Encounters on the Milky Way shows three cattle breeders from Mali and Burkina Faso during their trip to Switzerland where they meet with two dairy farmers from the Swiss Lake District and a cheese manufacturer in the Berne's Oberland. Back in their homeland, they tell their friends and neighbors about their experiences.
- Summertime on a Swiss alp:
Snowcapped mountains veiled in a light haze, blue skies, rich meadows, fat cows. Cowbells are ringing. A man is sitting on a rock, trying to attract the animal silently to him. The picture could result kitschy if it weren't for the fact that the herdsman is a Peul from Burkina Faso, wearing a turban to protect him from the cold.
This image is about midway of the film Encounters on the Milky Way and shows in a poetic way what it is about: It is about people who find the familiar in the unfamiliar and sometimes also the unfamiliar in the familiar.
" Encounters on the Milky Way" shows three cattle breeders from Mali and Burkina Faso during their trip to Switzerland where they meet with two dairy farmers from the Swiss Lake District and a cheese manufacturer in the Berne's Oberland. Back in their homeland, they tell their friends and neighbors about their experiences.
The film is neither a chronological document of this trip, nor a stringing together of contrasts between the "rich" north and the "poor" south. It is more about discovering the common ground. The perceptions of Dicko and Heimberg about what exactly is progress are certainly different, but both being successful agrarian entrepreneurs they still manage to find a common thread. Heimberg and the bio farmer Hurter are both masters on the capitalistic agrarian market, but differentiate in the their attitudes toward cattle and cattle breeding. Finally, Hurter and Ly, the African reason differently about the relationship between men and cows, but are together in the discussion about the soul of the animal. Visually, the film strings the different shooting locations in West Africa and in Switzerland together into one single place that is defined thematically, not geographically. Even though the spectators get an impression of life in the West African Peul - at a cow festival or the river crossing of an enormous herd, at the daily milking of a family in the Savanna and at a small milk factory, at assemblies in the village and a meeting of the cattle breeders of the Sahel - all this happens in passing. "Encounters on the Milky Way" is not a movie about Africa or even about Swiss dairy farmers and cheese manufacturers. It this was the expectation, it is soon destroyed by the unconventional editing which easily joins together African scenes with Swiss locations - cowsheds, farms, alpine cheese factories, cattle shows, industrial dairy farms. Sometimes the spectators need a few seconds to realize where they are, a freeing experience. The dramatization of "Encounters on the Milky Way" is defined by the subject of the film: the relationship of men to the cows and as such to nature, their handling of milk and its market, their thoughts about their values and progress. The film begins with the different impressions of the Swiss about Africa and the Africans about Switzerland. This is followed by loosely connected subjects: The relationship between men and animal; the cow as bearer of social projections; opinions about good cattle breeding. The work of the milker and the manufacturing of the milk products; discussions about the quantity of milk, breeding and artificial insemination; feeding and water; market and globalization. Editing and dramatization allow the director to frequently change the point of view about a subject. The spectator becomes witness of the mixture of admiration and repulsion with which the African cattle breeders look at the big udders of Swiss high performance cows. Excess seems suddenly exotic. Shortly afterwards, we see the enormous herds of rich cattle breeders of the Sahel. Excess plays also a role here and is recognized by the Africans as such including the detrimental results for the overused pastures. "We don't have the same problems," says Amadou Dicko, a cattle breeder form Burkina Faso, "but everybody has problems."
Technically, the director uses all possible levels of conversations during the encounters in Africa and Switzerland. On the one hand, there are the excerpts of interviews of the director with the protagonists. On the other hand, while the filmmakers remain quietly observing in the background, the direct encounters between the three cattle breeders from the Sahel and the Swiss farmers take place. In these instances, they meet in pairs: Boubacar Sadou Ly, a veterinary trained in Toulouse, founder of the Association of Cattle Breeders of the Sahel in Burkina Faso, visits the farm of Bio Farmer Hurter. Amadou Dicko, a rural cattle breeder from Burkina Faso, meets with Hanspeter Reus, the owner of a cheese factory, whose ambition is to look for markets to export his products. Hamadoun Dicko, also from Burkina Faso, but living in the capital Ouagadougou and the trading city of Bobo Doulasso, owns several big herds and is paired off with the big farmer from the Swiss Lake District Hanspeter Heimberg. A central point is the third level: The exchange, observations and thoughts of the Africans between them. Threading throughout the film, there is the shot showing Amadou Dicko and Hamadoun Dicko on the backseat of the car, observing the countryside and commenting them in their language. Back in West Africa, curious family members and fellow cattle breeders are besieging the travelers. Their reminiscences trigger general merriment that is contagious.
But Amadou Dicko, Hamadoun Dicko and Boubacar Ly do not take the same stories home from Switzerland. The special attraction of "Encounters on the Milky Way" is the different points of view of each protagonist, who become familiar characters to the spectator. Amadou Dicko is always amazed about the farms, the dairy manufacturers, the deep freeze storage, the roads and forests in Switzerland and about the country as a whole. Hamadoun Dicko evaluates realistically what can be learned and what would not be fitting for West Africa. Boubacar Ly on the other hand, is convinced that the western materialism forcibly leads into a cul-de-sac. He visited Switzerland out of his own initiative in order to participate in assemblies and to plead on behalf of the Association of Cattle Breeder of the Sahel for humane and more efficient livestock farming.
Thus "Encounters on the Milky Way" takes as its scheme the technical and social progress with its cost to society. This is a question for African cattle breeders as well as for Swiss livestock farmers and milk-merchants. The progressive desertification and climatic changes, as well as the new, democratic organizations of the producers are the impulse for change in the Sahel. In Switzerland it is the liberalization of the agrarian market, concentration of ownership, globalization, the possible strategy of diversification.
That the Swiss cattle breeders answer these and similar questions differently is normal for Swiss or European spectators: The bio farmer Ueli Hurter rejects artificial insemination and intensive breeding the way farmer Heimberg practices it. Through the choices of the African cattle breeders and their different evaluations and opinions "Encounters on the Milky Way" reveals that the discussions about how much emulation is necessary and how much progress on its own is possible in order to master the unequal speed of development of the African and Western Society, are evolving along pluralistic lines.