Helmer explains values and visuals of his "pure" docu style
Swiss director Fernand Melgar has made the plight of immigrants being pushed out of his wealthy country the central theme of his oeuvre in pluriprized docus “The Fortress,” about a Swiss detention center for asylum seekers, and “The Flight,” about a detention facility from where illegal immigrants are flown out of Switzerland back to their homelands. His new docu “L’Abri” takes you to a homeless shelter in Lausanne where staff face the tough nightly task of turning would-be immigrants away because they don’t have enough beds. Shot in Melgar’s signature fly-on-the-wall style, it provides a vivid picture of immigrant realities. It’s also particularly timely trestimony, coming shortly after a referendum that in February re-introduced strict quotes on immigration into Switzerland from European Union countries. Melgar spoke about “L’Abri,” which is screening in competition at the Locarno Film Festival, with Variety’s Nick Vivarelli. Excerpts.
Q: Why are immigration issues so important to you?
A: I never forget that I am the son of immigrants. Switzerland in fact has been a land of immigrants and refugees for centuries. But these days we are living in fear. We have a populist party that uses fear to close the country to outsiders. I just try with my films to be a witness. I just try to say: ‘hey guys, if we close the door we won’t have fresh air; we won’t have fresh blood, and we need them, the same way Americans know they need them in the U.S. That said, we are in a democracy, which is like a pendulum. I’m not a militant filmmaker. I believe in this country and I respect what people want. Right now people want to close the country, so my job is to try to be democratic and say: ‘ok, look at this: this is what this law means.’ In my films I try to ask questions, I never give the answers.
Q: The visuals in this film are very powerful. I believe it’s the first time you did your own camera work. How did you shoot it?
A: In my previous films I’ve had the privilege of working with some great cinematographers, in fact I’d never shouldered the camera myself before. But this time I just had to do it myself; it could not have been done any other way. I said to my executive producer, (Elise Shubs) who is a lawyer: ‘you have one week to learn how to record sound’. That’s because when you have a crew, they have families they have to go home to. Sometimes we worked 24-hours non-stop because we had to. At the end of these marathon shooting sessions I would say to Elise: ‘Do you have the sound? And she would answer back: ‘Yes. Is your material in focus?’ That’s all we cared about. We shot it instinctively. We didn’t have any aesthetic concerns.
Q: The people whose difficult lives you portray let you you get very close and don’t seem to be aware of the camera, which is not always the case in documentaries these days some of which seem almost staged. Did you spend a lot of time developing rapports before you started shooting?
A: You have to have a lot of time to spend on the street. You just try gain their trust and you can do that only if you have time. I can’t make a film without loving the people who are in it, even the ‘bad guys’. I love all the characters in my films. If I had to defend the guy who runs the homeless shelter I would, because I respect the way he does his job. The law is bad, but I don’t think he’s a bad man. When they trust me, doors open. After that you just have to find the right way to go about it. You can’t be shameless. I always try to find a little shred of humanity in all situations. In every shot I’m waiting for a little miracle to happen.
Q: The last time you were in Locarno, in 2011, the jury president, producer Paulo Branco, lashed out against “Special Flight” calling it “fascist” because it could be construed as being sympathetic to the jailers as well as to the immigrants they were sending home. I think “L’Abri” could also spark similarly strong reactions. Are you getting used to this by now?
A: You never get used to it, because it always hurts. But if people just clap and smile, then I don’t think I’ve made a good film. I make “bad conscience” cinema so people react strongly. As long as we continue to respect each other, then I say ‘ok, I’ve done my job’. I really respect what Paulo Branco said about “Special Flight” because after he did that lots of journalists got interested in my film, which was distributed in over 100 countries and nominated for an Emmy. So by using one little word about my film during the closing ceremony of the festival Branco did a lot for it. And I’m not being cynical saying this: I’m always interested in people’s rection to my films and I always respect them.