Books in haphazard piles are stacked along the walls of David Syz’s office in a light corner room of his home on the edge of Lake Zurich. The former head of the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) is in the middle of researching his next film project.
At the age of 71 Syz hasn’t relaxed into a steady stream of lunches and gardening, instead he’s busy making films about globalisation, hunger and unemployment.
“I had a lot of experience which I wanted to convey to a wider audience. I could have written it in a book, but I hate writing…and no one would have read it anyway,” he laughs.
After 25 years working in the private sector, ultimately as CEO of the SIG Holding group, Syz was asked by then cabinet minister Pascal Couchepin, to become director of SECO. It was a fundamental shift for Syz to move from the private to public sector, and one that eventually turned into a somewhat frustrating experience for him.
“I had a feeling I didn’t really achieve what I wanted to achieve,” Syz told swissinfo.ch. “I was coming from the private sector where I was used to having results, it’s more difficult in policies to have tangible results!”
He stayed in the role for five years, but at the age of 60, packed in the position, hoping that he would at least be able to share some of the knowledge he had accumulated in the job when dealing with the different issues he had had to work on.
“The idea of making a movie came to me in the last year while I was at SECO,” Syz said. He enrolled himself on a film-making course in New York.
“I was in class with youngsters. There was quite a generation gap,” he said. “But we were all trying to write some scripts…it was a good experience to see how other people think, outside of the world I was in.”
His role is mainly to find the content for the film – coming up with the concept, writing the script, finding interview partners – he now has a regular team for the technical sides to the production, from filming to editing. His first film in 2006 – Steel War – came from a problem he had been involved in while he was at SECO. The US imposed tariffs on steel imports in 2002 to protect its domestic industry, however, this angered key commercial rivals who felt they were left with no choice but to impose their own tariffs too, to protect their own industries from steel deflected from the US.
“It was an international issue that concerned Switzerland,” said Syz. For him, the film was a chance to show “how such economic wars impact life and labour even in supposedly unconcerned countries”.
His time at SECO gave him a new perspective, partly because of the connections he made with other countries and partly because of the understanding he gained into the economic situations of other nations. “I have learned to be more open and to take into account the political issues, the social issues, and not only profitability.”
Seeing and being seen
At first Syz wanted to “motivate” politicians to see his films, but soon found out, as he puts it, “they already know everything”, and so he shifted his focus to the “potential politicians” – students at schools and colleges.
Non-governmental organisations are also a key audience – groups with a particular interest in the type of issues he focuses on.
“Making a movie is one thing, but showing it is something else,” said Syz. He discovered that an important part of the process for the sort of film he produces is personally going around with the film to screenings, and doing talks afterwards.
His third film, Hunger in a World of Plenty was shown on BBC World, Deutsche Welle and Swiss public television, SRF. He had around 130 events to accompany screenings of the film too.
“I would be very unhappy if I would just show the movie somewhere and then you don’t hear anything anymore,” he commented.
Meeting people who have watched the films has also been an important learning experience for Syz that translated into him trying to make the films less educational and more based on personal stories.
In his latest film Chaebols and Chabolas – the Battle for Workexternal link, which was shown at the 2015 Zurich Film Festivalexternal link, Syz meets unemployed construction workers who had a job for just a few months a year, after the property bubble burst and the labour-intensive industry then felt the effect of the global recession.
The film also shows students in South Korea in the run up to a university entrance qualification exam, a moment of such importance for their future that students study late into the night, sometimes getting just a few hours’ sleep. Parents wait outside locked gates at school while the pupils take the test, extra transport is put on and sometimes students even have police escorts to make sure nothing can stand in their way of taking the test. The pressure is enormous, is the message in the film.
“We have found a good balance between work and discipline, and on the other hand leisure [in Switzerland]. We should be thankful that we have this, but be careful that we are not going to change this,” said Syz. He sees a trend towards an intense university-driven future among Swiss youngsters and their parents.
Value systems within societies and how much value we attribute to other people’s lives are major themes for Syz now. He doesn’t think his films can change the world, but hopes they might change the minds of a few people. “I’m convinced that if we want to we can find solutions: hunger is not an unsolvable issue, energy is not an unsolvable issue. We can improve the world if we are willing to.”