Highlight on Shorts: Pardi di Domani, Locarno
Since my last visit to Locarno I have learned not to overlook the short film selection. Called Pardi di domani (Leopards of Tomorrow) it is the festival’s most forward-looking, as it focuses on future talents. This year, it consisted of 27 short films showing a wide geographic spread, yet a common preoccupation: a critique of present-day capitalism and a dissatisfaction with social conditions, be it of immigrants or citizens.
In Kapitalistis, Belgian filmmaker Pablo Muñoz Gomez, sets his critique in the context of a popular consumer holiday, Christmas. Niko, the 5-year-old son of a pizza delivery guy, Gyorgis, has learned the class struggle the hard way. From an early age he understood “Santa Claus as a capitalist who brings “toys to wealthy children and sweaters to the poor ones.” Niko’s father tries to prove him wrong by buying him a highly craved backpack, a Powermax. Coincidently, the gift mirrors the classist society: there are different types of backpacks—entry, mid and high-level—as the ultimate step to trendiness and peer approval.
Xavier Seron, who previously made the hilarious Le Plombier (a short about a comic who goes from making voices for cartoon characters to pornographic movies), co-wrote the screenplay. The expressive Georges Siatidis (known for Radu Mihaileanu’s Train of Life) plays Gyorgis, who tries on every small gig, however bizarre: walking dogs, doing body painting on naked women or simply lying naked as a human-sushi at a corporate event. Thus Kapitalistis’s main merit lies in expressive acting and witty dialogues. Apart from being a single parent, Gyorgis is also a foreigner whose working options are even more diminished. The film addresses issues such as immigration, cut-throat competition and import of mass-produced goods from China (Powermax is also made there). All these issues are integrated into the larger theme of dignity. Gomez gracefully plays with commonplace phrases, such as, “we all need more money” and with the paradoxes of a rapacious free market. in which even affection is expressed with one’s purchasing power.
The downtrodden are also the protagonists of two other shorts in the Leopards of the Future section, Harbour by Dutch filmmaker Stefanie Kolk and Boomerang by French director, David Bouttin. Harbour focuses on two workmen who discover a dead body floating in the water in the deserted and enormous harbor of Rotterdam. Meanwhile Boomerang deals with the effect temporary work has on the middle-aged. The protagonists of Harbour are two illegal immigrants who are too afraid to alert the authorities. A Croatian and a Moldovan, they find a common ground speaking English as they try to give the victim a respectable burial. Kolk explored the condition of the outcast in her earlier short, Clan (2016), a work she screened in Locarno last year. In Harbour, the subtle, almost observation camera movements suggest the two co-workers’ seclusion, as they seem swallowed up by the huge industrial landscape.
Paul, the protagonist of Boomerang, has lost his job and goes on from one temporary gig to another. The line between making a decent living and his precarious existence is thin. For Paul’s financial stability his losing his driving license is a potential ruin, and Paul is caught in a dilemma: he can’t get to work if he doesn’t pay his car insurance and he can’t afford to pay the insurance without work. Boomerang offers a more optimistic ending: it features a surprisingly considerate court-hearing that breaks his unlucky streak. Paul is compensated for his hard work, yet Bouttin still emphasizes the challenges one must face to preserve one’s dignity in a ferocious class struggle.
In the same section, Signature by Kei Chikaura also deals with labor’s immense gap between possibilities and exploitation. Cheng Liang, a young Chinese man in his twenties looking for work and a better life in Japan, does not speak a word of Japanese. While in Harbour the foreign workers are marginalized, in Signature, there is an attempt at integration. Thanks to Japan’s initiative to receive immigrants from the underdeveloped Asian countries, Japan gains low-paid labor force in a highly competitive market.
The alienation is beautifully suggested through symmetrical architectural frames of a 3:4 aspect ratio. Cheng Liang seems perpetually displaced, like a disoriented tourist. He prefers to shut out the noise of the city by keeping his headphones on, focused on his goal of passing a job interview. Expressed mechanically, in a language that is not his own, his hopes sound fraught. He must sign the employer agreement, a symbolic act that reflects his worth. The gesture is repeated as Cheng Liang is asked to sign for a philanthropic cause but changes his mind and crosses out his handwriting. The responsibility of the signing gesture, though indispensable, remains void of meaning, as the man is only a number.
Set in a more corporate environment, Loukianos Moshonas’ Young Men at their Window was this year’s nominee for the European Film Awards. The film excels in its simplicity: it is essentially a dialogue between two colleagues from different generations, one in his twenties and the other in his thirties. Alluding to Gustave Caillebotte’s painting, “Young Man at His Window”, the film has a documentary feel. Like his former docu-fiction, Manodopera, which played in Locarno last year, Moshonas uses casual conversations among workers to reveal the artificiality of human relations.
The two co-workers entertain themselves with an empty scanner that captures images altered by dust particles. They bond over humorous conversations about E.T., hippies and punks. Moshonas captures their comical inability of these two to socialize, and their seriousness in dealing with non-issues. The younger Charles talks enthusiastically about the fall of the Berlin Wall. He leans towards anarchist ideologies, yet his job as a graphic designer in an advertising agency does not reflect his thinking. As the two men speak, it becomes clear that they are inspired by fantasies rather than personal experience. In the end, just like in Caillebotte’s realist painting, the two men turn their backs to the camera. Side by side, they look upon their urban environment as exponents of consumerist culture that assimilate its mass-produced products.
Lastly, Sean Robert Dunn’s British by the Grace of God, is a sharp critique of Brexit. Set in Scotland, the film explores the home of a dysfunctional family, ruled by an ultra-nationalist father. The title, borrowed from an old saying, is a reference to the monarchist British anthem “God Save the Queen.” Irene, the mother, who’s more open to multiculturalism, fights the impulse to escape her domineering husband and misanthropic son.
Shot in a grainy 16mm, the film is a fictional portrait of an extremist, with some shots framed within a mirror, showing a weak man who hides behind rabid patriotism. He is depicted either surrounded by flags, or else vulnerable, guarded by the Queen’s portrait by his bedside. Supporting her husband in his insecurities with baby talk, Irene oscillates between extremes: she is either the excessively obedient, caring wife or a sexual adventuress with strangers. She finds no middle ground between the right-wing rigid ideology and the European Union’s principles, a structure this family no longer wishes to be a part of. The film features amusing moments, such as Irene is caught sneaking back home late from a party by her son, or her pathetic rendition of Johnny Cash in front of her friends. These comical reliefs, however, get buried in the overall global grimness: the Scottish family seems no different than Trump’s average voters who feel menaced by open immigration. Radical, yet realist in its depiction, British by the Grace of God is an unnerving vision of populism and xenophobia.