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Swiss American Film Festival wrap

SWISSAM ‘04 - Swiss American Film Festival, New York

The second edition of the SWISSAM screened from November 5th through 11th fifty five productions at the Quad Cinemas, the Anthology Film Archives, and the Tribeca Cinema. As the German Swiss would say ‘small but superb’ (klein aber oho). Switzerland has made significant contributions to international film making, initially through films by Alain Tanner, Claude Coretta or Michael Spoutter but also equally important through exporting her film talents. The financial basis for the Swiss film industry is limited to about $115 million a year amounting to the production and marketing budget for an average Hollywood production. Switzerland has therefore been exporting its actors and directors to work abroad. Distinguished émigré film workers includes actors Ursula Andress, Maximiliam Schell and Liselotte Pulver, directors Jean Luc Godard and Bernhard Wicki , as well as the Oscar winning producers Arthur Cohn and Pietro Scalia.(Swiss filmmaking can be checked on the user-friendly swissfilms.ch website)

This film history, the cultural mix its artists from the German, French, and Italian group in Switzerland, a reknown Locarno film fest , and Swiss rigor or Gruendlichkeit created the SWISSAM fest which has already acquired the status of a small but distinguished film festival as distinct from just being another ethnic or national fest with parochial trappings. Excellent productions, thought provoking panels, and useful social gatherings without surface glamour were the ingredients for success.

Deserving Kudos for original programming, SWISSAM juxtaposed in their short film section the ‘Virile Men’ to a ‘Growing Up Female’ theme with two outstanding productions: EXIT A by Margaret Harris on a raging skinhead’s passage to killing his father and OLAS BOX OF CLOVERS a poignant depiction of an old woman’s interior landscape through rod-manipulated puppets directed by Genevieve Anderson. The fest provided a rare opportunity to view the independent ‘12’ which was produced over 15 years by Lawrence Bridges otherwise known as the nation’s best cutting edge editor of commercials and music videos. ‘12’ stands for allegorical Greek gods inhabiting the film, including Zeus’ illegitimate kids who are trying to make a living in Los Angeles after being ejected from their island. His wife Hera, the Goddess Demeter, Apollo and rest of the Olympic gang add to the conflicted family story. The film is immensely complex and a tour de force of independent film making. Bridges worked with the same actors throughout production, using short ends, no make up, minimal lightening, and classical music. Reliance on visual metaphors and very brief sequences on divergent film stock with different emulsions gives the film an asynchronous yet powerful feel, far away from traditional story telling. As unique as the making of ‘12’ is its underground exposure. In terms of exhibition, following a guerilla drive-in strategy, the film is shown by Larry Bridges in large Los Angeles parking lots. For Bridges, films have the purpose of making people reflect and discover images. Entertainment plays no role, an objective ‘12’ certainly achieves.

Among the other important feature films in the program, SWISSAM premiered ON DIRAIT LE SUD by the first time director Vincent Plus about a young divorced father visiting unannounced his family in order to reconcile. Though the dialog was scripted, many elements of this minimalist film show an unintended influence of the Dogma doctrine. No sets, artificial lightening, special effects or music score were used. Instead we observe naturalistic, stripped down filmmaking with superb performances especially by the film’s young children. Certainly the absence of a budget was from this outsider’s perspective an advantage since it forced the film makers to stick to the essentials. The third memorable film was ASSAHAK directed by Ulrike Koch. Depicting the life of Tuareg in the vastness of the Sahara, the film shows how ASSHAK, that is respect for other human beings and patience, guides the Tuareg and provides the social glue that holds the community together. In Ulrike Koch’s words “…Asshak renders their survival in the desert environment possible, where every step must be taken carefully. Their entire culture revolves around it”. The film shows how an archaic life style survives in the 21st century due to both the relative isolation of the Tuareg and of the powerful bonding their norms provide.

A seminar program was featured on the opening day three panels on film productions in Switzerland, distribution venues, and Swiss documentaries. Selecting Richard Pena, director of the acclaimed New York Film Festival, as the chair for the seminar day, assured that the panelists he selected provided significant insights about the problems covered. Most relevant of the three appeared to be the distribution panel since it reviewed crucial issues faced by independent directors and distributors alike, ranging from access to film festivals to the narrowing theatrical windows. Festival exposure is essential for independent films yet hardly sufficient for getting a reasonable distribution contract. Adoption by a major festival such as the New York Film Festival or the Berlinale is in most cases unlikely since quality as defined by directorial innovation and original concepts is lacking in most independent productions, Further unknown filmmakers do not have the professional networks facilitating the film’s serious review. Yet selection for an important festival is used by many distributors and the few remaining art houses as a precondition for looking at the production. If the film opens in a major festival the public relations value is immense, thus Pena estimates the value of inclusion in the New York Film Festival program to be between half a million and a million dollars. But festivals can be counterproductive for distribution. A film shown at the large Locarno International Film Festival has little value for local distributors since most cinephile Swiss will have seen it there, a problem also posed for local distributors by other festivals like the International Washington DC Film Festival.. This Locarno effect amounts to the cannibalization of distribution by an exploding festival market. Sobering observations were offered by Elliott Kabar, who operates the Qua Cinemas, one of New York City’s few remaining theatrical venues for relatively unknown independent and foreign productions. Most independent film makers do not do their homework. They have little knowledge of the distribution market, do not read the trade press, or engage in the grass roots effort necessary to show their work.

Overall, the SWISSAM Film Festival is one of the few festivals where one’s time is not wasted since new visual vistas are explored and reflections induced.

Claus Mueller, New York correspondent
cmueller@hunter.cuny.edu

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