The 55th London Film Festival,
dispatch #8: Women With Cows
by Jerry Whyte

A summer evening screening of Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich in the picturesque village of St Jean du Gard in the mountainous Pays Cévenol region of Southern France. The one-off event, in a makeshift cinema in the Town Hall, came courtesy of Cinéco ("Cinéma itinérant en milieu rural") – a cinephile collective dedicated to taking films to the hamlets and hutments of the Cevennes region. The film attracts an enthusiastic audience comprised mainly of farmers and their families. The dusty air is tinged with the competing scents of Parisian perfume and cow dung. Blankets pinned to windows keep out the dusky light, a persistent shaft of which picks out dust motes in the warm air. At one point in the film, Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) is given a car by her boss (Albert Finney). As the gift is handed over, a sturdy matriarch in the audience rasps out, in a guttural rural vernacular: "That won't round the cows up for you Princess" – to gales of appreciative laughter that seem to ripple the screen.

A memory of the rumbustious reactions that greeted early cinema echoed in that moment in St Jean, a moment that also chimed with the defiantly rebellious history of the Cevennes; where the Protestant Camisards fought Catholic oppression three centuries ago and where, more recently, the resistance to Nazi occupation was particularly fierce. The woman in the audience seemed to embody the defiance of that community. We are all, of course, especially susceptible to sentimentality and romanticism while on holiday, but the more I've thought about that night ten years ago, the deeper its resonances rang. I've often recalled that outspoken Frenchwoman since. I thought of her again while watching Peter Gerdehag's exquisitely beautiful film, Women With Cows. Gerdehag's documentary tells the story of a redoubtable woman and her struggle against the odds on a small, isolated farm in Sweden.

The women of the film's title are Britt Georgsson, and her younger sister, Inger. The sisters' mother died when they were children, so, as they grew up on Sibbalt, the family farm, they had to help their father tend his herd of cattle. Inger couldn't stand the life and left as soon as she could. She married and moved down the road, but she still helps Britt milk the cows when called upon. Friends, family and neighbours, too, pitch in to help when crises loom. And Britt needs all the help she can get. After father followed mother and Inger departed, Britt remained loyal to the farm. She has steadfastly, stubbornly dedicated her life to the cows and her backbreaking labour of love has taken its toll. Infirm and fragile, bent nearly double, fast approaching her 80s, she struggles on, determined that the increasingly dilapidated farm should survive. The farm and its animals are Britt's raison d'être. She clearly loves the cows, all of which have names, and they seem to love her. Perhaps they have a sense of her sacrifice. In one moving scene, Britt's hand falls limp beside a pail as she drifts into sleep while milking one of her charges. The cow senses this and gently nudges her hand with its hind leg. In that one movement a relationship is revealed.

The bond between the sisters is as remarkable as that between Britt and her bovine companions. These gutsy, indefatigable women don't see eye to eye and we watch their battle of wills over the future of the farm with amusement as well as sympathy. Their differences of opinion, though, are as nothing next to their sisterly solidarity and mutual understanding. When Britt is hospitalized after being attacked by one of the cows, Inger is slow to respond, because busy watching one of her favourite TV programmes, "Farmer Seeking Wife," but Britt knows her well enough to understand. The sisters are bound to one another, not only by the ties of blood but also by a powerful sense of purpose and place. And what a place it is.

Peter Gerdehag has spent over three decades documenting the Småland countryside, both as photographer and filmmaker, and his eye has clearly become keener by the year. He lovingly portrays the elemental beauty of the local landscape in all its splendour, in all seasons, while presenting an impressively raw account of the difficulties faced by the sisters. His unflinching, unsparing approach is Bressonian in its elegance, honesty, austerity and, yes, its ‘rigour'. The film is full of joy, such as the scene in which Inger dances a merry jig in the farmyard, and the landscape is picture-postcard pretty in sunshine and snow, but Gerdehag doesn't hide the hard realities of Britt's life; neither the filth, flies, mud and manure, nor the increasing financial and physical problems she faces.

Per-Hendrik Mäenpää's haunting soundtrack is delightful, while the family photographs and Super 8 home movie footage adds to the overall sense that we are watching two lives, as well as a way of life on the way out. As Britt's health deteriorates it certainly looks increasingly likely that we are seeing the last of the farm. The sadness of that possibility only increases the bittersweet documentary importance of the film and deepens our gratitude to Gerdehag for allowing us to spend time with two exceptional women. This tale of determination and dedication is one of the most memorable films among many wonderful films at this year's London Film Festival. It is similar in style, subject matter and tone to one of the hits at last year's LFF, Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quattro Volte. Just as audiences fell in love with Frammartino's film last year, so they have with Women With Cows this year.

One of the joys of attending the London Film Festival over years is the way in which films we remember from earlier festivals inform our reception of recent releases. That meeting of the old and the new, that striking of sparks, is typical of the way film can illuminate important issues and help us build up a picture of our times. In watching films from around the world we begin to make connections between communities hundreds or thousands of miles apart, and to discern patterns in contemporary life. Blessed as we are by a Festival that offers the best of world cinema, we absorb and observe how global forces affect disparate communities by watching films at a succession of festivals. I'd like to flesh that idea out with reference to a few films that premiered at earlier London Film Festivals, and by returning, to begin with, to my opening anecdote.

You can probably appreciate why my pulse quickened when, returning to St Jean du Gard in 2007, I discovered that, fortuitously, Cinéco, the collective indirectly responsible for that Frenchwoman's reaction to Erin Brockovich, were again visiting the village as I was. On this second occasion, they presented a belated screening of Nikolaus Geyrhalter's 2005 documentary Our Daily Bread, which many of us first saw at the 50th London Film Festival. Geyrhalter's admirably harrowing film delineates the brute realities of industrial food production (intensive feeding and breeding, profiteering, genetic modification, clinical slaughter, et cetera.). It does so with the same slow solemnity and detached surgical precision deployed by the abattoir workers featured in the film as they castrate wide-awake piglets. What, I wondered, would the St Jean audience make of this film, a kind of Koyaanisqatsi for farmers? Would that French Mother Courage of my previous visit be present to pass sarcastic comment again? As I walked across the fields towards the village in the dying light and cooling heat of another summer's day, my excitement was intense. Sadly, the audience on that occasion was tiny, the local peasantry entirely absent.

I was as puzzled by that as I was disappointed, until that is, back in London, I watched Raymond Depardon's Modern Life at the 52nd London Film Festival. Depardon's documentary was filmed not far from St Jean du Gard and depicts the erasure of traditional forms of farming in the Cevennes. It lead me to the drear conclusion that the audience for my second Cinéco screening was small because the farmers I'd watched Erin Brockovich with had, quite probably, been driven from the countryside in the interim – by the very processes and forces exposed by Geyrhalter in Our Daily Bread. Having seen Geyhalter's film and Modern Life at respective Festivals, I was better able to appreciate subsequent films like Women With Cows and, to give one last example, Gideon Koppel's Sleep Furiously. Koppel's ethereal film was, like Le Quattro Volte, a hit with critics and audiences alike at last year's festival. It documents the decline of the Welsh farming community in which he grew up (his parents having settled there after their flight from Nazi persecution). Co-produced by Mike Figgis, with the help of renowned German writer Peter Handke, Sleep Furiously takes its title from Noam Chomsky's famous example of a meaningless phrase, "Colourless green ideas sleep furiously."

Far be it from me to gainsay a thinker as important as Chomsky, but, after watching the films I've mentioned, I'm in a strong position to suggest that ‘colourful green ideas sleep furiously' in the mind, having settled there after different London Film Festivals. It is as if films exchange ideas among themselves at the LFF, then pass the results of that exchange on to us all. I certainly wouldn't have been so attuned to the similar ways in which globalization affects farming communities in Germany, France, Sweden and Wales if I hadn't seen those various films at the London Film Festival. The Festival, in gathering together films as beautiful as Women With Cows, distributes pleasure while simultaneously disseminating ideas, furiously.


 

 

The 55th London Film Festival
Dispatch #8
Women With Cows

Sweden 2011
director
Peter Gerdehag
screenplay
Peter Gerdehag
Tell Aulin
Malcolm Dixelius
UK premiere
17 October 2011 (London Film Festival)
article posted
26 October 2011

Visit the London Film Festival home page here.