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Cannes showcases Swiss “cries for freedom”

Reuters/Eric Gaillard

From the dreams of young Swiss revolutionaries in the 1970s to the fantasies of a 50-year-old Lisbon dockworker who wants to run away to Sweden, two very different Swiss films are up for an award in Cannes this year.

Opération Libertad (Operation freedom), a feature film by Nicolas Wadimoff, and Os Vivos Tambien Choram (The living also cry), a short film by Basil da Cunha, have been selected for the Directors’ Fortnight, which runs from May 17-27.

The Fortnight, which runs parallel to the other Cannes screenings and awards, aims to uncover young talent and aid more independent filmmakers.

Since it was launched in 1969, it has showcased first works by directors such as Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, Ken Loach, Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee.

This is the third year in a row that Swiss films have been selected for the prestigious award.

In 2010, the section showcased Cleveland vs. Wall Street, Swiss director Jean-Stéphane Bron’s film about a mock tribunal in Ohio in which small-town victims of the subprime crisis in the United States fight it out with bankers.

And this is not the first appearance for da Cunha, a young Geneva-based director of Portuguese origins, whose short film Nuvem-Le Poisson Lune (Sunfish) missed out on an award last year.

The artistic director of the Directors’ Fortnight, Edouard Waintrop, is not at all surprised that Swiss directors have featured in three successive Cannes programmes.

“No, it’s justified,” said Waintrop, adding that it was a sign of the excellent health of Swiss cinema, “one of the most personalised in Europe”.

Sense of freedom

As the former director of the Fribourg International Film Festival, an ex-film critic for the French Libération newspaper and the current head of the Grütli cinema complex in Geneva, Waintrop knows what he is talking about.

“[Alain] Tanner is Tanner, and [Claude] Goretta is Goretta. It’s impossible to tie them to a particular cinema movement. Their talent is the tremendous sense of freedom they bring,” he said.

“The same goes for Nicolas Wadimoff, who makes me think of Tanner and his insolence. The people who drew up this year’s programme were aware of that; they are sensitive to French-speaking Swiss cinema, perhaps more so than what goes on in the German-speaking region.”

Wadimoff, 48, who is also based in Geneva, is from the political school of Swiss cinema. He has directed and produced a handful of films such as The Clandestines and Still Alive in Gaza (see related story), which have both received international awards.

Opération Libertad, which will be premiered in Cannes, is the story of a group of young left-wing revolutionaries who rob a Zurich bank in 1978 to denounce ties between the financial system and foreign dictators. A Latin American despot allegedly deposited millions of dollars in the bank. The group film their action and 30 years later the video cassettes resurface.

Extensive research

The fictional story is the result of extensive research and contacts with people who were active in far-left circles in Switzerland the 1970s.

“Our aim was not to talk about the Swiss financial system at that time but to look at direct action and political activism,” Wadimoff said.

“In the 1970s some Swiss activists were in contact with the Red Army Faction in Germany and with the Red Brigades in Italy. These are the activists I talk about in my film. I question their motives and fervour. The bank is just a backdrop. The main thing is, ‘Is there a price to pay when you become a revolutionary activist?’ I would say yes, of course. What I hope is that this film sparks a debate.”

The film is not an obvious film, the director insists. “If I talk about this low point in Swiss history, it’s also to talk about the country’s capacity to amazingly digest all these scandals and come out in one piece. It’s what I call a ‘fine balancing act’.”
Waintrop is a big fan. “Wadimoff pushes caricature to the limit. If Switzerland is shown in the film to be very advanced in knowing how to deal with crises, it’s because its security system is based on silence. The bank has no interest to declare that it has been robbed by activists. So, the activists are confronted with a much more sophisticated system than theirs.”

Reality and fantasy

Basil da Cunha’s cinematic style is very different from Wadimoff’s.

Os Vivos Tambien Choram (The living also cry) tells the story of Zé, a dockworker from Lisbon who dreams of fleeing his wife and job with the little savings he has in search of a new life in Sweden.

Da Cunha’s film weaves together a subtle mix of reality and fantasy.

“He escapes into dreams but knows how to keep his feet on the ground. This is his unique magic,” said Waintrop, who describes the young Geneva director as one of the most promising new stars.

“Even if he studied in Switzerland, his inspiration remains Portugal, which is very open. So much the better. His presence during the Directors’ Fortnight, alongside Nicolas Wadimoff, is a sign of the diversity of Swiss cinema, which encompasses a growing number of different styles but which still manages to maintain a coherent individual approach.”

The 65th Cannes International Film Festival is taking place from May 16-27. Cannes is showcasing a number of Swiss films or those co-produced by Swiss companies.

Previous successes include: A Fleur d’eau/In Wechselndem Gefälle by Alexandre J. Seiler, which won the Short Film Palm d’Or in 1963, The Invitation by Claude Goretta, which won the Grand Prix Special Jury Prize in 1973 and The Lacemaker by Claude Goretta, which took the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury in 1977.

Other Swiss films that have been well received in recent years include: Le Créneau by Frédéric Mermoud (2007), Home by Ursula Meier (2008), Socialism by Jean-Luc Godard (2010) and Cleveland vs. Wall Street by Jean-Stéphane Bron (2010).

Nicolas Wadimoff

Born in Geneva in 1963, Wadimoff worked from 1992-1996 as a director for the Swiss national television station TSR (now RTS). He produced numerous documentaries in Libya, Algeria, Palestine, Israel, Yemen and Rwanda.

He is the founding member of the film production company Caravane, which he co-directed from 1997-2002. In 2002 he created a new company, Akka Films, which produces documentaries and fiction films.

He has directed and produced The Clandestines, The Accord and Still Alive in Gaza.


Basil da Cunha

Born in Morges in 1985, he is currently studying film at the Geneva Art and Design school (HEAD). He has directed several short films and is a member of the association Thera Production.

His previous film A Côté was nominated for the 2010 Swiss Cinema Prize. He also produced the short films La Loi du Talion (2008) and Nuvem-Le Poisson Lune (2011).

(Translated from French by Simon Bradley)

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