A prestigious showcase of the most recent Swiss film productions, the 55th Solothurn Film Festivalexternal link opens its doors on Wednesday, marking the debut of new director Anita Hugi. She wants to go beyond clichés about Swiss cinema and Swiss identity.
The festival’s headquarters are located in a former petrol station on a nondescript road away from the old town of Solothurn, with a European Union flag flying on the roof. The Kulturgarage (Cultural Garage) seems like a hub for the city’s cultural life. The ambience in the festival office is relaxed.
Anita Hugi receives us after a battery of interviews – as the newly appointed director of the festival, she is as hot a topic as the film line-up.
With a solid career behind her in the film industry (including in the independent scene), television, and, more recently, as director of Montreal’s International Festival of Films on Artexternal link, she has plenty of opinions on the current state of Swiss film-making.
Created in 1966, the Solothurner Filmtage is one of the oldest film festivals in Switzerland and the most important for the Swiss film industry. Anita Hugi is just the fourth director in its 55 years, replacing Seraina Rohrer, who led the event since 2011 and who has now moved on to Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council. To decide the main prize of the festival, the jury this year is made up by film-maker Ursula Meier (FR/CH), German-Kurdish artist Cemile Sahin and Swiss diplomat Mirko Manzoni, who recently brokered a peace agreement in Mozambique.
Swiss films, global perspectives
A few things stand out about this year’s festival programme: the quantity of films produced or co-produced in Switzerland in the past year; the fundamental role played by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (swissinfo.ch's parent company) in almost every co-production; and the globalisation of Swiss cinema, in terms of production (international partnerships), film-makers – many of them, especially the younger ones, of foreign origin – and films that often take place abroad, in all corners of the world.
Hugi is not surprised by this international aspect of Swiss cinema.
“We Swiss are all foreigners, aren’t we?”
She is more impressed with the number of productions tackling the climate crisis and the environment as well as works that touch on more universal issues, such as family life, coming-of-age and existential matters.
Hugi doesn’t put much stock in clichés, and actively drives against them. She resists the idea that the Swiss have no sense of humour (or a very strict one). And she makes her point by the choice of the opening film, Micha Lewinsky’s “Moskau Einfach!”external link ("One-way to Moscow"), a fictionalised comedy delving into one of the most outrageous moments of Swiss recent history, the infamous “secret files scandal” that surfaced at the end of the Cold War.
Treating such a delicate subject with humour is not an easy task, but it gives the film potential to reach a much larger audience and achieve an importance beyond its own filmic qualities. “Moskau Einfach!” has undertones of Rolf Lyssy’s “The Swissmakers”external link ("Die Schweizermacher"), a comedy about immigration officers prying on Italian and Eastern European immigrants. It was released in 1978, when the establishment discourse on the subject was marked by racism and intolerance, thanks in part to the controversial right-wing politician James Schwarzenbach. The Swissmakers’ audience has spanned generations and the film remains a reference point today.
But if the Swiss can be funny, they can also play to the cliché of seriousness. Hugi finds a special quality in Swiss movies in the way filmmakers deal with their subject matter. They are not afraid of addressing indiscreet or inconvenient issues, contrary to how social mores are played out in daily life.
Hugi watched more than 600 works that applied for the festival, and her final list counts 178 Swiss films, apart from retrospectives (of director Heidi Specognaexternal link) and special homages to female pioneers of Swiss cinema such as Patricia Moraz, Christine Pascal, and Paule Muret. Solothurn will showcase a gender-equal line-up this year, with about half female and half male filmmakers featured.
It's one way Hugi is making a mark on the festival. But she is modest when asked how she plans to distinguish her direction.
“First of all, I have to know the history of the festival very deeply. It goes in the ‘respect-the-tradition’ line, but still, the most important functions of a festival like Solothurn are the encounters, to build bridges, and make people get to know each other."
She seeks to tear down the the Röstigraben (“the Rösti border”), a virtual divide separating the French and German-speaking parts of the country, in an event bringing together cinema students from the three primary linguistic regions of Switzerland – French, German and Italian. And there will also be debate on the salaries of film directors and labour conditions in the film industry.
“Voilà... this is the spirit of Solothurn," Hugi sums up.