The flatscreen television in my hotel room greets me with a crawl of text across the top of the screen. “Welcome to the Hotel Zurich, Mr. Hamilton. We hope that you enjoy your stay.”
I drop my luggage on the bed with enough force to launch the complementary Toblerone bar off my pillow and onto the nightstand.
I’m in Switzerland. The 12th annual Zurich Film Festival is about to begin.
After swimming through 16 hours of international air travel, it’s a joy to finally see the Alps on the horizon. Out my window I can see the fantastic mix of antiquity and modernity that makes up the cityscape of Zurich. Multi-colored ancient rooftops dance around gorgeous church spires, as the laconic Limmat River winds its way amongst bridges criss-crossed by all manner of human traffic. All of it is hedged in by centuries of history, art and flavor that funnel into the very heart of this intrinsically European city. Within this vortex, the film festival lives.
I fuel up on breakfast and decide to walk three kilometers to the heart of things, an expansive public square that hosts the festival headquarters and the nexus of activity. Well-dressed attendees mingle next to the bar, as press line up for their media kits and arrange their itineraries. On the flip side of the circular building, filmmakers and attendees relax in a lounge on plush couches and pillows as they await their next screening.
Outside, the festival’s green carpet and media circle is ready for the next gala event. As evening approaches, it will be thick as thieves out there. Autograph and selfie seekers will merge with members of the media to welcome the actors, directors and producers of the moment, a few Hollywood heavyweights thrown in for good measure.
After collecting my tickets for the next 24 hours, I hustle over to the Arthouse Piccadilly and a press screening of J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls—a great start. Laced with a combination of fantasy and tragedy, Monster is a coming-of-age film that doesn’t flinch, and manages to take something heartbreaking and make it beautiful.
Eating in Zurich can prove to be a truly expensive proposition, and even though I received a few food vouchers with my media kit, I feel the need to visit the local grocery store for some sandwich materials, just in case. Peanut butter, fruit preserves, a loaf of 12-grain bread and a bottle of water set me back about $20—the average price of a sit-down lunch in this place.
After dropping off my provisions at the hotel, I jump the streetcar and venture out to the Arthouse Le Paris theater and the debut of Magnus, an excellent documentary about a child chess prodigy and his evolution into a world champion. While this might sound like your garden variety inspirational profile, the magic of this film lies within the family unit that helped this young pawn become a king.
After diving into the festival with gusto yesterday, I decide to dedicate my next morning to discovering the cultural heritage of Zurich. I wander over a nearby bridge and into the beautiful park adjacent to the Swiss National Museum, with its exhibition on the European Renaissance. Visiting the ancient halls of this place helps lend context to the history and culture that abound in Zurich. Between the layers of time and beauty, one begins to see parallels to the soul of ZFF and its appreciation for international artistry and storytelling.
Back at festival HQ in the evening, I have a delicious special dinner arranged by Zurich Tourism. Then I’m whisked off to a gorgeous 19th century concert hall for an international film music competition in its fifth year with ZFF. Featuring five individual scores to the same short film (all played live by the Tonhalle-Orchestra Zurich), the concert is a fantastic treat; even more so when the orchestra shifts gears into a rousing tribute to John Williams. Never before have the themes from Jaws or Superman sounded so magnificent. The acoustics are spot-on and selections are brilliant.
As if that isn’t enough, I scramble over to the Corso for a late screening of The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, which offers up the true story of a shy Finnish boxer struggling to balance the biggest match of his life with a woman he has fallen in love with. This unassuming, black-and-white gem is an utter joy to watch and treats its subject with a tenderness unseen amongst pugilist films. It was honored at Cannes earlier this year (with the Un Certain Regard top prize) and has been picked to represent Finland in the 2017 Foreign Language Oscar race. On top of all that, it brings home the Best International Feature award at Zurich this year, which should solidify its place as one of the films to see in 2016.
Big doings today with Hollywood making the largest splash. The morning kicks off at the Arthouse Piccadilly with a screening of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, which holds my attention with its infectious musical score and willingness to take risks. I have my doubts at the get-go, but the courageous direction and performances by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone win me over in a hurry. If the thundering applause following the screening is any indication, the buzz about this film is definitely for real.
After uprooting myself from five hours of film-watching and a subsequent press conference, I take a walking tour with some of the folks I’ve met in the press corp. During our short review of old Zurich, we stroll through an epic marketplace and down the Bahnhofstrasse, with its legion of high-end retailers and designer clothing shops. Along with the resplendent cathedrals, this is a stretch of town not to be missed.
Back at HQ for a bit of stardust on the green carpet, starting with an appearance from Uma Thurman, who spent the part of her day participating a Q&A following a special presentation of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 at the Arena Cinemas. Not long afterwards come Oliver Stone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley, pausing for reporters and assembled photographers, before heading across the street to the theaters at the Corso to participate in the ZFF gala screening of Snowden.
Following a quick dinner of bratwurst, I cap my day with a bit of Iranian horror with Under the Shadow, which proves every bit terrifying as advertised. A clever mix of history and folklore, this unassuming frightener delivers the fear and dread of war-torn Tehran in the 1980s, with supernatural twist that will keep you up at night.
The Sunday church bells are pealing in concert with weather has been nearly perfect for the last few days. Some of the streetcars on my route are offline, due to a running race that winds through the storefronts and cafes.
The highlights of the afternoon are a pair of roundtable interviews with Oliver Stone and Shailene Woodley, who speak at length about the production of Snowden. Both conversations are alive with political energy and focus on the importance of speaking truth to power.
Today’s favorite cinema find is the documentary Dancer, a seething profile of Ukrainian ballet phenom Sergei Polunin. Crackling with raw energy and spectacular dance scenes, this film successfully captures the agony and ecstasy of a gifted but troubled dancer. Also of note is National Bird, an unsettling documentary that profiles former military drone pilots and their misgivings about remotely controlled warfare.
My afternoon is booked with interviews and a screening, so what better way to ease into the day than with a morning cruise around Lake Zurich? As the boat takes its tour around the north side of the lake, I finally start to see the scope of this city. Surrounding neighborhoods cascade down gentle sloping hills to meet the water, where garden parks and boat docks prevail. In the distance, the ZFF Pavilion of Reflections and its floating cinema settle in the mist. Zurich is a truly beautiful place.
Returning to Pier 3 and the festival, I make my way through the winding streets toward a small hotel for conversations with Ewan McGregor and Jennifer Connelly in support of their latest effort, American Pastoral. McGregor discusses the challenges of being a first-time director and his drive to bring Philip Roth’s epic American novel to screen. Connelly relates on the differences between her role as a concerned onscreen mother and her own experience with her family.
Winding down my last day, ZFF has saved some of the best for last with Two Lottery Tickets, a wry Romanian comedy about a trio of friends awkwardly searching for a winning lottery ticket lost in a robbery. The sold-out audience is in stitches for much of the time (to the apparent relief of director Paul Negoescu and his team, who are in attendance), and the ZFF jury agree—by awarding the film a special mention in the International Feature Competition.
All in all, the 12th annual Zurich Film Festival was a rousing success, and its estimated 90,000 attendees can most likely attest to that. Sporting a vibrant selection of international cinema in a beautiful cosmopolitan city, this festival continues to impress and make its mark on the global film festival scene. MM
The Zurich Film Festival ran September 22 – October 2, 2016. Visit the festival’s website here.