It’s rare to find low budget, guerilla-style documentaries at major film festivals in these days of highly polished productions, but “To the Four Winds” hits the right political buttons, especially for France. Using an old DV Cam, Michel Toesca filmed tenacious farmer Cédric Herrou over the course of three years as he welcomed refugees into his corner of the mountainous Roya valley, nestled along the French-Italian border. Clear in its focus on those assisting refugees rather than on the refugees themselves, the documentary charts the resilience of Herrou and a few other unintentional activists as they fight changeable law enforcement in the Alpes-Maritimes department of France’s southeast. “Four Winds” is a natural for human rights festivals and strands.
Most years, single farmer Herrou would be cultivating his olive trees, but beginning around 2015, he realized that scores of refugees, primarily from Africa, were crossing the wild terrain of the Roya valley to get from Italy to France. Initially his efforts at accommodating them for short periods of time were achieved under the radar, but as the numbers increased and the French government flip-flopped on how they were dealing with the crisis, Herrou became more outspoken, not just about the temporary housing he was providing but the assistance he gave in smuggling people across the border.
Obviously the authorities weren’t happy, but there was little agreement on how to enforce ambiguous laws, on top of which the Alpes-Maritimes was treated as a special case. Herrou and his allies targeted one provision in particular, which states that France has an obligation to let unaccompanied minors stay in the country; when the police flouted that stipulation, the activists were able to go to court with legal justification for (some of) their actions.
Toesca began shooting in 2015, gauging reactions to the refugee crisis along the border, but the bulk of “Four Winds,” edited down from more than 200 hours of footage, covers 2017, as legal cases mount. It’s encouraging to see so many locals expressing support for Herrou’s actions, though it’s possible that the director simply chose not to give screen-time to anti-immigrant voices apart from a few at the very start. He doesn’t hide his own involvement, admitting that working on this film makes him feel alive; that’s a legitimate statement, though there’s something a bit off about watching him and Herrou celebrating the happy end of a tense stand-off between police and a refugee family by digging into a large platter of fritto misto. They certainly deserve to rejoice in victory, but one wonders what that refugee family would be eating on the same night.
A couple of refugees are heard, such as a Nigerian man who escaped from Boko Haram, and a pregnant Libyan woman, but a few more such voices would have corrected the nagging impression that Toesca made the film as a big pat on the back to himself and his friend. Without question, Herrou and heroic people like nurse Isabelle Leonardi deserve recognition in their fight to give assistance and dignity to refugees who are systematically abandoned by governments worldwide, yet by offering so little space to the men and women they’re helping, “Four Winds” reduces these stories to a nameless mass, robbing them of their individuality. Video quality fluctuates, as Toesca occasionally inserts footage shot on other devices.