Festival del film Locarno: Identity Defined by Diversity

Local news, 11.11.2016

Locarno is not a big city—not even by Swiss standards. But every summer since 1946, Locarno turns into a big city, into a movie capital. For ten days, in ten different venues, movie directors, producers, actors and stars come together with movie lovers to experience the unique atmosphere of the Festival del film Locarno. The festival’s most prestigious venue is the Piazza Grande, the big square in the heart of Locarno that becomes a huge open-air venue with seats for 8,000 people with a screen as large as a three-story building. 

In 2016, the Festival del film Locarno series returned to the United States for the second time, screening movies in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta [link to our site]. On that occasion, Carlo Chatrian, artistic director of the Festival del film Locarno, visited the series in Washington, D.C. 

We took advantage of that opportunity to talk to him and learn more about the highly successful film festival in southern Switzerland.

Artistic director Carlo Chatrian on the Piazza Grande in Locarno
Artistic director Carlo Chatrian on the Piazza Grande in Locarno (

1. Carlo Chatrian, can you briefly explain to us what the Festival del film Locarno is?

Like any other big film festival, it is a great and complex machine. Locarno is a summer film festival. People usually are very interested in the program, but Locarno also gains a lot of attention and charm by taking place in August in the southern part of Switzerland. 

So the seasonal element is really essential to the Festival del film Locarno. By that I mean a festival that’s really relaxed; it takes advantage of the weather in the sense that people meet outside and can share the summer spirit—a holiday moment. Especially for Swiss people, the southern region where Locarno is located in between the mountains and the Lake Maggiore is a very unique, gorgeous setting. Locarno is a fairly small town, with about 30,000 inhabitants, surrounded by other small villages—during the festival, attendance reaches 160,000. During the ten-day festival, there is no escape from the cinema atmosphere. So it’s a great place to gather and in the last decades it has become a place for cinema lovers. 

On the one hand, Locarno has a program that includes the most avant-garde and most original productions in current cinema; but on the other, every year the festival pays a great deal of attention to the history of cinema, screening old films or paying tribute to legendary people in cinematography. This dialogue of what’s in front of us and what’s behind us is the core of the Festival del film Locarno. 

Cinema is a great place to evaluate how we relate to our past and the value of history. Locarno in that sense is one of the best festivals to promote the value of the history of cinema.


2. What is unique about the Festival del film Locarno? Are there special features that characterize the festival?

The venue at the Piazza Grande is certainly something that makes this festival special. It has a big symbolic value; the festival and the cinema stay at the center of the town, where in ancient years these squares were places for people to meet and discuss politics, for example. Now in Locarno people gather there to share the experience of watching a movie together, surrounded by historical buildings. The whole community is there and the cinema is perceived as being at the center of our lives. That’s unique. It’s hard to explain the feeling though—people should come and experience it themselves (laughs). 

Since the town of Locarno is not that big, most of our venues are built up extra for the festival. Almost like at the Sundance Film Festival here in the United States.

And we don’t make a distinction by genre or format. So even on the Piazza Grande it happens that we screen a documentary as well as blockbusters such as "Jason Bourne" or films that are provocative like Amy Schumer’s "Trainwreck" last year; but also socio-political films. 

The Piazza Grande represents the diverse soul of cinema as well as the diversity of the festival’s host country, Switzerland, which means we have at least one film in Italian, in French and in German. 

But, and I appreciate that, we don’t have a strict rule in terms of geographical provenance. We choose the films because they are the good ones, not because of their origin. But the Swiss film is, of course, important to us; every year we screen around ten new Swiss films. 

About 18 titles shown as a world or international premiere compete for the Pardo d’oro (Golden Leopard), which is the totem of the Festival del film Locarno. Here we also have a strong accent on discovering. We want to give room to debut films and new directors.  All through its long history, Locarno has premiered in its main competition a great number of directors, for example, Milos Forman, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Katheryn Bigelow, and Jaffar Panahi. 


3. What was the highlight of the 2016 festival?

The big names are certainly a highlight, especially for the audience. This year we had a great year, with Harvey Keitel coming, Isabelle Huppert, Howard Shore, Jane Birkin and Bill Pullman.

For me personally, a big highlight was how the retrospective "Beloved and Rejected", based on German cinema after WW II, was received by the critics. It was a challenge and it was a successful accomplished one. 

The young directors to which we had devoted this year’s festival was a second highlight for me. We had young directors all over the program and, by coincidence, all the films which got awards were made by debut directors. And we had many female directors, almost a half in the main slate.


4. Next year Locarno will celebrate its 70th anniversary. Do you have something special planned?

We don’t want to reveal too much yet, but we hope to surprise people without losing our identity. For us it’s a big anniversary, but also a step further on our path. Of course, we have a vision, but it’s always a process. Festivals like Locarno are constantly reshaping themselves. 

5. The U.S. is well known for its big and successful film industry, whereas Switzerland is not known for it but certainly has a great passion and has had a lot of influence in the genre of documentary filmmaking. Is there a country that’s especially on the rise in filmmaking at the moment?

Our goal is to look for discoveries in unexpected areas and countries very far away from us in terms of culture or simply geographically. Latin America has had quite a relevant presence in Locarno for a long time now (Argentina, Colombia, Brazil and others). On the other hand, also Asia, especially South Asian cinematography is getting more and more important. This year we had a film from Thailand, one from Indonesia, another one Japanese but shot in the region—we also try, of course, to scout, but we don’t make the selection based on a map.

In general terms, we observe more and more filmmakers going beyond national borders—it’s very easy to be connected with other people all over the world nowadays. So cinema also reflects that situation.

6. What is your favorite moment during the festival?

The opening on the Piazza Grande is a very special moment. I love the moment just before I go out on the stage to introduce a new film. That’s always special. 


7. The Festival del film Locarno has a special relationship with the U.S. Can you tell us why?

America has always been a very important market for Locarno to discover new content and talent. I am always amazed by the quality of acting in the U.S. In my view, Americans are naturally born film actors. Their faces and gestures tell a lot and that’s something that works very well with a big, big screen such as ours in Locarno.

Locarno is and has been a great platform for discovering actors and directors. In recent years, we have found a good way of working with other film festivals especially in the U.S., such as Sundance or South by Southwest. Picking up films that premiered there and were then shown in Locarno to a European audience to get recognized and finally find domestic release in Europe.

Our festival is a good place for the independent film scene, sometimes considered to be the European Sundance—I think that’s because we share the same spirit.