“Our work here is to change people’s vision,” says Jean-Marie Barbe, with a particularly French balance of passion and nonchalance, as if the mission he’s describing is both the simplest and most important thing in the world. A leading light of the documentary association Ardèche Images, based in his rural home village of Lussas in southeast France, he knows that’s harder than he makes it sound: He also knows the survival of his beloved artform depends on not talking up difficulties before others do. Leading docmaker Claire Simon has his back in “The Grocer’s Son, The Mayor, The Village and The World…,” an affectionate but clear-eyed study of Lussas’ unlikely status as a world capital of nonfiction filmmaking, and the exhaustive investment of time, money and hard-headed willpower that goes into sustaining that reputation.
Simon’s film essentially consolidates the more scattered strands of her two-season documentary TV series “Le Village,” which offered a quietly probing overview of Lussas’ split identity as both a highbrow cultural hub and a hard-working agricultural community. Though it’s obviously a more contained work, it retains — as indicated by its mouthful of a title — the gently rambling, discursive approach of the series, along with a patient interest in civic process that evokes Frederick Wiseman at his most mellow. If the thrust of its narrative — the gradual, obstacle-laden building of a physical institute as well as a streaming platform for Ardèche Images — is likely too niche for widespread arthouse exposure, it will be warmly embraced at further stops on the docfest circuit, with specialist VOD engagements a certainty.
It’s surely guaranteed a plum spot on Tënk, the ambitious, all-documentary streaming service that Barbe and his team are shown working hard to foster in the face of tight finances and slow public support. For 40 years, Lussas has hosted an annual film festival that attracts thousands of enthusiasts from across the country. The aim of Tënk is to extend that spirit to a global audience, but even with modest subscription rates and a lovingly curated selection of titles, it’s an uphill battle to keep it going. Scraping together funding for the organization’s hi-tech new headquarters — also intended to house educational and post-production facilities for aspiring and working docmakers — is an additional headache, cuing staff dissent about their priorities and targets. No decision here is made without extended, impassioned staff debates: In one amusing scene, even the documentary output of Martin Scorsese inspires stubborn side-taking.
Unlike most of his colleagues, Barbe is a native son — the local grocer’s lad of the title — still living in the village house where he was born 60 years earlier. That makes him particularly keen to engage the local population in his cultural endeavors, but their interest is hard to come by. Despite free tickets for residents, the festival is almost entirely attended by outsiders, while attempts to promote Tënk close to home are shrugged off. After all, there are vineyards and fruit orchards to be tended, often in challenging circumstances, as pests and weather diminish harvests, and evolving technology leaves many behind: “In the economic world we’re in, this model doesn’t fit,” one farmer sighs, while picking patchy clusters of grapes.
Simon spends nearly as much time in the fields as she does in the Ardèche Images offices, as what initially seem to be two rather disparate points of focus gradually and gracefully align. The farming and documentary communities of Lussas may have little outwardly in common, but they’re both fighting for a place in a heavily commercialized ecosystem: Hand-picked fruit and handmade cinema are equally up against it in this environment, a parallel that this wry, humane film manages to make tacitly and without undue self-importance.