The fact that the “Swiss documentary confederation” is now so diverse is undoubtedly due to its geographical and cultural position, which has enabled it to draw on the various tendencies that have informed the history of the genre. But a truly comprehensive analysis cannot overlook the role played by some of its founding fathers, who, right from the start, were able to look beyond national borders and develop a modern film language of their own yet also encouraged subsequent generations to follow their example. Amongst them, a special role should be acknowledged for a woman whose softly spoken manner belied a steely resolve and a very precise idea of what she wanted to do: Jacqueline Veuve.
Trained as an ethnologist, Jacqueline Veuve decided to collaborate with two scholars who, from the 1950s on, had been interested in the potential that lightweight film cameras offered to develop and clarify their research. After working with Jean Rouch in France and Richard Leacock in the United States, Jacqueline Veuve used these methods to explore her own country as a field for a unique series of investigations. Like her mentors, Jacqueline’s approach was extraordinarily adaptive, able to combine the distance needed to “understand” the subject in question but in a spirit of empathy that characterises modern film. Over the course of a long career, her filmmaking practice developed in parallel with that of technology, yet this never altered her bond of affection with the subjects she filmed. Whether dealing with the restricted circle of her own family or the wider one of Alpine culture, a social survey of a market village or the practice of wine growing and production that veers between the artisanal and the industrial, Veuve fashioned a unique vision of Switzerland in which Swiss audiences could find themselves reflected, and those audiences followed her every step of the way, eventually making her a well-known and well loved figure. The final sign of the affection in which she was held, and the importance of her role, was demonstrated at the Swiss Cinema Prizes awards night a month or so ago (which Jacqueline was unable to attend in person due to illness)).
Jacqueline Veuve’s story connects with that of the Locarno festival in two ways. It was at Locarno that she presented her first feature-length film in 1978, La mort du grand-père ou Le sommeil du juste, the portrait of a character who she continued to follow up until 2010 with C’était hier. Among the twelve films presented at Locarno, I have fond memories of La petite dame du Capitole (2006) a short dedicated to Lucienne Schnegg, a cashier at the “Capitole”, a historical cinema in Lausanne, and who also functions as its living memory. Portrayed in just a few vibrant sequences, Lucienne comes across both as a tenacious woman and a mirror image of Jacqueline herself. What stands out is the hands-on approach to a form of filmmaking that is often now considered from a more theoretical perspective. For Jacqueline making films meant getting out of the house and getting your hands dirty, never mind if it is only concerns the market next door. Making films meant having a meaningful encounter with a person, without hiding her own origins or mindset: she, a woman whose bourgeois background was far removed from that of Lucienne, was still able to engage in dialogue with her on an equal footing. Like Jacqueline, Lucienne is above all a fighter. A woman who lives in a masculine world and who does not fit the conventional female stereotype, dominant for most of the twentieth century, of the wife and mother. A woman who decided not to stay within the domestic sphere and who faces the opposite sex as an equal. Lucienne is, in the end, someone who believes in, and defends what she does with all her might. And the fact that this activity relates to the cinema is far from fortuitous. Public screenings was what the Jacqueline ultimately had in mind when she was making her films – a point it is important to underline because her films survived and resisted a period in which the documentary had no other fate than that of a TV broadcast. Conceiving of her films as made for the cinema meant prioritising the subtleties rather than the obvious when dealing with her subjects, and tone rather than emotional manipulation. Sensitive, never banal, notwithstanding a classical structure that relied on a scripted voice-over narrative, Jacqueline Veuve’s films did get seen in cinemas. And that is where the full richness of her vision of the world is found most completely.