Making the best of a universal language

Ahead of two of his films being screened at the Rima Film Festival next week, which he will also be present to discuss at the event, the Swiss documentary filmmaker Fernand Melgar speaks to Teodor Reljic how the dynamics of the global migrant experience continue to inform his work

Fernand Melgar
Fernand Melgar

What led you to focus on migration in general and African migration in particular as the fulcrum of your work? 

My parents, who are Spanish, were employed as ‘seasonal’ workers in the early 1960s in Switzerland – which allowed them to earn a wage, while also contributing to the Swiss economy. 

Since the post-war period, Switzerland sought to acquire a manual labour workforce from Southern Europe: Italy, Spain, Portugal and even ex-Yugoslavia. 

A good number of them held the status of ‘saisonnier’ – a status that was unique in Europe, and also uniquely unjust. Effectively, the duration of your stay was limited to nine months, after which you would have to return to your country of origin and remain there for three months. 

The worker was not free to change their job, neither could they look for accommodation by themselves; they would have to make do with the accommodation provided to them by the employer. Neither could family members reach the worker at any point.  

Which means that tens of thousands of people were accommodated in precarious conditions, mainly in barracks, subjected to very difficult working conditions, particularly in the construction, hospitality and agricultural sectors. 

It was only by means of an agreement with the European Union on the free movement of persons that this status was abolished in June 2002. 

Just like the thousand others clandestine children born to ‘saisonniers’, I lived my childhood in hiding. Today, I own a Swiss passport, but I will never forget where I come from. 

Do you believe that documentarians need to tackle these issues more urgently now, more than ever? That (perhaps like climate change) the dynamics of migration are an ‘unignorable’ reality of our current global context?

Documentary filmmakers are the witnesses of their times. It is our duty to be present wherever the fundamental rights – be it of men, animals or nature – are flouted, and to bring to public attention. 

Documentaries are tools for democracy, helping us become aware of a reality overshadowed by governments that flout freedom of expression, or multinationals who lie for the sake of profit. 

Moreover, our films can stand as a record to benefit future generations. For me, our films are a memory for future generations. For me, a country without documentaries is like a family album without a photo – an empty memory. 


What are some of the core themes that emerge from your movies, and how have these developed over time, with each subsequent film developing from the other?

I never think back on which film I can make. The films come to me and impose themselves like an inescapable imposition. My films encompass various themes: alterity, the gaze on the Other, and the acceptance of difference being the chief among them. I believe that the strongest communities are the ones who truly look out for their weakest members. And I will always fight for this to be made possible.     


Speaking of your films that will be shown at the RIMA Film Festival, what kind of feedback and reactions have you received about them so far? Do you think that you can bring about tangible change through your films?

My films tend to provoke a polemical discussion in my country, Switzerland. They tend to be warmly received by the younger members of the public. 

I make it a point to screen my films for students of various ages, and I even offer my support to students who have decided to write their dissertations on the subjects that I confront in my films. The extreme far-right party UDC, which is among the strongest parties in Switzerland, regularly tries to censor my movies and to prevent them from being screened in schools. They’ve also tried to file lawsuits against me, and I have also received various anonymous death threats. But this only strengthens my resolve to confront these injustices. 


Are you looking forward to showing your films as part of the RIMA Film Festival, and what kind of impact do you hope the films will have as a result of your participation there?

Yes, each country and each festival provides an opportunity for a passionate encounter. I’ve just come back from Mexico, where issues of migration are certainly very current and vivid. Showing my films there gave me the opportunity to engage in rich and constructive debates which resonated deeply with the Mexican audience. Because cinema, at the end of the day, is a universal language. 


Two films by Fernand Melgar will be screened at the Rima Film Festival. Special Flight will be screened on October 27, and The World is Like that will be screened on October 28. Both screenings will take place at the Malta Postal Museum, Archbishop’s Street, Valletta, and will start at 20:00. The screenings will then by followed by a director's talk by Fernand Melgar. Click here for bookings and more information