My motivation for the cinematic exploration of fear stems from a personal trauma. Roughly twelve years ago, I lost my partner in an extreme sports accident while I myself was undergoing chemotherapy – an experience that simultaneously shook me up and woke me up. I spent a lot of time in Lauterbrunnen, where the base jump accident happened. During these visits, and contrary to expectations, I learned more about life than I did about death. I would never jump off a cliff myself, but the base jumpers gave me the courage to confront my fears and focus on those things in life that are important to me.
This was all going well until I became a mother for the first time. The birth of our son (and, 16 months later, our daughter) awakened in me a great need for security, which felt massively threatened by the media hysteria and horrifying news reports that were constantly flooding in. I found myself annoyed by this situation and started thinking a lot about real and fake danger – and the individual’s perception of such.
It should also be said that I have already dealt with the themes of fear, risk and safety in some of my earlier films. SEED WARRIORS focuses on a facility (supposedly the safest of its kind) in Svalbard, Norway, some 1,000 kilometres from the North Pole, where three million foil-wrapped seed samples from all over the world are to be stored to ensure the survival of biodiversity. VIRGIN TALES, meanwhile, follows seven children growing up like birds in a gilded cage due to their parents’ desire to protect them from harmful influences – including those of a secular worldview, sex and the risk of a broken heart. And in FREEFALLING – A LOVE STORY, I tell of my own experience of cancer and loss. In this respect, my latest film represents a natural continuation of my cinematic work.
When I started working on this material, I would never have thought it possible that US citizens would elect Donald Trump as president – and, even worse, that “Europe is also facing its own Trump moment”, as one Swiss Handelszeitung reporter put it. We Europeans are appalled by America’s decision, yet we forget that populists are also on the rise in our countries, stirring up fear and unrest and causing great anxiety among the general population. They influence our thoughts with the use of specific language like “waves of refugees”, “tax burdens” and “black sheep”. This constant conflict, the judging and categorising into good and evil, paralyses our society and leaves us with a deep sense of unease. According to research, humans make decisions on the basis of emotions, not facts. This means that populists are already half way towards achieving their goal, as frightened people are easier to convince of the need for new laws, authoritarian positions of power, borders between countries (including physical ones), and even wars.
In my film, however, I do not want to examine the question of who is to blame for this manipulation, but rather to reveal the mechanisms behind it to explain how and why such manipulation works. With the support of experts in the field, I want to show which processes in particular determine – and sometimes cloud – our judgement. My aim is not to stir up fear, but to help society find more effective ways to deal with risk.
After all, it is only by learning ourselves how to process risk and draw conclusions from information about risk that we gain the tools we need to deal appropriately and effectively with our fears and the risky situations we face every day. In this sense, my film is a plea for fear – because without fear and our efforts to deal with it, humanity would come to a standstill.
Mirjam von Arx