July 1958, the Swiss people were already voting on cinema

On July 6, 1958, the Swiss and the Swiss went to the polls for two objects. A counter-project to an initiative on the road network which introduced the notion of “national roads”, and a new article in the Constitution concerning the cinema. This gave the Confederation the right to “encourage cinematographic production and cultural activities deployed in the field of cinema”, and to “regulate the importation and distribution of films”.

A long debate

One suspects it, the debate on this Filmartikel was vehement. It is a matter both of granting a right to public aid – the cantons were by right powerless in matters of cinema –, of addressing the question of the Cinémathèque, and of fixing in law the framework of the market by the quotas, for example the limitation of American films. Fearing that the federal state will come and stick its nose in their business, distributors and exhibitors are against the article. What is striking today is to note how little there is about fiction; the debates focus mainly on the documentary. We fear a “cinema bailiff” who would impose themes, or we support, on the contrary, support for making “good films” about Switzerland.

The article was ready in 1956, but the ballot items were piling up (already!). Two large items from the ancestors of the Weather set the tone for the campaign.

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For: the “artistic and social role of film”

Among the partisans: in the Lausanne Gazette of June 6, the Lausanne journalist Jean Nicollier discusses the “particular situation of Swiss cinema”. Particular because “Switzerland is so far one of the few countries in Europe that does not support its film production either directly or indirectly.” It is therefore a question of aid, and even, the author lets go of the swear word, of possible “lost fund subsidies”. But immediately, he argues: “Why in this area, could not a very modest aid be admitted when all the European and overseas countries support, even especially the popular democracies, their cinematographic production.”

The argument of communist countries (the “popular democracies”) which used cinema as an image and propaganda tool marked the campaign. We also see the weight of comparisons with European practices, an argument strongly put forward today by supporters of the 30% quota for European works and the obligation to invest for streaming platforms and TV foreign to Swiss advertising windows.

“The film is a marvelous means of making Switzerland understand to the Swiss. But we lack valuable indigenous films. We have been conspicuous by our absence in recent years in Venice and Cannes. And further: “This situation is abnormal if we refer to the methods adopted by a large number of countries perfectly aware of the artistic and social role played by “good” films.”

Yes, “good”, that is to say good documentaries. Support for feature films “on a romantic subject, that is to say where the imagination of a screenwriter commands, can only, on the other hand, be considered with caution and reserve”, continues the journalist. Fiction is based on “the reception of the public”, which “decided the economic future of the production”. Everything is granted to the public with support up to a maximum of 30% of the costs, and quality bonuses. In the fiction, it is summed up, “a costly and massive intervention by the Swiss state would exceed the mission of the country.”

The editor wants to reassure voters. “This article is not the prelude to the creation of a vast federal service of “film subsidies”, with an influx of new officials.” What will actually happen…

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Against: an “interventionist and statist ballast”

Another story in the Geneva Journal July 4, two days before the vote. Raymond Deanoa sets out the “reasons for voting no on Sunday”. There too, it is above all a question of documentary films, often “commissioned”, which makes public support useless: “There is no need, in order to favor certain good films or certain laudable cinematographic institutions [il est manifestement question de la Cinémathèque]to provide for a special constitutional article, which will certainly be interpreted as an encouragement to a more intense distribution of the federal windfall.”

The second important part of the argument concerns the other aspect, quotas. The country was caught up in a debate on cartels, the subject of a previous vote. However, in the cinema reigns “a closed cartel, one of these “vertical cartels” which everyone has agreed to recognize [lors du précédent vote] that they were contrary to “possible competition”, and had to be combated […].” In short, the new provision would formalize an unequal situation, without achieving “the cultural and political aim pursued”; “In short, the boat of the article on the cinema is disproportionately loaded with interventionist and statist ballast”.

Analyzing the debate and the population’s inclination to yes, cultural sociologist Olivier Moeschler (in Swiss cinema, coll. Swiss Knowledge, PPUR) notes that “the Swiss people may be wrong… and doubly so. Production support is marginal in the article, while import, distribution and theaters are central. In addition, the people vote for the big Swiss productions on display but in decline, which the measures will only help imperfectly – for the benefit of a generation of authors about to hatch!”

Article 27ter on the cinema was accepted by 61.3% of the votes.

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