Monday, November 1, 2010

The Man Who Planted Trees

A beautiful film by artist Frédéric Back.

The following is commentary on the film by Beck and his biographer.

The Oscar® he won for Crac! allowed Frédéric Back to fulfil his dream of bringing Jean Giono's wonderful story The Man Who Planted Trees to the screen. In more distilled form, its environmental message and philosophy of life reflect the concerns already addressed by Back in his previous films. The seeds that the shepherd plants are the symbol of all our actions, good and bad, which have far-reaching consequences we can scarcely imagine. It is up to us to think and act in accordance with our hopes for the future, and, if possible, to leave behind us a world more beautiful and promising than the one we inherited.

Ghylaine and I went to Paris in October 1982 to meet Aline Giono at Gallimard, and Sylvie Giono-Durbet in Manosque. Nothing was decided at those first meetings. We could make the film, but with authorization for three screenings only. Fortunately, Provence was beautiful, despite the cold and rain. On the Montagne de Lure, we saw mules carrying tree trunks on their backs. At Giono’s farm, a solitary old shepherd was playing the accordion in his house in the rain. Down a winding road, we came upon magnificent rams with twisted horns leading a herd of sheep. The mountain peaks were spectacular and the sheepfolds, like works of art. But it was unmistakable—the barren region described in Giono’s story was now covered with trees and forests. All the shepherds Giono had condensed into the character of Elzéard Bouffier had accomplished something on the scale of his story! There were few shepherds left and it was only when we went back through the causses—the high limestone plateaus around Larzac—that we found the images of Provence we recognized from Giono.

Captivated by Giono’s text, I only rarely managed to sketch out light, evocative images. A too realistic precision kept cropping up, and those drawings all ended up in the wastebasket. I wanted simply to accompany the text, with the images as a way to bring it to the screen and no more, since generosity that seeks no reward contains the secret to finding happiness. With Ghylaine’s encouragement and that of Hubert and Lina, the frames gradually accumulated. Claude Lapierre and Jean Robillard were tireless on the camera and did a superb job. We invited all our friends to screenings to give us their critiques—“before it was too late.” I sent notes to Normand Roger on sounds, birdsong and traditional music so he could design the sound using information that matched the reality of Provence.

Fortunately, that same year, Hubert and I did have another opportunity to go back to L.A. The Disney studios invited us to present The Man Who Planted Trees and meet some of their best-known in-house artists. We visited their studios with Charles Solomon, a writer and animated film critic, and other animator friends. An Oscar always gives a film tremendous leverage in terms of distribution. The Man Who Planted Trees had already won over many hearts to the cause of acting generously to save the forests, but now it had an extra boost! My films have become “classics,” studied in universities and animation schools for their technical, artistic and cultural content. That goes beyond anything I might have hoped for and still surprises me. It shows that politically engaged art is both possible and worthwhile. Long before me, Breugel, Goya and many other talented artists showed this to be true with all the power of their art.

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