- The film by directors Anna Thommen and Lorenz Nufer takes a fresh look at Switzerland’s humanitarian tradition, at times raising a few uncomfortable questions
Written and directed by two pairs of hands – those of Swiss filmmakers Anna Thommen and Lorenz Nufer – and presented in a world premiere at the Zurich Film Festival (within the Focus Switzerland, Germany and Austria section), Volunteer [+see also:
film profile] follows five very different characters who have all been confronted with the same reality: that of the countless migrants who continually disembark along the Mediterranean coastline.
Whilst there’s nothing new about the theme explored in this work (we only need think of the most well-known examples, Fire At Sea [+see also:
interview: Gianfranco Rosi
film profile] by Gianfranco Rosi or Eldorado [+see also:
film profile] by Markus Imhoof), the angle the directors take here is particularly interesting; namely the volunteer experience as lived by the film’s five protagonists. The theme of migration might already have been scrutinised from various viewpoints – that of the migrants themselves, that of the rescuers and that of those living along the Mediterranean shoreline – but it has never been examined through the eyes of the many volunteers who have committed themselves to helping these peoples without expectation of anything in return. What are the consequences of such an experience? How does witnessing these tragic events directly and voluntarily change a person? These are the questions which beat at the heart of Anna Thommen’s new documentary, directed alongside Lorenz Nufer.
Armed with the direct testimonies of an eclectic group of Swiss nationals who travel to the Mediterranean coast (more specifically, to the Greek island of Lesbos) as volunteers – a couple of farmers, an ex-commander of the confederate army, a well-to-do elderly lady and a famous actor and presenter (Michael Räber) – the directors try to reconstruct the protagonists’ lived experience of this posting, foregrounding the consequences that it has had and that it continues to have on their lives now that they’ve returned home.
Volunteer is based as much on the direct testimonials of its protagonists - who express themselves openly in the presence of the camera - as it is on the material the volunteers gathered (images shot on cell-phones, photographs, short, ready-made videos) while engaged in their “mission”; two interesting perspectives which pit the instantaneousness of the present moment against a lengthier, more in-depth reflection on their experience. If, on the one hand, a lasting sense of emotion and a subtle yet constant sense of indignation is what now haunts all those who have witnessed firsthand the pain of those wrenched from their homelands, the film also touches upon some less predictable, not to mention less admissible reactions (a subtle need to play the hero and for a sensation of omnipotence). And it’s here that the film offers up the most interesting insights on the humanitarian tradition (in Switzerland, but also elsewhere) and what it has become in this 2.0 world.
Whilst no-one seems interested in questioning the consequences of such an experience, it’s nonetheless impossible not to feel anger (or at least ask questions of ourselves) when faced with the gulf which separates the lives of the five protagonists - especially that of the elderly lady who observes the world from the comfort of her villa overlooking the lake - from the tent cities which welcome streams of migrants disembarking from Greece into their folds. Although she’s the first to express her shame over this fact, it doesn’t change a thing: it’s still unfair. What was it that ultimately drove her to travel to Lesbos, if not a profound, cathartic need to atone for the guilt she feels at being born in the right place? These are uncomfortable questions which concern a great many of us and which are raised by the film, subtly yet precisely, without ever tipping over into moralism.
Volunteer is produced and sold worldwide by Sulaco Film.
(Translated from Italian)
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