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Locarno Artistic Director Olivier Père on Taking Risks, the Magic of the Piazza Grande and Selling Locarno (Q&A)

Olivier Pere Portrait - P 2012
Getty Images

Now in his third year at the fest's helm, the 41-year-old Père is leaving his mark on one of the world's oldest film events.

LOCARNO, Switzerland – Now in his third year as artistic director of the Locarno Film Festival, Olivier Père has put his own stamp on the storied event. The festival, which got underway August 1, has had many highlights so far: a surprising number of emotional moments in the festival’s famous Piazza Grande, a career award to reclusive film director Leos Carax, and more than a few unheralded films Père says have made a strong impact on the festival’s discerning public. With a day to go -- Père says he is not sure if he should be happy or sad that the 65th edition will conclude Saturday -- Père spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his role as artistic director and how the festival has played out over the previous ten days.

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The Hollywood Reporter: The film festival calendar in Europe seems to get more crowded every year. What is your pitch when you try to convince a filmmaker to bring his or her film to Locarno?

Olivier Père: I talk about our passion for cinema, our determination, and attention to detail. We give a very special attention to each film we host, and the public in Locarno is very knowledgeable about cinema, which is something filmmakers certainly appreciate. Also, we have the Piazza Grande.

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THR: Yes, the Piazza Grande [Europe’s largest film venue, with seating for up to 8,000] really is a unique venue. Locarno may be the only festival where the lineup for a specific venue, the Piazza Grande, is as anticipated as the in-competition lineup. Can you discuss the difficulty of programming for the Piazza Grande?

Père: Well, I don’t believe the Piazza Grande is more important than the competition lineup. The films we have in competition involve deeper work, and they speak more to what the festival is. They are films seen for the first time here. It’s comparatively easier to select films for the Piazza Grande. But I have to say that there are some filmmakers who are frightened by the Piazza Grande. The successful films in the Piazza are almost always unexpected films that strike a chord, like While We Where Here [from U.S. director Kat Coiro], Camille redouble (Camille Rewinds) [from France’s Noemie Lvovsky] and Pablo Larrain’s No. Some filmmakers fear their film might be too intimate or too dark for the Piazza. For example, I am sure that if While We Where Here had a Swiss distributor already they would have tried to convince me not to screen the film in the Piazza Grande. But I think the screening was a great success.

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THR: The Piazza Grande has also seem some emotional displays this year, from No star Gael Garcia Bernal, who teared up when his brother came on stage, to Motorway director Soi Chaeng, who asked for the big crowd to pose for a picture for his screenwriter Kam-Yuen Szeto, who is battling cancer, to Mali director Souleymane Cisse who cried when calling for a moment to silence to honor the dead from the civil war in his country, to producer Arnon Milchan who refused to leave the stage and said his award presentation there was the most emotional moment of his career. I imagine it’s an emotional moment to appear before the Piazza Grande, but it seems to have touched more people than normal this year.

Père: Yes, that’s true. We’ve had some moments this year. I think the most important thing here is the context. You get the right people on the stage in the right context and magic happens. You take wonderful and courageous and talented people like Harry Belafonte or Leos Carax or the people you already named and there are going to be some memorable moments. There’s no doubt there’s a special relationship between the Piazza Grande crowds and the people they admire.

THR: It’s the second to the last day of the festival ... 

Père: Yes, I don’t know if I should be happy about that, or sad.

THR: It seems like you should be exhausted. But I wanted to ask about surprises. Are there any films that have surprised you by the reaction they received?

Père: There’s one film in competition that I really loved, but that I was nervous about how it would be received. It was made with a very small budget, and I felt it was a risky decision that could have been seen as ridiculous. But instead people have said they loved it. I am talking about La Fille de nulle part (The Girl From Nowhere) [written, directed, and produced by Jean-Claude Brisseau, who also starred in the film]. I would say that film has been my biggest surprise.

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THR: Locarno has always been a very cosmopolitan and international event, but under your direction it seems to be leaning more towards Francophone programming, which may not be a surprise, since you are French. Is that change intentional?

Père: No, not at all. I hope I am not favoring French productions. It’s true that we may have had too many French films in competition last year, but it was a strong year for French cinema. Maybe we could say the same thing about American films this year, when there is only one French film in competition. But that is something we pay attention to. I would not want to be seen as favoring French films over others.

THR: Before the festival started you said that the decision to give a lifetime achievement award to Leos Carax was a very personal decision for you, because of the influence Carax had on your generation of film lovers in France. Now that he has come and gone, how to do you feel about the decision?

Père: I think that was another risk, but it went very well. Because Carax is shy and doesn’t like speaking in front of crowds, I was worried he could say no, or that he might back out of some of what we wanted him to do. He could have refused to do anything. But it all went very well, and he even gave a Master Class that I think was a big success. He was cool, nice, happy. I think this was one of the high points of the festival.