The Locarno film festival has premiered Switzerland’s own Michael Moore-style documentary about provincial Swiss. The interior minister, in town to talk about national film policy, said the work homed in on Swiss sore points.
Image Problem, running in the festival’s international competition, singles out Swiss living in rural German-speaking parts of the country. Film-makers Simon Baumann and Andreas Pfiffner say the film is an attempt to restore what they see as the declining image of their native country.
“On the one hand we have the mountains, the lakes, chocolate and Roger Federer and on the other hand it's a country of people hiding fortunes from the taxman, the headquarters of dubious multinationals and freeloaders from Europe. We wanted to look at these two clichés,” said Baumann.
With this in mind, the pair travelled to alpine countryside, where balconies are covered geraniums and garden gnomes abound, where the Swiss flag is proudly flown and where no one wants to hear that Switzerland may have an image problem. “They seem like a bunch of idiots,” says one communications expert in the film.
Why the omission of young people from the film, as well as foreigners (who make up a quarter of the population), and urban Switzerland? “We didn’t necessarily want a representative sample, we wanted to keep what seemed the most interesting to us,” says Pfiffner.
There may be laughs from the start of the film but once the element of surprise goes, the film starts to drag, prompting the viewer to question where it’s heading. “The provincial racism that pops up in what people said ended up becoming the main theme of the film,” said Baumann.
Indeed, there is talk of “Negroes”, “the East bloc” (23 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall), and even one man’s regret that “Adolf didn’t finish the job”.
To repair their nation’s image, the film-makers convince some of the interviewees to apologise for Switzerland’s misdeeds to the world. Some face the camera and read statements of regret for action by Swiss banks, for the greed of multinationals, for Swiss business ties with apartheid South Africa. Other agree to fly the European flag.
What partly salvages this confusing picture is the film-makers satirical stance and their method of not taking themselves too seriously. They do not hide their clumsy amateurism. The pair have a touch of Laurel and Hardy cinema about them, which gives way to a series of gags, at once nonsensical and student-like.
“The debate on what kind of Swiss we want to be and our place in the world has died down a little,” said Baumann. However it is not certain that this film will help reignite it. Behind the smiles of the urban German-speaking strata at which it is aimed, Image Problem risks to only alienate those who it gently mocks and result in indifference.
Swiss film industry
For Alain Berset, the minister in charge of culture, the film was a chance to talk about Swiss identity and to “look at our most sensitive points”, Le Temps newspaper reported.
As for the image of Swiss films, Berset used his trip to Locarno to announce he had turned down bids to create an independent institute for the promotion of Swiss cinema – as desired by Cinésuisse, the Swiss Film Producers Association.
Berset said the encouragement of film should not be delegated to an outside body and that he was convinced that Swiss cinema would be weakened rather than strengthened by such an institute. Cinésuisse said it was disappointed.
The minister also spoke of his goal of better positioning Swiss culture within the European context, notably by continuing to take part in the European Union’s Media programme for developing the film industry.
In another area of culture, he confirmed the launch of a bi-annual prize for dance worth SFr800,000 ($824,000), the first of which will be awarded in 2013.