'The Shelter' ('L'abri'): Locarno Review

L'ABRI - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival del film Locarno

 L'ABRI - H 2014

Swiss documentary's selection for human rights festivals is a gimme

Fernand Melgar's latest socially conscious documentary premiered in the Golden Leopard competition at the Swiss festival

Observational documentarian Fernand Melgar bolsters his status as Swiss cinema's social conscience with The Shelter (L'Abri), chronicling the lively nights at an "emergency" facility for the homeless in his home city of Lausanne. Like Melgar's last enterprise, Special Flight (2011), this affecting, clear-eyed depiction of the economic crisis's cruel social effects was granted a high-profile competition slot at Locarno and should likewise find warm welcomes at human rights-themed festivals.

Set for release in Switzerland during the fall, the mainly French-language production could justify limited release in other European territories given that the themes it explores and the plights it depicts are becoming increasingly familiar across the financially uncertain continent.

Switzerland, of course, is the great European anomaly, with its ancient traditions of neutrality, quasi-independent "canton" federalization, referendum-based direct democracy and conspicuous affluence. One of the shelter's clients, hailing from Senegal, comments wryly that in his homeland Switzerland is known as "the Rolex country" and editor Karine Sudan punctuates a largely nocturnal affair with daytime images of Lausanne, depicting a tranquil city of well-heeled, well-fed citizens.

Moneybags status doesn't always — or, indeed, often — equate with generosity, however, and from the evidence of this film those at the bottom rungs of the ladder would be better advised to seek hospitality in neighboring Italy, France or Germany. There's the distinct sense of Switzerland providing the bare minimum when it comes to caring for its uninvited, unwanted guests — no country or city wants to be seen as a "soft touch" nowadays — and even the recipients of the shelter's hostel-like accommodations and soup-kitchen grub have to stump up 5 Swiss francs ($5.50) per night for the pleasure.

Indeed, it's an occasional frustration that the film never explores why these families and individuals, many of them from Portugal, Spain, Romania or even north Africa, found their way to Switzerland in general and Lausanne in particular. Melgar's cameras, however, adopt a stance of quasi-invisibility, even when they're in the thick of the action — the overstretched shelter's triage system, we see, results in nightly frictions when the heavy doors close and the unlucky are left to fend for themselves on the snowy streets.

This modus operandi, evidently imposed by unseen bureaucrats elsewhere, has a direct impact not only upon the shelter's users but also on its multilingual staff. Among these the burly, bouncily genial Jose quickly emerges as the biggest personality on view, his Latin-flavored background (he's half-Spanish) manifesting itself in the bluff warmth of his inter-personal relationships. In homeless-triage, as in documentary filmmaking, a little humor goes a long way, but even Jose shows signs of strain and even anger when faced with the realities of his work: "I don't like doing this," he remarks. "We're all humans; it's heartbreaking."

On the other side of the divide, Melgar, himself Moroccan-born to Spanish parents but a Lausanne resident for over 50 years, pays particular attention to two struggling families from faraway lands ("Coming here, we expected a better life. l We didn't think we'd end up like this — on the streets") and to Amadou, an articulate young man from north Africa who goes through official channels in search of citizenship. It's a gamble against considerable economic and mathematical odds, needless to say, but the alternatives are evidently too grim to contemplate.

There's nothing particularly fresh or surprising about Melgar's unvarnished, verité approach, with its sympathy-eliciting focus on personable, presentable individuals, any one of whom we'd happily invite into our homes. But as a starting point to explore the huge, topical issues which implicitly and implacably shape every second of what we're shown, The Shelter is a necessary and urgent dispatch from the all-too-easily-ignored front lines.

Production company: Climage
Director/Screenwriter/Producer/Cinematographer: Fernand Melgar
Executive Producer/Sound: Elise Shubs
Editor: Karine Sudan
CAT&Docs, Paris

No rating, 101 minutes