Imagine not only trying to do a documentary on beekeeping around the world, but also trying to fascinate audiences with that most uninviting of subject matters. The more cautious among us would surely walk away from such a daunting project. Yet in 2012, swiss director Marcus Imhoof bravely accepted the challenge and ultimately ended up mesmerizing audiences the world across with his sublimely shot More Than Honey. Little did he know that his film would prove the beating heart of a nation's bright revival in documentary filmmaking. That most vintage of years would also see the release of Manuel Von Sturler's Hiver Nomade, the poetic journey of two shepherds as they journey through the changing mountainous landscapes for which he took home the Best Documentary Award at the European Film Awards. Both examples set themselves apart from the mass with their ability to weave the most unlikely, and decidedly anti-hype, subjects with truly astounding imagery. Imhoof and Von Sturler were confirming, if you will, A Certain Tendency of Swiss Documentary Cinema.
Needless to say, many of the Locarno Film Festival's Swiss cinephiles were eager to take the pulse of the most critically-acclaimed strand of their national cinema, represented by Jean Stephane Bron's The Blocher Experience and Yves Yersin's Blackboard (a much awaited return after 34 years of absence). An intimate portrait of Switzerland's most controversial politician, the former was positioned to play to an audience of seven thousand at the festival's huge outdoor screen on the Piazza Grande. With the film's premiere fast approaching, the streets surrounding the square swiftly found themselves guarded by an army of policemen, so high was the expectation of violence. Where audiences might have reasonably expected a work of utmost polemic, The Blocher Experience instead offers a cautious, and decidedly nonconfrontational approach, an honest portrait rather than a caricature.
Largely shooting within the politician's car as he is driven from place to place, Bron never actively questions his subject, preferring to let him candidly open up whenever he feels like sharing. These scenes are interspersed with archival coverage, ranging from the moment he burst onto the Swiss political landscape in 1993 to the inter-party ploy that dislodged him from power. Bron's narration and composition are poetic -- the director closes with a clever and evocative reference to Citizen Kane's ending -- though he's sometimes guilty of buying into Blocher's populist mysticism, especially when he indulges in evoking the man's superlative Nietzchean dreams. But for all the intensity of debate that preceded its premiere, The Blocher Experience emphatically refuses to let itself be coerced into perpetuating controversy, instead offering an unintrusive definition of this ruthless, obstinate businessman and politician, dispelling any claim that Bron might have tried to push his own opposite ideologies. Separating the man from the shadow he projects, the director has borrowed the basic recipe for Morris' The Fog of War and improved on it.
And now for something completely different. Yves Yersin's Blackboard puts an end to the director's three decade-long absence, though his revered status in Switzerland has all but faded during that time. In a now-defunct tiny school in the mountains, a teacher has been instilling Switzerland's historical values of social consensus and the virtues of traditional handicraft (made abundantly clear by the extensive focus on their many extracurricular activities). Set in the middle of an endearing, though never belittled, rural community, Blackboard plays like a near-exhaustive chronicle of the school's final year of existence. The touching naivete of the children, a la To Be and To Have, breathes life to every shot, their persistent sense of wonder and kid chatter a delight to watch and hear. Yersin intelligently punctuates the near-constant stream of happiness with reminders that this theater of smiles doesn't survive the end of his documentary. The director's discreet statement about the social decay brought about by the urban governments' overlooking of rural areas is an eminently valid one, especially when it's communicated through so much overwhelming cuteness.
As difficult as it is to admit, Switzerland's 2013 documentary output has to be considered a regression for the genre's recent resurgence in the country. Not in the sense that this new batch is of lesser quality than previous years' (both examples are progressive, topical, and enthralling), but rather in its focused commitment to specifically Swiss issues that can only lessen the films' range of exportability. 2012 helped put Swiss documentary filmmakers on the map. In 2013, the subjects perhaps aren't quite so unlikely, and more clearly intended for the sensibilities of Swiss audiences, But one might hope that the consistently high standard of quality will enable the wave to endure, giving enough time to rekindle with the borderless quality of More Than Honey and Hiver Nomade, in hope of reigniting the spark of international interest.
Click here for more on James Berclaz-Lewis and this year's Critics Academy.