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“Dom (Home in Russian),” “Quir” and “Iceman” look like potential standouts at Swiss Films Previews, the only spread of national movies at Switzerland’s Visions du Réel, the country’s leading doc festival. 

Presented via excerpts at a two-hour showcase on Wednesday, three further titles –  “Kalari – the Martial Art of Female Power,” “The Boy from the River Drina” and “Spheres” –  underscored the strength in depth of documentary filmmaking in Switzerland and at least in this year’s Previews, a leitmotif. In an era of adverse circumstance, the doc features highlight figures who rebel, whether against Russia’s war on the Ukraine (“Dom”), climate change (“Iceman”), homophobia in Palermo, gender violence (“Kalari”), the Srebrenica massacre (“Boy”) or, in the case of Daniel Zimmermann, director of “Spheres,” stock narrative. 

The doc features’ protagonists rebel, moreover, with courage, good humor, imagination, and above all resilience. “Quir,” for example, captures footage of gay couple Massimo Milani and Gino Campanella years ago celebrating symbolically the first gay marriage in Italy. Decades later, they are still pushing back against homophobia in a highly conservative Palermo. 

That resilience can even take on a Quixotic edge. In “The Boy from the River Drina,” for example, Irvin returns to the woods around Srebrenica, where much of his family were slaughtered, intent on building a village of simple cabins for survivors to return to their homeland. 

“Irvin somehow shows us the power of utopia: What sense does it make to build a tourist village with one’s own hands in the place where a genocide took place thirty years earlier?” asks director Zijad Ibrahimovic.  

“I find it fascinating that a young man, while still searching for the remains of his father, would allow himself the luxury of escaping suffering and proposing life,” he adds.

“These young activists and journalists who opposed the Russian invasion of Ukraine are in an existential crisis because they realise that their ideas about a new, free democratic Russia are an illusion, they have not only lost their home but their identity. That’s why it was important for us to tell this story about this tricky, intimate experience against the backdrop of a huge historical tragedy,” Svetlana Rodina, co-director of “Dom,” said at Nyon.

That combination – the personal, the universal – runs through many tiles. They treat big issues. They are often not even set in Switzerland, but rather Sicily, India, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia’s Tbilisi or Greenland’s Ice Sheet. 

Larger than life, these figures are iconic heroes, and sometimes look the part. When Konrad Steffen greets a helicopter outside his camp, he stands astride the snow, a towering figure in obsession of himself and his landscape.

Films are shot with a cinematographic style: “Quir’s” pop out vibrantly coloured credits look like an early Almodóvar film. 

Three titles are also second features, which is a good sign, suggesting the success of the makers’ debut, observes Charlotte Duclos, Swiss Films consultant, documentary film & marketing strategies.

Switzerland has seen an influx of immigration. Backed by public broadcasters, documentary production has solid financial backing. Although produced by Swiss companies, the Previews documentaries touch on topics that are universal, though anchored in individual human stories, she adds. 

Now in its seventh edition and a fixture on the festival calendar, the Swiss Films Previews are in themselves a sign of a stable but burgeoning industry, she argues.

Four more Swiss docs will be presented at Cannes Docs in May. 

A brief drill down on this year’s six Previews titles:

“The Boy From the River Drina,” (Zijad Ibrahimovic, Rough Cat, Lugano)

In Spring 1992, war broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Drina Valley was the scene of its worst atrocities, culminating in the Srebrenica massacre, an opening credit explains in the extract seen at Visions du Réel. Irvin Mujcic, then 5, escaped with his mother. His father and over 20 family members were killed. In the film, in 2014, he returned to build a small village in the same woods where Bosniaks had taken refuge. “Little is said about the return to Srebrenica. By returning, we give new life to people who are no longer there,” Mujcic says in the film.    

“Dom (Home in Russian),” (Svetlana Rodina, Laurent Stoop, DokLab, Bern)

2022: After Russia has attacked Ukraine, a young woman, arrives at a shelter in Tbilisi, Georgia, housing other young Russian, now digital dissidents. She’s asked how old she is. “23,” she says and bursts into tears, her world, or the life she thought she would live, now gone. In their follow-up to “Ostrov– Lost Island,” a 2021 Best Intl Doc at Hot Docs, Svetlana and Stoop return to the same theme: the battle of individuals against overwhelming macro context. They do so, if clips are anything to go by, with the same gift for psychological observance putting a human face on the war against Putin: Young generation of émigrés growing sense of hopelessness and search for a new home. “When Russia, my country, started bombing Ukraine, my world was shattered. I didn’t know how to be Russian anymore. And it was so painful that I couldn’t even express myself. I could only be with other Russians who shared the same values as me and found themselves in the same situation and even more difficult. That’s how Laurent and I ended up in a shelter for Russian political refugees,” says Rodina. 

“Iceman,” (Corina Gamma, Tellfilm, Zurich)

Graced by wondrous shots of the ever-shifting Greenland Ice Sheet, a personal portrait of Konrad Steffen, a renowned Swiss authority on climate change, who disappeared without trace in August 2020, presumably falling into a crevasse covered by fresh snow near a camp. “The film traces the exceptional life of Swiss Polar researcher Konrad Steffen, whose passion for the surreal and uninhabitable Greenland Ice Sheet went beyond his science,” says Gamma. “Unlike any biographical documentaries, the personal approach of this film conveys the friendship between the filmmaker and the researcher and their shared fascination for the ice.”

“Kalari, The Martial Art of Female Power,” (Maria Kaur Bedi, Salinder Singh Bedi, First Hand Films, Zurich; Spirited Heroine Productions, Bern)  

Co-directed by Bedi Duo – the on-the-rise Maria Kaur Bedi and multiple prized Indian director Satindar Singh Bedi (“The Curse”), “Kalari” takes the pulse of a martial art which is sweeping India, particularly its women, in a country where gender violence is common. The film follows four young Indian women “on their journey towards self empowerment,” the description runs.  

Courtesy of First Hand Films

“Kalari” was described by director Singh Bedi at the Previews as the “first feature film about the oldest martial art in the world.” “Our film shows women as warriors not as victims through an anthology of female protagonists which covers different aspects of hope, self-conviction and courage,” he added.   

“Quir,” (Nicola Bellucci, Soap Factory)

A portrait of Massimo Milani and Gino Campanella, an iconic gay couple together for 42 years, who own Quir, a leather goods boutique with an Almodóvar-esque aesthetic sells bags in pop-out colors, a LGBTQ sanctuary in the patriarchal stronghold of Palermo, Sicily. Mixing the intimate and political, as in his doc-feature “Grozny Blues,” nominated for a 2016 Swiss Film Award, Bellucci builds a portrait of Palermo’s LGBTQ community, its gains, ongoing political struggles and resilience. Frank Matter produces for Basel-based Soap Factory. “‘Either you are happy or you are complicit. ’Quir’ is a free and liberating doc-comedy that, through the lived lives of four generations of activists, recounts 40 years of LGBT struggles in Italy,” Bellucci tells Variety. “Starting from a peripheral perspective, that of post-patriarchal Sicily, the film questions and interrogates us about what the struggle for identity means today in the Italy of Neo-Fascist regurgitations.”  

“It was a joy, it was gay to make this film,” said “Quir” director Bellucci, eliciting smiles from the Nyon audience. “It’s a film about four generations fighting there, because it’s not easy to be like them in Palermo. But most of all it’s a film about love – the working title was ‘Love Stories.’” 

Added producer Frank Matter: “It’s a film about discrimination, but also about love, about taking care of each other: it’s a very universal film.”  

“Spheres,” (Daniel Zimmermann, Beauvoir Films, Geneva; Mischief Films, Vienna)

Made up of a series of circular pans as the camera rotates slowly on its axis in different settings – the countryside, a restaurant, the terrace of an inner city high-rise flat, a barren mountain, a hidden chamber.  “Spheres” reveals the extraordinary in the apparently ordinary: a wooden slat thrown in one direction which circles the earth, striking the thrower in the back of the head; a restaurant diner crouched on the floor, eating like a dog from a bowl; in the chamber, two young women with sequinned faces looking deeply into each other’s eyes. “I want to go beneath the surface, beyond the appearance of everyday life, to immerse the audience into an uncommon experience,” Zimmermann tells Variety.  “I’m using an altered narrative method by incorporating the work of artists and performers resulting in 10 tableaux as a series of mind-expanding practices for the big screen.”

At the Previews pitch, Zimmermann likened “Spheres” to Abbas Kiarostami’s “24 Frames.” Each tableaux, is the result of a collaboration with an artist. “Each is specialised in a field of spirituality, and in some cases with shamanistic techniques,” he added.

“Spheres” (Courtesy of Beauvoir Films)

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