Interview with Anka Schmid

Cecilia Johnson-Ferguson
Cecilia Johnson-Ferguson

Interview with Anna Schmid, director of Wild Women - Gentle Beasts

Crossing the borders between film and art, Swiss film director Anka Schmid has won many prizes over the past few decades for her innovative work. Travelling from Switzerland to Germany, France, Argentina and the USA, she gets her inspiration from the many different people she meets and cultures she discovers. Her latest documentary film “Wild Women – Gentle Beasts” reveals the secrets behind the mysterious female animal-tamers. If you didn’t see it at the Visions du Réel Festival last April, look out for its screening at the Locarno Festival in August! For anyone else, the Swiss theatrical release will be on September 17th.


As a film director and artist, who inspired you the most in your work?

I have to say there are two spectacular women who have truly inspired me through their experimental approach to art and film. Laurie Anderson for one, who is a small bundle of energy. Her avant-garde work in music, film and performance art at the beginning of the 80s was very inspiring and innovative for me. She is also very politically engaged, which is something I really admire about her. The French artist and film director Agnès Varda would be the second person that inspired me the most. Agnès is like a goddess to me. She is a key figure of the French Nouvelle Vague, and her professional life is just as fascinating as her marriage to French director Jacques Demy. Both these women test social and technological boundaries through their art, always trying out something new. That is exactly what I aim to do in my work.

Your brand new film “Wild Women – Gentle Beasts” depicts the stories of women who put their lives in danger on a daily basis. What motivated you to portray these women?

At the beginning, it was a very personal reason that made me want to film these women. As a child, I had always wanted to become an animal-tamer. There was this television series in the beginning of the 70s called “Salto Mortale” which I loved to watch. My idol would be Tiger-Lilly, a beautiful tiger-tamer, and I would dream of being like her! Eventually at 50, I decided I wanted to learn more about the reality behind this exceptional profession.

Having travelled all over the world to film the lives of the animal-tamers, I now realize how powerful these women really are, and I see what they do as a beautiful image of life. I think everyone can learn from the “Wild Women” and from their incredible strength and dedication. I have seen many parallels with my profession as a film director.

How do the animal-tamers build up trust with the wild beasts?

They know the animals from a very young age, and have usually brought them up themselves. There is a great emotional bond between the tamers and their animal. But this is a 24/7 job, and there is no break. I must say they even spend more time with them than I ever have with my child. But this isn’t the only thing that builds up trust. I believe the women I filmed have a real talent for communication and for understanding the animals they tame – and that’s what really makes the difference. I would call it a sixth sense.

What makes the female animal-tamers so special, compared to their male colleagues?

Male tamers usually tend to present themselves as gladiators. They make the animals growl in an artificial way, and always take particular pride in showing off their own muscles. Women on the other hand are more about the tease. They play with the animals, and are really sensual whilst they do it. The French animal-tamer in my film, for instance, looks like a gazelle when she is performing. It is like a vision of paradise. In the end though, both male and female animal-tamers must dominate their pride of predators.

What have you learnt from this experience?

I would say there are three important things I have learnt. Firstly, once these women are in the arena, they have to be tough. There is no looking back, and it is not the moment to show any weakness. I take this as a piece of life advice. When facing an important meeting or life situation, be tough and go through with it! Secondly, I learnt a lot about the animals. At first I was more interested in filming the women than the animals, but through their relationship with their “Gentle Beasts” I have learnt that as human beings, we are much more dependant on nature than we think. Last but not least, there is not one universal reality. The standard female animal-tamer doesn’t exist. Instead I have found many individual and cultural differences between the women - each one of them was unique in their own way.