Interview with the Director

How did your project become reality?
J.N.: I have made films in Asia and other cultures as well as in Switzerland. I have always wanted to bring both together, the foreign cultures and my own. Another reason would be the current discussions about globalization and regionalism. I also wanted to make a film about that.

In the movie there is some sort of an official part: A delegation of West African cattle breeders visit Switzerland probably invited by a development organization. Was this a factor when you decided the topic of your film?
J.N.: Not at all. I didn't know at first that this meeting was taking place. By the way, it wasn't initiated by a development organization but by the Association of Cattle Breeders of the Sahel (APESS). Ly, who appears in the movie, was the main initiator. But, as I said, I learned that only later. At first, I simply searched for topics that are important for Switzerland and also in another country. I came across the liberalization of the milk prices and the cheese market in Switzerland. The cattle breeders were scared. Milk became the topic. Then, I started looking abroad and searched for a place where milk is also the topic. That's how I came across the area of the Sahel and the Peul, a pastoral people that has been living with cows for centuries. Then I started networking.

A film with cattle breeders and cows - isn't this risky?
J.N.: Yes, of course. This subject has a very burdened history; in Switzerland there have been a few exoticizing or pessimistic films about peasants/farmers that I didn't want to approach. That's why I decided to work with people who look ahead and say, "We want to change the situation for the better."

How did you choose your protagonists?
J.N.: First they had to have a vision, follow a project and show pleasure in change. Second, I looked for people who had a certain volume of production. In Switzerland, I determined this through the volume of milk production. I asked some milk-processing companies to give me a list of producers who produce 100,000 liters or more. Then I paid them a visit and chose the ones that fit. I didn't want people who were afraid about giving up their farm, but those who look for a way and take risks. In Mali and Burkina Faso I also looked for successful cattle breeders, but there the milk production was not the determining factor but the number of livestock. But here also, we are dealing with modern cattle breeders. In Sahel they have given up Nomadism and accept that to maintain cattle in a rational way, they have to settle down, reduce their herd and feed them and so arrive at a more intensive instead of extensive livestock farming.

This connection - the problematic development of the Sahel - is not addressed directly in the movie. Is it important?
J.N.: The film in established on another level. But I have done a lot of research. The soil exploitation in the Sahel is extreme; there are way too many cows. That accelerates the desertification. Then you have to add the settler from the south, from the countries along the coast. If there is another drought like in 1987, then the situation can become rapidly catastrophic. A more intensive livestock farming with less, but better cows is of vital importance for the Peul.

You spoke about nomads - are there any left among the Peul?
J.N.: Actually there are hardly any left. But in their minds they are all nomads. The Peul see themselves as the chiefs of the Sahel and look down on the farmers as an inferior class. As a result of the formation of deserts there is reverse migration - from north to south, direction Côte d'Ivoire. Traditionally, farmers live there, and when there is a conflict, shootings can occur easily.

How many animals do successful cattle breeders have, like the ones in the movie, Hamadoun and Amadou?
J.N.: Well, a breeder can easily own 3,000 cows, employ 25 herdsmen while he drives around on a motorcycle or his 4x4. When we accompanied Hamadoun, he said on many occasions: "Here, I also have a herd."

Globalization is a hot topic, but you relate it to milk, one of the oldest consumer goods.
J.N.: Milk has had a formative influence on us in Switzerland. Somehow, we are all cow herdsmen. Exactly the same thing is true for the Peul. In their legend of the origins of the world - as told in the film - the world grows from a drop of mil, I am interested in this traditional track. I didn't want to transport the topic of globalization via a modern global product that is pushed on people with the same publicity campaigns worldwide. Another starting point for my research was that the Swiss agricultural production has been market-oriented for a long time. The Peul are still at the very beginning of this development. Subsistence agriculture is still most important for the Peul because for them the cow has a value in their daily lives, not on the market. The Swiss farmers, however, stand at the end of this development. Many have to ask themselves nowadays if the production of cheese is still worthwhile.

The Peul have not cheese …
J.N.: No, for them the cow is, as they put it, "a brother". That's why a traditional Peul can't commercialise what his cow produces; at the most he can give the milk as a gift. There is no urge to refine the product and to conserve it.

Again: Why do the West Africans come to Switzerland?
J.N.: Amadou and Hamadoun accepted my invitation. The others are member of APESS, the Organization for the Cattle Breeders of the Sahel. They are supported by the Swiss Development Corporation. , a sub-division of the APESS, the Conseil Mondial des Eleveurs, the World conference of Cattle Breeders. The idea is, that the Peul posses a lot of traditional knowledge, which the farmers of the industrialized north have lost. The goal of the conference is to reactivate the buried knowledge of all cattle breeders. In 1999, the conference took place in Switzerland, but there were hardly any Swiss participants, not even green and alternative farmers. But I wasn't particularly interested in the conference. But Amadou, the cattle breeder I invited, is also a member of APESS.

The Swiss and West Africans meet in pairs. What criteria did you apply when pairing Hamadoun Dicko and Hanspeter Heimberg and the others?
J.N.: I wanted the cattle breeder from Burkina Faso Hamadoun Dicko to get together with the farmer who runs his farm like a factory. And I wanted the biodynamic farmer Hurter, who told me so many stories about cows, to meet with Ly, who had told me similar stories in a different way. Want I wanted was to see the similarities within the differences.

That sounds a lot like staging. How much is a documentary filmmaker allowed to stage?
J.N.: I am allowed to stage a lot. Only the film has to be authentic, in order words, I don't invent any reality. But I design situation and chose the scene: Hurter and Ly have to be surrounded by their cows so that they get inspired to tell their stories. The two more commercially oriented men were put in a surrounding where there were a lot of machines. With Hanspeter Reust and Amadou Dicko, the third pair, I wanted to know why the worlds are so separate: Reust is a capitalist dynamo, who wants to export his milk drinks to the Gulf States; he also know Africa because he built a cheese factory in Ghana. Amadou Dicko, on the other hand, is very far from the market economy. I wanted to see how they reacted to each other. In this pairing, the cheese maker on the alp has also a part; that worked with Amadou, but Reust, as you can see, isn't listening, he is talking Amadou's head off.

Are the scenes in the car real?
J.N.: Hamadoun and Amadou arrived in Switzerland, and I installed the camera in the car overnight. The next day we started. They that we wanted to make a film. We went to one of the Swiss farmers. I didn't make any suggestions concerning the content of the interview.

The excerpts from the conversations between Hamadoun and Amadou are often wonderfully to the point. How much film did you shoot to get there?
J.N.: About three hours.

How did you solve the language problem - they speak exclusively Peul?
J.N. Yes, that was funny. The same happened in the scenes in Africa, when they got home. The cameraman had to decide: Do we shoot here or there? At the beginning I wouldn't taken this risk. But after many weeks of investigation, I had enough people around who could translate and who knew enough about me and what I wanted. They became in fact my assistant directors. During some situations, they put their antennas out and listened to the conversation and told me when to shoot: Here Jürg, now you can shoot, they are talking about this and that.

Where are you going to show the film?
J.N.: In Switzerland it will be shown in theaters. The rest depends on the success and whether we are able to convince the people that it is not just a cow or development project movie, neither a movie just for farmers, but that it is also about health and nutrition. Subjects important to all of us.

Will the film be shown in Africa?
J.N.: Of course, we are going to show it in West Africa as well. We can show it at the Pan African Festival FESPACO in Ouagadougou - as a special entry, however, because in the official program they show only films entirely made by Africans. We will travel to the people in the villages and in the cities with Cinémobiles, small cinemas on wheels. Various regional organizations of the Peul will organize all by themselves. It is going to be my assistant director, Fatoumata Diallo's concern to ensure that the film will be shown wherever the Peul live, all over the Sahel, from Cameroon to Senegal.

With subtitles?
J.N.: No, that wouldn't work, because of the illiteracy. We make two versions, on completely in French for the Ouagadougou and one completely in Peul. The Swiss farmers who appear in the film will be "speaking" the language of the Peul.


That was your first visit to Africa. What did you experience?
J.N.: I was impressed by the slow pace. I am a hectic person, but the heat, the climate, the food in the Sahel, knocked me down. I was virtually slowed down. It was a thrilling experience. Another one was the courtesy among the Peul. When I wanted to have things my own way, or when I was irritated, everything cam to an immediate halt - either they became sad or they went away. Finally, I will always remember these cows. They are like oversized deer, fast nimbly, nervy. They don't lie about like ours, but are always on the move. And they don't have to chew continually like our cows that eat 80 kilos of grass every day.

Gespräch: Markus Haefliger


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