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?
Yes, of course. This subject has a very burdened history; in
there have been a few exoticizing or
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
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
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
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.
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
The Swiss and West Africans meet in pairs. What criteria did you
apply when pairing Hamadoun Dicko and Hanspeter Heimberg and the
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
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
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.
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
Gespräch: Markus Haefliger