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Niklaus Hilber • Director of Paradise War: The Story of Bruno Manser

“I am a filmmaker – I try to create myths”


- Cineuropa met up with Niklaus Hilber, the director of this year’s Zurich opening film, Paradise War: The Story of Bruno Manser

Niklaus Hilber  • Director of Paradise War: The Story of Bruno Manser
(© a film company)

Almost ten years in the making, the opening film of the 15th Zurich Film Festival, Niklaus Hilber’s Paradise War: The Story of Bruno Manser [+see also:
film review
interview: Niklaus Hilber
film profile
, takes a closer look at the life of environmental activist Bruno Manser, who fought with Malaysia’s Penan nomads against the destruction of the rainforest, before disappearing in 2000 in Sarawak. Shot with the participation of the Penan and starring Sven Schelker in the title role, it’s the biggest Swiss production in years.

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Cineuropa: When did you first hear about Bruno Manser and his fight? And what did you make of it?
Niklaus Hilber:
He is part of the Swiss collective consciousness. If you live here, you know his name. But he was also supported by Al Gore, and he met with Kofi Anan and Prince Charles. It’s interesting because when we first started, we thought: “How can we make environmental issues accessible?” Even when we were shooting, there was no Greta Thunberg. Now, it seems to be the perfect movie for this year. But it’s also about this person who sacrificed everything to help others. He never gave up trying to change the economic system – how crazy is that?! We are talking about something so obvious – everyone is for the protection of the rainforest. And yet it’s not just about the guys who cut down the trees, but also the ones buying Ikea furniture or eating sushi with chopsticks. It’s so hard to beat the system, as it doesn’t allow anything else to exist by its side – it just devours it. And in the end, people think that if they have the right papers, they are doing nothing wrong.

Some Penan people were present at the screening as well. Was it important for you to get them involved?
It was a conscious decision I made early on because it’s also their story. It didn’t feel right to cast Filipino actors, for example, although it would have been much easier, communication-wise. The concept of acting is not known to them – some don’t know how to read or write, and those who do are not used to working with text. We conducted workshops with them for about six months. Bruno Manser is still persona non grata in Sarawak, so we had to gain their trust in order to bring them outside the country. I hate the term “social experiment”, but there were all of these different cultures coming together. It was a huge undertaking for us, but it was worth it.

If the concept of acting is so alien to them, how did you try to ease them into it?
They are very withdrawn people, very shy. And now, suddenly, I had to talk them into standing in front of a huge crew, lights and cameras. That’s why we conducted these workshops. But even that was tricky because we had people coming from different villages. We discovered that in their culture, everything depends on the community aspect. The ego doesn’t come first, which can be the main difficulty for actors sometimes. Nevertheless, the difficult part for me was dealing with the language. Nobody else speaks it, and it’s not even written down. It’s not like you can just take a crash course.

Were you afraid of the “white saviour” trope at all when approaching this story?
I would be critical of it if it were a fictional account, but that’s what really happened. I reject any kind of post-colonial, ethnological criticism because Manser was someone who escaped civilisation. He wasn’t trying to “enlighten” indigenous people. He invested years fighting for their land rights, with no personal gain whatsoever. At the end of the day, most indigenous people wouldn’t stand a chance unless they were helped by a Westerner. It’s just a fact. It’s not like we are using their situation, because we are the consumers here. We are a part of the problem. The Penan say that all of these ethnologists always show great interest, but once they have written their PhDs, they disappear, never to be heard from again. Manser went “wild”, which is a taboo, as in this field, you shouldn’t get involved. But his diaries are really beautiful, and they’re still the best source if you want to understand the Penan culture. I am a filmmaker – I try to create myths. Ethnologists disassemble them.

What was your take on how to show him in the film? He is not a traditional hero – at one point, a monkey steals his shoe, for God’s sake.
I wanted to show that he arrived with this naivety and innocence, and that he was someone on the path to self-discovery. And then he gets drawn in because he is the only one who can help. There are these stages of his character as he evolves, and that’s what I discussed with my actor. There is the innocent Manser, the searching Manser, the free Manser, and then there is the Manser who has got himself into a situation there is no way out of. Also, to add to your previous question, we took a considerable amount of time to establish him as a Penan. He is not this “white male” any more; he becomes one of them.

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