x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Swiss film-fest bliss

Stephen Applebaum looks at the Zurich film festival that opens on Thursday.

Chris Hemsworth in a scene from the racing driver rivalry drama Rush. Jaap Buitendijk / AP Photo / Universal Pictures
Chris Hemsworth in a scene from the racing driver rivalry drama Rush. Jaap Buitendijk / AP Photo / Universal Pictures

Launched in 2005, the Zurich Film Festival (ZFF) is a mere infant compared to Venice, the oldest film festival in the world, and Cannes, the glitziest.

Yet, in the short time that it has been operating in Switzerland’s largest metropolis, the ZFF has grown rapidly in size and reputation and now attracts some of the world’s most exciting new and established filmmaking talent.

Possibly because Switzerland has fared better than most European countries during the economic downturn (it has remained outside the eurozone), the budget for this year’s event has been increased, said ZFF’s co-director Nadja Schildknecht, allowing the organiser to scale up the cinematic programme, develop the content, invite a larger number of guests and schedule more industry events.

The ninth edition of the city’s 11-day celebration of “pure cinema” therefore boasts an impressive 122 films from 27 countries, including 22 debut films and 16 world premieres, with eligible entries by “young aspiring filmmakers” competing for Golden Eye awards in four competition strands: International Feature, International Documentary, German-language Feature, and Germany, Austria, Switzerland Documentary. Along with a trophy to put on their mantlepiece, the victorious filmmaker in each section will receive US$21,500 (Dh77,000) in cash and distribution funding.

Overseeing the competition will be juries comprising international industry figures from both sides of the camera. These include the German-Swiss and New Zealand directors Marc Forster (World War Z) and ­Andrew Dominick (Killing Them Softly), the Oscar-winning American actress Melissa Leo (The Fighter) and the Indonesian filmmaker Eugene Panji.

Films with urgent social and political themes feature across the programme. Among the contenders vying for the coveted International Feature Golden Eye are the Sundance and Cannes hit, Fruitvale Station, Rylan Coogler’s naturalistic reconstruction of the events leading up to the controversial killing of a 22-year-old man by police in Okland, California, in 2008; the actress Valeria Golino’s powerful directorial debut, Miele, in which Jasmine Trinca gives an outstanding performance as a young woman who uses illegal methods to relieve the suffering of the terminally ill; and Parkland, Peter Landesman’s star-studded ensemble drama that weaves together the lives of characters in Dallas, Texas, on the day that the US president John F Kennedy was assassinated.

Elsewhere, a study of the late writer and wit Gore Vidal (Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia), a Jewish son’s examination of his troubled, strip-club owning family (The Manor), and a film in which the Berkeley professor Robert Reich explains the reasons for the existence of the Occupy movement (Inequality for All), promise to be highlights of the International Documentary Competition.

The Middle East and India are represented out of competition by Jafar Panahi’s Pirandello-esque Pardé aka Closed Curtain (winner of the best screenplay award at the Berlinale in February) – in which the filmmaker, who was banned by the Iranian government in 2010 for alleged treason, makes an appearance as himself – in the Border Lines section, while Ritesh Batra’s Cannes crowd-pleaser, The Lunchbox, starring Irrfan Khan, receives a Gala Premiere screening.

Perhaps reflecting the boost in funding, the festival has brought together a thrilling and eclectic line-up for its Gala Premieres. They start the event off in top gear with Rush, Ron Howard’s stunning portrait of the 1970s rivalry between F1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, and launch it into space with Alfonso Cuaron’s eye-popping Gravity. J C Chandor’s All is Lost, in which Robert Redford battles the elements and himself in a crippled yacht, mesmerised audiences at Cannes and should do the same in Zurich, while Jim Jarmusch’s hipster vampire flick, Only Lovers Left Alive, is a delightful, mellow slice of melancholia.

Other must-sees include Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s writing/directing debut Don Jon, this year’s Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour, Lukas Moodysson’s We are the Best! and Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman. The Wolverine star will be in Zurich to promote the film and to collect the ZFF’s Golden Icon Award.

Michael Haneke will also be on hand as the winner of the Tribute Award, which the festival is celebrating with a five-film retrospective of the austere Austrian’s work.

• The Zurich Film Festival runs from Thursday to October 6. Visit www.zff.com for more information