It happened in November 2015, when terrorists shot 130 people in Paris. At this point in time, Mirjam von Arx had just given birth to her second child. This attack was not the first one in the French capital. «I was surprised at how much these attacks affected me», said the director and producer. «Probably also because of the geographical proximity.» She was absolutely devastated by this terrible news. «If I saw a suitcase left unattended at the train station, I would feel uneasy. I wondered about the kind of world in which my children would grow up. I was also surprised and annoyed, as it made me feel so scared.»
Mirjam von Arx (55), who lives in Zurich and grew up in St. Gallen, sits on the terrace of a Zurich café on this cold day in May. She is wearing a blue woollen coat, orders a tonic water, and speaks quickly yet focused. She explains that it was «these vague fears» that gave her the idea for her latest documentary film entitled «The Scent of Fear – der Geruch der Angst». She wanted to get to the bottom of this fear and understand it. «I expected myself to be more resilient after everything that has happened in my life.»
Death has been a constant companion to her since 2010
In 2010, von Arx was diagnosed as having breast cancer. In the same week, she met Herbert Weissmann via a dating agency. They fell in love and wanted to get married. Three months later, Herbert died in a BASE jumping accident in Lauterbrunnen Valley. «I couldn't understand how he could just throw his life away while I was fighting for mine.» She made a film about this experience. The documentary «Freifall – eine Liebesgeschichte» («Freefall – A Love Story») is her most personal piece to date. «Much to my surprise, I learned more about life than death during the time in Lauterbrunnen Valley.» Seen in this light, her current film is, according to her, also a continuation of «Freifall». «Fear, death and a happy life are mutually dependent on each other.»
In her latest film, the director focuses on people who are facing their fears. This includes a young Korean man who is plagued by fears of failure and attends a seminar to learn how to die happy, and an American prepper couple who live on a former military base with 757 bunkers. Also in the lens of the camera is Swiss extreme athlete Evelyne Binsack, who films herself trying to cross the Arctic alone. In between each of these portraits, experts from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, politics, philosophy and linguistics explain why we are a society controlled by fear.
The fear of the BASE jumper
Standing on a platform and looking down into Lauterbrunnen Valley. This is a scene from «Freifall» that does not feature Herbert, but his best friend who was with him when he made the fatal jump. Through the camera angle, Mirjam von Arx forces the audience to dwell on what must go through the minds of these people shortly before they jump into the unknown. «Every BASE jumper that I interviewed at the time said that they don't jump if they aren't scared.» By confronting the fears that they would experience in such a moment, they can increase the intensity of their lives.
Do you wish that Herbert had more fear?
«Yes. I believe that he would still be alive if he had have been afraid. More precisely, if he could have admitted his fear to himself.»
In the filmmaker's eyes, this is also main point of «The Scent of Fear». For her, fear is a life-saver. «If you're afraid, you live longer. However, if you can't negate these fears, they may be the end of you.»
Do you think that a terrorist attack would trigger something different in you?
«I don't know. However, I do know how to deal with fear better now. I'm able to accept that being afraid is a natural part of me.»
Mirjam von Arx has finished her tonic water and must leave to pick up her children. Following Herbert's death, she met another man. They got married and now have a son and a daughter. When I asked her how her husband was, she paused for a long time before explaining that he died two years ago from a brain tumour. «I am telling you this, because it happened. The fact that I have lost another person that I loved has nothing to do with the subject matter of the film, however.» She had finished shooting it before he died, she explained.
Providing hope instead of being afraid
Von Arx dedicated the film to her husband, Aeni. She does not want to give any more details about it. Except that there is one statement in the film that is etched into her brain. «According to the linguist Elisabeth Wehling, the language we use influences our thoughts. When we go to bed at night, the choice between us saying ’hopefully, nothing happens’ and ’everything will be fine’ has a huge influence on the way in which we perceive the world.» She continues by saying that it was for this reason that she has restarted a ritual with her children, who are six and eight years old. «Before we go to sleep every night, we list three things that have made us happy.» The aim of her film is also to promote this mindset, and although it cannot make people unafraid, it can give them hope.
«The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.» This Roosevelt quote was the working title of Mirjam von Arx's concept with which she won the seventh Migros Culture Percentage Swiss documentary film competition in 2017 and for which she received CHF 400,000 CHF to shoot «The Scent of Fear – der Geruch der Angst».
«The Scent of Fear – der Geruch der Angst» is being shown in Swiss cinemas from 20 May.
Find out more about film promotion by the Migros Culture Percentage at storylab.migros-culture-percentage.ch
Photo/Stage: Maurice Haas