Countering the clichés

Chateau Mercier, built just over 100 years ago on a hill overlooking Sierre.

Though the Valais is home to only 1% of the Swiss population (including me), its upper regions, including Zermatt, account for a “proportionally enormous” part of Switzerland onscreen, as cinema historian Cornelius Schregle points out. So Sierre might seem an obvious place to launch the effort to position Switzerland as a hub for film production contacts.

Matterhorn, what else? Photo: Andrew Bossi
Zermatt and the Matterhorn. What else? Photo: Andrew Bossi

But, in fact, Rey’s efforts to bring screenwriters together with other professionals is resolutely international in flavour. She founded the international non-profit association DreamAgo with the Los Angeles-based Lebanese director Soula Saad 18 years ago to create a network of contacts with producers around the world and organized her first screenwriting workshop.

Pascale Rey, scriptdoctor extraordinary

“For a film to reach its audience, it is essential that it be read, produced, and brought to the screen by professionals who all share the same sensibility…” says DreamAgo.

The DreamAgo team

Today DreamAgo boasts of its global reach: centres in 4 countries, patrons in 5, members in 10 countries and a partnership with the Sundance Institute.

It has helped 60 projects in 35 countries. It organizes “Meet Your Match” sessions with producers, distributors and directors in San Sebastian and Los Angeles for scripts that have gone through a Plume & Pellicule workshop. It also offers six-week residences and an allowance at a chalet in the Château Mercier grounds for writers to work on screenplays.

Selected writers for Plume & Pellicule only pay for their trip to join the workshop and the cost of a translation of their scenario, if it is not already presented in two languages. Its 2023 workshop has given places to writers from Colombia, Philippines and Spain as well as France and Switzerland (LINK).

But for the general public, the film presentations in the presence of actors, production staff and often directors offers a unique opportunity to make contact with committed artists, as I experienced in 2017.

Backdrop Switzerland

marthe keller
Marthe Keller

Swiss 70s star Marthe Keller came to Sierre in 2017 for an early morning promotion of the just published Backdrop Switzerland (L’Age d’homme, CHF75), a 400-page picture book taking its photos largely from the Swiss Cinémathèque, the co-publisher.

Bobby Deerfield (1977), you may or may not remember, starred Keller and Al Pacino. You see the couple riding up the road to the Grand St Bernard pass. “For someone who is familiar with this route,” she points out, “the scenery appears out of order.” Keller, who has since made herself a career in opera production and theatre, also recalls: “One day Al Pacino, who had never left New York, found himself nose-to-nose with a cow for the first time in his life. He was terrified!”

She had written the foreword to the book. It provides a record of all those foreign films that have used this country as the scene for their stories. Not surprisingly, the cover is of Sean Connery on the Furka pass in Goldfinger (1964). The fictional car chase is today commemorated on the road by a plaque.

James Bond Str
Goldfinger led to James Bond Str on the Furka Pass

The author, Cornelius Schregle, was a Geneva-born teacher of creative writing and curator of exhibitions who was once a location scout for the television chain Home Box Office in Los Angeles.

Both Keller and Schregle admitted Switzerland is a word that “makes people dream”, and that’s part of its attraction for foreign film-makers. The fantasy’s so strong many don’t even bother to come here. So Prague stands in for Zurich in The Bourne Identity (2002). Geneva was recreated in England for Peter Greenaway’s 8 1/2 Women (1999). Lindau, Germany, stood in for Montreux and Geneva in The Holcroft Covenant (1985). The Sound of Music (1965) used Obersalzburg, Austria, for the Swiss Alps, with some excuse.

Austria as Switzerland
The Sound of Music: Austria = Switzerland

Cheekiest of all, Fuessen (Germany) became the Swiss frontier for Steve McQueen and his motorcycle in The Great Escape (1963), and Big Bear (California) was as close as Shirley Temple’s Heidi (1937) got to the real Switzerland.

Germany as Switzerland
Not really Switzerland, but the Swiss are used to it.

According to Magnificent Obsession (1954), “Switzerland sounds dreamy. You can get a Swiss watch and learn to yodel,” we are informed. For the rest of the world, Switzerland means “chalets, mountains and banks[…] a land of spies and lawyers […] a land of adventure,” wrote Frédéric Maire, Director of the Cinémathèque Suisse, in his introduction to Backdrop Switzerland.

Peace and cuckoo-clocks, in fact, were the subject of Harry Lime’s inaccurate jibe against the Swiss in The Third Man (1949). As most Swiss could tell you, I think, the cuckoo clock comes from Germany’s Black Forest and the yodelling was originally Austro-Bavarian. And Swiss watches originated with the Huguenot refugees from France: in Jean Calvin’s time Geneva had to call on a French clockmaker to fix the tower clock in the centre of town.


Plume & Pellicule 2023 Programme in French (LINK) Times

Pascale Rey biography in French (LINK)

Peter Hulm, Deputy Editor of Global Geneva Insights, freelanced as English editor of the Swiss Film Centre’s annual catalogue in the glory years of independent Swiss film-making (Alain Tanner, Claude Goretta, Marc Soutter, Markus Imhof and Yves Yersin) and has subtitled a number of Swiss films.