Reviews Short Documentary

Drauff! (2023) – 4.5 stars

Director: Ciril Tscheligi

Writers: Ciril Tscheligi & Lorenzo Polin

Cast: Lorenzo Polin, Emerita Polin, Egon Polin

Running time: 23mins

I had to take a long sabbatical from the pages of IFL sometime after reviewing a truly abysmal submission – a film that must take pole position as the worst movie I have ever watched. The fact that the film was made by a director who was in the last stages of a terminal illness and who died post-production made the viewing seem like I was forced to stare for over ninety minutes at a badly taken shot of the gravestone of someone I had never met.

The experience haunted me – so much that, for a long time, I avoided watching movies. On occasion, I stumbled onto the unavoidable short videos on social media. The only time I made a dedicated effort to sit down and watch moving images was when the benighted football team I have had the misfortune to follow since childhood somehow reached the final of a minor European competition. Miraculously, my team won.

The wheel turns. I remembered the imaginative resonance of many of the movies I have been privileged to review for IFL – and I got back on board.

With a strange serendipity, the first submission my editor sent has death as one of its key themes. Happily for me to report, Drauff! –  in contrast to the froth on the wave of The Worst Movie Ever Reviewed – is a compelling, profound meditation on the transience of human existence and the nature of friendship.

As unconventional a documentary as you will ever find, Drauff! comes in at just over 23 minutes and not a frame is wasted. The director is Ciril Tscheligi, and the movie was scripted by Tscheligi and Lorenzo Polin, because while the filmmakers might seem to use a very basic documentary framework – Polin spends a lot of time as a talking head to camera to tell us about his friend Gec – Polin also plays Gec for the largest part of the film!

We soon learn from expository dialogue the reason behind this bizarre approach: the filmmakers’ friend Gec had been intended as their subject, but died from cancer as they were starting to film. Rather than cancel the project, Polin, a close friend and admirer of Gec, takes on the persona of Gec – they become Gec for the camera. The ploy sounds ludicrous but, thanks to Polin’s ineffable charm and strong screen presence, it works a treat.

Gec was an agricultural labourer and handyperson in the village of Samedan – the film was shot entirely in the village which is located in the Engadin region of eastern Switzerland. With English sub-titles, the languages spoken and, at points, sung, are Romansh and Swiss dialect German – it was a joy to hear two of Europe’s lesser-known languages on the soundtrack.

One of the movie’s great strengths is that Tscheligi and David Millan’s cinematography pointedly make no attempt to exploit the picturesque potential of Samedan’s dramatic natural setting, high up in the Swiss mountains. The village is all concrete and breeze block with a nod to vernacular architecture – for UK viewers, think Thurrock or Rainham dropped into an Alpine valley. The mountains just happen to be there. By eschewing the picturesque, the filmmakers make us focus relentlessly on the human and human relationships.

Village society comes across as a hard-scrabble world – this is not the opulent, plutocratic Switzerland of, say, Geneva or St Moritz just down the road from Samedan. The filmmakers deftly convey to us the importance of human friendship and mutual aid for survival in an agrarian, pastoral economy; even – maybe particularly – under contemporary late capitalism.

The film has a playful whimsical beginning with Polin introducing us to Gec by telling stories about him and then acting in his persona. For your reviewer and, I would suspect, for the majority of viewers, Gec in Polin’s portrayal comes across as a curmudgeon and, frankly, an ass. But, as Polin advocates so strongly and sincerely on Gec’s behalf, the filmmakers charm us into wanting to like and admire someone whose main claims to our approbation are that he mowed the village lawns and shot twelve crows in one session.

During these opening sequences, I entertained the possibility that Tscheligi and Polin were setting us up and that we might be waiting for a Godot – that ‘Gec’ might be a construct, a mythical figure, who may or may not ever turn up. But the filmmakers have, apparently, been telling it straight. We meet who I assume to be Polin’s parents – they are credited as Emerita Polin and Egon Polin – and their conversation directly informs us of Gec’s death from cancer.

I found the Christmas scene in the Polin living room (with Christmas tree) powerful – the conversation was banal in content but suffused with emotion and, dare one say it, love. Watch out for the teddy bear with battery-powered angels’ wings on top of the sofa.

A quick note on the music. Polin is an accomplished musician – the impromptu accordion session at Christmas was a total delight and the celebratory song provided a powerful soundtrack for the final credits; Polin has a fine vocal style.

The finale is a triumph. We are shown a split screen with the credits rolling up one half whilst on the other half we are shown found video footage of Gec, the man himself, chain sawing firewood with Egon. And, yes, he is no more likable or interesting in reality than in Polin’s previous portrayal of him. But that is surely the point of the movie – it is friendship, not status or power, that ultimately makes human life worth living, even for a surly character like Gec.

With Drauff!, Tscheligi and Polin have given us a gem of a movie. The submission notes do not give much detail as to the film’s production, which fits well with the enigmatic, idiosyncratic nature of the piece. Therefore, I don’t know what stage of their careers the pair are at but, on this evidence, they are exceptionally talented filmmakers. We at IFL very much look forward to any future submissions from them as a team or individually – whether it is a further portrayal of agrarian life in Switzerland or a journey down an entirely different road – we would be eager to view it.

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