Interview: Petra Volpe – writer/director of Tribeca Film Festival Selection ‘The Divine Order’ about Swiss women’s right to vote in 1971

The Divine Order is a Swiss film from writer/director Petra Volpe produced with Reto Schaerli and Lukas Hobi. I got the opportunity to speak with Petra Volpe this week as her film screens at the Tribeca Film Festival.

1971: Nora is a young housewife and mother living with her husband and their two sons in a quaint little village in the Swiss countryside, which is so far untouched by the major social upheavals the movement of 1968 has brought about. Protests for Civil Rights, the Sexual Revolution, and the Youth and Counter Culture Movements are barely on the radar in Nora’s village. Nora’s life has not been affected either; she is a quiet person who is liked by everybody – but everything changes when she starts to publicly fight for Swiss women’s right to vote, which Swiss men are due to vote on in a ballot on February 7, 1971.

How does one go about telling a story so vast as this? Volpe did extensive research for the film, and a crucial place for information was the Gosteli Archive – the archive on the history of women in Switzerland, founded by Marthe Gosteli, who recently passed away in her 100th year.

Speaking with Gosteli, Volpe was inspired but realized that the character in her story must not be an “intellectual” but someone “like my mother. Not an actively political person, but then finds out she’s actually affected by politics.” Volpe describes how there was a lot of propaganda sent out against women’s suffrage. She goes on to say, “I found a note in this archive, that really touched me. It was from a young housewife, a mother.” She had sent back one of the pamphlets and wrote, “how dare you prevent women from voting! I was never a political person but this now makes me want to be a fighter.” How awesome is that? Volpe knew then that the main character shouldn’t be someone that was already involved in the movement.

This was my favorite part of the story. Nora is married, with a child and doesn’t really understand the point of women voting. Then when she wants to do something on her own, she realizes that she cannot do what she wants without the permission of her husband. This ignites a light in her to question why. Questioning drives her to learn more and seek out others.

Those others are the women of the village where she lives. Volpe says that she didn’t base the characters on any one person, but was inspired by the women in the village where they were shooting. “They were very charismatic, powerful women, in these pubs, who everybody trusts, they know every village secret. Everyone came to them with their worries and were the Queens of the village. Usually, they didn’t own their businesses, their husbands owned them, so they were completely dependent, financially on their husbands.”

Absurd as it seems now, not only were women not granted the right to vote until 1971, but women “were not allowed to open a bank account until 1988. They couldn’t sign contracts for an apartment. That’s one of the first things that women took on after the right to vote, they really said, we need to change marital law.”

Volpe is no stranger to women’s issues. “All my films are about women who liberate themselves.” However, the idea came from one of her producers and it upset her that she didn’t think of it. “I was so pissed! Why didn’t I have this idea? It’s so shameful!” We forgive you, Petra.

Since this is based on an actual event, I asked Volpe about her approach to the storytelling and its challenges. “There’s different challenges. One the challenge of tone. Humor is very important. Humor is a very important means to seduce people to look at things that they don’t like to look at.

I think humor is a way of opening up people’s hearts from more painful aspects of stories.”

“It’s so horrible, that you have to laugh. So, for me, it’s very important to have a humorous approach and not to make it too heavy, but to also show the absurdity of it. Humor is an anarchy and coping mechanism. We all know how much we need Saturday Night Live at the moment, for survival. So humor is very important to find a tone for the movie.”

Volpe also had a challenge with depicting the time period without losing the audience’s interest. “When I looked at the archives, people were talking so extremely slowly and they were moving so extremely slowly, the people were much slower. It was so interesting, as they were not so agile and everything was more stiff. I thought it adds a lot to this atmosphere of oppression. And yet, you have to tell a movie that people don’t fall asleep. [LAUGH] That is also a balance to find. How to keep that pace, to recreate this atmosphere like a visceral experience, for people to really feel how these women were in corsets, constrained in this world and to tell a movie that has a pace for a modern audience.”

A bit of propaganda at the time had a poster with “Women in politics is against the divine order.” Volpe felt this was a perfect title for the film. “It’s really crazy when you read these propaganda pamphlets, they really argue that God has created a world of men and women and they have their roles, and if you mess with these roles, it will be apocalypse.” Sound familiar? Scarily, it does.

The look of the movie is also very rich with color. Volpe says she spent a great deal of time getting the colors right before and after filming. She shot digitally and spent two weeks grading the color in post-production.

I also asked Volpe about her experience as a female filmmaker in an industry dominated by men. She talks about how it was hard in the beginning because so often she was told that she should be grateful for her opportunities. She was very grateful, but eventually, she developed the confidence to say, “no, they can be grateful that I work for them.”

“They can be grateful that I come up with stories they can sell and make money.”

“That took a little while for me to realize, that no, it’s me they should be grateful to, and not the other way around.” Bravo!

When asked about the timing of the film, Volpe laments, “good for the film, but unfortunate for society.” I couldn’t agree more.

You still have a chance to get RUSH tickets for 3 more showings – check here.

About Melissa Hanson

Melissa Hanson aka Dial M For Melissa - Managing Editor / Podcast Producer - Growing up, Melissa’s favorite destination was always the video store and would agonize over whether to watch something new or to rewatch a favorite. Things have not changed. Follow on Twitter @DialMForMelissa

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