Jacqueline Veuve

Cinéaste et ethnologue (1930-2013)

About Jacqueline Veuve and her films

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The magnitude of minor gestures. 

Jacqueline Veuve, the unusual chronicler of unspectacular lives

" I believe it belongs to my role to be a small part of our country's memory," French-Swiss filmmaker Jacqueline Veuve once said. Indeed, there are few who document life in Switzerland as perseveringly as she does. Either as a meticulous observer of typical Swiss institutions such as the Salvation Army in Oh! Quel beau jour! (Oh! What a Beautiful Day) or the army in L'homme des casernes (Barracks Man), or as an indefatigable chronicler, primarily of the world she comes from, rural Vaud with its customs and traditions. It started with her first film, Le panier à viande (The Meat Basket), shot in collaboration with Yves Yersin in 1966, depicting a typical Vaudois "Metzgete" (the serving of freshly slaughtered meat in a restaurant or at a village festival), and spans her œuvre right up to the most recent film, Chronique vigneronne (Vineyard Chronicle), on the work of a wine-growing family on the sweeping slopes overlooking Lake Geneva. 

Yet it is not merely her fascination with rural life and local customs that is reflected in many of her films. What strikes us is her empathy with the characters she portrays, the interest she shows in their way of life and personal history. This applies in particular measure to the very personal film La Mort du grand-père ou Le sommeil du juste (Death of the Grandfather or the Sleep of the Just), where her family history and, with that, a period of Western Switzerland's social history unfolds around the portrayal of her grandfather. 

It also applies to the seven representations of crafts and craftsmen in Les métiers du bois, where she gives a detailed depiction of dying woodworking crafts and the craftsmen battling for their often anachronistic ways of life and against globalisation. And it applies to the extraordinary, courageous individuals she has portrayed, such as the nurse Friedel Bohny-Reiter in Journal de Rivesaltes 1941-42 (Rivesaltes Diary 1941-42), the women in her earlier short films, and the figures in the two feature films Parti sans laisser d'adresse (Left, Address Unknown) and L'Évanouie (Fainted Away). 

The innovative air of her Parisian days left a lasting imprint on her film work and inspired an ethnographic interest that remains unabated. Later, while living in the USA with her husband and two children and making short films at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the auspices of Direct Cinema representative Richard Leacock, she experimented with three traits that were to become characteristic of much of her later work: the social angle, the portrait, and the inclusion of historical footage. 

There is no room for coincidence in Jacqueline Veuve's documentaries. She is in complete control of what happens in front of the camera and does not shy away from orchestrating sequences. Yet she remains true to the documentary premises of "absent" storyteller and reticence of interpretation, while adding her very personal approach to this tradition. Her films have little in common with the documentary style favouring what is raw, unfinished, ambiguous and provocative. Balance and moderation are the distinctive features of many of her films, which are generally characterised by a simple, often chronological narrative, well-balanced structure and visual language, and an unhurried pace. 

Her attitude towards the people she portrays is in the tradition of one of her role models, Robert Flaherty. Like him, she depicts the heroic dignity of her characters in their struggle against an adverse environment. And especially in her portraits of farmers and craftsmen, of country life in general, she reveals a strain of nostalgia for a social and ecological order that is undisrupted and humane - nostalgia for a bygone age. In that sense, she is more of a romantic than a realist. 

Jacqueline Veuve has become known primarily as the chronicler of the ordinary. She has been called "la grande dame des humbles", the great lady of the humble, because she allows time for the unspectacular, patiently depicting little everyday tasks and giving meaning and magnitude to these minor gestures. There is hardly a detail she does not deem worthy of the keen and benevolent interest that allows its uniqueness and value to be brought to light. She does so with the perseverance of an experienced chronicler and film-maker who has often joined in the battle for the independence of Swiss documentary-film production. This has proved a strenuous struggle over the last 30 years. Yet all those of us who are eager to be inspired by her energy, her enthusiasm and her commitment will be happy to hear that the creative sparkle in this 70-year-old film-maker's eyes is still very much alive. 

From: Catalogue of the Solothurner Filmtage 2000, Retrospective Jacqueline Veuve, pp. 220-250 (original: german)


Interview with Jacqueline Veuve

A key dimension of your documentaries is the loss of heritage. Was it a desire to record things for posterity that decided you to make films?

Yes, definitely. If you are thinking of Death of the Grandfather or the Sleep of the Just, or my films about woodworking, yes. I was also influenced by a love of fine craftsmanship. I was really fascinated by the craftsman's emotional attachment to precious stones, rubies or wood. And our heritage is indeed dying. Nowadays, stones are polished and drilled by machines and most of the skilled woodworkers are long gone, often taking the secret of their creative skills to the grave. Today, the sledges used for carrying timber and hay are made of plastic, as are many articles formerly carved from wood.

You trained as an ethnologist, but decided to work in your country of origin, which is very unusual. 

My stay in the United States was a kind of trigger. I had made two feminist films about very radical women, very feminist, very tough. When I returned, I wanted to turn my attention to my own Swiss family. I was forty years old, and beginning to take an interest in my roots. Until that age, you do not think much about roots; you tend to follow fashionable ideas. I began to wonder who I was, where I came from, who these people were - father, mother, uncles, aunts - among whom I had lived but had never really listened to. Death of the Grandfather brought me back to this country, which did not interest me, which maybe I even despised. I realised that I could make it my field of research - with all the fascination it inspires in me, as well as the sort of repulsion one almost always feels for one's "homeland".

Do you always choose your subjects on a rather random basis? 

A random basis that then becomes a necessity - that is a point I must insist on. The Meat Basket is a good example. We - the co-director and I - wanted to do something about popular arts and traditions, something small-scale because we were short of money. When I saw a photo-graph taken from the second floor of a farm, with a steaming pig surrounded by farming folk, I was reminded of my childhood and decided we must make a film on this topic. Often, chance takes a hand. Then there is a deep need that arises from heart and mind. And at other times you have a strong urge to do something, but it comes to nothing, because the people do not have the necessary charisma, or the resources for making the film are lacking. 

In your documentaries, there always comes a moment when you show the tragic or monstrous side of human beings, a sort of perspectival shift which makes the viewer call into question what he has just seen. 

That's true, there is a shift of the kind you describe. At the beginning of Death of the Grandfather, you think he is being treated like a saint, then that impression is suddenly dispelled: you realise that this likeable, idolised grandfather was in fact terribly unjust and conservative. I never idealise things or people in my films. In The Way Over, one thing that really struck me was that these two women had saved so many people at risk of their lives, but no one had ever come back to thank them after the war. The women who wrote the book on which I based the film reproached me for ending the story on that note. But you cannot idealise, that is the sad truth!

Is it appropriate to speak of your documentaries as being philosophical?

One thing that has always struck me is the ambiguity and cruelty that suddenly becomes apparent in a situation. There is, as you put it, a shift. In this respect, my documentaries may well suggest a philosophical approach. History per se does not interest me, as opposed to the individual stories which make up history. What fascinated me in Death of the Grandfather, for instance, was the application of Max Weber's theories on Protestantism, capitalism and the family, the work ethic. The reason Protestant countries have grown rich is because of this work ethic. If I had wanted to make a fictional film illustrating Weber's theories, I could not have done better. My story was right there, before my eyes. 

Do these on-going references to social and political issues mean that you are a politically militant, feminist film-maker?

I think they reflect a militant attitude, but I am sure that militant feminists do not see me as very committed. Where feminism is concerned, I was more radical at the time I made Susan. Many people think I am not militant enough, or feminist enough. No doubt, I do not fit well into those categories. What matters is that I manage to do what I think is important to reach the viewer.

Do you think that a documentary film-maker has a special role to play in contemporary society?

An enormous role, yes, preserving memories and encouraging reflection. But our role is a difficult one, and there are few documentary film-makers left. Television concentrates on reporting and so treads on our toes; there is not much room for us. When people ask you if one day you are going to make a real film, it is hard to stomach after thirty years in the business! You are always having to explain the difference between reportage and documentary, it is tough… I believe we have an important role to play because people are currently very much tuned in to this genre. We can bring them a form of knowledge; we can interest viewers in subjects they would never normally think of exploring. Part of our job is to record and recall the past. The problem is that TV companies are afraid of people getting bored and switching channels, so they force us to come up with shorter scripts.

Making documentaries is becoming an act of cultural resistance… 

I think you are right. Thanks to documentaries, people can learn more and gain a better under-standing of the society to which they belong. There is no need to go to Africa to show how societies work; you can figure that out in your own country. Political documentaries featuring a particular topic do not interest me. Television makes provision for that type of production, and films of that kind generally consist of no more than talking heads. At documentary film festivals, I see many films which proclaim themselves to be politically committed. People have the right ideas, support the right causes, make films and revel in fine words, but from a visual point of view it is just filmed news coverage. That is not what I am trying to achieve.

Do you belong to a particular documentary tradition?

I have been strongly influenced by the great American documentary makers, such as Richard Lea-cock, Albert and David Maysles, and Robert Flaherty, and by the British film-makers John Grier-son, Basil Wright and Lionel Rogosin. I do not think they have ever been equaled. They said it all…


Eric de Kuyper 

[Foreword of: The poetry of Gesture. Dossier Pro Helvetia, Zurich 1996.]

I do not know the reason for it, but I must admit that I have never had many friends among film-makers. Even when I was a film-maker myself, it was like that – although I must admit that: "...some of my best friends are film-makers".

One of my projects as a film-maker was a Merry Widow with Jacqueline as Hanna Glawari, the widow. The reason I chose her was not that I was unable to resist the pun on her name ('veuve' means 'widow' in French). Or that, on hearing about the project, she told me it was one of the operettas her father had gone especially to Geneva to see. That was just another coincidence. Nor was the reason that she is a particularly outstanding singer. She likes to sing and sings a lot, it is true; she also likes songs and one can find people singing in all of her films.

(Was that perhaps one of the reasons she made a documentary about the Salvation Army, the singing soldiers?)

She has a very strong voice, and I know people who are a little afraid of her because of it. One can also be disturbed by her very peculiar way of laughing, bursting into a spontaneous cascade of strange sounds.

No, the reason I saw her in the role of Hanna Glawari is that, while she can look beautifully mysterious and glamorous – as can be noticed in the small part I gave her in which I co-directed with Paul Verstraten – , she is one of the most energetic women I know.
She already was when she first burst into my office at Belgian Television some twenty-five years ago now, and it seems to me that she is still as energetic as ever. This drive, which has nothing nervous about it and can even be very relaxed, amazes me. I remember a short journey by car from her flat in Lausanne to her house in the nearby mountains of the Monts-de-Corsier. On the way, she got money at the bank, put dirty laundry in the washing machine in Lausanne, picked up some toys for her grandson at a shop and a can of film from her editing room, got food at the collective fridge in the village and decided to give the fridge a good cleaning. 

And, of course, as she drove she talked about the project we were working on. With Jacqueline a short drive from one place to another has always been like that in one way or the other. That is the kind of energy I dreamt of when I saw her as the 'Merry Widow'? the kind of tension and drive that in my eyes is so necessary in an operetta, to counteract the sentimentality. One could also say that it is a very natural, old-fashioned kind of drive, devoid of stress.

Just doing the things that have to be done. What keeps her making all those films, I sometimes wonder...

It is impossible here, in this brochure, to give an account of the totality of her work, more than thirty titles, with films on recent history alongside portraits, fiction and even an animated film! They are analyzed and described with great finesse in Bertil Galland's book on Jacqueline Veuve. So I have taken the liberty of dwelling on only a small part of her œuvre, trying to find out why I am so fascinated by it.

Eric de Kuyper

The Unspectacular

From: The poetry of Gesture. Dossier Pro Helvetia, Zurich 1996.

Is there one documentary film-maker who so consistently rejects the spectacular, the big subject? Is there one film-maker who so obstinately confronts herself – and her viewers – with such 'dreary subjects' as the life of mountain people in the Swiss Alps; the life of a family of watchmakers in a small village; the woodworking craft; the Salvation Army; the Swiss Army… ?

After all, why not the life of the bees, the life of a Swiss fireman or the life and death of an edelweiss?! With some of these examples I can just hear Jacqueline Veuve saying: "Yes! Why not?"

And let me stress this: none of her films was a commission; Veuve has always chosen her own subjects, even the ones for her educational shorts! Strange taste, isn't it? One would think that for a maker of documentaries it would be more exciting – and certainly more rewarding in a way – to make films about big social or political issues, or spectacular, dramatic aspects of life...

With her fascination for the humble, unspectacular local or small subject Jacqueline Veuve is, of course, not alone. She is, in fact, in the middle of something one might call a Swiss film tradition.
I remember that, at film festivals in the sixties or seventies, I would ordinarily not go to documentaries like these. But when I noticed that they were made by a Swiss film-maker I was less reluctant and always went to see them. And as the years passed I learnt to appreciate them and to consider them one of the most discreet but very important and unique aspects of European film-making.

Asking "How can one be Swiss?" is, in the case of Jacqueline Veuve, far from the naive question it seems.

And because I am a non-Swiss myself, it seems to me a worthwhile question to ask. Actually, I wonder why it is not posed more often. For many of us it is sufficient to go to Switzerland, the country where the mountains are – to admire the landscape, to make jokes about the banks, to appreciate the taste of chocolate, to enjoy the atmosphere of an 'exotic' country and... that's it! The very average look of the Swiss way of life does not incite us to question it. We take it for granted, and do not go further to ask why we do not wonder more about this at the same time up-to-date and anachronistic country. Could it be that we are afraid all this bonhomie is just a masquerade? For me, the existence of this small country is intriguing. Of course the Swiss live in a kind of democracy we are not used to, one that tends to seem strange and, let's admit it, a little old-fashioned to us. Once, it is true, Switzerland stood as symbol of victory over repression. The country represented an ideal of romantic nationalism. That was long ago.

And yet, I cannot resist asking the question "How can one be Swiss?" Of course I wonder about the very special way the country has organized itself, trying to find an equilibrium for its diversity of languages and cultures. The more so because I am also from a small country, Belgium, where finding a harmony between divergent elements is a way of life and – not only – a form of political craftsmanship. One might say: art. So I know what I am wondering at!

If "How can one be Swiss?" is a question that, regrettably, is not very often asked outside Switzerland, it seems to me that the Swiss themselves ask it all the time. They ponder over their Swissness. One can find this – explicitly or implicitly, but never absent for long – in the best of Swiss literature: from Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz to Max Frisch, from Gottfried Keller to Friedrich Dürrenmatt...

As if, for the reflective artist or intellectual, this Swissness were still strange and rare, an astonishing fact, and needed to be questioned and re-evaluated all the time.

Even more curious is the fact that this seIf-reflexiveness has, in most cases, nothing to do with a nationalistic reflex.

What amazes me is that the Swiss doing the questioning do not appear to be looking for an answer. The answer seems less important than the act of questioning. I do not think it is a form of narcissism either. I think it is actually a sensible way of trying to situate oneself, of putting the right distance between oneself and others; of evaluating relations. Yes, Les arpenteurs, the land surveyors, which is the title of a film made by Michel Soutter, might be a good description of this activity…


Situating these preoccupations in an artistic or, more precisely, an aesthetic field, one could call it a method of 'alienation'; and it is no accident that Bertolt Brecht's influence can be felt in Frisch and Dürrenmatt's writing. It is, however, a very personal and profound assimilation of a Brechtian method, one that in a way transcends the Brechtian approach.

I call it 'Brechtian' because it is with his name that these characteristics are most often associated, but maybe they were already there before Brecht and without Brecht they would also have been there! Actually, it is an alienation device that occurs in a very idiosyncratic way, because, contrary to the German dramatist's technique, it has no need for preaching or moralizing, never trying to convince us of what we should think or do.

Here it does not function as a rhetorical art. Irony and humour are a good safeguard against that flaw! Most of the time, however, a kind of pragmatism and a strong fear of ideology are enough to counter any tendency to moralise. This does not mean that, in using the alienation method, the Swiss artist – for whom it seems to be almost part of a mentality – is non-committal or apolitical, or employs it as a kind of dandyism; the artists here are not frivolous! They mean it, and they mean what they do in a committed way that, while, admittedly, not leading to revolutionary actions and deeds, is always, so it seems to me, very close to the facts and the basics of life. ("Terre à terre", as they say in French! Down-to-earth. No nonsense, please, we're Swiss!).

This long digression brings me to the core of my subject: the documentary perspective of the films of Jacqueline Veuve, without doubt... a Swiss filmmaker.

The non-evident evidence

In his essay an Brecht, Roland Barthes explained why he was so interested in the German author's theory and practice of alienation. For Barthes this alienated approach has to do with the art of criticism. But criticism understood in its original meaning of breaking things up, making the surface of things split, creating small cracks in what appears to be (too) smooth and clean. Critical analysis means, in Barthes' words, using small shocks that allow the appearance of things to be opened up.

In their very discreet way Jacqueline Veuve's films do the same: they criticize something that seems all too evident. She does it with amazingly simple devices: by just looking and listening. But with a very special view, which could be called a 'describing view'. A very persistent way of describing! Because her description of how things are is so precise and so exhaustive, it becomes a critical discourse. As she films, she opens things up, creates fissures in what was smooth and evident. Here documenting means: making things brittle, fragile and less self-evident by interrogating them, by means of her view. 

So there goes the series of questions Veuve asks, film after film, always circling round the essential question of «How can one be a...?» How can one be a soldier in the Swiss Army? How can one be a Salvationist? How can one be a woodworker? a watchmaker? and so on... And every time, the specificity of the questioning refers back to the underlying question, «How one can be a Swiss?»

From: de Kuyper, Eric. The poetry of Gesture. Dossier Pro Helvetia, Zurich 1996.

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