Solothurn Film Festival 2023: Semret (2022) / Mad Heidi (2022) / La Dérive des continents (“Continental Drift”, 2022) / Farewell Paradise (DOC, 2020)

Last year I had such fun pretending to be a proper journalist at the Solothurner Filmtage (Swiss Film Festival) that I went back and did it all again: a one day trip to the pretty town of Solothurn (where they pronounce “l” like “u” in their dialect, just like people from Bern).

This year the movies weren’t as fun (competition is tough: last year’s Azor remains one of my all-time faves). But it was still well worth it, if just for the bilingual atmosphere, the blue winter sky over smiling faces in Solothurn, and a cracking final movie of the day: an inconspicuous little documentary called Farewell Paradise.

This small cinema held a retrospective by editor Katarina Türler, including my highlight for this year.

For my “Filmtage Saturday” I chose movies based on personal interest and (for the purposes of this blog) a Swiss focus.

  • Semret (Caterina Mona 2022) **1/2
    Eritrean migrant and daughter are forced to face homewards.
  • Mad Heidi (Johannes Hartmann, Sandro Klopfstein 2022) ***
    Cheese fever dream with pretty locations and a couple of fun moments.
  • La Dérive des continents (“Continental Drift”, Lionel Baier 2022) **1/2
    A mother and her estranged son refind each other in the midst of a refugee crisis.
  • Farewell Paradise (DOC, Sonja Wyss 2020) ****1/2
    Harrowing story of a family in crisis, as recounted to its youngest member.

1. Semret (C. Mona 2022)

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Eritrean migrant and daughter are forced to face homewards.

Thirtysomething Eritrean Semret is doing her best to pass as Swiss in a grey and faceless Zurich. Her small flat is bland, borderline Bünzli, containing no visible trace of the nation she fled. Her teenage daughter Joe has little idea of the place she was conceived, and can’t even handle spicy food in a rare outing to a local diaspora event. They’re both desperate for Joe to get into Gymi, the Swiss academic high school. Meanwhile, her mother applies for official training in midwifery. That’s before both of them are compelled to turn towards Eritrea by a pair of less educated, but more enlightened young men who enter their lives simultaneously. Maybe this meeting can help undo Semret’s nightmares, the ones that wake her every night.

You can turn a blind eye to the unlikely symmetry but Semret‘s dialogue and characters are too behoven to the story for my taste. Conversations are mostly functional, subtext isn’t subtle, and key conversations sometimes omitted. The Eritrean characters, settled migrants like Semret and Joe or asylum seekers in limbo, are painted as angels walking the earth, any flaws put down exclusively to trauma encountered in their flight to Europe. I felt myself wondering if this idealization, while attractive to a white Swiss audience of a certain age, robs these people of their humanity. It makes for unfavourable comparisons with last year’s Rotzloch, the warts-and-all depiction of refugees on the banks of the Lake of Lucerne.

I probably shouldn’t be this mean – it is great to see the Eritrean diaspora sympathetically portrayed, in a story that mostly makes sense and is concluded sensibly and without too much sentimentalism. In that respect, the movie definitely does more good than harm. But I did find myself wishing for a more realistic depiction of an isolated young teen growing up with a possessive, wildly unpredictable mother.

Swissness Difficulty Level: Chasserel (easy).
Language: Swiss German, Tigrinya.

2. Mad Heidi (J. Hartmann, S. Klopfstein 2022)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Cheese fever dream with pretty locations and a couple of fun moments.

In the mid-2010s a pair of young Swiss filmmakers made a poster and a fun trailer which asked investors: “Heidi goes Tarantino – how funny would that be!?” And it worked. They raised two million dollars in a so-called “crowdfunding investor model” and spent it wisely on a cute British star with martial arts skills, a couple of American B-movie actors, and some decent CGI for the splatter scenes.

The story is self-aware hokum. Switzerland becomes a fascist dictatorship with a monopoly on the all-powerful dairy industry. The Very Swiss Leader Meili, played by a game Caspar van Dien from Starship Troopers, isdeveloping a despicable Ultra-Swiss Cheese to turn consumers into violent zombies. Mountain girl Heidi is out to “turn the fatherland into a motherland” while avenging her lover, cheese dealer Goat Peter. All roads lead to a bloody climax at the Schwingen Festival.

The movie looks pretty good, and all the actors have fun in their roles and don’t just seem to be phoning it in for the silly genre movie. When production value falters on small sets, or when it’s clear that extras were limited, another bit of fun violence arrives, or a Swiss mountain location used to impressive effect. In the viewing I saw, initial reaction to the film’s aesthetic was very warm; the opening was well constructed, and it felt truly novel. But when push comes to shove ­– Heidi goes Tarantino, just how funny would that be? As it turns out, only a little. The movies’s bogged down by poor English dialogue, and there aren’t enough good jokes, either verbal or visual. It’s worth bigging up the funniest character and actor, outhamming the imported ones: Max Rüdlinger nails it as the sadistic Kommandant Knorr. The funniest scene in the movie features Rüdlinger and an unexpected cervelat; later, there’s a good one-liner about about a job position opening up. But it’s slim pickings beyond the titter-worthy.

Interestingly, the enemy is coded for how the urban left see Swiss nationalists: adoring Alpine wrestling, fetishizing home industries like dairy, giving each other the Rütlischwör. The premise of a cheese dictatorship fulfils that dark desire of a certain kind of urban left-winger that Swiss leaders were real-life “faschos” that could be taken down with a rag-tag alliance of white, black, physically disabled and young empowered women. But none of this cuts close enough to the bone, either in terms of satire or gore, to be really punk.

Swissness Difficulty Level: Chasserelle (easy), although it’ll be funnier if you’ve been to Switzerland a couple of times and were fully aware of the connotations of “cervelat” and “Schwingen” in the above review!
Language: English.

3. La Dérive des continents (L. Baier 2022)

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

A mother and her estranged son rediscover each other in the midst of a refugee crisis.

Nathalie Adler is a frazzled EU official posted in Sicily to manage the migrant crisis. Now she must organise a joint state visit by Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to a refugee camp. But the delegate from France is an arrogant clown, and the one from Germany she’s half in love with. As if that wasn’t enough, one of the camp volunteers turns out to be her own son, Albert, whom she abandoned.

Writer-director Lionel Baier is a very smart man, an auteur, and I bloody loved two movies of his, Prénom: Mathieu and Longwave. In the post-film interview he explained the origins of La Dérive des continents: on his travels he’d witnessed the childishness of European Union migration politics. The French delegate who demands a refugee speak worse French for a TV spot is based on a real event. Such infantile politics, figured Baier, would map interestingly on to the immature quirks of a dysfunctional family. From that seed sprang a primary narrative of conflict between the stubborn Eurocrat Nathalie and her naïve anti-capitalist son Albert.

The result is a pretty, well-acted and unpredictable movie which, for me, doesn’t really work. Longwave and Prénom: Mathieu showed respectively that Baier masters collective comedy and individual tragedy, but I reckon he was too ambitious with La Dérive des continents and fails to find a balance.

Critiques are levelled briefly at all the Big Narratives: the no-border left, the populist right embodied by Matteo Salvini, centrist politicians more concerned with image, and jaded Brussels bureaucrats. But they are hurriedly slotted into a dysfunctional family tragi-comedy that feels like another movie, in which upper middle-class white people find themselves, in spite or because of the geopolitical drama nearby. The spectacular climax bringing together the political and familial doesn’t satisfy, sadly.

Swissness Difficulty Level: Etna (non-Swiss).
Language: French, English.

4. Farewell Paradise (S. Wyss, 2020)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Harrowing tale of a family in crisis, as recounted to its youngest member.

Dorine and Ueli meet at the tail end of the nineteen-sixties. Dorine finds Ueli handsome and seductive. Ueli is flattered that she’d sleep with him, doesn’t think he’ll get married, but is fascinated by her round face, “like the sunshine”. So they do marry. And then they follow Ueli’s job to the Bahamas, the tax haven “paradise” of the movie’s title.

Ueli doesn’t want kids, but Dorine gets pregnant, and it keeps happening until they have four daughters. The optimism of ’68 and the “Hochkonjunktur” (economic boom period) fades. Ueli’s head is turned by a beautiful nurse, “like a volcano”. Dorine’s life collapses, the family splits, and the girls shuttled off into a harsh Swiss winter. At the time they arrive here, the oldest girl is twelve, the youngest three. The subsequent years are, as German speakers like to say, a shitshow.

The three-year-old was Sonja Wyss, who went on to direct Farewell Paradise. Her film consists of brilliantly-conducted interviews with her sisters, mother and father, interspersed with ambient clips of a Bahamian beach or oppressive Alpine snow.

It makes for unexpectedly challenging, raw viewing. The traumas are arguably trivial compared to the refugee stories from the earlier movies today, but the intimacy and vulnerability on display here is much greater. The director and her editor Katarina Türler expertly tease out the universal from the specific, especially in the film’s unexpected finale.

For us Helvetonauts Farewell Paradise gives insight into the patriarchal values of kids like Dorine and Ueli, those who came of age in the late 1960s when women still didn’t have the right to vote in Switzerland and men had the right to ban them for working, but also when news of the summer of love and of riots in Paris was giving young people a new utopian direction.

The screening I saw was sold out and the crowd became increasingly scandalized. My seating neighbours spent half the film with their hands to their face, spontaneously decrying the unjust behaviour subjected to the girls by their parents, especially their father. These two are referred to throughout as Dorine and Ueli rather than Mum and Dad. It’s impossible to judge if this is another echo of the ’68 hippy values which filtered through the Wyss clan, or a means to gain distance.

I could have done with a more explicit context, though more came out in a gripping post-film interview with the director and family members (many audience members stayed on for this, more than today’s other screenings). For example, it was added that the handsome adulterer Ueli was in fact a chemist, and his principle business was making the contraceptive pill. Also, more photos earlier on would have complimented the interviews, and helped remind us how young this family was when they made their mistakes, perhaps softening the audience’s outrage towards the father.

But these quibbles are easy to get over, especially after that great ending. Farewell Paradise was by far the best movie I saw today.

Swissness Difficulty Level: Säntis (Intermediate).
Language: Swiss German.

Swiss Me Deadly’s One to Watch:

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