(Switzerland 2021; Dir: Jela Hasler)

On Solid Ground

Raging On

review by Mariana Hristova

On Solid Ground

original title: Über Wasser

length: 12

year of production: 2021

country of production: Switzerland

director: Jela Hasler

production: Olivier Zobrist, Anne-Catherine Lang

director of photography: Andi Widmer

editing: Florian Geisseler

sound: Mourad Keller

music: Pest Control

cast: Sofia Elena Borsani

festivals: Semaine de la Critique 2021, Festival du Nouveau Cinéma (FNC) 2021, Sarajevo International Film Festival 2021, Guanajuato International Film Festival 2021

© images: On Solid Ground (Jela Hasler)

In the Hollywood produced one-man show action film ‘Falling Down’ (1993, directed by Joel Schumacher), a man (frenetically portrayed by Michael Douglas) psychologically hit by the traffic, the heat, the agoraphobic and alienating cityscape and human stupidity, bursts out amidst the ruling chaos and starts to threaten everyone around with a gun. As a minimalistic small-scope elaboration on a similar theme with a lonely protagonist juxtaposed to the rest of the world at its center, Swiss director Jela Hasler’s short film ‘On Solid Ground’, currently in competition at the 50th edition of the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in Montreal, touches upon the accumulated inner anger that one holds inside until the critical moment of explosion.

The trigger in both cases is aggression coming from a hostile setting. However, if the genre film narrative requires more obvious justifications of the protagonist’s motivation (such as the personal trauma revealed in the Schumacher film) in order to stick with the traditional dramaturgical logic, Hasler’s independent take on the subject explores in a more frivolous form the clashes — physical and aesthetical, spatial and temporal — between a human being and its surrounding environment. An environment that in our modern times is as orderly as, in fact, inhuman.

It’s unclear why the original unambiguous German title ‘Über Wasser’ meaning “above water” was translated to the English alternative ‘On Solid Ground’, while for the Cannes’ La Semaine de la Critique, where the film had its world premiere, it was translated in French as ‘Hors de l’eau’ (“out of water”). Nevertheless, all three variations serve the subject matter equally well and actually complement each other: “above” and “out” of water could be related to the dryness of the outer setting that ricochets into the main character’s sensibility, while ”on solid ground” might refer to her experiences of the world — firmly standing on her feet and confronting its mere brutality directly. At the same time, all three titles create a literal association with the opening scene in which the unnamed female protagonist (almost silently performed by Sofia Elena Borsani, who is gifted to express a lot with little), comes out of the canal in the city center of Zurich after a refreshing morning swim during a hot summer day.

This heroine is rather an antipode of the typical urban inhabitant who is physically overdependent on civilizational facilities and mentally glued to electronic devices. The woman in focus here is quite the opposite: prefers natural waters over chlorinated sterile swimming pools (for which, of course, someone will immediately scold her); spends her afterwork time outdoors, despite her friend refusing to join her; bikes everywhere around the city; pees in the bushes. All those choices portray a person who seems to try enjoying the leftovers of nature amidst soulless urbanism. Most notably throughout the twelve minutes-long runtime that summarizes a random day in her life, she does not spend a second perceiving the world through a screen or isolating herself with headphones, as many of us do. Without “soma” [1] for the senses and censorship of the mind, she dares to engage and confront meaningless aggression, hence almost getting into trouble. When she finally reaches the supposedly peaceful home, the resentment has already escalated into her veins, causing her to vent her wrath onto her closest ones: she explodes fiercely but harmlessly, still within the limits of the permissible.

Depicted in a greyish palette and predominantly concrete texture, Zurich would have been unrecognizable for non-locals without a hint in the brief dialogue towards the end of the film. Haslers mise-en-scène unfolds a dynamic interaction between Borsani’s determined movements & looks and the anonymous metropolitan setting: as caught she seems to be in the grasp of the city’s straight lines, ponderous infrastructure and geometrical logic, as savage and spontaneous she grows. The noise polluted soundscape intreflows well with the obscenity of the city, yet gets on the main character’s nerves, as she does not accept the wholesale ugliness of modern life as a natural feature. Observing her ongoing desperate battle for some private, quiet space makes one want to scream; the loud rock song (‘No Borders’ by Pest Control) accompanying the final credits in fact serves, here, as that scream.

Looking back at Jela Hasler’s filmography, the observational non-dialogue approach is noticeable in at least three of her previous short films, not without the help of the patient and insisting camera of Andy Widmer, the cinematographer she regularly collaborates with. ‘The Meadow’ (2015) innocently stares at cows grazing in a conflict zone between Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel. ‘Le sens de la marche’ (2018) documents the stagnated state of emergency atmosphere in France after the 2017 presidential elections. A lockdown walk and contemplation of empty spaces is greatly captured in ‘Tomorrow's Gone Today’ (2020) featuring the same magnetic Sofia Elena Borsani. Hasler’s first fiction narrative work ‘Über Wasser’ confirms her (and Widmer’s) interest in detailed exploration of places and spaces, yet this time the environment is a fully developed character on itself as it collides on a narrative level with a protagonist of flesh and blood.

[1] In Aldous Huxley’s dystopian and prophetic novel ‘Brave New World’, soma is a happiness-producing hallucinogenic drug which satisfies virtually the users with pleasant experiences and is used as a society’s methods of keeping its citizens peaceful.