To discuss the relationship between cinephilia, criticism and film festivals, we spoke with Giona Nazzaro, the influential artistic director of the Locarno Film Festival, known for having always directed programs with strong and protean personalities. Also the general delegate of the Venice Critics' Week and programmer at the Rotterdam Film Festival, his work has long been centered around a broader vision of avant-garde programming with, in particular, an outspoken affection for genre cinema.
Dennis Vetter: You are the former Artistic Director of the Settimana Internazionale della Critica of the Venice International Film Festival. Now, as Artistic Director of the Locarno Film Festival you are in coexistence with another event curated by critics — the Semaine de la critique, which is co-organized by the Swiss Association of Film Journalists. You were also a guest of the Berlin Critics’ Week. Could you describe, from your point of view, the role of festival sidebars run by critics?
Giona Nazzaro: Well, first of all, I need to stress that I can only speak from a very, very limited point of view, which is mainly based on my work at the Settimana Internazionale della Critica, and partially on my knowledge about the Semaine de la Critique in Cannes.
I originally approached the Venice Film Festival as a volunteer of a magazine for which I was not writing yet, I was selling subscriptions during the festival. That film magazine was known for its extremely articulate point of view. Therefore, the Critics’ Week in Venice was one of the places which caught our interest. Also some members of our magazine were part of the Film Critics Association which was responsible for the Critics’ Week.
Some of the films the Critics’ Week showed would also be shown in our cinema clubs, so there was a kind of network around our magazine between film clubs and film critics. The films we watched back at that time at the Critics’ Week were of great importance. Filmmakers such as Pedro Costa, Olivier Assayas, Mike Leigh, Michel Bena and others were discovered there. But this was in a moment where there was still this ‘kind of separation’ between the so-called ‘established filmmakers’, like Angelopoulos or others who were still in full activity then. Younger critics considered them the masters who had to be taken down in order to make room for more interesting voices.
When I took the position at the Critics’ Week my idea was deliberately to break an undeclared monopoly of ‘narrative cinema’ within the festival. Because at that point I had stopped watching the films at the Critics Week. It felt like the blueprint was some more or less socially engaged cinema, but with less bite, especially visually and stylistically. Something that was thought of to be soothing for a left-leaning middle-class audience — not declared as such, but acting as such, maybe even unwillingly so.
When I arrived there, I knew that I wanted to have a Critics’ Week that would be consistent with a tradition in Venice of discovering certain filmmakers, but also more thought-provoking and which should shake the assumed notions of what cinema could be. I went in straight with the idea of trying to surprise myself, first and foremost.
DV: To which choices did this lead you?
GN: When I went to National Film institutes, they were always showing me films that they thought might be interesting for us, and I often asked them whether they did not have something more genre-oriented. I made a kind of declaration by picking a film called Prevenge (2016) by Alice Lowe for the opening day of my first edition. It was an extremely low-budget thriller about a woman who decides to go on a rampage and kill those who were responsible for her husband’s death. So for me the function of Critics’ Week was to challenge accepted boundaries. I also invited other films for similar reasons, like The Last of Us (2016) by Ala Eddine Slim. His film had something that refused to be loved. There was something that I did not understand, and that was somehow pushing me back. I understood that exactly because of this I had to think harder, and therefore decided to invite it. Weirdly enough, that film, which has meanwhile been recognized as one of the groundbreaking new films from the Arab world, went on to win The Lion of the Future Award in Venice.
:: The Last of Us [Exit Productions / Inside Productions / SVP Production]
:: Prevenge [Gennaker / Western Edge Pictures]
Sometimes people think that our job as critics and curators is about picking the films that we like according to our own taste. Some people think we have the best job in the world. But it is not like that at all. In my case, when I work in Locarno today I deliberately choose to work with colleagues who are extremely different from myself. I work with them because I know they will challenge me, sometimes even in a very harsh way. I don’t do this because I like conflict, but it’s because I dread becoming lazy.
DV: Nowadays, in your position as the director of the Locarno Film Festival, you are in relation to another Critics’ Week, but from the angle of the festival which is setting a paradigm. The Locarno Film festival is known for championing formalist cinema, non-narrative films and sometimes experimental forms, too. The Locarno Critics’ Week has a reputation for showing narrative documentary cinema. How do you relate to the event as festival director?
GN: The Critics’ Week in Locarno is an expression of the Swiss Film Critics Association. We have several points through which we directly collaborate. There is also the ecumenical jury within the festival.
We usually also host a panel discussion with the film critics association dedicated to a major subject of film culture. Two years ago this event was titled: “Cinema is dead, long live cinema!” Last year the event was titled: “Film critic or influencer?” So, there is an ongoing conversation.
The film selection of the Critics’ Week is completely independent. Sometimes I allow myself to highlight some films which are not selected by the main festival. They are strictly documentary-oriented and they are — to my knowledge — the only Critics’ Week with such a focus in Europe.
DV: Besides your current work as a festival director you are still active as a critic and you recently wrote about Ruggero Deodato and Christopher Nolan. Could you comment on how your past and current work as a critic has been informing your curatorial work? And what do you define as your mission currently at the Locarno Film Festival?
GN: Yes, I not only wrote about them, but also the introduction to the catalog of the Tim Burton exhibition for The National Museum of Cinema in Torino. I wrote an essay on William Friedkin for an Italian film magazine, and I recently wrote an essay on Wes Anderson, defending the recent evolution in his filmmaking. On Oppenheimer (2023) it was a piece in which I brought together different points of view on the film and I defended the idea of the scientist as an artist. I still write because it helps me to think.
When I started, I worked for more than 12 years in a kind of ‘editorial sweatshop’. A place similar to a shop in which cheap clothes are put together. What was put together there were tabloids and magazines. And every week they put out seven or eight weekly publications. It was this relentless grinding machine, where you would never be thinking, but just writing and picking pictures, putting everything together, that got me in shape, so to say. There used to be ‘loud’ titles and collages intended to catch the eye of the potential public passing by the newsstands. I look back at the time and cherish the experience as a kind of brutal apprenticeship. Some writers sit by themselves the whole afternoon waiting for this divine glimpse of inspiration. But there you had to run every day and you just had to write to meet a deadline. This kind of approach to writing is something that stayed with me until today.
:: Oppenheimer [Universal Pictures / Atlas Entertainment / et al.]
Once you take the ego out of the equation of writing, writing becomes an extension of your persona, of your being. Because you just write. It’s something that for example William Burroughs developed to a very refined point. And he was so gracious to give Jack Kerouac credit for this kind of work based on intuition, by which you just have to write. So for me, writing is extremely important. And I can only write in a kind of critical way, because writing is first and foremost a conversation with myself. I can only hope other people will find the result interesting. I try to explain things to myself first and foremost: Why I think that certain things are interesting and what a film is actually doing, then also why it does what it does. During the festival I also write for the catalogue, for the presentations — because I need to think. To me writing is really a way of stopping and thinking.
DV: You just mentioned that you can only write “in a kind of critical way,” which makes me think about the relation between writing and curating. This relation is not easy to describe, because curating is in many cases, especially when it comes to film festivals, not something you do alone. As you mentioned, members of selection committees have different positions, different politics. Curatorial work is the result of many discussions. At the same time, a film festival is the result of many political choices as well as strategic choices. At the Berlin Critics’ Week we are trying to bring together these layers. We want to raise the question of whether film festivals are able to articulate an atmosphere of critical discussion, which is often not the case in my opinion, as far as I perceive festival culture nowadays. I see, in many cases, how festivals have become extensions of a PR system. Many films are presented in a way which is only affirmative or topical, therefore often undercomplex or superficial. At the Berlin Critics’ Week we are trying to find ways of allowing for more honest reactions and hopefully a more wholesome discussion around the works of art we show. How do you approach these questions within your own festival?
GN: Well, what you said makes me think of many aspects related to major film festivals. First of all it is simply impossible for the major film festivals to reject certain films. The reason for this is mainly economical. On the level of film criticism, the current reality has resulted in a loss of authority. Because the public has a new kind of access and a larger choice than ever before when it comes to ideas and opinions they want to follow, different outlets and of course films.
When I was a young cinephile, there were these legends about the director of the Venice Film Festival being supremely upset at the jury because they had left during Manuel de Oliveira’s Soulier de satin (1985) — which was very long [Editor’s note: 6h50]. So Rondi, the director of the festival, a very conservative man, brought the jury to an island in Venice for a whole day and made them sit through the film. That year de Oliveira also got a special career award together with John Huston and Fellini. To this day I choose to believe that this story is true. Can you imagine something like this happening today? No way. No way.
:: Le soulier de satin [Les Films du Passage / Metro E Tal]
I believe today the need for a critical space is extremely strong. A critical space means basically, that we have the opportunity to exchange ideas about what a film is and why it is relevant, or why it is not, what it addresses and how it achieves that, and how the form of a film expresses a stance toward the contemporary world. For me these questions are all very important. Sometimes I said that curating a program today is the extension of film criticism by other means. Personally, I have always stood up against the idea of eclecticism, which doesn’t mean anything. Eclecticism is simply a way of not taking a stand. To me, it is very important that future generations can read our programs in the same way they would read some of our critical essays.
Obviously, I am not blaming or accusing the major film festivals of being the cause of the current problems. There are many different realities of film production and economically films are very different from each other. Festivals also need to consider their audience and many other aspects. I personally believe smaller festivals can allow for a more interesting approach to cinema, because they can experiment, they can be extremely radical or also extremely popular. I think for instance festivals such as L’Étrange Festival in Paris, the Rotterdam Film Festival, and sometimes also in Critics’ Weeks, such as the Critics’ Week in Cannes, you can see a similar energy. Also in the Critics’ Week in Venice, now led by Beatrice Fiorentino who embraced some extremely interesting films which people would call ‘genre.’ Fiorentino is working on some extremely ‘contaminated’ forms of documentary cinema and also extremely adventurous genre pieces. This year she made the choice of picking a truly independent Italian film which had no support from the ministry, also no sales agent behind it. Such choices are important today.
DV: Earlier you talked about a notion of authority within film culture, in relation to critics. How does this relate to how festival culture currently evolves? In which sense do you perceive it as your task to influence film culture beyond your work within the Locarno Film Festival?
GN: Well, I truly do hope that the work we are doing in some way influences film culture. From my angle I would say, that I am not just defined by one ‘place.’ I am not only bound to, for example, creative or hybrid documentaries. For me, my work is about finding the coexistence of different cinematic forms, because this is how I experience cinema in the first place.
Maybe I was privileged, maybe I had access to many different events like the Torino Film Festival, or the Pesaro Film Festival. I never worked on separations. I could attend a Philippe Garrel retrospective in Torino, then we would welcome Walter Hill, also Olivier Assayas, and we would have Luc Moullet coming. And all these things we perceive as cinema. So I would love to influence the culture of cinema in a way that it can have the motivation to ‘roam.’ Of course today there is a fragmentation of the audience. People are interested in different kinds of film culture, but nobody is speaking to each other. I did not learn about cinema like this.
:: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (João Botelho, 2020) [Ar de Filmes]
:: A Film Like This (João Botelho, 2022) [Ar de Filmes]
Once I talked with João Botelho, a Portuguese director who creates extremely ambitious, demanding films, and he asked me who my favorite actor was. I was puzzled by the question, it seemed like a thing from a different time. So I didn’t answer, but asked him instead, and he said John Wayne! He explained to me how he had the same reaction when he was asked the same question by Jean-Marie Straub, and that Straub thought about John Wayne. For me, this way of thinking along non-Euclidean lines is something I find extremely interesting. I think we should keep ourselves in a state of constant curiosity. I just went through the festival lineup of the festival I Mille Occhi in Trieste which is an event where you can truly feel what it means to do a film festival ‘critically.’ In their event there is an extreme form of cinephilia, but also a true critical elaboration of what this term means, what cinephilia is or should be. They are celebrating, for example, Louis Skorecki, who is an extremely interesting person. He was a film critic who wrote against cinephiles.
Nowadays we are all part of the problem. So I am not trying to extract myself from film culture. When we fall in love with certain filmmakers, we fall ‘critically’ in love because we don’t know enough yet to also question them and the developments of film culture around them. This is also relevant beyond the present: Our relationship with the past is not a written one, it is something which needs to be continuously explored. And finally: Pleasure is per se connected to a critical attitude. You cannot separate being critical from your pleasure. I really do believe that. When Serge Daney talked to Straub he was dead-serious when he told Straub: “I liked you better when you were more fun!” Telling this to Straub is quite something.
DV: In which kind of relation do you see film culture and film festivals to everyday life?
GN: When I worked for the Torino Film Festival we once invited Paulo Rocha. He was presenting his works which were all shown on film prints. And we were privileged to have this gentleman with us, who was speaking very quietly and slowly. And he was speaking a lot, he was demanding a lot of attention from our audience. When I went to interview him he invited me to his hotel for breakfast at nine o’clock. His answers were extremely long and the interview didn’t end. Of course he was a monument of cinema, so I didn’t want to say I had to leave and stayed. Then he proposed to go to the Egyptian Museum, so we went, and picked up Isabel Ruth along the way, who was with him. Afterwards, in a restaurant, he took me to a meeting with João Bénard da Costa, who was the head of the Cinemateca Portuguesa in Lisbon. They started discussing Maya Deren and at seven o’clock in the evening I was still there and had run out of tapes to record all the conversations. I remember this day as this kind of alternative time-space-continuum where these people allowed me to peek into what it was that made their films and their lives what they were. The way they were talking about Maya Deren really stuck with me. The kind of generosity, the curiosity, the way of connecting distant threads: Maya Deren, Portugal, classical music, and much more.
Today, everybody is trying, rightly so, to survive in a cultural climate in which cinema is not important anymore. I speak a lot about Portugal because I see a certain dignity of resistance in Portuguese cinema. I mean there just isn’t another Manoel de Oliveira out there.
:: Film still from At Land (Maya Deren, 1944) [Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center / Boston University]
DV: What you say stands for me in relation to another point you mentioned earlier, the bourgeois gaze or bourgeois sensibility within film festival culture. I believe it is important to see also the social reality in which spaces of film culture exist. Film festivals are spaces which are not accessible to everyone, both on a professional level and regarding audiences. So the question arises how they could become truly critical spaces, also in the sense of spaces which involve all members of society, spaces where everybody can be part of the discussions.
GN: I wish that everybody could be part of the discussion, but this is not going to happen. To me this appears like wishful thinking. What I describe as a bourgeois feeling within film festival culture is related to my perception of how certain filmmakers have access to this system. At some point in their careers, when they became part of the lineups of major festivals, specific filmmakers are not challenged anymore. I will not mention names, but we have seen this happen again and again over time. In many cases filmmakers who do not reach this status also stop being invited to major festivals. They appear briefly and then disappear. Although they certainly keep on making films.
Many members of film culture ‘go with the flow,’ they keep celebrating certain films, no matter what their quality may be. While other films are left by the road. Festivals are not known for reassessing their choices afterwards. There are no discussions which question the greatness or the genius of specific directors. It seems as if this ‘machine,’ this system is constantly moving forward and erases what lies behind. So what I am referring to is maybe not exactly something ‘bourgeois,’ but rather a question of ‘habit.’ What we should try to do is always to challenge what is happening in film culture, what happens in front of our eyes. We should always remain skeptical when films are considered less valuable. What I am trying to describe is an inherent risk of the ecosystem of film culture. Sometimes we take things for granted which we should never take for granted. This is the opposite of being critical.
What we should try to do as critics is to create an environment that is welcoming and inclusive. An environment where people feel that they have the right to participate, without having to ask for permission. And participation is a creative act in itself. You cannot participate in a passive way. Participation is critical because you ask yourself how you can contribute and how you can enter into a conversation. Sometimes to participate you should have the courage to challenge your own acquired notions. But on the other hand, within film culture there need to be people willing to listen. Maybe some are defending routines which need to be challenged. As I mentioned before, for me this is also the reason why in Locarno I try to work directly with a group as diverse as possible – because I don’t want to risk being stuck in a cultural environment where I am surrounded by confirmations of what I already know.
Is this an easy way to program? Not at all. Not at all. But it is the only way. If you want to keep things interesting. Only then the people who participate in the events will feel, even on a very subconscious level, that something is moving.
Dennis Vetter works as a film critic, film programmer, moderator, text and video editor, film mediator and projectionist. From 2013 to 2023 he was a board member of the German Film Critics Association (VdFk). Also he is a co-founder and current Artistic Co-Director of the Berlin Critics’ Week (since 2021 in a collective). His writing has appeared in more than 30 magazines and newspapers.
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