By Pascaline Sordet | Indiewire August 18, 2014 at 10:00AM
They are part of the new generation of Swiss directors and they make films which have been recognized at international festivals. But they feel ignored by the Federal Office of Culture, which distributes most of the public funding. As a result, they decided to form a group acting on a political level for better understanding of low-budget film financial needs. They advocate for a tool specifically designed for those productions, escaping the heavy selection process imposed on fiction film.
Under the name "Swiss Fiction Movement," in a first public talk on the second day of the Locarno Film Festival, they called for greater diversity and a springboard for the next generation.
What kind of films should be made?
The Swiss funding policy has always been a hot-button issue, resurfacing every couple years. What kind of films should be produced and for what audiences? In 2006, Head of the Film Section in the Federal Office of Culture Nicolas Bideau promised to promote and finance "popular quality film" leaving it to the public to determined what that definition exactly included. As the cultural budget is supposed to increase again, reaching 894,6 million Swiss francs ($986 million) for the 2016-2019 period, directors from the new generation want their cut. "We are citizens and we want to debate, bring ideas to the table," said director Mirko Bischofberger, spokesperson of the Swiss Fiction Movement.
What the signatories are asking for is a financial tool allowing the total funding of a project, up to 300'000 Swiss francs ($330,700), even if the law currently limits funding to 50% of the total budget. They also want no restrictions on technical aspects such as size of the crew, duration of the shooting or salaries. The director, producer and writer could be the same person and the film last no less than 70 minutes. With 3 million Swiss francs ($3.3 million) each year, the government will be able to support ten movies from upcoming filmmakers.
But in order to create such a tool, the government would have to abandon the 50% funding rule and authorize the salaries to drop. Two propositions that raise concerns, even if, as director of Der Sandmann Peter Luisi puts it: "films not being made is not a solution."
Raising questions about income
Representatives of institutions such as the national promotion agency Swissfilms and the Swiss Association of Filmmaker and Scriptwriter (ARF/FDS) said they were very proud of the young filmmaker for speaking their mind. But they expressed fears about the tool being too flexible and therefore lacking control over salaries. Ursula Häberlin, director of ARF/FDS, called upon the members of the Swiss Fiction Movement to fit within a economically viable landscape: "We are concerned about salary dumping, and that with no control from the funding institution over income, people will be underpaid on set. Even low-budget films need to find an organization that allows for living wages."
"The reality is that we earn little money," said the Swiss-German director Peter Luisi, who added that in order to avoid dumping crew and cast, filmmakers should have access to all financial information available: "The budget has to be transparent, and can be consulted by anyone at anytime. The salaries are then seen as an investment."
Director Samuel Schwarz said that it's also a question of efficiency. Schwartz shot his last feature, "Mary and Johnny" in nine days, in order to be able to pay the salaries. "Knowing what is really useful to shoot and how is a question of craft and modernity," said Schwarz.
If films are already being made, why ask for change?
The independent film scene already exists, as the signatories prove. Why then battle to enter a system which will impose control and bureaucracy on their projects? "We believe there could be even more films" said spokesperson Mirko Bischofberger. "If we produce ten low-budget films each year and the two best are shown in Locarno, in a couple years, we will have a substantial body of work and artistic signatures will surely emerge. We just want to use the existing potential."
Dominik Locher, director of "Tempo Girl," said a new financial tool will "transform the Swiss landscape into a more interesting place." In its Manifesto, the Swiss Fiction Movement compares the situation of students graduating in film theory and the ones from art schools: in academics, there's a possible evolution from a master degree to a PhD to a post-doc and then from an assisting position to eventually a professor level. In filmmaking, after graduation there's maybe a short film and then there's this enormous step to take to actually be a director of feature film. The new tool could smooth the process.
What they propose is nothing new. Other countries have created similar initiatives. The Microwave in London, and Venice Biennale College in Italy serve the same goal: make movies happen, even the small one, and help filmmakers moving from shorts to feature films.
The number of students in Swiss film schools exploded in 2013, growing to almost two hundred. Surprisingly, the country is home to four film sections (in Zurich, Lucern, Lausanne and Geneva) but new directors are pretty much left to fend for themselves after they graduate. Luisi, who has shot five feature films in the last ten years said that even though he hasn't always received funding from the Federal Office of Culture, he has managed to make films. "With our tool, we reduce the financial risks for the filmmakers and help foster more professionals," he said.
Freedom and independence at risk
"You ask for a tool, but you could be the Nouvelle Vague 2014," said a producer in the audience in Locarno. The answer is straight-forward, the Movement is a political lobby, the directors share common financial interest but are not aesthetically or theoretically related. They are not willing to start a cinematic revolution, but only to open the debate on the financing system.
The Swiss Association of Filmmaker and Scriptwriter addressed the second and maybe most important flaw in the proposition: the law allows public funding of only 50% of a budget, to ensure productions stay independent. But the currently discussed proposition wants to change that, even if "liberty is at risk," said Bischofberger. "That's why we ask for a very flexible instrument."
Isabelle Chassot, Head of the Federal Office of Culture said it is indeed the right moment to address those issues, because the funding system is currently being discussed inside the office. The support of young artists is a real concern for her department but the proposal isn't feasible at the moment. "We need to say to those young filmmakers that a 100% funding of a project is not possible, it's against the federal laws," said Chassot. But if politicians are interested in the proposal, they will figure something out.
This article is part of a series written by members of the 2014 Locarno Critics Academy, organized by Indiewire, the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Locarno Film Festival.