On any given Sunday morning, when movie houses in most countries are shut, cinemas throughout Switzerland are full of film-goers. But, it’s not the latest Hollywood blockbusters they go to watch – it’s documentaries.
‘Switzerland is one of the rare countries in Europe where feature-length documentaries get a large theatrical release,’ says Francine Brücher of the Zurich-based Swiss Film Center, an agency that promotes the territory’s film and TV productions. How did this come about? Viewer enthusiasm for docs constitutes part of the answer; support from TV broadcasters, cinema owners and the government completes the explanation.
Swiss audiences have revered non-fiction film since at least 1969, when a documentary film festival (now known as Visions du réel) was started in the town of Nyon. Sunday morning doc-viewing also began around this time.
‘This tradition is very good for docs,’ observes Marcy Goldberg, a Zurich-based media consultant who writes extensively on the Swiss film industry, ‘especially for more esoteric films like The Knowledge of Healing [a 1996 doc by Franz Reichle about Tibetan medicine]. One screening a week doesn’t sound like a lot, but a film can survive in that position for a long time.’ Healing, for example, played on Sundays for more than a year and sold over 100,000 tickets.
Since Switzerland is not part of the European Union, Swiss doc-makers are cut off from the funding and resources available to eu filmmakers; local support, therefore, is vital. Doc-makers count on government subsidies for the majority of funds; the rest, says Brücher, comes from national TV stations. The Swiss ministry of culture’s sophisticated system of funding allows filmmakers to receive financing at the production stage, as well as funding tied directly to the number of tickets sold at the box office. They are also eligible for ‘quality awards’, money given to films deemed critically worthy. Both the box-office and quality awards are intended to help jump-start the filmmaker’s next project.
The success of this infrastructure is evident in box-office receipts. As of November 2002, four of the top 10 domestically produced films in Switzerland were docs, one of which was War Photographer, by Christian Frei. The Oscar-nominated film – which offers a harrowing look at some of the most war-torn places in the world, as seen through the eyes of photographer James Nachtwey – not only proved that Swiss-made films have legs internationally, but that Swiss audiences are interested in subjects beyond the borders of their home.
Another ‘esoteric’ doc that made it to the big screen in Switzerland is Gambling, Gods and LSD, directed by Swiss-Canadian Peter Mettler. Critics describe the film – a dreamy collection of images that takes the viewer around the world – as though they’re contemplating a work of art rather than a movie. It’s also three hours long. These are not typically theater-friendly characteristics, yet the film (coproduced with Switzerland’s Maximage and Canada’s Grimthorpe Film) began screening in theaters throughout Switzerland in December.
Still, Swiss filmmakers must sometimes employ unorthodox methods to get their film in theaters. Georges Gachot, the director of Martha Argerich, Conversation nocturne, invested in a digital projection system and brought it to cinemas, because his film was shot on video and most theaters are not equipped to screen the format. At press time, the film had sold more than 11,000 tickets, ‘which is very good,’ says Swiss Film’s Brücher. She adds, ‘It is thanks to the dedication of courageous cinema owners that documentaries get theatrical release.’