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New film pays tribute to the pioneers of civilian service

22.05.2019 – Stéphane Herzog

It’s the incredible story of a group of young protesters who, in support of civilian service in Switzerland, laid down their weapons and uniforms before the Federal Parliament building and had women tear up their military passbooks. This event took place on 22 April 1971 in Berne and is the starting point for the film “La preuve de l’existence de Dieu” (Proof of the existence of God) by Genevan Fred Baillif. Screened in Geneva on 14March 2019 as part of the Geneva International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights, this pseudo-documentary functions as a tribute and raises questions relating to militant activities, as well as “the status of the elderly in our social context, where they are shut out from society once their work is finished”, states the producer-director.

“La preuve de l’existence de Dieu” is played by the real-life protagonists of this militant action alongside experienced actors, Jean-Luc Bideau and Irène Jacob. In the film, six senior protesters campaign against weapons exportation and turn to terrorist methods, blowing up an arms factory. In reality, the actions in Berne were to lead to prison sentences of up to four and a half months, explains Alain Simonin, one of the protagonists in the film.

The Genevan militants’ operation involved 22 men and 8 women and was prepared with the help of two Genevan lawyers who would go on to become State Councillors: Christian Grobet and Bernard Ziegler. The aim was to plan a crime which would lead to criminal sentences, in the case of the women for the destruction of military equipment. In the end, the objective was not met. The group, which notably included a theologian and a garage owner, wanted a collective conviction, and so a political trial, but each group member was judged separately and the women were released. Nevertheless, the group achieved a substantive response, signed by the Federal Council, to which a 400-page manifesto on civilian service had been delivered. “Our actions influenced the creation of civilian service,” reflects Michel Sermet, who served his sentence in Geneva.

Born of a Genevan militant group which had established a concept embodying civilian service for the population, the movement in favour of a community-based service was reflected in other French-speaking cantons and attracted support from intellectuals in the German part of Switzerland too. “We paid for our actions, and our sentences brought us credibility,” recalls Alain Simonin with satisfaction.

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Picture: Alain Simonin Photo fresh prod