Slim pickings from the MENA at this year's Locarno Festival

New mascot avatar, new year but very little has changed in the way cinema from the Region is showcased at the Swiss festival.
Slim pickings from the MENA at this year's Locarno Festival

The announcement of this year's Locarno Festival selection came very unceremoniously through an email with a dark looking photo of their opening film, Bullet Train by David Leitch, starring Brad Pitt. The story of five assassins who find themselves on a fast moving bullet train from Tokyo to Morioka with only a few stops in between, only to discover that their missions are not unrelated to each other -- hint hint -- will open the Piazza Grande selection and also features Sandra Bullocks and Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny. It is a jolt of adrenaline, for an otherwise programme to follow that has some sparks of celebrities, a bit devoted to an eclectic choice of vintage films probably more appropriate for a retrospective in a small town than a world class festival, and quite a lot of quiet arthouse films that will never see the light of day in cinemas. Check me back in a couple of years, I'm always right.

Unfortunately, I know of at least two great films from the MENA, one by an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, which have been submitted to the various festivals and have both been turned down. Their narrative doesn't fit the "oh poor refugee, woe is them, let's help their cause with our sense of superiority" kind of story that is so appealing to Western festival programmers -- most of them wannabe filmmakers. This doesn't mean audiences won't get to watch those two wonderful films, actually quite the contrary. They will go on to receive audience awards at many other festivals around the world and secure global distribution, while those typical, tired narratives of Arabs as victims will only go on to be watched in niche festivals, with three or four lonely souls sitting in the audience of a cinema located far far away from the main hub. It doesn't matter that they premiered in Cannes, Locarno or Venice, if no one wants to watch them, you see. Festival directors can pat themselves on the back and go around preaching about what the real cinema experience is away from Netflix and the streaming platforms, but they are doing a grave disservice to the cinematic community by programming mediocre films, and are collectively helping to create the demise of cinema as we know it.

So what are the titles from the MENA included in this year's Locarno line-up? On the Piazza Grande, on the festival's second night is a screening of My Neighbor Adolf by Leon Prudovsky, an Israel/Poland/Colombia co-production starring David Hayman, Udo Kier and Olivia Silhavy. In the International competition Baliqlara Xütbə” (Sermon to the Fish) by Hilal Baydarov from Azerbaijan/Mexico/Switzerland/United Kingdom; and Iraqi filmmaker Abbas Fahdel's follow up to Yara, which also premiered in Locarno, titled Hikayat elbeit elorjowani (Tales of the Purple House) a Lebanon/Iraq/France co-production.

In the Cineasti del presente competition Fragments from Heaven, a feature film by Adnane Baraka (Morocco/France); in the Pardi di domani competition L'Ombre des Papillons by Sofia El Khyari from France/Portugal/Qatar/Morocco; Madar tamame rooz doa mikhanad (Mother Prays All Day Long) by Iranian born, German based filmmaker and artist Hoda Taheri; and the short Paradiso, XXXI, 108 by Kamal Aljafari (Palestine/Germany).

There, yes, that's it. With a Region rich with stories waiting to be told, a total of six features, and I am pushing it with locations mind you, and one short.

For more information and to see the full line up, check out the Locarno website.

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