In Europe, only Russia and its “big five” powers produced more features in 2019 than Switzerland’s 119. Few have a more pronounced documentary output. Twenty-six Swiss titles play at Swiss doc fest Visions du Réel this year, from “The Bubble” and “Ostrov” in main International Competition to 12 in a National Competition. Five more projects, near completion, mostly from directors who have already made their mark, screened via excerpts at a Swiss Films Previews showcase on Sunday. They say a lot about some directions that one of Europe’s proudest documentary traditions is heading:
Europe’s Most Cosmopolitan Production Sector
One direction, most obviously, is abroad. “The Bubble” is a shrewd take on the world’s biggest retirement community, in Florida. “Ostrov” is set on the benighted shores of the Caspian Sea. Another Swiss doc, “The Lunar Course of My Life” in National Competition, takes a pained look at Japan’s “hikikomori” youths, who suffer severe social phobia. Of the five titles in the Swiss Films Previews, only one, “LUX,” takes place entirely within Swiss borders. Others range over seven African countries (“Women’s Africa”) or from Canada to Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai (“My Old Man”) or from France to Germany and the U.S. (“Loving Highsmith”). “I Coroneri” unspools mostly in Rome. An outsider’s perspective, with no domestic agenda, may benefit many of these films.
Switzerland’s Revisionist Gaze
Over the last decade a new generation of young Swiss directors has questioned many of the country’s dominant myths that forge its sense of identity, whether it’s independence from foreign intervention (“Heimatland”), the probity of its banks (“Azor”) or its democratic civility (“Chrieg”). The titles in Swiss Films Previews this year often had this sense of revisionism. The first feature of Raphaël Dubach and Mateo Ybarra, “LUX” chronicles a huge military exercise that took place in October 2018 in Geneva in which the Swiss army is asked to quash a simulated terrorist attack. Introducing its own fantasy elements, “LUX,” a quietly mordant comedy, asks if it’s really up to the job. “We wanted to show the Swiss army in a way that has never been seen before, a raw, frontal and immersive approach which questions the army’s contemporary credibility,” Dubach said at the Previews. “LUX” won the SRG SSR Award at Locarno’s The Films After Tomorrow.
Aging: a Visions Leitmotif
Two potential Visions du Réel standouts this year, “The Bubble” and “The Home,” a work-in-progress, set retirement communities in larger social contexts. Seven Vit’s “My Old Man” also tackles the baby boomer crisis in a portrait of his father Rudy’s first three years of retirement. Rudy, Vit told Swiss Films Andreas Bühlmann at the Previews, “represents a whole generation of men who led an old-fashioned way of life with his job as his central source of identity.” In one excerpt from the documentary the director captures Rudy moping, purposeless. “When simply living your life is all you have to do, who do you choose to be?” Vit asks in a voiceover. It is a large question, indeed, as maybe the last generation who can afford it head toward retirement in ever more massive numbers.
A Gender-Issue Conscious Cinema
In an age of new accountability for festivals and the industry at large, “Nobody should forget what are the voices and ideas which need circulation in these times,” Sundance director Tabitha Jackson said at a Visions du Réel Talk on Monday. It’s no coincidence that all the five documentaries explore gender issues, none more so than “Women’s Africa” and “Loving Highsmith.” In the first, Mohammed Soudani, a Swiss Film Award winner for 1997’s “Waalo Fendo,” interviews powerful women across Africa who are on a mission to better the continent’s future. After decades of catastrophic male authoritarian rule, Africa’s future, Soudani argues, belongs to women.
“Loving Highsmith,” from Eva Vitija (“My Life as a Film”), delivers a revisionist take on the famed novelist. A cynical misogynist? “I immediately fell in love with the person hiding behind the famous crime writer,” said Vitija. “Diving into her unpublished diaries, I discovered a very romantic woman that astonished me, who had to conceal her very lively [lesbian] love life being born into a very conservative Texas rodeo family.” That concealment primed Highsmith’s recurring themes of guilt and double identity, Vitija argues.
’I Coroneri’: Seeking A New Take on COVID-19
It’s now a near cliché that COVID-19 accelerated change. That can play out in multiple ways, however. With the pandemic, Laura Marzi and filmmaker partner Daniel Kemény (“Sone”) retreated to her house in Rome. But an already fragile relationship breaks down. Daniel feels safer and better alone outside the house. “There’s a game of mirrors between my house in Rome where Daniel and I are together, but distant and isolated, and the world outside, which is isolated because of the pandemic,” Marzi, the film’s co-author, said at the Previews. Multiple lockdown stories have been made. But “I Coroneri” could be different, Kemény argued. There’s also the suggestion that, having taken six years to make “Sone,” COVID-19 gave Kemény a story on a plate. “It’s a love story, not just documentation, and has good characters. There’s narration.” Even if that storyline records the failure of his relationship with Marzi.
TITLES AT SWISS FILMS PREVIEWS
Dir: Daniel Kemény
Prod: Michela Pini
Production Company: Cinédokké Sagl
Locations: Rome, Calabria
Dir: Eva Vitija
Prod: Franziska Sonder, Maurizius Staerkle Drux and Carl-Ludwig Rettinger
Production Company: Ensemble Film GmbH
Locations: U.S., France, Germany and Switzerland
Dir: Raphaël Dubach and Mateo Ybarra
Prod: Raphaël Dubach and Mateo Ybarra
Production Company: Jeunes Sauvages
Locations: Geneva and Bern, Switzerland
‘My Old Man’
Dir: Steven Vit
Prod: David Fonjallaz and Louis Mataré
Production Company: Lomotion AG Filmproduktion
Locations: Switzerland, Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and Canada
Dir: Mohammed Soudani
Prod: Amel Soudani, Michela Pini and Tiziana Soudani
Production Company: Amka Films Productions SA
Locations: Ghana, Senegal, Rwanda, Mozambique, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Burundi and Switzerland