What follows is an unashamed plug…
In 2005, my friend the French documentary filmmaker Sylvestre Chatenay suggested I visit his neighbour’s farm to buy some goat’s cheese and to meet Yvette. Dropping in on Yvette was like entering a time capsule from another era. In her 70s, she had lived all her life with her elderly mother and two brothers on this smallholding with crops, livestock and dairy farming – the father was long dead. None of the children had married, in accordance with their mother’s orders. Yvette had wanted to in her youth. She obeyed her mother’s unreasonable demand but, as a sign of protest, announced that she would not cut her hair for the rest of her life, a promise she has kept to this day. Their way of life seemed and seems the last glimmer of a dying flame, an eccentric vision of rural France that is on the cusp of extinction.
With the family’s somewhat puzzled permission, Sylvestre spent a year filming life on the farm and capturing this waning world through four seasons and the death of the mother. It is an intensely parochial, self-contained world, but not without surprises. Chatting to one of Yvette’s brothers, I discovered that he had been to England to study pig farming techniques on a local cooperative grant. It turned out that, on similar grants, he had travelled the world and was a mine of agricultural information.
Today, when the garage collection truck arrives on their rural road, it roars past the farm because there is nothing to collect. Everything is used, or recycled. The end-of-the-line family is almost entirely self-sufficient. And above all, this is a world that centres on the lively, alert, informed and ever-active personality of Yvette. On the first day of snow, she emerges into her courtyard exclaiming « Ah, the snow has fallen! And it’s white this year! »
Sylvestre’s film, Yvette, bon dieu !, is a little masterpiece of documentary making that combines sensitivity, humour, hardship, visual beauty, pathos and poetry. It has appeared in several French film festivals to great acclaim, and deserves an airing elsewhere (any film festival organisers listening?). The trailer can be viewed here.
Following a TV film about the socialist minister Marisol Touraine, Sylvestre’s most recent documentary is Un costume de maire pour Caroline. Remaining in the quiet pastoral world of southern Touraine, he documents the day-to-day life of Caroline, a woman mayor in the village of Sennevières who, in common with Yvette, is larger than life. Whether preparing the village play or discussing how and when potholes in a country road are going to be plugged, once again we are drawn into an affectionately detailed world which, without the slightest sentimentalism, captures another facet of what may one day be the stuff of memories. The trailer for this film can be seen here.
Sylvestre Chatenay has a special gift for finding the richest subject matter right under his nose.