A middle-aged man with glasses stands beside a vintage film projector

Interview: John Wäfler, Roadmovie

Our Education in Cinema Interview series continues with a profile of John Wäfler, Co-Director of the Swiss mobile cinema, Roadmovie and Co-Founder of the Zoomz film festival for children and young people.

(This article forms part of our ongoing Education in Cinema project, supporting exhibitor-led film education across Scotland. The project is funded by Screen Scotland)

We’re always interested to learn more about film education models outside Scotland and so we were delighted when John Wäfler reached out to us. John has spent over twenty years working in film education in Switzerland and is currently spending a year in Scotland, as his wife is undertaking academic research at Edinburgh University. After he got in touch to learn more about the sector in Scotland, we took the opportunity to turn the tables and ask him a few questions about his own work in Switzerland.

What came first for you, education or film?

Film was in my life almost from beginning, however not on the big screen in a cinema, but on the small screen at home. The 70s and 80s, when I was a child, were great times for a TV kid like me. Thanks to the still well-endowed public broadcasters and their ambitious programmes, children had access to a broad variety of international films from US, French or Japanese animations to wonderful films from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Even though film was first, education followed soon after. I was lucky to have inspiring teachers. They helped me grow and made my little world much bigger. I guess that is why I have developed a positive relationship to both, film and education. And for me, encouraging this positive relationship remains the core of film education.

Any particularly strong film memories from when you were growing up?

One of the strongest memories of my childhood is indeed my first visit to a cinema. One afternoon, my father took my sister and me to the city (a thing normally my mother would do). I felt a little unconfident because I didn’t really understand where we were going. Then we entered this unknown building. As we were late, we had to look for a seat in the dark with the help of a torch. That only increased my trepidation. It was only when I was sitting down that I discovered the huge screen—like a television, but a hundred times greater! The film was Disney’s Jungle Book. I was immediately infatuated.

Can you tell us a bit about Roadmovie – how it came into being and what it now looks like?

Roadmovie is a mobile cinema that visits remote places in Switzerland. Inside our van we carry a load of new Swiss films and transport filmmakers to speak at Q&As. Roadmovie first hit the road twenty years ago. Looking back, those were different times than today. Swiss films were not yet easily accessible everywhere via digital platforms, so we launched Roadmovie to make our local filmmaking more widely available. Although this remains an important goal – as Swiss films are streamed relatively rarely despite better availability – film education quickly became another important mission of Roadmovie.

Early on, we could see that rural regions were at a clear disadvantage compared to cities in terms of film education because they did not have the same opportunities. Today, Roadmovie is one of the largest film education initiatives in Switzerland.

And what about Zoomz?

The Zoomz children’s and youth film festival originally goes back to an initiative of the Swiss canton of Lucerne (one of the 26 member states of the Swiss Confederation) whose cultural service was a partner of Roadmovie. The canton had just seen the closure of its small film festival for schools, so its cultural service asked us to set up a new film festival for young audiences. We suggested a children’s and youth film festival because many outstanding European films for this age group could hardly be seen in Switzerland. The festival had its first edition in 2015, featuring screenings and Q&As with actors and directors, as well as workshops. Over the years, the festival has expanded to other Swiss cantons. It now takes now place in all Central Switzerland. We are currently planning to expand Zoomz to even more regions in the country, as the festival has sparked the interest of other cantons.

You’ve interacted with various film education providers in other parts of Europe. Are there any projects or organisations that you’ve found particularly inspiring?

In my 20-year long career in film education, I have seen many great projects and organisations in Europe. One film education provider that has inspired us more recently are the Taartrovers from the Netherlands. Their activity focuses on providing film education for very young children, a target group that was for a long time underdeveloped at Roadmovie. I particularly appreciate their playful and creative approach to film education. With great attention to detail, they create entire film playgrounds for younger children. The Taartrovers motivated us to join Cinemini Europe, a great EU-funded pan European network for film education for the youngest audiences. Thanks to this network, Roadmovie can stay connected to the rich film education landscape in Europe, even though Switzerland is not part of the EU.

As you’ve been learning about film education in Scotland, have you noticed any striking similarities and/or differences with the situation in Switzerland?

Whilst I know the situation in Switzerland well due to my long career in film education, I have been in Scotland only for a few months. Nevertheless, I am surprised at how many similarities I keep discovering between Scotland and Switzerland. For instance, film policy in both countries seems to prioritise film production more than audience development. Film education therefore does not enjoy the full status it should in view of the audience crisis which faces domestic filmmaking. On the other hand, strong institutions such as the BFI play a much greater role in film education in Scotland than in Switzerland. This is possibly due to the federal structure of the country, which makes it more difficult to develop strong national players. In Switzerland, film education is much more bottom-up. Even though this is positive, there is on the other hand a lack of coordination, training opportunities and research.

Can you tell us about an icebreaker activity that you’ve found to be effective?

One of our beliefs is that films are watched with the whole body. That is why one of our favourite icebreakers is based on gymnastics.

We briefly move and stretch all parts of the body to make children receptive to the film experience. But you should not think of it as being too physical. It is more of a playful warm-up. We like this icebreaker because it is interactive, i.e. it immediately establishes a relationship between the presenter and the audience, and the children can experience themselves as a community together with the presenter.

What do you find the most challenging aspect of your work in Switzerland?

Major challenges arise from our decentralised activity. However, I would like to emphasize that we are more than willing to accept these challenges. They are inherent to the idea of a mobile cinema, which we defend with conviction. Consequently, our activities do not take place in an equipped cinema in the city, but in many different small villages throughout the country. These villages can often only be reached by travelling long distances passing mountains and valleys. This challenge is even greater in winter, when – as it is the case now – the Alpine passes are closed and we have to take long detours to reach a village. These long journeys mean that the team has to leave during the night sometimes in order to start a screening on time. When we have workshops, we tend to travel by train. This in turn raises the question of transporting often heavy materials. We cannot thank our educators enough for their continuous commitment. Another major challenge that arises from our decentralised activity is maintaining relationships with our partners and the local public.

And what gives you cause for optimism?

Definitely the audience! After all, our work is primarily about people, isn’t it?

When it is dark, the projector starts and the children begin to react, I forget everything around me. In these moments, I think that my job is the most beautiful in the world.

Interestingly enough, this view has been confirmed once again by my stay in Scotland. My work is here mainly administrative: I work online with my Swiss colleagues and can’t participate in our Roadmovie and Zoomz events due to the great geographical distance between Scotland and Switzerland. I very much regret not being able to attend these events. For this reason, I am all the happier that so many film education organisations in Scotland have spontaneously agreed to meet and exchange ideas with me. I am now lucky to be discovering many exciting film education activities here in Scotland.

And lastly, a variation on our usual ‘desert island’ question. You’re stuck in a Swiss mountain refuge during a snowstorm with a group of young people and a film projector. What do you choose to screen?

What a nice idea to get stuck in a warm and cosy mountain refuge during a snowstorm and have time for a film (or even several). Let’s say I am with a group of young people aged between 9 or 10. It this case, I would probably screen Schellen-Ursli (English title The Little Mountain Boy) by the Oscar-winning Swiss director, Xavier Koller. The script is inspired by a popular Swiss children’s book about a boy who climbs up to a mountain hut alone in the deep snow to fetch a huge bell for a local festival. The film is great fun. However, I could imagine it would also give some children the necessary strength to cope with the snowstorm, in the case they were afraid of it.

John Wäfler grew up in Basel in Northwestern Switzerland. After his studies, he moved to Geneva in 2002 and launched the Swiss mobile cinema Roadmovie with friends. In 2015, he founded the Zoomz children’s and youth film festival together with Claudia Schmid, his Co-Director at Roadmovie. John is also a founding member of Cineducation, the national umbrella organization for film education in Switzerland. Last year, John co-edited a book on film in schools, commemorating the centenary of the now defunct Swiss School and People’s Cinema, a film education pioneer. He is a passionate advocate for children’s films. Together with other children’s film activists he recently drafted a children’s film strategy for Switzerland, which was presented to the Swiss film industry at the national Film Festival in Solothurn at the beginning of this year.