Directors Without Borders: Swiss Fest Highlights Spirit of Experimentation


It’s easy to forget that Switzerland, a country known for its political neutrality and fiscal conservatism, is also renowned as the home of such avant-garde phenomena as the Dadaist movement and Jean-Luc Godard. That Helvetic spirit of experimentation is much in evidence among the 54 Swiss and U.S. films included in this second annual festival, where you can find Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s theories of the afterlife rubbing shoulders with the camel lore of the Tuareg people.

Documentarian Ulrike Koch is based in Zurich, but her Ässhäk: Tales From the Sahara comes close to offering an inside view of the nomadic Tuareg. “Camels,” a herdsman informs us at the film’s outset, “recognize no national boundaries.” Sharing their attitude, the filmmaker never names the country in which these veiled men cross the endless sands on camelback, while their elaborately made-up womenfolk herd goats and make music beneath the starry sky. The slender narrative thread (something about a missing dromedary) soon gets lost, and the stately pacing meanders, but determined viewers will be rewarded with poetic visions of a desert existence.

Back in Europe, familial dysfunction reigns supreme. Strong Shoulders, the accomplished feature debut by Ursula Meier, examines the world of female athletes through the story of Sabine (Louise Szpindel), an adolescent runner whose obsession with improving her performance threatens her psychological stability and sexual development. Meier’s stringent storytelling technique and her fragmentary way of filming the body form perfect foils for her main character’s fixation on corporeal control.

On Dirait le Sud (Back for More), directed by Vincent Pluss, details a lost weekend during which a wayward young father (Jean-Louis Johannides) drops in for a surprise visit on his ex-wife and their two kids, in the Provençal home she shares with her new boyfriend. Shot entirely with a mini-digital camera, Pluss’s debut has a freewheeling, improvisational energy and bittersweet charm that can suddenly turn raw and revealing.

Finally, few Swiss have ever looked across the ocean as intently as the Zurich-born photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank, best known for his iconic volume The Americans (1958). His short film Paper Route—a minimalist, slice-of-life bagatelle that follows one of Frank’s rural Nova Scotia neighbors as he delivers newspapers on a recent wintry morning—proves the maestro is still at it.

Archive Highlights