Will this be 2017's most provocative film festival?

Published 15th June 2017
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art basel film reflecting memory
Will this be 2017's most provocative film festival?
Written by Clive Martin, CNNFiona Sinclair Scott, CNNBasel, Switzerland
Art Basel might be the closest thing the art world has to a Glastonbury or a Coachella. But while the fair is primarily known for its fine art showings, Maxa Zoller, who has curated its film program since 2014, is determined to put Basel firmly on the cinema calendar.
Witness the ambitious, provocative run of screenings at this year's Swiss event.
Zoller, a Cairo-based lecturer and curator, is confronting difficult subjects through her selections, many of which you wouldn't expect to be up for discussion at a moneyed international art fair. Her plans for Basel are probably best exemplified by her opening night selection: Eric Baudelaire's "Also Known as Jihadi," which tells the story of a French teenager who travels to Syria to join the Islamic State.
"Inevitably we're trying to resonate with these horrible times that we're living in," she explains as the chaos of the festival simmers behind her.
"I would usually go for a more upbeat film for the opening to attract as many people as possible, but this year I just felt that I couldn't pass on this film. I thought it was fantastic, and wanted to give the audience something to intellectually chew on."
There's certainly a lot to chew on within the film, with its unflinching portrayal of a deeply controversial subject matter. The style of the film is also unusual because it's edited with only 75 cuts, compared to the thousands you might see in the average feature.
"I feel that slowness gives people the time to engage with these corners of that brain that we don't (engage with) in a fast-paced society," Zoller says.
"Also Known as Jihadi" may have got top billing, but Zoller also seems proud of the rest of the program -- a mix of old and new, feature-length and short films. Other highlights include "Dear Animal," Egyptian filmmaker Maha Maamoun's surreal tale of a drug dealer who transforms into a mythical animal, and Kader Attia's "Reflecting Memory," a disturbing treatise on the phenomenon of phantom pain.
How does Zoller view film's place at an international art festival? If film is generally less conceptual and more direct than fine art, does that mean it can impact people in a way that other artforms can't?
"A lot of people in my cinema audience would say that because they're accustomed to cinema all their lives, and there's no threshold to cross over. There is, however, when you step into the white cube," she added, referring to the four walls of art gallery spaces.
Zoller is a firm believer in the power of cinema. For her, the appreciation of film and narrative is something innate within us, something that goes to the core of who we are as humans.
"Moving images have a direct relationship to our senses," she explains. "Narratives are linear because our breath is linear. So there is something about a time-based way of constructing something you want to say that goes back to ancient aural culture. There's a lot of subliminal, unconscious reactions that make us feel as if we can connect to film."
And what does the future hold for filmmakers with a more artistic leaning? Has technology democratized the industry, as it has for so many others?
"There's been a huge shift in filmmakers going from making video art to producing feature length films ... They're feeling more comfortable with that beast they call feature-length because of technology, because of generations passing on the knowledge of how to make them, as well as the fact that people want to tell big stories these days," she says.
"They don't want to do five-minute visual puns anymore."
Art Basel is on from June 15 to 18, 2017.