"I tried very hard not to make a nostalgic film"
by Emmanuel Cuénod
- With Winter Nomads, Manuel von Stürler signs his first documentary about an unusual human adventure: the winter migration of sheep in the Swiss countryside.
A premiere in Berlin, a European Film Award for Best Documentary, and Swiss theatres that are constantly full. Encounter with a director who couldn't ask for more.
Cineuropa: Where did the idea for Winter Nomads [+see also:
interview: Manuel von Stürler
film profile] come from?
Manuel von Stürler: It was really due to a chance encounter. I was working on a film project about the Antarctic and I literally saw the sheep passing by beneath my window, just as the audience sees them in the film. I would never have imagined that winter nomads still existed in Switzerland today. So I went to talk to them, and soon realized that they were very charismatic characters, and that was it... I was convinced right away that a movie should be made.
Was it hard to convince your protagonists?
Yes and no. They were relatively used to having their photos taken and a few amateur filmmakers had already made films about them. When they saw me, they simply thought: “Ha, here comes another one”. At first, they did not really understand that the project would be so substantial. Then the long preparation work began; it lasted a little over two years. I started by going there for a whole winter, without a camera, just to take notes and understand where the movie would be made. What made everything simpler was that, in the end, the transhumance route is more or less the same every year. We were able to work on some episodes in detail.
How did they react when they saw the film? Did they see it together?
Carole discovered the film just before the premiere in Berlin. It all went very well. She was very moved, it was a beautiful moment. In the case of Pascal, it was slightly more complicated. He wanted to see the movie for the first time at the Berlinale. I was terrified: not only was I showing Winter Nomads for the first time to the public, but on top of that, my main protagonist was there, in the theatre, about to see himself on screen for the very first time. And as the movie shows him just as he is, quite rough and whole, I had no idea how he would react. But he fully understood the way I had handled it.
Winter Nomads deals with a world which, if it hasn't disappeared completely, is at least shrinking drastically. Do you feel you have made a nostalgic film?
I tried very hard not to make a nostalgic film. From what I have heard and read, it seems that it has not been interpreted as such by the public. What the movie shows is a page being turned. It does not however say that it was better before, or that we should go back in time. It is simply a testimony to an endangered way of life. And not just in Switzerland. An African director recently told me that the nomadic lifestyle hardly exists any more in sub-Saharan Africa.
But this testimony still raises many questions about our sedentary lifestyle and our relationship with nature…
Yes, because it's about our deepest roots. Lots of people who have seen the movie told me that it had made them want to reconnect with the earth, the elements that surround us and are so natural to us, but which we tend to forget in our contemporary lives. It's not, however, about going back to a nomadic lifestyle, but rather about seeing the world in which we live from a different perspective. That's what I felt too, when we were filming. When you are battling with the cold, the snow, the hardship of pressing onwards, and when you have to work with the natural elements, it's something of a shock to see a car being driven along a road by a guy in a T-shirt... when it's snowing outside.