New Locarno Boss Outlines "Revolutionary" Plans for Swiss Fest

Lili Hinstin
@Lorcarno Film Festival

Artistic director Lili Hinstin, only the second woman to run the storied Locarno Festival, says she wants to provide a platform for "dangerous and risky" cinema, and for more female directors.

Lili Hinstin is looking to shake things up. The new artistic director of the storied Locarno International Film Festival, whose 72nd edition, Hinstin's first as boss, kicks off Wednesday, wants to sharpen the edge that has made the Locarno the film lover's film festival.

Hinstin's announced this year's program with a "manifesto" calling on Locarno, and the indie film industry in general, to embrace risk and controversy. She backed that up by naming Catherine Breillat — the controversial French director known for such taboo-exploding works as Sex Is Comedy, Sleeping Beauty and Abuse of Weakness — as jury president and honoring John Waters, aka the “Pope of Trash,” with this year's lifetime achievement award, the career Golden Leopard.

Hinstin's first lineup as Locarno director is also an edgy mix of young auteurs — If Only, the directorial debut of Italian director Ginevra Elkann opens the festival Wednesday, Patrick Vollrath's feature debut 7500, a hijacking thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is among the world premieres — and established names, among them Quentin Tarantino, whose Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which premiered in Cannes, will also screen on Locarno's 8,000-seat Piazza Grande, and To the Ends of the Earth, from famed Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata), which will close Locarno on Aug. 17.

Taking over from Carlo Chatrian, who left Locarno to become co-director of the Berlin Film Festival, Hinstin is only the second female director in Locarno's history. While she downplays the role of gender in her selection —“I'm a woman but I'm also a Parisian, I was raised in a very bohemian household, I was born in 1977, all those things impact my way of seeing the world” — Hinstin proudly notes that 35 percent of directors featured in this year's festival are female, despite female directors accounting for just 27 percent of submissions.

"In the end, it's about representation," she notes. "Just having a woman as artistic director of a major festival is a symbolic step — it opens up the mental horizon for other women."

Hinstin spoke to The Hollywood Reporter's European bureau chief Scott Roxborough on the eve of this year's festival.

You started your first festival as artistic director calling for Locarno to be the event that "ruffles feathers and asks questions." How is this call for more risk-taking in cinema reflected in your selection?

Well first, I don't think that programming a festival represents a personal statement on behalf of the  programmer. I don't think it is a work of ego, it is more a work of knowledge and imagination.

But what I would like to reach is, on one side, to continue the great and magnificent tradition of the festival, which has a history of both discovery and supporting the most daring cinema internationally — and to be willing to  support and share the risks taken by the directors. And what is risk-taking in cinema? It's freedom. The more freedom you are allowing yourself, the more risk you are taking. Locarno is one of the festivals that is able to screen, show and select any kind of film, and weird, conventional form of cinema.

There is this notion, I find it quite present in contemporary French cinema, which I call calculated risk-taking. Filmmakers are taking risks, but there are risks that have already been taken by previous filmmaker and they are very controlled, very masterly presented. Which makes them, really, far less risky.

Is that why you picked Catherine Breillat to be jury president, and John Waters for Locarno's lifetime achievement award?

Yes, absolutely. John Waters and Catherine Breillat are true risk-takers. In their work they are absolutely true to themselves. There work doesn't bear much relation to another except that it's revolutionary. Much of current contemporary cinema I don't think is being original. Even in the “risky” world of art house cinema, you have common idols, common provocations. But if everyone is thinking the same thing, and saying the same things about an issue, it's not provocative, it is conventional. I want Locarno to be the place where you can break the conventional. 

Is art house cinema at the moment too safe?

I wouldn't say that. Cinema is an art but it is also an industry. It costs a lot of money to make a film and filmmakers have to find their own ways to finance their movies, to be able to make the films they want to make. All that money tends to lead to a normalization of the kind of cinema that fits “the market.”

What role can Locarno, and other big festivals, play on the business side of the art house industry?

I think film festivals have come to play a key role in the industry. We have become a bridge between the two ways of seeing films — in this huge polemic going on between platforms and theaters. I think both will totally coexist and in the future, it will become simply a question of marketing. Each film will have its place and each viewer will choose, based on their state of mind, and on other issues, how they want to watch a specific film. As a journalist, I'm sure you watch movies at home on your computer. I do as a programmer. Even theatrical exhibitors and directors do. It's obvious. We shouldn't be blind and fool ourselves that this isn't happening.

But we still like to go out and go to the movies, because going to the movie theater is a collective experience and a strong sensory experience — it is really not the same to see a film on the small screen.

I think festivals are the bridge, especially for the younger audiences. We can introduce them to the discovery and joy of this sensory emotion. Especially with Locarno, where we have these amazing  Piazza Grande screenings, which is a sort of climax of this sensory emotion that cinema can give. It is a crazy, totally unique experience.

Aside from the Piazza Grande screenings, which are truly impressive, what does Locarno offer that sets its apart from the other big festivals?

Locarno is the only festival where a young, unknown director will have his or her film reviewed by the most important trades and newspapers internationally. All the trades cover Locarno and they send their most cinephile journalists. The press here has the same cinephile spirit as the programmers. If you screen your film in Locarno, you are sure to have the best people to see it and to get the best attention possible. It isn't going to be overshadowed by a huge director in competition, a (Martin) Scorsese or something. In other festivals, you have two to three big names and all the press focus on them. Locarno is very democratic. It is a real fraternity, in terms of the press and audience.  I love this spirit of the festival. And a lot of international programmers attend Locarno. So a film selected here will be reprogrammed a lot, it will travel a lot to other festivals.

Going forward, with the schedule shift for the Oscars, and our dates, which are so close to Venice, I am looking to position Locarno as a platform for awards campaigns, for potential award-winning art house films. We are — timidly, shyly — beginning this year but that is something I will be building on for future festivals.

You are one of a growing number of women taking over positions of power at the big international festivals. Do you think being a woman has an impact on your selection, or on the perception of the festival?

Actually I don't know. I am asked this question often and I don't know. It is impossible to say. I'm a woman but I'm also a Parisian, I was raised in a very bohemian household, I was born in 1977, all those things impact my way of seeing the world. It is hard to separate these things out. I think you can't, and shouldn't separate your gender from any of the other things that formed you and influence you. I think being the artistic director as a woman is less about what films are selected and  more a symbolic step. It opening a mental horizon for any woman out there. Because as a woman it is sometimes really hard to imagine yourself in a high position, because there are so few examples of other women doing it.

As for the “women's perspective” when viewing films, it was interesting. Our selection committee is six people, three woman and three men. And the men were often more aware of the gender problem in terms of representation of female directors and more willing to consider it when making the selection.

But having said that, it is interesting to share our parity numbers. We had 27 percent female directors submitting a feature film for Locarno and 35 percent of the directors with feature films in the festival this year are female. Thirty-seven percent of the directors submitting short films were female and 42 percent of the directors in the short film competition are women.

In our submission form, we asked each director about their gender, giving four possible categories: male, female, other or non-defined. Only 0.6 percent chose “other” but significantly more, around 2.5 percent, chose “non-defined,” which could also reflect a desire not to answer the question, not to be categorized in this way. All these gender stats and numbers are interesting, and we need them for the collaboration we are doing with SWAN (Locarno last year signed a pledge with the Swiss Women's Audiovisual Network, to measure and report gender statistics on its film selection with the goal of improving gender parity).

But this is more an indicative tool to measure the situation. We shouldn't pretend this is truly mathematical or scientific. Because it's not. It isn't affecting our work. We work and decide and then we publish the statistics. But for me as a citizen, and as someone working in the film industry, it is interesting. The true question is: why do we have 50-50 parity among female and male directors graduating from film school and then 35 percent female directors making short films and 27 percent making feature films? This is obviously an economic issue. When the budget, the economic responsibility for a film, goes up, the number of female directors goes down. I'm sure that even within that 27 percent, many will be documentary films, because the economic stakes are lower.

It's all a matter of representation. It is like we have been victims of storytelling somehow because we have been excluded from the story. We know we can tell these stories but somehow, in our minds, we aren't sure, because we don't have any examples to point to. That's why I am happy and proud there are more female directors at Locarno.

(This interview was edited for space and clarity.)