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SIGNING UP FOR COMPASSION: THE RED CROSS IS BORN AGAIN IN GENEVA

All dressed up in 1860s top hat, frock coat, embroidered waistcoat and whiskers, I’m an extra in a film, and it’s all make-believe.

Or is it? I’m a British delegate at the conference which signed the Geneva Convention founding the international Red Cross movement in 1864. As I peer around the film set, I realize it’s the chamber in Geneva’s Hotel de Ville where the conference actually took place. I’m sitting exactly where the British delegate sat. I can tell, because there’s a huge oil painting on the wall depicting the scene.

For the past few weeks, Geneva’s Old Town has effortlessly slid back 140 years for a film about the founder of the Red Cross – Henry Dunant, a local Geneva boy [Red on the Cross].  As the set moves from place to place, modern attire disappears from the cobbled alleyways and smart boutiques convert into blacksmiths and haberdashers. 

At pauses in filming, time shifts sharply back: all the top hats and hooped dresses clasp mobile telephones to their ears and re-connect to the 21st century. I’m no longer sure where I belong myself. I am a British national, born and bred. But I have dual Swiss nationality. In the room above the conference chamber, I swore allegiance to Switzerland and the humanitarian spirit of Geneva. Is this also my own history?

I’m not the only one with this feeling. A fellow extra is a Dunant, great great nephew of Henry. Another is a legless man perched in a 19th century wheel-chair. In this film, cripples play cripples. Jakob Kellenberger, present-day head of the International Red Cross, shows up to watch for a few minutes. He’s a wizened, balding man with a beard. Much like us.

Back in the conference, the British are holding aloof, surprise, surprise. My co-delegate declares that Her Majesty’s Government considers mercy killing is a better solution for wounded prisoners than this Red Cross nonsense. We exchange insults with the French and the Royal House of Saxony. It’s falling apart.

Into the hubbub surges Romantic young Dunant. He berates us for representing nations “every day more barbaric.”

We roar back our protest at the impudent interloper banging his shoe on the table. “Outrageous, Dunant. You go too far!” I bray.

“And this is the moment, Messieurs, when he captivates you with his compassion,” says the director, another native of Geneva [Dominique Othenin Girard]. “He does it through pure compassion. He benefits nothing for himself from what he is doing. It’s just compassion. And he wins you over.”

The tousle-haired actor tells of the bloody Battle of Solferino, after which tens of thousands of wounded lay untended, dying ghastly lingering deaths. Dunant was there, and when the actor walks slowly out, piercing us with burning eyes, silence falls readily upon us extras. Slowly, one by one, we troop up to sign the Convention. I am the last to set my seal in molten wax pressed across a ribbon.

By then, Henry and Cécile, a beautiful young woman of the people, are declaring passionate love in dark icy drizzle outside on the terrace. An awning protects their ardour from the wet, as the crew scramble around flimsy scaffolding, endlessly adjusting lighting and camera angles. After the ninth try, the director declares himself satisfied with their murmurs and caresses. The two actors throw themselves ecstatically into each other’s arms for their first truly red-blooded embrace. They’ve done it!  Another magical moment.

At this point, authenticity finds its limits. In fact, Henry Dunant never married and, ahem, did not have much of a taste for the ladies, if you see what I mean, but not in our version.

After finishing as an extra, I wandered through the Old Town next morning to see how they were getting on. The door to the conference chamber was locked. Not a costumed figure in sight. No sign of the film crew or their equipment. The caravan had moved on. 

But I signed the Convention. I did.


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