Hooray For Helvywood: knowing Switzerland through its films

With the 2011 edition of the Locarno Film Festival soon to get under way, contributor Robert La Bua casts a cinematic eye at Switzerland's oft-overlooked celluloid exploits.

Hooray For Helvywood: knowing Switzerland through its films
Festival del film Locarno 2011

People around the world are familiar with American culture—however maligned that phrase may be— thanks to the omnipresence of US-made television programmes and movies portraying everything from obsession with vampires to suburban families, sometimes in the same plotline.

Given the wide variety of themes and sheer number of programmes and films produced in the United States, it is difficult to pinpoint one or the other as the paragon of American cultural and social mores. 

In smaller countries with smaller productions, the exaggeration of options is less acute, but in Switzerland’s case, not necessarily less intricate. Despite its reputation as a land of financial services, watches, and chocolate, Switzerland has had a vital film industry for decades, and though the number of films produced annually may be low, the quality of the films is not. 

They often reflect the signs of the times and serve as something of a celluloid time capsule of Switzerland for those watching them years later.  Perhaps Switzerland’s multicultural society creates a challenge similar to the American one; what exactly is the definition of a Swiss film? A country with split personalities and linguistic variations even from one valley to the next, Switzerland can present a cultural dilemma for those who may find the search for a Swiss psyche to be somewhat elusive. 

One of the easiest ways to gain insight into the Swiss is through their films.  Switzerland is not the first country to come to mind with regard to great cinema, yet its film industry has produced some commendable results.

Swiss films such as Ursula Meier’s award-winning debut Home (2008) and Ivan Engler’s Cargo (2009), the country’s first science-fiction film, continue a long tradition of cinematic endeavours in Confoederatio Helvetica. 

Another dramatic debut was made by Richard Dembo, with his film Dangerous Moves (original title: La Diagonale du fou) winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 1984, surpassing in recognition previously Oscar-nominated Swiss films First Love (Erste Liebe) in 1970 and L’Invitation in 1973. 

After the nomination of Markus Imhoof’s The Boat Is Full (Das Boot ist voll) in 1981, Switzerland was again awarded the gold statuette for Best Foreign Language Film in 1990 for the moving story told in Xavier Koller’s Journey Of Hope (Reise der Hoffnung).  All these films have served to keep Switzerland in the Hollywood mix while encouraging Swiss talent to pursue their vision and develop their talents.

One of Switzerland’s most daring directors, Lionel Baier, has produced a string of intriguing films, almost all of them featuring his muse, the very cosmopolitan Genevoise Natacha Koutchoumov, the only professional actor in a cast of ‘real people’ for the film Garçon Stupide (Stupid Boy, 2004), one of several Baier films with gay themes complementing the bigger picture; Comme des Voleurs (Stealth, 2006) and Un Autre Homme (Another Man, 2008) are two others

Seemingly set on a biennial production schedule, Baier’s 2010 film, Low Cost (Claude Jutra) is equally provocative, albeit for different reasons.  How would it be to be a little boy who knows when he is going to die? 

Today, we see a new Swiss film making its way around the world of film festivals, winning accolades along the way. Vitus is the story of another little boy, this one with a big talent. It seems to be striking the right keys with the moviegoing public since it is on the ascent as a must-see foreign film in other countries. 

While the Swiss film industry may be dominated by German- and French-language productions, it is in Ticino that we find one of the country’s most prestigious venues for exhibiting them alongside excellent productions from around the world. 

The annual Locarno Film Festival takes place this year August 3-13 and promises once again to be an entertaining and enlightening event. Going strong for 64 years now, making it one of the world’s longest-running cinematic festivals, the Locarno Film Festival presents a rather appealing contradiction by presenting arthouse and auteur films yet placing a great emphasis on the audience’s reactions to the films in the Festival programme as well as the judges’. 

There are worse places in the world to spend a sultry August evening than in front of an enormous screen enjoying a fine film on Locarno’s charming Piazza Grande, where the audience has the last word on the Festival’s Prix du Public… and the word, it seems, is that Swiss films are in vogue in the 21st century.