Dir: Fernand Melgar. Switzerland. 2014. 101mins

The Shelter

At first glance, this documentary looks like a typical Swiss issue that wouldn’t travel much. After all, who would care about a shelter for the homeless in such an opulent city as Lausanne and why would anyone living outside it, be interested in the limited space it offers its clientele?

The issue is of course much larger than Melgar can encompass here, its political and social aspects far more ramified than he dares to explore.

On second thought, however, the refugees coming from all deprived corners of the world, arriving in the West and looking to raise their standard of living, threatens to become a major problem in most western countries, with no immediate satisfactory solution in sight. And if Fernand Melgar makes a point of discussing only the one specific case in his own city, reading between the lines suggests it is not only the Swiss that should be concerned.

Most of The Shelter (L’abri) takes place in and around one of the shelters in Lausanne. Originally fitted to take in a 100 persons at one time, the regulations limit the staff to accept no more than 50, and only in cases of extreme emergency, such as outside temperatures descending under freezing point for three days in a row, is the capacity extended to 70.

Needless to say, the homeless roaming around the streets of the city are far more numerous, and the staff is supposed to stand at the door every single evening and decide who comes in and who is turned down to sleep on a sidewalk, a train station or in a car. This kind of selection, often re-enforced by the presence of a policeman or two gives the shelter’s employees more authority then they would like to have, since they can’t help antagonising all the young and old men, women and children, who conceive them as the enemy depriving them of a bed for the night and some food to go with it.

Evidently finding no immediate answers to the plight of so many, the city authorities are attempting to adopt all kinds of strict regulations, distributing cards that would give access to the shelters for at least some of the nights, suggesting working places but unable to provide working permits, and once out of any more ideas, impotently shaking their shoulders and proposing the floors of a metro station.

Melgar’s camera follow the shelter staff as it struggles on the one hand to accommodate as many people as they can while firmly getting rid of the others, and on the other hand confronting their narrow-minded, self-satisfied boss who leads his middleclass existence cheerily despite all the misery he sees around him. While never focusing too long on any one case, he observes the multi-national collection of Gypsies, Romanian, African, Spanish and Italians, some of them single, others in couples, often with kids, pushing and jostling and inventing new tricks for a place to rest their bones at night.

The sad thing is that as miserable as their share is in Lausanne, all these people still prefer it to going back home. For them, this is not an option. Going back means not only accepting defeat, it’s returning to conditions that are even worse. As rudimentary and glum as the shelter is, it would still be considered a five star hotel in some countries, as tough and unpleasant as the sidewalks are, no one is shooting at you if you sleep there, the disparity between what they left behind and the abundance they see now in the streets and believe could be theirs in time, is too big to ignore.  Not to mention that their wish to share in the general well-being is often seen as a real threat by those who already enjoy it, again something to be read between the lines.

The issue is of course much larger than Melgar can encompass here, its political and social aspects far more ramified than he dares to explore. Granted, a tighter cut, with less repetitions and self-indulgence, could have sharpened his points to a great extent. Still, as it is, it should be a serious warning call for serious politicians, if such a breed is still in existence.

Production company: Climage

International sales: CAT&Docs, cat@catndocs.com

Producer/cinematography: Fernand Melgar

Editor Karine Sudan