(2012) Documentary (Terra Productions) Alain, Guy, Nanou, Alfred, Olivier, the Bresquand women. Directed by Judith Lit
The Périgord region of Southwestern France has been a rural farming community going back centuries. When one thinks of the delicious cuisine of Paris, much of what makes it wonderful are the farm fresh vegetables, fruits, meats and cheeses that come from Périgord. There is a timeless quality to the community where farming traditions have carried on with little change for uncounted generations.
Time marches on even in France however and like the United States, a shift has been made to large-scale corporate farms over small family-owned holdings. It has become more and more difficult for small farms to survive between government regulations – one farmer complains he spends more time filling out paperwork than he does tending to his crops – and set prices which seem to go lower and lower while the costs for producing the same amount of crop or product get higher and higher.
In this documentary filmed by an American expatriate who moved to the area but herself grew up in Pennsylvania farm country, we examine the French family farm, once a very large part of the French economic engine but now on the endangered species list in a sense. We meet Alain, a tobacco farmer who has eschewed modern methods and returned back to the traditional methods. Middle aged, he realizes his sons aren’t keen on the labor-intensive life he has chosen and likely will not carry on the family tradition and the bittersweet understanding that he may well be the last of his family to work the land is etched on his craggy face but more importantly in his expressive eyes.
Olivier is a dairy farmer who has gone in the opposite direction as Alain; he has modernized in order to maximize production and make it more efficient. He makes as much with more than 100 cows than his grandfather did 60 years ago with three or four cows. He haunts trade shows where modern farming equipment – tractors, threshers and the like – are on display, many of which are too large scale for his operation and which he couldn’t possibly afford anyway. He carries a wistful expression.
Nanou is a rarity in the region – a daughter who inherited the farm from her father. She is largely retired now and her own daughter runs much of the day to day operation. She sees herself as a peasant – and is proud of the appellation. She feels her lineage stretching into the past, all stewards of the Earth, all feeders of France.
Bresquand Farm has for generations turned out some of the best foie gras in France. Unlike factory farms where the geese are stuck in windowless boxes and force fed non-stop, they allow the geese to wander freely on their beautiful rustic property. Yes, they do force feed the geese but it is something they do with reverence and love for the animals, which seems a bit contradictory when you are stuffing unwanted food down their gullet. Still, they try to be as humane as possible.
Albert is an old man who has lived on his farm his entire life. A neighbor of Lit’s, he has a vineyard which he tends as best he can. His entire family come to help him harvest, or at least a good portion of them. At one time, there were many on the farm helping out and harvest time was a big party. Now, as his life is coming to an end (he passed away shortly after filming ended), there is a bittersweet quality to the event.
The family farm is under siege all over the world. In France, many of those who own small farms feel the pinch from rising costs and shrinking markets. There is less acreage available to feed more people, and farmers are finding it more profitable to sell their land to developers who then build a housing development on it. While they aren’t quite the cookie cutter developments you see here in the States, they are going in that direction.
Lit certainly has a feel for her subjects as well as great empathy for them, given her own history. She prefers not to do a lot of editorializing, allowing her pictures to speak for her and they are some fine pictures. However, the facts speak for themselves that as corporations get more involved with the growing and raising of food, the quality of our food has suffered. While the French farmers talk about the hand-raising of food and how much better the quality of their crops are, the dots are there to be connected.
While the movie kind of drones on a bit in the middle third, it does pick up near the end as we get a few rays of sunshine – the growing movement towards organic food is bringing back the small farm, certainly in the United States and hopefully Europe soon following suit. What I got out of this pleasant documentary is that when we are looking to eat food that is better for us, we have to be aware of where that food comes from. While nobody is entitled to a lifestyle – as I said earlier, time marches on – that doesn’t mean that the idyllic life of the French family farmer can’t continue, particularly as there is an advantage to society at large for retaining them.
The movie is continuing to play the Festival circuit as well as single screenings upcoming in Canada. However, the movie is also available on DVD for those who can’t find it in their local art houses or film festivals. You can order it on their website, which you can get to by clicking on the picture at the top of the review.
REASONS TO GO: Bucolic setting; idyllic cinematography. Makes you think about where our food comes from and nicely illustrates the challenges faced by family farms.
REASONS TO STAY: Seems to lose focus in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: Scenes of animals being killed for food and the force-feeding of geese may upset the sensitive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed over a three year period.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cousin Jules
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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