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A man with a passion for cultures

Giovannini says he has always been fascinated by development issues

The president of the Fribourg International Film Festival says his commitment to the multicultural event is a logical consequence of his life and career.

Jean-François Giovannini, former deputy head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), told swissinfo that the world still faced many challenges.

Giovannini worked for the SDC for more than 30 years and represented Switzerland at the United Nations summit on the environment in Rio in 1992. He retired from his job in 2001.

Last year he took over the presidency of the Fribourg International Film Festival, which is dedicated almost exclusively to films from developing countries.

This year’s edition features works from all four corners of the globe and focuses on how the modern world is evolving.

Giovannini is also a member of the executive committee of the Swiss Red Cross, the Hirondelle Foundation and the Catholic Lenten Fund charity.

swissinfo: What similarities are there between your work at the SDC and the film festival?

Jean-François Giovannini: One of the SDC’s tasks is to explain to the Swiss public about developing countries, including their problems and their cultures.

Films are an excellent medium for achieving this. By this I mean not so much a Swiss film about a developing country, but one by a director from a developing country.

I knew about the Fribourg Film Festival from my work at the SDC, which is one of its main sponsors. Development questions have always been close to my heart and so I accepted the presidency when it was offered to me.

swissinfo: Many people at your age retire to look after their garden or travel. What makes you keep going?

J-F.G.: The developing world has been my life’s passion. When I was 13 I read books about Latin America and I devoured literature from emerging countries.

At first there wasn’t too much activity in the field of development and cooperation, but as soon as it started, I expressed a strong interest.

[After I retired] I gladly accepted the opportunity to work on children’s issues, for the Red Cross or for the Fribourg Film Festival. Such things keep me young.

swissinfo: You are religious. Does faith have anything to do with your commitment?

J-F.G.: How shall I put it? I think questions about the industrialised and developing world would have interested me anyhow. Not through a feeling of duty but as a real passion.

Apart from sustainable development, one of the other big challenges facing the world is injustice.

swissinfo: Does the developing world represent the bad conscience of industrialised nations?

J-F.G.: Not at all. Relations between the developed and developing world are not balanced and there is a certain form of exploitation. But the wealth of industrialised nations is not based on exploitation. It’s wrong to feel guilty.

We need to take a responsible attitude. We all belong to the same world community.

A catastrophe in a distant part of the world also has an impact on us here. Climate change and civil strife put a halt to travelling and trading. So it is impossible to stay out of it.

swissinfo: On the international stage, Switzerland is known for its humanitarian commitment. How do you see the government’s current policy?

J-F.G.: As a country outside the European Union we are heard as a separate voice. But our position does not differ much from other European states.

Switzerland’s vision of the world is based on the respect of human rights, including economic fairness and equal rights for men and women.

It is a highly political approach to promote fair societies and Switzerland is well placed to do this because of its long tradition of a federalist system and its democracy, which is still evolving.

The current foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, stands for a policy of human rights and not just short-term interests. Switzerland is taking its responsibilities seriously.

swissinfo: With your long career in the field of international aid, do you not sometimes despair when you see the state of the world?

J-F.G.: One of my first professional assignments was in India, where poverty was and still is enormous. It was clear to me that at least two centuries of hard work would be needed to overcome these problems.

A state with a solid social-security system, such as Switzerland or the Scandinavian countries, is not built in two months. From this vantage point we can say that progress has been made over the past 50 years.

Most of the hardship and sorrow in the world is still caused by armed conflicts. But the world has also changed for the better. More people have received some kind of education and were able to break out of their dependencies; the poor have also got more organised.

But there are still huge environmental and social problems. Our planet produces far too much carbon dioxide and rich countries should do more about it.

And as soon as we try to resolve one problem, there are already new challenges ahead.

swissinfo-interview: Pierre-François Besson

The festival opens with The Big Journey by Ismael Ferroukhi, about a family journey from Marseille to Mecca.

It will end with Fuon (The Crying Wind) by Japanese filmmaker Yoichi Higashi, the final part of his trilogy. The Crossing and My Grandpa were shown in 2002 and 2004.

The Palestine/Israel, a Swiss Memory section focuses on Swiss films about the Middle East.

This year’s Fribourg film festival takes place from March 6 to 13.
About 100 films are screened during the festival, which also includes photo exhibitions and panel discussions and workshops.
The festival has a budget of SFr1.6 million ($1.4 million) and receives financial support from the Swiss government’s development agency.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR