sky. As the man heads to his car to leave the place, the woman disappears somewhere below. He follows her, loses sight of her, eventually catches up with her, films her, talks to her about their relationship, tries to kiss her, but she manages to escape him. As the day declines, they venture deeper into nature, their sole companion is a dog watching them from the distance. Their journey leads them to a cave; the man goes inside and reaches a river on the other side. The night has fallen. He finds the woman walking along the opposite bank. They walk their separate ways for a while, the river standing between them. The man finally crosses over and approaches the woman." Intriguing!

In the Concorso Cineasti del presente, we find Mehdi Hmili's Streams which stars Tunisian megastar Afef Ben Mahmoud, who is always a sight to behold in whatever she touches. The film is a Tunisia/Luxembourg/France co-production and features music composed by Amine Bouhafa. The story of Streams "revolves around Amel (played by Ben Mahmoud) who is released from prison after an adulterous affair. In the lower depths of Tunis, Amel is seeking her missing son Moumen and during her journey, she faces a Tunisian society in full collapse."

Part of the Pardi di domani: Concorso internazionale is And Then They Burn the Sea by Majid Al-Remaihi. The film, a recipient of the Doha Film Institute’s Qatar Film Fund programme, sets history as the first film by a Qatari director chosen for the official shorts competition at the Festival. Mentored by Qumra Master and Oscar-nominated Cambodian-French filmmaker Rithy Panh as part of the Institute’s Documentary Lab, the film is an elegiac contemplation on familial memory and loss. DFI is great incubator for filmmakers in the Region and always has its finger on the pulse of what audiences will like.

Also in this section is the stunning Layl ("Night") a short animated film by Ahmad Saleh featuring the voice of Palestinian diva Hiam Abbass. The film is a Germany/Qatar/Jordan/Palestine co-production and the film's synopsis has a magical feel to it: "While searching for sleepless souls, a storyteller finds a woman standing in front of her door, waiting. Her son disappeared years ago and she has been awake ever since. After each sunset, Night, a girl in a long black dress, knocks on the woman’s door, bringing back the son into his mother’s arms. As the daylight starts coming through the windows, the girl and the son disappear. Filled with hesitation, the storyteller tells the woman a story that will make her cry out her hope and fall asleep." Palestinian filmmaker May Odeh was consultant producer on the film.

In the Histoire(s) du cinéma section, where films aren't vying for competition prizes, Egyptian Maestro Youssef Chahine's 1997 oeuvre Al-massir ("Destiny") will screen and undoubtedly create more fans for the wondrous late filmmaker who changed the landscape of Egyptian cinema. The film features a young Khaled El Nabawy alongside Nour El Sherif and Laila Elwy. The restauration of the film to DCP 4K was in association with La Cinémathèque française and with the support of Centre National du Cinéma et de L'Image Animée.

As part of the Locarno Kids Screenings section the 2019 Iranian film Here My Village by Abas Aram will play to young audiences. The film's synopsis on IMDb is: "Farhad is a 12-year-old boy living with his mother and his 6-year-old sister in a village called Nahooj. He lost his father 5 years earlier due to a fatal disease. Farhad is crazy about photos and magazines. One day, he goes to the city with his family and gets fascinated by a second hand camera in the shop window. He tries hard to work and to buy the camera, but he does not succeed. Finally, he sells one of their sheep to buy the camera. But his mother finds out and wants him to bring the camera back to get a refund..."

In the Semaine de la critique sidebar, which this year will screens 7 documentaries from around the world, Palestinian filmmaker Saeed Taji Farouky will screen his film A Thousand Fires which tells the story of two loving parents, working hard in the hand-drilled oil fields of central Myanmar to give their son a better future. But trouble arises when he quits school to follow his dream of becoming a football player and the family worries that he’s throwing his life away. The France/Switzerland/Netherlands/Palestine production also features Estelle Robin You as producer and May Odeh as a co-producer along with Palmyre Badinier and Joram Willink.

And finally, in the Panorama Suisse, an independent section within the Locarno Film Festival, where the films are selected by a commission with representatives of the Solothurn Film Festival, SWISS FILMS and the Swiss Film Academy, there is Mano Khalil's Nachbarn, a touching story which takes place in a small village on the Syrian/Turkish border in the 1980s where "six-year-old Kurdish boy Sero experiences his first school year in an Arab school and has to watch his small world being radically changed in the course of an absurd nationalism. Humorous yet serious, the film tells of a childhood that also finds its light moments between dictatorship and dark drama."

For more information and all films in the line-up, check out the Locarno festival website.

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