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Craft Conquers Commerce in Swiss Documentary Class

By Jeff Swimmer

A few years ago, in an attempt to escape the onslaught of  "reality" and other tawdry genres taking over much of the documentary world, I decided to look into teaching. I had the good fortune to land a class at the International Film & Television School in Rockport, Maine. I've greatly enjoyed teaching there; it's hard work and long hours, but always a welcome respite from the trials of freelance producing/directing.

Over the winter a friend and fellow teacher from Maine couldn't teach a one-week documentary class he was scheduled to conduct in Switzerland. He asked if I could substitute for him, and I said that I would. When I flew to Switzerland to start my intensive teaching week in directing and producing documentaries, I had no idea what to expect. I had lived in Britain for several years and was familiar with European governments' keen support for the arts, including documentaries. But what I found in Switzerland would have surprised any American filmmaker who's agonized over the lengthy paperwork and even longer odds of getting government support for films in the US.

The tiny school, called the Documentary Workshop, was founded two years ago by an aspiring documentary producer who singlehandedly raised federal, state and local money for a school entirely devoted to documentary-making. For now, the director has only a few classes in the autumn each year, but she is confident she will get enough support to expand into the summer.

Many of the students are sponsored by the various branches of state-run media, such as Swiss radio and television stations. For others, the rates are reasonable. She operates out of Swiss government media offices, so overhead is minimal.

During my lectures, I noticed a lack of enthusiasm for the subject that most grabs my American students' attention: how to finance a film through cable and network broadcasters. What the Swiss students cared about most was the craft of filmmaking, and their goal was that their local canton or state-run fund would finance their work. If they could do a sale or a co-production later with another broadcaster, so much the better. But that wasn't their primary goal. They wanted to know how to tailor their pitches for local and federal government arts agencies. The bureaucrats wanted to fund interesting work, and neither they nor the filmmakers were overly concerned about a film's commercial prospects. Without the commercial imperative, the films the Swiss students wanted to make were unusual, highly creative and complex, with often arcane topics.

One student wanted to explore her Trinidadian and Chinese roots through the eyes of her ailing mother. Another shot a reel about an Albanian violin maker who was trying to revive his country's once vibrant musical traditions, crushed by years of bloody warfare. Another wanted to do an eclectic film about the physiological and spiritual aspects of karate, starring his own karate teacher. The topics were inspired and actually stood a decent chance of getting state funding.

With commerce largely removed from the equation, the students wanted to learn about craft. And their ideas about craft were wildly different from Americans'. Viewing a range of recent American documentaries on channels like Discovery or A&E, they were alarmed by the fast pace, how little time was spent with each character and how busy the films looked.

Students most appreciated an unusual, very slow and highly effective Swiss film, La Bonne Conduite, about what sounds like an unpromising milieu: driving school. The filmmakers mounted a tiny camera in five cars operated by a rural driving school. The entire film focused on the interactions between the driving teachers and their students, with brief moments at home with a few of the students or teachers. That was it. But the stories were riveting. The filmmakers obviously had the vast amount of time it takes to make characters feel that comfortable and candid in an observational film. Each story took as long it needed to take to reveal its best punches. The film was simple, smart and a sheer delight, revealing tantalizing insights about race relations in Switzerland, the vagaries of the generation gap, how the elderly are treated in Switzerland, how the Swiss view their physical landscape and many more subtle, nuanced topics. My students wanted to make this kind of slow, deliberate, calm and focused film, about their own topics. Needless to say, this film would have been very hard-pressed to find a broadcast home in the US outside of a few PBS outlets. In Switzerland, it was a mainstream hit.

There obviously are costs to Swiss and European support for documentaries—namely, absurdly high taxes. And of course, it's competitive to get state money for documentaries, even there. But in this small filmmaking school, it was plain to see the benefits of a government's nurturing atmosphere toward documentary filmmakers: an emphasis on unique storytelling and craft, as well as a willingness to roll the dice on a worthy and unusual topic-even when it lacks commercial clout. For me, it was a real education.


Jeff Swimmer is a DuPont Award-winning director and producer of documentary films on both sides of the Atlantic.