AN INTERVIEW WITH PIERRE FRANCOIS SAUTER, THE DIRECTOR OF THE FILM CALABRIA

In the selection of this years’ 10th edition of IDFF BELDOCS 2017. within the program of Feel good movies, the audience had a chance to see CALABRIA, a feature documentary by Swiss cineaste Pierre Francois Sauter. After the death of Italian immigrant who had spent most of his career in Switzerland, two undertakers, Jose, a Portuguese and Jovan, a gypsy from Belgrade, travel all the way from the picturesque, mountain sides of northern Italy to the very south of Italy, to a small village of Gasperina in Calabria, birth place of the deceased, where he ought be buried. This is a warm and funny story of humans’ desires and expectations, joys and fears, little life’s spells and pleasures, told in the form of a road movie in a hearse. It is a road trip where two completely different characters, one realist by nature, and another one a dreamer, face their attitudes, thoughts and convictions, comprised in the simplicity and infinity of the journey, overwhelmed with little whims, beauty and music, all together combined in unique counterpoints of their feelings, hopes and dreams.

1. At the beginning of the movie there is an interesting footage of everyday life of Italian immigrants in Switzerland some 40 or 50 years ago. How did you get that material? Was immigration in Switzerland as diverse and popular back in those days as it is in nowadays?

The archive footage at the beginning of my documentary Calabria is taken from the film Il rovescio della medaglia a film by Alvaro Bizzari. Alvaro Bizzari is an Italian worker who came to work in Switzerland. He had an amateur camera and had an excellent idea of making films about the living conditions of his colleagues in Switzerland at that time. The films of Alvaro Bizzari have been released on DVD. These films are real historical testimonies filmed from the very inside of how the seasonal workers were living back then.
In the 1950s, a large number of Swiss companies needed manpower and they had brought in massively seasonal migrants directly from abroad, signing passing agreements with the countries in question. These seasonal workers had working permits in Switzerland only for the season, but they didn’t have the right to come with their families and settle there all year-round. They were forbidden to stay in Switzerland after the end of their employment contract. There are hundreds of thousands of people who have come from abroad to build the infrastructure of Switzerland. Year to year, they would come to Switzerland to earn some money and then they would go back home. A lot of this immigrants came from the south of Italy, as Francesco Spadea, the dead man who is repatriated in Calabria. But also from Spain, from all regions of Yugoslavia and from Portugal. Some of these workers were finally able to settle down in Switzerland. My film is mainly a tribute to these people who had left their homeland in order to work far away from home.
Current immigration has changed compared to that time. These contracts no longer exist today. The status of seasonal worker has been terminated fifteen years ago.

2. There is a certain conviction in the public eye that Switzerland is a very popular destination, a kind of a promised land for immigrants from non – European countries, as well as from the east and south European countries. Is that just a myth, or is it the fact that coincides with the truth? What kind of jobs and what professions are the most popular and wanted among the immigrants?

It is clear that the wealth and the standard of living in Switzerland continues to attract people from the south of Europe, as well as from elsewhere. For example, there is also a fair amount of Germans and French who also come to work here. But, like in many countries, we are also currently experiencing a period of closure and distrust towards foreigners, unfortunately.
It is difficult for me to say what professions are the most desirable and most popular among immigrant workers in Switzerland nowadays. It seems to me that today in Switzerland there are foreigners in all categories of the society, from the university professor to the bar tender. At this moment, more or less, foreigners make up approximately 25% of the entire Swiss population. On the other hand, it is true that there are certain jobs that are mostly done by immigrant workers. Mainly, we‘re talking about low paid jobs, trades, where language proficiency is not required.

3. What is the main reason that made you want to make this movie? Was it the migrations as one of the most notable and most vibrant demographic issues and social phenomenon, or was it the specific nature of uncommon and bizarre occupation of an undertaker, the complexity of its occupational hazards and a day to day close encounter with the dead?

Well, there are two reasons mixed up. At first I wanted to make a film about the issues related to death and about the meaning of our existence on Earth. I started by taking an interest in the undertakers, and especially the employees who take care of the bodies of the dead people, those who do the work behind the scenes, the ones we never see. I was at the beginning of my research when I was told about the repatriations. I was interested in it right away, because it was connected to some of my personal concerns: I spent my childhood in Mozambique. I arrived in Switzerland at the age of 11. Then, I have lived and worked in Lisbon, Paris, Milan, Brussels, etc. The question of moving and looking for a place to make a living is deeply embedded in me..

Starting from the repatriation that we can see in Calabria, I wanted to make a film that pays homage to all the people who left their homeland to go and make their living elsewhere. In Calabria, the world of funeral parlors is ultimately only the context in which the film takes place. But it seemed to me that linking the issue of immigration to death, has given a deeper meaning to the question of our choices in life. And leaving your homeland to go to live and work elsewhere is a life choice, which people make often when they are under pressure from the outside events. Our existence is ephemeral and it inevitably ends with death. But before we die, the important question, for me, is to think what should we do with our lives? How do we benefit from being alive? That is the main idea of the film.

4. The main characters in your movie are immigrant undertakers, Jovan, a Gypsy and an ex musician from Serbia, and Jose, a Portuguese. How did you get to meet them? How did they react when you offered them to be the main characters in your documentary?

I spent a lot of time preparing for this film, in fact several years … At first, I went around the main funeral parlours within a range of hundred miles from my home. I’ve met over 80 funeral workers and I have had personal interviews with them. Then I have made a first choice of people and I followed their work. It was like a real casting that lasted for several months. I’ve spent a lot of time in different funeral homes, it was like an internship I was doing. But they all knew I was preparing a movie. I dressed like the employees, I participated in the funeral ceremonies, carried coffins, wreaths of flowers, etc. always observing, taking pictures and notes. At the end of this long process I have chosen Jovan and José.
When I told them about the movie, Jovan and José immediately reacted positively and I am very grateful to them! It is essential for me to work in the atmosphere of mutual respect and trust, because filming like this requires a lot of personal involvement and commitment.

5. As far as the story line goes, there can be seen a couple of narratives. On one hand, there is a story of one specific and uncommon occupation, occupation of an undertaker. Undertakers have this peculiar line of work, whereas in everyday life they face with the inevitability of human faith, the definitiveness of existence. They start and end their working day looking after the dead. Constant presence of death makes them think about some important facts of life. On the other hand, in the background of this leitmotif there is a story of two immigrants, diverse in so many ways, who, with a certain dose of humor and wit, “with love and squalor”, sing their “immigrant song”.

Jovan and José are faced with death every day. It is a job that is sometimes very hard and unpleasant. They are dealing with all kinds of deaths: car accidents, suicides, etc. It is not uncommon for them to take care of several dozens of dead people a week. So it is obvious that they cannot get emotionally involved in all the situations they face. Sometimes they are affected by some deaths, but ultimately, it’s just a job they do to make a living. And luckily for them, they don’t always think about death. That’s why the undertakers’ job is rather the context in which the film is taking place, it is the canvas in the background that reminds us that death always hovers over us, that we are all condemned.

Filming José and Jovan, the two men who left their country to come and to live in Switzerland, and who work at a funeral home, intrigued me because it was a way of dealing with the consequences of the choices we make in life. It’s also an opportunity to break the clichés about immigrants, who are often perceived as an anonymous human mass, rather than as individuals. Jovan and José are above all men I find very interesting and I appreciate their efforts. Jovan is a singer and José is an intellectual. They have both been engaged in different jobs before they had met in Switzerland, on this job. The fact that they are foreigners is the one in common they have with the dead man they are repatriating to his home village. In the film, they carry a dead man who, like themselves, came to Switzerland, in search for a better life, but a generation before.

6. There is an interesting form of this movie, and that is a road movie in a hearse. How did you get that idea? As an antipode to this realistic and somewhat gloomy surroundings and atmosphere, our protagonists seem to create new micro narratives, filled with words and songs?

I always liked the road movies, the idea of moving brings something interesting to the course of the film. The time passes as we travel towards a specific goal. We do not need to add too many narrative elements, we know where we are going, and the spectator can relax. It’s just a matter of getting him to where you want to bring him through this journey.
During my preparations for the film, I have made two repatriation trips with other funeral workers. I was the passenger next to the driver. And during these trips, I discovered the person with whom I was travelling. Every journey was like a meeting, an encounter, a human experience. We discovered each other through sometimes trivial, sometimes profound discussions, through small events as well. It was like a moment of vacation and freedom for the undertaker, a privileged moment where he could leave heavy daily routine and explore the world. Like a moment of freedom with surprises and tensions. A time when life suddenly seems stronger because we are far away from home. That is a feeling I wanted to evoke when I realized this film.

7. Music is a very important element of the movie. It is a manifestation of liveliness, vividness, of something that is opposed to death. Jovan Nikolic’s music is also an antipode to the realistic character of his fellow worker. It also serves as a starting point for numerous contemplations and debates of our protagonists?

Jovan’s songs are essential for this film, they bring a counterpoint, leading the film to a more poetic and cinematic form. Before the shooting, I worked a lot with Jovan in order to find songs that were related to the themes I was interested in. We made a selection of a dozen songs. During the trip, I was lying right behind José and Jovan, I was controlling the cameras, but I also steered the discussions to the themes that interested me, and sometimes I kept aside, allowing for the unforeseen situations to occur. And depending on how I felt, I would ask Jovan to sing a song. And than he would sing. It is needless to say that if the songs match perfectly in the film, it’s mostly due to the fact that Jovan is an excellent singer.

8. The movie has been screened on several film festivals. It has won the 1st prize for the best movie at DOC LISBOA 2016, and special mention by the jury of the festival in Nyon, Visions du Réel 2016. Do you have some more festivals in mind for CALABRIA?

Calabria has been in the official selection of 15 festivals so far. During the next few months, the film will continue its journey and is going to be screened on several other festivals: it will be shown in France, and also at the “Fünf seen film Festival”, in Germany, at the “FIDBA” in Buenos Aires, in Argentina, at the “Open City Documentary festival”, in London, at the “Flahertiana” IDFF in Perm, in Russia, at the “Vilnius Documentary Film Festival”, in Lithuania and even at the very prestigious “Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival”, in Japan. For us, this is something really fantastic!

9. Do you have an idea for some next project/ movie of yours?

Of course, I always have ideas for making films. I am working on two projects that are still in the phase of development. But I think it’s better to make the movies, rather than to talk about them before they are actually done. And I must confess, while we’re on this subject, I am a little superstitious too!

Radmila Veljović