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ZURICH 2019

Review: Paradise War – The Story of Bruno Manser

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- Niklaus Hilber’s biopic of environmental activist Bruno Manser is one of the most anticipated and expensive films in the history of Swiss cinema

Review: Paradise War – The Story of Bruno Manser
Sven Schelker (right) in Paradise War – The Story of Bruno Manser

With a budget of seven million Franc and following a gestation period of nearly ten years, the second film from Swiss director Niklaus Hilber, Paradise War – The Story of Bruno Manser [+see also:
trailer
interview: Niklaus Hilber
film profile
]
,  has opened the 15th edition of the Zurich Film Festival with a bang. The last long-awaited effort has arrived four years after the provocative  Amateur Teens [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
(winner of the Audience Award at ZFF), which showed directly and without taboo the complex and unsettling world of a group of teenagers.

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As a follow up to Amateur Teens, one could have expected a similarly confrontational and raw film with a low budget aesthetic, but nothing could be further from the truth. Paradise War is radically opposed to its predecessor, both in terms of content and style. The Zurich neighbourhoods give way to images of breathtaking landscapes, and the existential problems of teenagers apparently only concerned with their own small world are replaced with universal concerns. The question is whether this radical change has borne fruit.

Paradise War adapts to the screen the life story of Swiss environmental activist Bruno Manser (1954-2000), a complex, endlessly fascinating figure in many ways mythicised. A kind of “Swiss Ghandi”, Manser was one of the first people in Switzerland to fight for the climate and against the destruction of tropical forests. In 1984, disappointed by the rampant superficiality of modern civilization, he decides to go look for the profound meaning of existence. His journey brings him to the jungle of Borneo, where he meets the nomadic Penan tribe. This encounter forever changes his life, to the point where he becomes (or, at least, look like) “one of them.” While the Penan are threatened by deforestation, Manser becomes their spokesperson and fiercest defender, a man ready to do anything to save his adoptive family from an imminent catastrophe. His battle pushes him over the edge, concluding with his tragic disappearance in 2000.

Based on a true story, Paradise War was shot over 76 days in Switzerland, New York, Budapest, and Borneo. Working conditions were difficult and the crew had to venture in remote locations nestled in the Borneo jungle (Kalimantan). The cast includes professional actors (Swiss actor Sven Schelker in the role of Manser) and non-professionals, most of them members of the Penan tribe. The score is by Gabriel Yared (Oscar winner for The English Patient).

The subject of the film is decidedly topical and the source material rich and captivating. Nevertheless, and despite breathtaking landscapes which it is difficult to believe are real, the character of Manser is suffocated by a quasi religious aura which is ultimately, undeniably, indigestible. It would have been interesting to show the ambiguity which goes with any mythical figure: where is the limit between defending a cause considered to be vital, and the leadership qualities (one could even say the exhibitionism) necessary to make this fight public? Did Manser lose himself fighting to save a community he thought he belonged to? Unfortunately, this grey area isn’t in Hilber’s film, which sees in Manser t as a god rather than a man, a person certainly determined but also complex and ambiguous. Paradise War is an aesthetically grandiose film (with beautiful  cinematography by Matthias Reisser) which will doubtless find an audience, but which lacks the complexity which would have made it truly unique.

Paradise War – The Story of Bruno Manser is produced by A Film Company in co-production with Das Kollektiv für Audiovisuelle Werke, SRF Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen, Teleclub and Superfilm Filmproduktions, sold internationally by TrustNordisk.

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(Translated from Italian)

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