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Review: À ciel ouvert


- Charlie Petersmann's latest feature film gives us a behind-the-scenes look at a pharaonic construction site that seems to swallow up everything and everyone

Review: À ciel ouvert

Five years after Deltas, Back to the Shores, selected at numerous festivals including Nyon's Visions du Réel, Munich's DOK.fest and the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, Charlie Petersmann returns to the Solothurn Film Festival to present his latest feature À ciel ouvert, which is competing for the prestigious Prix de Soleure.

What does it mean to be a man, a “real” man, within a microcosm like that of the working-class world? How do you reconcile your private life with the rigours of a job that treats the body as a machine? With À ciel ouvert, Petersmann introduces us to the mazes of a large construction site in French-speaking Switzerland, a pharaonic project that is born and develops right before our eyes. Thanks to Petersmann's incisive and aesthetically powerful gaze, the "shadow workers," most of them foreigners, become the protagonists of the scene, a scene they normally observe from behind the scenes.

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Despite their undeniable skill and heroic resistance to fatigue (in our patriarchal heteronormative society, a "real man" cannot feel pain or loss), the workers are often labelled as second-rate workers, bodies rather than brains. "All young people in Switzerland want to work in an office or a bank, they don't like hard work, we migrants take care of that", explains one of the workers on the construction site, as if to remind us that only those considered socially inferior should get their hands dirty. Thanks to the testimonies of those who have made this hard and demanding work their daily routine, we realise the importance of these “men of the shadows.”

Many of them have chosen this job out of pride and not just out of necessity, a pride that exudes a virile masculinity erected as a banner. Yes, because what is most striking about Petersmann's documentary is the omnipresence of male characters who make a meal of the stereotypes associated with their gender. The falsely superficial discussions about girlfriends, about the fatigue of a job that puts the body to the test every day, or about a difficult past that burns like fire (prison, war, or the need to sleep in the car because of insecurity) allow us to see the limits of this silent integration.

What does it mean to be a man? What are the obligations (and not only the undeniable privileges) linked to a gender, the male gender, which has arrogantly taken possession of a virility that it believes it has a right to? À ciel ouvert is a film that restores dignity and voice to those who believe they do not deserve the limelight, but also a bittersweet portrait of men who are victims of the stereotypes linked to their gender. Interesting and powerful from this point of view is the scene in which one of the protagonists takes care of his garden. The director uses bold close-ups to focus on the hands ruined by the work of this shadowy man, hands that can be used as tools but can also become an ephemeral home for a ladybird. Petersmann shows us the backstage of not only a construction site but also of men who drop for brief, fleeting moments the masculine mask they believe they must perpetually wear in order to be accepted or simply to give meaning to their existence.

À ciel ouvert is produced by Mnemosyn films (Geneva) and RTS (Radio Télévision Suisse).

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(Translated from Italian)

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