Giona A. Nazzaro is an accomplished film critic and author who has been involved in some of the world’s most esteemed film festivals in past years, including the Venice Film Festival as the head of the festival’s Critic’s Week.
Following the sudden departure of the Locarno Film Festival’s former Artistic Director, Lili Hinstin, Nazzaro has stepped up to the role. It’s not entirely new ground; he’s been working with Locarno Film Festival in various capacities for over a decade now. But this is a bold new responsibility for a lover of cinema, and it will be interesting to see how the festival adapts in the face of a global pandemic and an ever-changing film industry.
Kyle had the pleasure of speaking with Giona at length about his new position as Artistic Director, as well as his fascinating musings on the power of cinema in even the most trying of times.
How are you, Giona?
Good, good. How’s it going?
It’s going pretty well, actually. I’m down here in New Zealand.
Well, you have the best Prime Minister in the world. I was trying to figure out how to convince her to come over to Europe and set some things straight.
Oh, we get that a lot. I’m very thankful for her.
It’s just wonderful; the way she handled the pandemic, the way she answered to hate crimes. That’s just amazing. I wish there could be more Mrs. Arderns around the world. If you can convey my warmest and most heartfelt greetings to New Zealand and Mrs. Arden, I would be grateful. I have nothing but respect and love for her.
Absolutely. The good thing about being in such a small country like New Zealand is that the odds of actually meeting the Prime Minister aren’t that small, really. So if I ever do run into her, I’ll pass that along!
Good, thank you.
In addition to being an accomplished journalist, writer and film critic, you’ve worked with many film festivals over the years. In regards to the Locarno Film Festival, how did your appointment as the new artistic director come about – did they reach out to you, or were you already keenly interested?
As you might know, I started working professionally with the festival in 2009. I joined as a translator / moderator for German speaking films, so I was introducing and hosting the press conferences for German films and hosting the Q&A sessions afterwards. I was also moderating and hosting master classes at Locarno.
Over the years, I got to know the infrastructure and people who make the festival possible. So I guess we were on each other’s radar for quite some time. I was keeping in contact through the whole year, not just the eleven days of the festival; there was not only a professional relationship there.
So one thing led to another, and I have to say I’m really overjoyed to be part of the team. I’ve been working in programming for festivals for quite some time now, but I’ve never harboured abstract thoughts of leading a festival. When I was thinking about a place I would really love to be a part of, it was always Locarno that came to my mind, because Locarno is the place where you can most feel how the future is going to be shaped while keeping close contact with cinema, cinephilia, the history of cinema and also the future of filmmaking itself.
Through some of the initiatives of the festival, such as Open Doors, we can really follow what’s going on in other countries and what kind of filmmakers are coming up through the Locarno Academy. We get in touch with new filmmakers early on when they are still out to make their first short movie.
I hope this does not sound too corny, but Locarno is really more than a festival. It’s that rare kind of festival where you can be part of a community; a community that is made up of several communities, specifically in Locarno. We have the Academy, Open Doors, the whole industry part and so on. And that, for me, is extremely important.
It’s not only about working the whole year towards eleven days, it’s working throughout the year for a festival that pretty much extends throughout the whole year. This being present throughout the year is what makes it really, really appealing and interesting, and also shapes the opportunities and the possibilities of what the festival can still do in the future.
To give you some hints, we are currently completely reshaping our presence online. We are creating what we call Locarno 365, meaning creating an online citadel. I wouldn’t call it a website; more an online citadel where all the activities of the Locarno Film Festival will be available also for the users who might not join physically for the festival.
So it’s really about being part of an idea of the future rather than just the head of a festival, which would be quite awesome, but it’s the larger scope of the project called Locarno that makes this appointment really, really amazing.
Are there any particular genres or themes you’re really interested in giving a larger presence at next year’s Locarno?
I would say that Locarno has a very strong identity, an identity that’s been built during the previous 73 years of its existence. Locarno, if I might give you just a tiny historical hint, came about to be almost at the same time as two other major film festivals: the Venice Film Festival and the Moscow Film Festival. Both of these were the expression of authoritarian rules; the fascists in Italy and the communists in Russia.
Locarno came about as an expression of our artistic freedom and creative independence. So it’s pretty much in our genes. If you go and check the previous editions of Locarno, you can see that we have always stayed true to this idea that cinema is a tool of freedom of speech, of artistic exploration of new forms of conveying a vision, and a story. And thirdly, but most important: cinema is one of the main tools through which you can create communities. So, obviously I would love to serve this idea of the festival.
Of course, I also have my own cinephilic loves. I have my own cinematic passions, and I have my guilty pleasures. So the more exciting thing would be to find a very interesting way for the audience to present this approach through the films that we haven’t seen yet.
What I always try to stress in conversations is that I am not exactly looking to confirm what I already know. I am working as hard as possible to be caught off guard by the artists and films I don’t know yet. I’m looking to be completely blown away by something new.
And if I may just briefly reference some filmmakers that I met in my previous job at the Critics Week: when a film such as M by Anna Eriksson comes along, that film helped me rethink what it is to make a film from a so-called ‘female point of view’, because that’s a film that really reinvents the whole gender approach to what we so easily call ‘female filmmakers’. That was a real cultural shock.
I’m really looking forward to having more cultural shocks. There is a film by the Tunisian filmmaker Ala Eddine Slim, The Last of Us. When I saw that film, I was completely lost. I had no cultural clues on how to relate to it, and I knew that that was exactly the point: not to know how to relate to it, but to create – through the sharing with the larger audience – the possibility of a new conversation.
Another discovery that I’m quite fond of is Bertrand Mandico’s The Wild Boys. What I’m trying to say is, I really know what I like, but the job of an artistic director is not to confirm what they already like and know. It becomes too easy. Going from what we like towards the unknown – and I know it sounds a bit like a cheesy sci-fi film – but it’s really like that to be caught off-guard, to discover visions and approaches you did not know exist.
That’s the magic of every film festival I’ve been to: to walk into a film knowing probably no more than its title; perhaps the name of the director in passing or a recognisable face in the cast. To just leap in and see what it gives you, for better or for worse.
Even when it’s not a great result, the experience of immersion yourself in something new and hopefully challenging is my favourite part of the film festival.
Unfortunately, I’m a bit older than you, but try to imagine you are living in a small town in southern Italy. There, you have this weird poster with a leather-clad guy with a helmet, standing on top of a car. The movie is called Mad Max, and it looks threatening. It looks crazy. And you walk in, because you think it’s another of those cop movies that came along as run-of-the-mill at the end of the 70s. And then you are completely blown away by something that you have never seen before. That’s something that stayed with me, always.
I mean, when I went to Cannes and I saw Mad Max: Fury Road, I said “okay, let’s go and watch George Miller’s new film”. And it didn’t look like anything else he had done before or I had even seen before. I was simply blown away by this gigantic, avant garde performance piece that he presented as an ‘action film’, and it was pure visionary surrealism.
You can work within the boundaries of genre filmmaking. It’s always about the vision of the filmmaker. Fury Road, what is this about? It’s a useless quest, because they literally go back and forth. They don’t gain anything. It’s just movement. That’s something that’s really interesting.
The Last of Us is the same story; you have a person that comes from sub-saharan Africa, comes into a boat, meets someone that might be like him or might be himself in a couple of years, and then he starts talking to the moon. And then he disappears.
So what really happened is that we share the vision of a director who creates a world with cinematic tools. Cinema is really about that: creating worlds that we don’t know yet. As (German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder) used to say: “I’m going to the cinema to have new experiences of the world”.
So many movements in cinema history and filmmaking as a craft have come about through things like war, economic circumstances, political revolution and so on.
Throughout this year, with the COVID pandemic, I’ve been wondering what kind of artistic changes we might start to see flourish in the following years as a response to the way we’ve had to live.
Jean-Marie Straub once said that for a filmmaker to make wrong aesthetic choices is like for a politician to make wrong political choices. And I would say that for the politician to make wrong political choices, is like for a filmmaker to make wrong aesthetic choices. What I’m trying to say is that during this year, we have seen from the politicians a lot of bad cinema; some really awful, dystopian cinema in the way the pandemic has been handled.
I mean, come on. Not even John Carpenter at the peak of his most nihilistic and dystopian vision could have come up with some of the things that we have witnessed. And let’s not talk about Brazil, or the Philippines. And let’s not talk about the way some democratic countries felt entitled about not protecting their citizens’ health, going on about herd immunity and other fantasies.
So, in terms of bad cinema, we have had enough this year. Luckily, good cinema has helped us imagine that there are still different politics in place that are possible. And luckily, those films were not preachy films, not films that had just a soft sociological attitude.
In this year, films try to be more inclusive, try to be more diverse, and try to reflect the sound and needs of different voices. I don’t mean to sound like a bleeding heart, because it’s not about that. For me, cinema is always the place where we can have glimpses of a better world yet to come.
So for me, I’d say that cinema itself has put up with the bad cinema politicians gave us this year. One of the very best filmmakers this year has been Mrs. Jacinda Ardern, in the way that she handled the pandemic, and the way she upheld the values of her community; showing us a way where compassion and respect will matter, and can help make our lives better.
For me, seeing what she did in New Zealand blew me away. I was thinking, “why can’t we in the rest of the world just be as humane and compassionate and as smart as she is?”. Because when we talk about the financial economy of cinema; the fact that you could make a film in New Zealand without risking your health has attracted companies and film productions. It incentivised the economy in a moment where the economy was dying out everywhere else.
So it truly pays off to be a decent human being. This is why I’m making this example, because it comes back, you know. And for once, it’s not coming back to haunt you: it comes back because it pays off.
If I have to mention just one film, and I’ve said this before, but for me the best film of the year has been the Instagram Live feed by Jean-Luc Godard, hosted by Lionel Baier with the ECAL in Lausanne. I thought that was an incredibly intelligent thing to do, to open the house that – in the cinephile mythology – is the most inaccessible house ever. The house where Jean-Luc Godard lives in Rolle (Switzerland) while the world is locking down.
I mean, you have these two movements: the world is locking down, and Jean-Luc Godard is opening his house, and he speaks to a camera. He chews on his cigar. He remembers about the nouvelle vague (French New Wave), he sets some records straight, he upsets some people. He talks about the way he perceives colours and shapes today. So that for me was extremely moving.
The 74th edition of the Locarno Film Festival will take place August 4-14 2021.