“Notably progressive, deeply artistic and vigorously international” – A conversation with Robert Koehler on Locarno in Los Angeles and programming Chinese Cinema

Screen Shot 2018-06-08 at 7.51.44 AMLocarno in Los Angeles, launched in 2017, brings some of the best titles from the Locarno Film Festival to the Downtown Independent theater in Downtown LA. The 2018  edition of Locarno in LA featured two titles from mainland Chinese directors – iconoclast artist Xu Bing’s dizzying documentary debut Dragonfly Eyes, a love story in the age of big surveillance; and Wang Bing’s rigorously intimate Mrs. Fang, which was awarded the Golden Leopard at the 2017 Locarno Film Festival.  Following the second edition of this screening series, Maya Rudolph spoke to co-Artistic Director Robert Koehler about Locarno’s remarkable support of Chinese filmmakers, the shifting sands of Los Angeles cinema and exhibition culture, and the impact of Xu and Wang’s films in this year’s series.

 

Maya Rudolph/dGF: Hi there! This year marked the second edition of LA in Locarno. I’m curious to know how your approach to selecting films from Locarno to bring to LA was impacted by the first edition of the festival?

Robert Koehler:  We used the first year’s program as a basic model to follow for the second (and I suspect that’ll the case moving forward). The concept remained the same: A curated selection from the competitive sections of movies that hadn’t previously shown in Los Angeles. That curation would be the best of the work, in our judgment, from the field. Because Locarno’s programming is already notably progressive, deeply artistic and vigorously international, our selection would reflect that precise programmatic philosophy. Underlying all of that is a brazen embrace of radical cinema that offered up new possibilities for the art form, which is the foundational principle of Locarno and why we wanted to bring a portion of this particular festival to Los Angeles in the first place.

dGF: How do you curate for LA versus another city?

RK: For sure, you can program for Los Angeles with no sense of holding back, or of needing to curb your desire for the most adventurous and challenging, and wide-ranging, program possible. In this way, Los Angeles ranks with the best cinephile cities anywhere–I’m thinking Paris, New York, Buenos Aires, maybe Hong Kong, Berlin–for having the kind of audience that wants to explore cinema’s range of possibilities. The audience in the city wants to be taken on an adventure, they yearn for it, and I think that they now expect it from Locarno in Los Angeles–now that they’ve experienced for two cycles.

dGF: Locarno in LA was held at Downtown Independent in Downtown LA. There’s been a lot of recent talk of LA film culture shifting in terms of both appetite for international cinema in LA and the geography of screening venues. Do you see the culture for international cinema or approach to film festivals changing in LA?

RK: Possibly, although since it always seems to be shifting–like the city itself–it’s hard to tell. Downtown has changed so dramatically in the last fifteen years that it’s hard to recognize parts of it, like the ever-expanding Arts District. The loss of a venue and gathering place like Cinefamily didn’t actually result in a void; instead, it fostered all sorts of micro-micro-cinemas around town organized by ex-Cinefamily employees. The Los Angeles Film Festival, which had severely declined since the time when Rachel Rosen was artistic director, has shifted its spot on the calendar to the fall festival season, and this caused more than a few raised eyebrows; but with its new leadership, it actually may be going in interesting directions. We’ll see there. AFI Fest remains steady and reliable in November in the heart of Hollywood; the only desire there is that it could run a full ten days, since it could then accommodate more of its pretty sharp festival-of-festivals focus.

What’s problematic are the scattered “national” festivals that run through the calendar (though mostly jammed into the pre-Cannes April period, for reasons nobody in town can reasonably explain) that in my humble view lack strong, rigorous artistic direction and programmatic verve.
I wish there were an experimental/avant garde festival in Los Angeles, even a variation on TIFF’s Wavelengths program (hell, just let that program travel west on a tour). Only New York and Albuquerque have truly serious ones in the US.  The audience exists here to support it. Locarno in Los Angeles is, in some ways, a way of doing that, especially with our shorts program, which is about the closest thing you can get to a Wavelengths program on the West Coast right now.
Xu Bing's "Dragonfly Eyes"

Xu Bing’s “Dragonfly Eyes”

dGF: I’d love to hear about the curation of the two films from China at LA in Locarno – Xu Bing’s Dragonfly Eyes and Wang Bing’s Mrs. Fang. The films screened back-to-back on one day of the festival and I was really struck seeing Dragonfly Eyes, which is such an eerily impersonal film, right before Mrs. Fang, which is so personal on a number of levels. I’m curious to know you see these two films to be in conversation with each other and how they ended up where they did in the screenings.

RK: For sure, the scheduling there was deliberate. That’s an interesting way to look at those two movies against each other. I came at them as one who worked in the PRC for a couple of years and watched the horrible Xi regime carve out and oppress the enthusiastic culture of doggedly independent filmmakers working all over Mainland China. The regime hasn’t succeeded in eradicating this radical culture, but the ability for artists to operate openly and freely under such police-state conditions is really difficult and even frightening–as a few young filmmakers told me one day in a Beijing Hutong-turned-record store, where they were gathered with Rotterdam’s great programmer Gerwin Tamsma. Xu’s and Wang’s movies represented for me two of several tendencies in current independent Chinese cinema, and their selection in last year’s Locarno made it possible to present them in the form of an exposition. By the way, that’s how I view Locarno in Los Angeles: As an exposition of cinema. This was the notion of the city’s first great festival, and it was in its name: The Los Angeles International Film Exposition, or Filmex. I’ve never understood why the term “exposition” kind of fell out of favor, but to me it more accurately describes what this kind of presentation is all about, a much better term than “festival.”

dGF: Locarno has been a champion of Chinese cinema for many years. With Dragonfly Eyes and Mrs. Fang, the dynamism of Chinese cinema makes a really strong showing in this selection of films. Over the years, what’s changed about the role (and perception) of Chinese films and filmmakers at Locarno?

RK: No other festival in the West has shown Chinese cinema for as many years as Locarno–over sixty years! Think of that. The 1950s, supposedly a “dead zone” for the country’s cinema (as it’s taught in the West, but not when you study matters inside the PRC!). I remember when Li Hongqi brought his amazing Winter Vacation to Locarno, and I thought at the time that here was a true discovery on the highest level, a young filmmaker of astounding imagination and wit exploding onto the world stage with as good a movie as anything made in the past decade (at least). But because of the nature of festivals, it was this particular movie, not a movie representing or a part of a greater “movement” or “school.” Li, whose subsequent career is becoming a total mystery to me and emblematic of a lot that’s troubling about PRC cinema culture, is never going to be part of anybody’s “movement” anyway; he’s his own guy, completely distinct and maverick, like Ju Anqi.

It’s the same thing with movies that Locarno may screen from Argentina, or Romania, or Canada, or wherever. The movie won’t represent more than what it is. Teddy Williams is never going to represent Argentine cinema anywhere, even when he’s at a far-fun festivals where he may be the only Argentine around. He’s representing himself and his art.
Based on my experience, the Locarno audiences seem to like Chinese cinema, though I can’t say that it holds Chinese cinema in some special pantheon of its own. What they like, in any language, is interesting and challenging cinema. I do think that there’s always an inevitable distance between a Western audience and Asian art; the former can’t possibly grasp the full cultural meaning of the latter’s intent, and almost always needs some sort of intermediary (call them programmers, curators, critics, historians, writers) to help bridge the gap. And when it comes to something as vast and complex as China, you know, it’s just impossible for even the most receptive Western audience to fathom what’s going on. Then when you add on top of that a radical approach to the art form, it can just increase the distance; or, it can conversely bridge it, if the radical language is sensed as universal. An example could be how European audiences might get particular movies by Jia (or, sure, Li) because of the influence of Antonioni, whose impact on China is extremely interesting and too little understood in the West. (Partly from his controversial CHUNG KUO CINA, now screening at select cities such as Toronto and New York, on the touring Antonioni show.) It’s similar to how Johnnie To connected with Western audiences because of how his filmmaking was so influenced by the American crime movie tradition; they get it, because they see that connection that they know. This applies to any audience anywhere in the world, after all. You use what cultural references you know to make connections, either consciously or subconsciously. We’re doing this every day as readers and viewers.

dGF: What’s next for Locarno in LA?

RK: Year three. We’re planning to stay downtown, which continues to be under-served as a cinema-going neighborhood in Los Angeles–and that’s about the most ridiculous fact right now about being a Los Angeles cinephile. Locarno 51 this August will tell us what to program. Simple as that.

Thank you, Robert!