News  ·  24 | 04 | 2023

Locarno Critics Academy: The Past and the Present

Christopher Small runs the Critics Academy, a workshop for young critics that takes place during the Locarno Film Festival, 2-12 August 2023. Applications are open until May 7th for aspiring critics between the age of 18 and 35.

©Locarno Film Festival / Ti-Press

Laura Mulvey stands in front of us, narrating the opening sequence of Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959) on the fly. The curtains are drawn; her face is illuminated by the light of the projector, which flashes images of Lana Turner dashing around a Coney Island beachfront in search of her daughter up onto the wall. A rotating room fan blows Mulvey’s hair in all directions as she speaks. It shudders loudly one way and the other, but her concentration is not broken and neither is ours. We – critics, curators, and filmmakers – listen to this rockstar of feminist film theory as she annotates a masterpiece in real time.

Ordinarily, this would be a once-in-a-lifetime encounter for a writer of any age but – I’m getting to the point – in this context it was merely a paradigmatic Locarno Critics Academy experience. I’m thinking of other great encounters over the years. A dialogue between Bernard Eisenschitz and Miguel Marías. A frank and invigorating discussion between three Festival Directors – Cíntia Gil, Eva Sangiorgi, and Sara García Villanueva – about their experiences piecing together varied but coherent artistic programs. Discussions with filmmakers like Aleksandr Sokurov or Maren Ade, Bong Joon-ho or Todd Haynes, Abel Ferrara or Michael Cimino, Kelly Reichardt or John Waters. The list goes on.

Many of these private encounters have led to published pieces. Todd Haynes spoke with Keva York (Critics Academy 2022) about Douglas Sirk’s influence on his films. Sofie Cato Maas (Critics Academy 2019) was the only journalist in Locarno to interview jury president Catherine Breillat at length. Andrew Northrup (Critics Academy 2022) took things a step further and spoke with the projectionists who bring the 35mm prints of the world-famous Locarno Retrospective to life.

Starting in 2012, the Critics Academy has taken place each year besides one. Since the festival itself went ahead in a largely hybrid format in 2020,  our workshop – which we could not imagine taking place online – was supplanted by a series of commissioned texts by former participants in response to the films and filmmakers selected for Locarno’s pandemic initiative The Films After Tomorrow.

A moving correspondence on a cross-continental romance that begun during the Critics Academy in 2018. A text about Éric Baudelaire that is cut short – literally – by the August 2020 explosion in the docks of Beirut. A visual and textual response both to the films of Lucrecia Martel and to the magical 10 days of the Locarno Academy.

In 2022, the Locarno Film Festival provided support for a print magazine coordinated and edited by alumni of the Critics Academy, including myself. Outskirts Film Magazine, the second issue of which will appear in late spring, proves that the borders of the workshop extend well beyond Locarno, the fixed dates of the Festival, and the films selected for any given edition.

Few prolonged experiences as an aspiring writer about the movies promise quite the same density of life-altering interactions and encounters as the Critics Academy does. Participants in the workshop write throughout the Festival for our partnering outlets – the Locarno Daily, Swissinfo, Variety, MUBI Notebook – and can pitch directly to others, like Film Comment, Sight & Sound, and Indiewire.

Undoubtedly, everybody emerges as a better, more capable writer – but the experience is as much about reflection and contemplation as it is about prodigious output.


At Locarno, I was able to surrender myself to the joy of loving things, just because they inspired awe and feeling - without having to have perfect utility, or a perfectly redeemable social value. The questions and ideas I walked away with might just stay with me for life - they’ve already informed some of the most formative choices I’ve made in the year that followed.

This year’s edition of the Locarno Critics Academy will take place from 2-12 August 2023. Applications are open until May 7th for aspiring critics between the age of 18 and 35.