Unpacking My Locarno Summer Academy Experience (Filmmaker Inspirations)
Photo Credit: S & A

Unpacking My Locarno Summer Academy Experience (Filmmaker Inspirations)

nullLast week, myself plus 24 other emerging filmmakers participated in the 67th Festival del film Locarno’s Filmmakers Academy for a full-on week of screenings, masterclasses, and meetings with some of the most provocative filmmakers working today. The Locarno Academy, newly launched just a few years ago, functions similarly to other major film festival’s talent campuses or labs, with the aim to give up-and-coming filmmakers a more curated experience within the festival, by connecting us more intimately with the big talents showing their work there.

Between the flurry of back-to-back masterclasses with maestro filmmakers like director Agnès Varda, Italian cinematographer of "The Great Beauty" fame Luca Bigazzi, and nightly Academy special screenings of short films from each invited filmmaker – I only managed to see a few films that were actually in the official competition at Locarno. But, no loss there. Instead, the 25 of us were in an all-consuming energetic Locarno Academy bubble. Little did we know we were in for an intense week of heart and mind openings.

We started the week getting our bearings with a tour of the Locarno, the festival + Locarno the city. The small (and expensive!) Swiss Italian city is surrounded by the stunning Lake Maggiore and the Alps. We ended up at an Open Doors event where deals were being sealed with filmmakers like Zambian-Brit Rungano Nyoni as well as two of our fellow Academy filmmakers – South African director Sibs Shongwe-La Mer & producer Nicole Caylin Kitt, whose freshly-made first feature, "Territorial Pissings" (they literally finished shooting three weeks prior) about wayward South African suburban youth culture, won a distribution deal that night.  

The next day we jumped right into a good meeting with Locarno Festival Director Carlo Chatrian who gave us an unofficial history of Locarno’s rebellious past, followed by an informative meeting with major Chinese producer Nansun Shi ("Once Upon a Time in China") who talked about tricky film censorship in China as well as some of the open, burgeoning co-production schemes beginning to happen with more countries. But the highlight of the day without a doubt was our intimate masterclass with French auteur Agnès Varda whose life work was being honored at Locarno with the Pardo ‘donore (Leopord of Honor). Her talk was incredibly inspiring and set the tone for the week to come.  She was candid, generous, and unapologetic about worn questions regarding how difficult it is to be a woman in a male-dominated industry. Probably tired of hearing this over the span of her career (that began in the 50’s and actually helped to preempt the French New Wave), Varda’s hilariously dry advice to this well-meaning question from one of our Academy female filmmaker was to just "stay in the kitchen."

Seemingly harsh words maybe, but there was also a unharried lesson in her words to all young filmmakers regardless of gender (and might I add race) to not lament the so-called challenges ahead, but simply do good work and most importantly make sure to know your craft. She talked in depth about her creative process which was refreshingly loose and yet fully committed – she hardly ever worked from an actual script and filled in the lines many of her characters only after an unconventional but rigorous casting process which often involved non-actors. And she spoke about how she never gave her energy to a project unless she knew she was certain and passionate about it, until she felt had to do it. She never went half-heartedly from film to film – it was important to her only tell the stories she actually cared about, and equally important for her to carve out a full life outside of film. With her, there was a respect for how life and work must take its turns, allowing one to influence the other. Even through her marriage with another acclaimed director Jacques Demy (they made it a point not to visit each other’s set or shoot at the same time for the sake of their family), there was evidence of the simple and smart choices she made throughout her career that allowed her not only to survive it but pioneer through it.

The next day’s high point was definitely Luca Bigazzi, the cinematographer behind Paolo Sorrentino’s epic "The Great Beauty," Abbas Kiarostami’s deceptively unassuming "Certified Copy" and a host of other masterfully shot films. With 25+ years of experience under his belt, he stunned me with just how down-to-earth and even self-deprecating he was about his life and work. He spoke about how his real job as DP was to find ways to give the director more time to work with actors. He was adamant about how integral it was to keep any visual “style” invisible and secondary to the story. It was clear he wasn’t the kind of DP who’s concerned with putting a self-conscious stamp on a film or who gets off on what new tech toy just dropped on the market. His message was whatever you are doing, aim to make it simpler. In fact, he fielded most technical questions in lieu of talking about how to use lights and composition to only serve the story, the actors, the director. He was a director’s dream. An added bonus was that he was an incredibly sweet guy!

As the week went on, some of us spent our late nights drinking it up at informal industry spots and off the beaten track garage parties in town, and some of us (at least tried to) hit the sack earlier to catch the early morning masterclasses. Being the happy dork that I am, I was mostly in the latter group however, in reality I would end up in late night discussions unpacking of the day’s events, mulling over the gems we were experiencing. According to reports from the other Academy filmmakers who had already participated in similar programs at Berlin and Cannes, Locarno seemed to be better curated and also intimate enough for us to actually get to know each other as comrades in the same global filmmaking community.

Then there was the nightly Academy screenings of our shorts which were a great way to contextualize each filmmaker there. Most of the films were very personal so watching them was like seeing a clear window into the real person behind the lens, behind the social masks we can put on. The film the Academy programmers chose to show of mine was "The Things I See," a 35mm studio short I made three years ago at the London Film School. Although it was difficult to watch a film I have outgrown in many ways, it was also such an social experiment. To meet a filmmaker, start to get to know them, and then see another, truer side of them come through in their film was an intriguing evolution as the week went on. With every film screened, each of my fellow filmmakers became more alive, more specific, and in more ways more vulnerable. There was something exciting in being amongst a group of brave directors. For the most part, we were definitely filming who we really are. 

Other high points of the week were with directors I wasn’t very familiar with before coming to Locarno, but what discoveries they were! There was the honest talk with Portuguese cult director Pedro Costa known for his unflinchingly “Chekhovian” docu-fictions about the slums of Lisbon. Continuing the recurring theme in many of the directors’ talks, Costa also makes his films only when he felt he was sure he had something to say and not just for practical reasons or a paycheck. There was also a masterclass with Filipino director Lav Dias whose 9½ hour feature "From What is Before" in competition ended up winning the top prize (Golden Leopard) at Locarno this year. Both Costa and Dias collaborated repeatedly with a small, tightly-knit group of the cast and crew who wear several hats throughout production. Dias actually came to the masterclass with his usual crew/cast of 10 so they could speak as a collective, revealing Dias’s disarming lack of ego. They came across as a playful, chaotic (in the good way), warm family with his actress doubling as AD, his actor as production designer. Dias was like a mad genius father-figure to them as it was clear his collaborators trusted him completely, literally willing to follow him whenever inspiration struck even when it meant shooting in a monsoon in the Filipino mountains at a moment’s notice. There was a sense of deep mutual respect between these directors and their team who find ways to make it work using unconventional means and by keeping things small and simple.

The inspiration was infectious but, I must admit the entire Locarno experience threw me a curveball, or maybe it is more like a wake up call. As an emerging filmmaker less than a year out of the London Film School, I thought I had a pretty clear idea of where I wanted my creative and professional path to go. Yet I was left with Locarno’s surprisingly overwhelming weight on me. Talk after talk, screening after screening, the week had all of us questioning what our personal and collective role in what Cinema is and how to stay ruthlessly honest in our work. Film school has a way of indoctrinating you into the machine of the industry. But in the short time at Locarno, I found myself shedding many of the rules and systems I had recently acquired in my recent years in school. What is true cinema? The message was clear at Locarno. Throw away the rules and formats. You decide what kind of filmmaker you will be, what contribution you will make.

As a writer and director, I have always pushed to work very collaboratively and rejected many industry norms however, this has been with varying degrees of success and resistance. And although I learned so much about discipline and craft from working exclusively on 16mm and 35mm for the past four years, this approach can also veil managing bigger crews, bigger egos, bigger budgets. The process has in some ways taken me further away from some of my original instincts about cinema. I find myself revitalized and encouraged to remain steadfast to my braver ideas about story, casting, and filmmaking. And yes, I’m thinking about just how to make things simpler.  Perhaps this building up through film school then breaking away is all part of process I’m meant to digest. But Locarno was definitely a bold reminder that you don’t have to do things the way “they” say to, everything ultimately is about choices. And I want to make smarter, simpler choices that will get me to a more truthful place, prioritizing telling the stories I want to tell regardless of budget, working conditions, size.  

More than a week after this wonderful deluge, I am feeling determined, curious, and open. There’s a lot more digging I need to do, and that feels exciting. And I am still unpacking my Locarno experience. Well, as much as I can anyway since upon my return to NYC, I’ve been buried in an unexpected major rewriting deadline for a script I wrote a while back – one that would require, yes, a big budget and large crew. It’s an ironic ending to an intense week, and probably my first real defining test of the kind of filmmaker I will be.

– Shirley Bruno is a Haitian filmmaker currently based in New York City. Her London Film School MA thesis "Dear Pauline Jean" shot on 16mm film will debut in festivals this year. She is currently writing her first feature to be shot in Haiti.  www.shirleybruno.com

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