IFFR review: Farewell Paradise by Sonja Wyss

IFFR review: Farewell Paradise by Sonja Wyss

It may sound dull – a documentary made up of talking heads for over 90 percent of its duration. But Farewell Paradise is all but boring. It is, instead, a gripping story of a family fairytale gone bad and a fascinating therapeutic session, with one of the featured sisters both directing the film and, like her siblings, exposing fears, anger and love that were for many years suppressed. 


Director Sonja Wyss didn’t have to dig deep for this story; it is the history of her own family. Together with her sisters and parents she spent her childhood in paradise-like bliss on the Bahamas, enjoying the sun, nature and a loving family. 


But the dream was shattered when her mother decided she wanted to go back to Switzerland with her daughters, leaving the father behind.


Father, mother, her three sisters and Wyss herself recall this story independently, against a very modest background, with nothing to distract from their words, movements, emotions and feelings. And as they recount the events, those in front of the camera settle in and get more and more comfortable as they open up.


Because all of them shy away from sentimentality, every emotion, every tear has a profound impact.


The talking heads take you on a journey, not only from a warm, sunny paradise to a cold, hostile city, but also from the innocence and blissful ignorance of childhood to a harsh and painful reality. The family is torn apart because the love between the parents turned out to be a lie. 


Abundance is replaced by scarcity and poverty, and the easy island life by a struggle for survival and acknowledgment. The sisters tell how they found their individual path towards adulthood and how the events affected their lives, both positively and negatively.


It is a fascinating story, but it is even more absorbing to watch each of the family members undergo their psychological journey. It is the first time they are actually reliving their lives and facing the emotions they had so carefully locked away. 


Anger, sadness, reproaches, passive aggression turn into compassion, understanding, acceptance. Thankfully, they approach their feelings with a sense of humour and self-reflexion, so the documentary is never overbearing, and offers a degree of hope.


Wyss strategically uses pictures and audio recordings of their childhood, with the latter having a heartbreaking impact. She also illustrates the women’s accounts with footage of seemingly neutral places, which underline the sentiment of the story. 


She manages to create a fluent narrative as well as an exact map of the intricate relations between the siblings and parents. In the process she carefully and lovingly exposes hidden feelings, motives and fears, but she also underlines the amazing power of love and human resourcefulness.