As the most prestigious film festival in Switzerland, Locarno is also a crucial opportunity to draw the attention of the international press and film industry to recent Swiss cinema — a chance that cannot be missed, as unfortunately most of the independent domestic productions strive to gain exposure at other festivals and otherwise access the worldwide circuits of distribution. What I was able to behold in Locarno this year might partly explain why it is so.
“An international exchange and cooperation is vital for Swiss cinema to develop and expand its scope,” said Federal Counselor Alain Berset at the annual press conference of the Swiss Federal Office of Culture (FOC) in Locarno. To make domestic cinema more attractive for the international marketplace is one of the main concerns of the FOC, which presented a new investment program in cinematography for the next five years with the stated aim of promoting the exportation of our films.
A noteworthy shift in the financial support policy is that in the future the criteria based on success will no longer only consider the sales at the domestic box office, but also the amount of nominations at film festivals around the world: this is a way to concentrate the funding on the films which have (at least) European potential, and it shows that international recognition has become a priority.
At Locarno, the International Competition is the most high-profile window for any nominated movie. This year, “Heimatland” created quite a bit of expectation because of the experimental nature of the project: 10 young promising Swiss filmmakers mingle their voices in one single dystopia, where in a series of intertwined episodes we see Switzerland being threatened by a huge storm which forces people to flee en masse, putting them in the position of the unwelcome refugee, possibly as a sort of ironic punishment for the country’s insanely restrictive immigration policies of the last decades.
Although the film has been rather positively received — among others by the prestigious Neuer Zürcher Zeitung — the concise response of the Hollywood Reporter’s Boyd van Hoeij at a panel discussion about Swiss cinema’s place on the world stage put the finger exactly where it hurts: “The idea is much more interesting than the film is successful in fulfilling its premises.” Maybe the task, although fascinating in itself, was simply too ambitious to be carried out properly: The episodes interweave by virtue of the editing, but they remain heterogeneous in their visual quality, atmosphere, rhythm and storylines, so that “Heimatland” seems more like a bunch of short movies stitched together than an accomplished long feature with a proper plot development and escalation of suspense.
At the panel, Variety’s Peter Debruge also identified the main shortcomings of “Heimatland” in its fragmentation and lack of suspense, but beyond the cinematic issues he argued that “the film won’t probably be able to cross the Swiss border because it engages with local issues in such a self-referential way that no other country could identify with it.” The film will probably not contribute to improve the international reputation of Swiss fiction, which is traditionally regardless less favorably than Swiss documentary, but it is also true that it cannot be taken as representative of the year’s harvest, since selection in the Competition requires the film to premiere at the Festival and thus the different release timing excludes many from the race.
There is, however, a parallel section at Locarno that provides the necessary counterbalance, though much less prominently, screening a selection of 12 films which, according to a committee composed by the Swiss Film Academy, Swiss Films and the Solothurn Film Festival, should represent the best of current Swiss cinema.
It is significant that with eight nonfiction movies against four fictions, the documentary still dominates the Swiss scene. The most thrilling discovery was, without any doubt, the documentary “Above and Below,” the graduation work of the 31-year-old Swiss filmmaker Nicolas Steiner, which premiered at Rotterdam in January, got reviewed in April by Variety as one of “the year’s most remarkable cinematic discoveries” and recently found US distribution via Oscilloscope.
In his documentary, Nicolas Steiner enters the everyday life of five characters living off the grid. Three of them shelter underground in the drainage tunnels of Las Vegas – Ricky, Cindy and Lalo – trying to survive as they can out of what they find in the garbage. On the above side of earth two others dwell in the desert: Dave in an ex military bunker fixing up his life and waiting for the possibility of a new start, while April works on the Mars Desert Research Station where she prepares for an expedition on Mars that will probably never occur in her lifetime.
“Above and Below” openly breaks the rules of traditional documentary by introducing staged scenes, by making use of certain highly aesthetic camera movements and craning upwards that haven’t certainly been improvised, or by consciously employing light effects as to achieve a symbolic cinematography (headlamps that glow like an astronaut’s helmet, a fiber optic lamp reminding the stars). The innumerable visual and auditory cross references between the storylines also reveal a writing and editing style that is close to fiction. In his humanistic approach, Steiner lets emerge the universal character inherent to his storytelling and protagonists emerge, making his visual message spread out to a potentially global audience.
By embracing the new trend of the hybrid doc and seeking for his subjects outside of Switzerland, Nicolas Steiner is definitely showing the way for Swiss filmmakers to reach out to the world. Together with an internationally oriented subsidiary politics of the Swiss Government to fuel such productions (“Above and Below” started with no funding!), and the Film Festival of Locarno continuing to provide the necessary visibility to domestic directors, independent Swiss cinema might be able to be more present worldwide in the future.