This year’s Festival internazaionale del film Locarno featured several examples of the curious – and, I daresay, distinctively Swiss – phenomenon of the blockbuster documentary. Some of these were traditional documentaries – Marcel Schüpbach’s portrait of Carla Del Ponte “Carla’s List” (Switzerland) was part of the prestigious outdoor screenings on the Piazza Grande – and some were narrative films that freely mixed fictional and documentary modes. The latter category included Michael Steiner’s “Grounding” (Switzerland), one of the most popular Swiss films of the year, which chronicles the financial troubles of Swissair with a level of detail that can only be called breathtaking. But as with all film festivals, some of the best moments in Locarno came in the surprises that were found in the less hyped screenings.
One such discovery was Joseph Péaquin’s “Il était une fois…. Les délices du petit monde” (Italy). This was a portrait of an older couple in a small village in the Val d’Aoste. They speak Franco-Provençal (what many Francophones would call a patois) and seem to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the traditional cooking of the region. The film is structured around their slow, graceful preparation of a number of dishes, dishes whose complexity mandates an intense patience and attention to detail on their part. Indeed, “Il était une fois” is itself a patient, gentle evocation of a few days that they spent with their grandchildren. Péaquin’s attempts to connect the rhythms of their speech, the rhythms of their lives and the rhythms of his film recall the great Québécois filmmaker Pierre Perrault’s notion of “un cinéma de la parole”, a cinema of speech. Both filmmakers are intensely curious about the connections between tradition and modernity, between life and language, and both seem to be looking for genuinely new paths for ethnography, and indeed for documentary itself.
Erich Langjahr’s film “Alpine Saga” (Switzerland) had a similar feel to it. The film portrays a group of men who ascend high into the mountains of Schwyz canton to harvest hay, which, after being bound into gargantuan piles, is sent down the mountain on a wire. I have, improbably, actually seen this process (several years ago, during a hiking trip near the small alpine town of Elm in the neighbouring canton of Glarus: my wife and I were terrified when giant heaps of hay suddenly came rocketing past us at great speeds), and can testify that this film beautifully captures the other-worldly essence of this ritual, giving vivid cinematic life to the combination of wonder and terror that the sight of hay rocketing down a mountain inspires from those who have never seen it. Like Péaquin’s film, this was a patient work, dwelling on the details of the hay-cutting, the preparation necessary for it, etc. And like Péaquin, Langjahr is clearly looking for ways that traditional forms can co-exist with modernity, and co-exist without any kind of romantic distortions.
“Alpine Saga” was part of Critic’s Week, a showcase where Swiss film critics choose the best documentaries that they have encountered in their travels. Some of this material is quite unconventional and experimental (such as Peter Liechti’s “Hardcore Chambermusic”, a portrait of a chamber music concert given in a distinctly non-classical venue), while some other films are far more conventional, although still quite solid (such as Tom Putnam’s “Red White Black and Blue”, a straightforward although still very powerful re-telling of the US Army’s battle to re-take a tiny Alaskan island from the Japanese in WWII). The Critic’s Week Prize went to the Swiss documentary “Zeit des Abschieds” (Switzerland), by Mehdi Sahebi. This was a portrait of Giuseppe Tommasi’s eventually fatal struggle with cancer. Through long, probing interviews we come to know a great deal about his personal history, his complicated family life, his struggle with drugs, and so on. But the film’s climax comes with his death, of course. Sahebi is present at the exact moment of Tommasi’s passing, as the hospice nurses try to make him comfortable during the most painful and difficult part of his treatment. I’ve never seen anything quite like it captured on video. Like “Il était une fois”…. and “Alpine Saga”, it made the everyday seem alien and deeply mysterious. Surely this is the something that only documentary can do with such power.