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Waiting as an act of resistance: six films by Nicolas Wadimoff

Nicolas Wadimoff in a boxing ring
Nicolas Wadimoff, Swiss documentary filmmaker, in an archive picture from 2014 © Keystone / Christian Beutler

A DAFilms online programme on the work of Geneva-born filmmaker Nicolas Wadimoff opens new perspectives on Palestine, Swiss leftism, and the radicalism of patience. Film critic Alan Mattli draws a roadmap to the retrospective.

There’s a moment in Swiss director Nicolas Wadimoff’s 2018 documentary The Apollo of Gaza when Palestinian entrepreneur Jawdat Khoudary explains the Arabic word for cactus: “Sabr. And what does sabr mean in English? Patience.”

Considered in the wider context of Wadimoff’s work, currently the subject of a retrospective on the documentary streaming platform DAFilms, Khoudary’s musing is almost programmatic.

Stubborn patience, enduring the present and waiting for a future which is far from assured, like a cactus braving the desert heat, is a running theme of the six films featured in the programme “Nicolas Wadimoff: All Forms of Resistance,,” co-curated by Swiss FilmsExternal link and the Cinemateca Uruguaya (Uruguayan film archives).

DAFilmsExternal link is the streaming platform of Doc Alliance, a creative partnership of seven key European documentary film festivals: CPH:DOXExternal link, DoclisboaExternal link, Millennium Docs Against GravityExternal link, DOK LeipzigExternal link, FIDMarseilleExternal link, Ji.hlava IDFFExternal link and Visions du RéelExternal link. The aim of the Doc Alliance initiative is to advance the documentary genre, support its diversity and continuously promote quality creative documentary films. The platform’s programme is also running, since January, a retrospective of another Swiss filmmaker, Thomas Imbach.

The Apollo of Gaza is the collection’s crowning jewel. In it, Wadimoff relays the strange case of the discovery and quick disappearance of an ancient statue of the Greek god Apollo off the coast of Gaza – a story that comes to be emblematic of the disputed Palestinian territory itself.

For while the statue’s discovery was cause for widespread celebration in Gaza – “for once, we did not make headlines because of war,” a local journalist remarks – it could not escape the gravitational pull of geopolitics for long. Soon after its appearance, rumours started to emerge: that it had been smuggled in from Egypt, that it was a forgery, that the Palestinian government’s military wing seized it to keep it out of reach of foreign interlopers looking to make a quick buck.

To Khoudary, one of Wadimoff’s many interviewees, Apollo’s fate reflects the bizarre and sorry state of his native home: its very existence is a symbol for the rich cultural history of Gaza, the fact of its disappearance a stark reminder of the struggles keeping Gaza from asserting itself on the international stage. But Khoudary takes solace in the uncertainty: “He is in Gaza,” he says of Apollo; and after some 2,000 years under the sea (or not), what’s another five or ten years of waiting for Apollo to reveal himself, and for Gaza to blossom?

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The surreal reality of war and migration

In the DAFilms programme, The Apollo of Gaza forms a striking double bill alongside Aisheen (Still Alive in Gaza), Wadimoff’s 2010 dispatch from the same area, which at the time was reeling from the latest round of Israeli bombardments – its people already waiting the interminable wait, for an end of the shelling, for United Nations aid, for a return of electricity.

Although it is the less well-rounded film of the selection, Aisheen shines brightly whenever it catches a glimpse of the surreal within the sombre reality of war: the opening scene, when a fairground owner guides a boy through his bombed-out haunted house, describing where the threats would have come from, stands out; as does the harrowing yet strangely uplifting sequence of two clowns entertaining a roomful of children with a bomb-inspired routine, while the building they are in is being rocked by explosions outside.

It is hardly surprising that the spectre of emigration and diaspora looms large over these two films. Indeed, it is a topic that has been on Wadimoff’s mind ever since his first major breakthrough, the 1997 drama Clandestins, which he co-wrote and co-directed with Canadian filmmaker Denis Chouinard.

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Chronicling six people’s attempt to cross the Atlantic as stowaways to start a new life in Canada, Clandestins is the most literal example of Wadimoff’s penchant for stories of waiting.

Set almost entirely inside the freight container serving as the protagonists’ makeshift home, the film is at times an almost unbearably effective exercise in psychological attrition. As food and water run low, as the ship grinds to a halt in the middle of the ocean, as tensions rise, the mood shifts from wary optimism to apocalyptic panic – punctuated by Wadimoff and Chouinard’s bleak visuals, which revel in the sweat, dirt and grime that eventually cake even the most well-prepared of characters.

Swiss radicals…

Of the two fiction films in the retrospective, however, it is 2012’s Operation Libertad which ultimately proves the more beguiling. Whereas Clandestins prefers to make its sociological points by sledgehammer – underscored by the declarative writing and theatre-like staging – Operation Libertad, perhaps as a result of Wadimoff’s creative maturation, leaves more space for ideological thorniness without compromising its unequivocal political stance.

Scene of Operation Libertad
A scene in “Operation Libertad” (2012). Akka Films

Framed as a father’s letter to his daughter, Operation Libertad tells the story of a radical-left Geneva collective which, in 1978, decides to storm a Zurich bank to raise awareness about the Swiss financial sector’s illicit dealings with various Latin American dictatorships.

But when the agent they target refuses to confess to his dictatorial connections on camera, the young revolutionaries panic, bundle him into a van, and escape to a safe house, where they wait, seemingly in vain, for the news to carry their message of revolution.

As in Clandestins, the dynamic is one of attrition and psychological fracture, but, through its poignant framing, it is grounded in the intriguing observation that Switzerland seems to have forgotten the revolutionary idealism that animated significant parts of the left well into the 1980s.

In Wadimoff’s telling, the moral of the story is not the darkly comical failure of the fictional “Operation Libertad” – it is the mere fact of such movements having existed at all, inside the country’s infamously bourgeois structures. With this story, the narrator ultimately concludes, “you can construct your history”. To remake one’s future, one needs to know about one’s radical past.

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… and the most radical Swiss

One such radical is at the centre of what might be Wadimoff’s most broadly entertaining documentary: 2016’s Jean Ziegler: The Optimism of Willpower offers a fast-paced run through the life and work of the titular Ziegler, arguably the most prominent left-wing intellectual Switzerland has ever produced, whilst accompanying him to speaking engagements, United Nations committee meetings, and an illuminating trip to Cuba.

Wadimoff is happy to showcase the infectious energy with which his octogenarian protagonist engages in the patient, deliberate fight against the ravages of global capitalism. Ziegler remains a steadfast believer in the revolutions of Castro and Guevara, ready to offer impassioned defenses of the Cuban and Venezuelan governments’ curtailment of certain freedoms.

The Optimism of Willpower won’t change anyone’s mind, but, in the spirit of Operation Libertad, it might help a younger generation appreciate why Ziegler has become such an illustrious figure in the first place.

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It is, in any case, a more compelling act of portraiture than 2014’s Spartans, which offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective on Yvan Sorel, a mixed martial artist who runs a popular MMA club in Southern France, more precisely in Marseille’s economically stricken Quartiers nord.

While Wadimoff is often ahead of the documentarian trends – with Aisheen featuring several stylistic elements that would later resurface more prominently in Syrian Civil War documentaries like Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts’ For Sama (2019) – Spartans feels uncharacteristically ordinary.

To be sure, Sorel is an arresting character, one who routinely blurs the line between effective disciplining and verbal and physical abuse, but the insights that can be gained from this walk through the mean streets of Marseille just barely rise above the level of documentary platitude.

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Nevertheless, there is no denying the fascinating nature of DAFilms’ retrospective on Nicolas Wadimoff, as the selection manages to highlight both the topical diversity and the thematic rigour of the 57-year-old Genevan’s work. To make one’s way through the six films on offer is to (re)discover the beauty of Gaza, the heyday of Swiss leftism, and, above all, the different shades and radical potential of patience; the quiet resistance inscribed in the simple act of waiting.

Portrait Nicolas Wadimoff
Eddy Mottaz / Le Temps

Born in Geneva in 1964, Nicolas Wadimoff played guitar in a rock band and co-founded an alternative cultural space (L’Usine) before working as a TV director at the Swiss francophone public channel TSR. Wadimoff’s interest in Israeli-Palestinian issues dates back to the late 1980s, when making his first documentary, Yehudi, Arabi, Yemeni (Jewish, Arab, Yemeni, 1989). Besides his film activities, he is also the director of the film department at the Geneva University of Art and Design (HEAD).

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