Solothurn Film Festival 2022: La Mif (“The Fam”, 2021) / Rotzloch (DOC 2022) / Loving Highsmith (DOC 2022) / Azor (2021)

Solothurn is a pretty medieval town between a big old river (the Aare) and a big old mountain (the Weissenstein). Every January the Solothurner Filmtage (Swiss Film Festival), the most significant industry event in Switzerland, devotes an entire week to homegrown movies.

The Filmtage faced a torrid 2021, corona forcing it online as a “Home Edition”. I’m happy to report the 2022 event is running smoothly as a lovely, vibrant event: of the four screenings I attended, two were sold out, the others three-quarters full.

For my “Filmtage Saturday” I chose movies based on personal interest and, in the case of La Mif, hype:

  • La Mif (“The Fam”, Fred Baillif 2021)
    Ambitious drama casts real-life inhabitants of a care home for teenage girls.
  • Rotzloch (Maja Tschumi 2022) [global premiere]
    Portrayal of four residents/inmates of a Swiss asylum centre.
  • Loving Highsmith (Eva Vitija 2022)
    A whirlwind tour through the life and loves of Patricia Highsmith, renowned American author.
  • Azor (Andreas Fontana 2021)
    Conspiracy thriller reveals the business affairs of a Swiss private banker in junta-era Argentina.

Rotzloch and Loving Highsmith were both nominated for the Prix de Soleure, worth 60,000 Francs and awarded, intriguingly, to movies of “humanistic value”. All four movies are in the running for the big one, the Swiss Film Prize – nominations are announced next week, and the prize will be awarded in spring.

1. La Mif (“The Fam”, Fred Bailiff 2021)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Ambitious drama casts real-life inhabitants of a care home for teenage girls.

Turbulence rocks a care home for teens over three days. We follow several girls, including seventeen-year-old Audrey, caught having sex with a boy three years her junior; Novinha, dipping her toes into “normal” society with kitchen work and weekends with a distracted mother; Alison, who may be in love with her best friend; young Précieuse, picked up from school by the police only hours before we meet her; and Tamra, whose eighteenth birthday means she’ll probably be deported. “La Mif” is youth slang meaning “family”, and the film doesn’t neglect the “éducs” who take on parental roles, striving for that balance between compassion and distance which is humanly impossible to maintain.

The film keeps up a modern feel without sacrificing moments of profound emotion. Non-linear editing, unexpected cuts and repeated scenes are mostly an exciting way to collide subjectivities and create the sense of a collective memory; just occasionally do they distract from the realism. The girls are gifted vital performances by novice actresses, actual residents of a care home encouraged by director Fred Baillif to improvise and contribute to the script. The choice to hurl narrative events at the story rather than stick to one particular trauma is an ambitious one, and works well to reflect the relentlessness of the girls’ problems, and the consequences for the whole “family”.

The film belongs to the upper echelon of the Swiss cinema and TV on the topic of adolescence under threat (I wrote about this extensively for Ondes de Choc). Look out for its wider release in March, and go watch it!

Swissness Difficulty Level: Chasseral (easy).
Language: French.

2. Rotzloch (DOC, M. Tschumi 2021)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Portrayal of four residents/inmates of a Swiss asylum centre.

Four former and current residents of an asylum centre on the edge of Lake Lucerne tell their stories to the camera of debut filmmaker Maja Tschumi. They hail from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Syria, and have different levels of integration. Three things bind them: The quest for status and stability in Switzerland; the soulless location, a former cement factory in an inconspicuous industrial site; and intense loneliness.

Tschumi’s camera is empathetic and generous; the four men are given ample time to give their memories and reflections in their own language, as we see them struggling to navigate life within ubiquitous mountain scenery. Tschumi cleverly shot her movie in narrow 4:3 format, particularly claustrophobic in the ambient shots of Swiss Alps. With this backdrop, the location’s name – “Rotzloch” translates literally to “Snothole” – speaks volumes.

The screening I attended was a world premiere and the crowd responded warmly, especially to moments when our four heroes encountered more recognizable Swiss: an elderly couple watches refugees diving in the Lace of Lucerne; a young, implacable administrator informs our Eritrean why he he’s stuck in bureaucratic limbo and can’t visit his girlfriend; our horniest hero wonders through Zurich Street Parade, making harmless passes at scantily clad ravers.

Rotzloch isn’t always easy viewing, as its subjects aren’t natural raconteurs. As a documentary about asylum seekers, the stories won’t tell their sympathetic audience much new about the system. But that doesn’t seem the purpose here. I felt I learnt more about the needs, desires and severe hardships of four young men very close to home, and for that the movie is admirable.

Swissness Difficulty Level: Säntis (intermediate).
Language: German, Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, Dari (!)

3. Loving Highsmith (DOC, E. Vitija 2022)

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

A whirlwind tour through the life and loves of Patricia Highsmith, renowned American author.

If Rotzloch didn’t entertain so much as grant an honest, empathetic look at its troubled subjects, Loving Highsmith has the opposite problem.

Disclaimer: I too love Patricia Highsmith – I first noticed her back when the film version of Carol came out, and let her take my heart last year while reading Strangers on a Train, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, and Carol itself; the latter became one of my favourite ever novels. And like Highsmith, I’m a cynical Anglophone writer who has settled in Switzerland. It’s a natural fit.

I’m not saying director and screenwriter Eva Vitija doesn’t share my passion, just that she makes creative choices which hinder, rather than help to transmit Highsmith’s intensely dark genius to the screen. The choice to foreground her love relationships means we get three enjoyable but superficial interviews with Highsmith’s ex-lovers – lots of time on Highsmith’s time in colourful lesbian clubs, lots to make the audience titter, but not enough heart and empathy. Allusions to Highsmith’s youthful habit of drinking gin for breakfast, and to her mother being “a total bitch”, get big laughs from the packed Swiss cinema. An erotic photo of a young Highsmith bearing her naked breasts is then splattered on the screen. It’s over-sensational, tabloidy.

The lack of depth is forced in part by the decision to cover Highsmith’s whole life; in fact, the most insightful parts of the movie were passages in France and Switzerland and their accompanying diary entries, and I wish the film had dwelled there for 90 minutes and given us Highsmith in reams, rather than tidy little snippets.

Swissness Difficulty Level: Chasseral (easy).
Language: French.

4. Azor (A. Fontana, 2021)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Conspiracy thriller reveals the business affairs of a Swiss private banker in junta-era Argentina.

This dazzling lowkey thriller dares immerse us in not one, but two unknown worlds: a 1980s Argentina in the midst of mass political purge, and the discreet negotiations of Swiss private banking, embodied by the anti-hero Yvan De Wiel. Both cultures are dictated and driven by the need for discretion to survive.

Introducing his movie, director and writer Andreas Fontana briefly told us its inspiration: the journal of his grandfather, a banker. Fontana was shocked to discover a “boring” record of an Argentina trip at the time of the junta which contained no reference whatsoever to the political situation, even though he would have known very well what he was doing.

The movie excels in establishing upper-class Buenos Aires and leading us through it. Within this world, De Wiel struggles to maintain client confidence after the disappearance of his mysterious, charismatic banking partner Keys. The screenplay and set design which frames the mystery is totally convincing, and I finished the film full of questions about the role of Swiss banks in times of geopolitical turmoil.

Of the four movies I saw today, the two feature films (this and La Mif) rather than the documentaries truly immersed me in their worlds. Both were masterclasses on creating reality via fiction which happened to make prolific use of untrained actors. How do filmmakers do this? In the case of Azor: masses of research. In the post-film Q&A, Fontana revealed that two and half years of research preceded the movie; he interviewed ten private bankers in Geneva and members of high society in Buenes Aires.

The irony is that if Fontana’s grandfather was a Genevan private banker, one presumes Fontana himself had better access to the people and material means to do this research and produce his film. In that sense he and his art have profited from the dubious actions of his ancestors. Living in Switzerland amongst fairly wealthy, liberal-minded folk, the issue sometimes comes up of how best to address and critique the origin of one’s privilege; telling powerful stories like that of Azor is a fine solution, if you ask me. The whole point of Yvan’s journey, the transformation of fear into discretion for profit – and with the movie this banker’s grandson breaks the omerta and helps us arrive at urgent questions about the wealth around us. The result is a brutal critique of Swiss banking secrecy.

Andreas Fontana at the screening of his movie.

For once, a Swiss film has resonated with Anglophone critics. Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian awarded Azor five stars and said it “continues to echo mysteriously” in his head; Anthony Lane in the New Yorker gave a lovely description of one of finest exchanges in the movie, which is work quoting at length:

If you’re puzzled by the movie’s title, it is… a piece of coded banking slang. When she and Yvan, who speak French to each other, mention the word Azor, it means “Be quiet. Careful what you say.” Similar hints include faire Condois—to pretend you haven’t seen anything—and, my favorite, cousin Antoine, to be used when you spot an acquaintance, in company, and gently neglect to say hello. These are no more than ploys in a social game, yet they also answer to the film’s most sobering concern: the inexhaustible human talent for averting one’s gaze, impelled by a deep desire not to know. 

In the Q&A after the screening, Fontana confirmed that this tidbit refers to real-life traditional slang told him anecdotally by a member the private banking sector in Geneva. I have a strong sense that these three phrases are master keys to help us understand certain aspects of Swiss interactions. This is why I keep this blog! Azor, faire Condois, cousin Antoine – take them, store them in your vault. But keep them to yourself, don’t tell outsiders…

Swissness Difficulty Level: Säntis (intermediate).
Language: French and Spanish; the film has played many festivals so an English subtitled version should be around.

Swiss Me Deadly’s Ones to Watch:

Swissness Lab Notes

  • Swiss Theme Watch: All four movies feature troubled outsiders in a society perceived as threatening; all pointed out the precariousness of alliance-forming within that society.
  • I was surprised to find out that the big prize at stake for Rotzloch and Loving Highsmith, the Prix du Soleure, actually includes as its criteria “Humanism”. Quote: “People and social issues revolving around living together are the thematic focal points.” I wonder how much that affects the Swiss film landscape, i.e. the type of films that get funding here. Both the nominated movies played to a full house in a large concert hall.
  • But actually… how does La Mif not fulfil those criteria?? I don’t get it.
  • Solothurn is a wonderful town for a film festival, with the short walks through the old town between venues a highlight of my day. The sky was bright and blue, and many visitors beamed as they excitedly compared thoughts on the story they’d just seen. The atmosphere was relaxed and genial, a buzz was in the air. Nothing felt hip or pretentious, i.e. too “Zurich” (see: Zurich Film Festival, Winterthur Kurzfilmtage). Even after four films, I still wished I’d come earlier, and then had a hotel to soak in the atmosphere at night! Bring on 2023…
  • Solothurn is a Swiss German town, but an alien visiting this week would think it were bilingual – I heard a ton of French from volunteers and presenters, fellow viewers in the cinema and random passers-by in the old town. The barrage of languages in the movies today, both dialogue and subtitles, was quite an experience. Having both German and French is a big bonus at this festival.
  • Having said that… I didn’t hear a word of Italian, either on or off screen!

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