Festivals as We’ve Never Known Them Before

The Daily — Jul 22, 2020
Edmund Meschke in Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948)

Festival organizers from Venice to Locarno, from Toronto to Melbourne, have been radically rethinking what it means to stage a public event during a pandemic. In an effort to keep crowds on the Lido down to a manageable size in early September, Venice is not only slimming its lineup down from the usual couple of hundred titles to around fifty, it’s also calling on Il Cinema Ritrovato to host its Venice Classics program. It’s a perfect fit. The festival of rediscoveries and restorations turns Bologna into a cinephilic heaven each summer, and this year, from August 25 through 31, attendees will be treated to an extra slate of new restorations handpicked by Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera and his team. A lineup of thirteen features, including work by Michelangelo Antonioni, Martin Scorsese, Souleymane Cissé, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Shôhei Imamura, Fritz Lang, and Jean-Pierre Melville, has just been rolled out, and Barbera says that more titles will be added as well.

On Monday, Venice announced that it will present Golden Lions for lifetime achievement to Ann Hui and Tilda Swinton. Hui launched her illustrious career as an assistant to King Hu in the 1970s and became one of the key filmmakers of the Hong Kong New Wave in the 1980s. Working with such major stars as Chow Yun-fat, Andy Lau, and Michelle Yeoh, she’s made over two dozen films and won more Hong Kong Film Awards than any other director. Swinton, who is currently working on new projects with Pedro Almodóvar and George Miller, was introduced to audiences by Derek Jarman and landed her first major role in Peter Wollen’s Friendship’s Death (1987)—which, newly restored, will screen in the fall as part of the Cannes Classics program.

Rossellini in Venice and Locarno

One name loosely connects the news coming out of Venice and Locarno this week: Roberto Rossellini. The Venice International Film Critics’ Week, the independent program that has been running parallel to the main event since 1984, will close this year with The Rossellinis, the first feature by the great director’s eldest grandson, Alessandro Rossellini. And one of Locarno’s special programs for 2020, A Journey in a Festival History, begins with a screening of Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948), the third film in a trilogy widely recognized as a cornerstone of Italian neorealism.

Alessandro Rossellini has worked as a set photographer and production assistant on films by Federico Fellini, Martin Scorsese, and David Lynch. He’s also struggled in the past with drug addiction, and a few years ago, at the age of fifty-five, he decided to work out his issues with his family by “forcing” them, as the official description of The Rossellinis puts it, “to an impossible therapy in front of the camera.” The Rossellinis is one of two special events bookending this year’s Critics’ Week. The program will open on September 2 with The Book of Vision, directed by Carlo Hintermann and executive produced by Terrence Malick, and seven debut features will make up the main competition.


The Rossellini family saga left an early mark on Roberto’s own work as well. In Germany Year Zero, postwar, bombed-out Berlin is seen through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy, and as Jonathan Rosenbaum notes in the essay accompanying our release, the film is dedicated to the memory of Romano, the son Rossellini lost after emergency surgery when the boy was only nine. “A gesture of despair that emotionally fuses personal grief with an intense empathy for the dispossessed,” writes Rosenbaum, “Germany Year Zero is finally something closer to a cry of pain than a carefully worked-out and conceptualized statement, and this is what grants it a lasting authenticity.”

Last month, Locarno’s newly appointed artistic director, Lili Hinstin, introduced a rather ingenious solution to the challenge of staging a festival in August 2020. The Films After Tomorrow is a one-off program aimed at supporting productions that were shut down by the pandemic. Lucrecia Martel, Wang Bing, Lisandro Alonso, Lav Diaz, Helena Wittmann, Miguel Gomes, and Eric Baudelaire are among the ten international and ten Swiss filmmakers who will present their projects and compete for a total of five cash prizes. All twenty filmmakers have been invited to choose a favorite film from past editions of the festival, and besides Germany Year Zero, their selections include films by Chantal Akerman, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Pedro Costa, Edward Yang, Michael Haneke, and Jim Jarmusch. While several of the films in A Journey in a Festival History will screen in theaters in Locarno, MUBI will present all of them to audiences worldwide online.

Spike Lee and David Byrne

Like Venice, Toronto will be honing its lineup down to around fifty titles this year, but unlike Venice, TIFF will be a hybrid affair, a mix of theatrical and virtual screenings, talks, and master classes. The forty-fifth edition will open on September 10 with David Byrne’s American Utopia, a filmed version of the acclaimed Broadway show directed by Spike Lee. Reviewing the show last October, New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley saw traces of Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense (1984) and Bill and Turner Ross’s Contemporary Color (2016), both of which, by the way, are currently playing on the Criterion Channel. “For the generation that came of age listening to Talking Heads, the band that Byrne fronted, he was a cool emblem of alienation, a sexy geek who always seemed to be dancing with himself,” wrote Brantley. In this new, “expansive, dazzlingly staged concert,” Byrne “emerges as an avuncular, off-center shepherd to flocks of fans still groping to find their way.”

Marseille and Melbourne

Starting today, and for the next five days, FIDMarseille, a hunting ground for programmers on the lookout for promising—and often challenging—new talent, will open actual physical movie theater doors to attendees in the French coastal city. Cineuropa’s Fabien Lemercier previews the program of eighty-two films that includes homages to Angela Schanelec and the late Michel Piccoli.

Melbourne, on the other hand, is going completely virtual this year. From August 6 through 23, the festival will stage an edition it’s calling MIFF 68½, a selection of 113 films viewable from anywhere in Australia. For the Guardian, Luke Buckmaster writes about five that are not to be missed.

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