Playing in the IDFA 2020 – International Competition, “The Grocer’s Son, the Mayor, the Village and the World” is a feature-length version of Claire Simon’s documentary series “The Village,” which broadcast in 20 parts on Ciné Plus and 10 parts on TV5 Monde last year. It’s a story that taps into the great cinematic revolution of our times, the creation of a streaming platform.
However, this being France, where it often seems that the Cannes Film Festival looks upon Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Max et al., as the harbingers of doom for the theatrical experience, it’s no ordinary SVOD set-up. The platform Tënk, the brainchild of Jean-Marie Barbe, founder of the Lussas-based film festival Les Etats Généraux du Film documentaire, will only screen documentary films.
It’s part of a project that will also see the construction of a new building in the village that will house all activities to do with the creation, production, post-production and exhibition of documentaries. Begun in 2015, the mostly state-funded project was budgeted at 3 million euros ($3.56 million) with the idea that it would become self-sustaining when enough subscribers sign up. They also plan to fund 150 films a year. In true dot-com fashion, the question becomes: will the team manage to break even before they run out of cash? Simon followed the project for four years to find out.
“I wanted to follow the battle from getting the money to the building of the building,” says Simon on video link from her recently flooded out home in Paris. “It was really about the village, this meeting between the farmers and the documentarians. I was interested in the mirror between the farmers and documentarians who are both in a battle where modern methods are usurping the traditional way of doing things. For farmers, they have to decide between using machines and fertilizers to increase yield or those who make organic wine, who are like the documentary filmmakers.”
Her decision to re-edit the work as a feature film came about, she says, and only half-jokingly, because “I think I was the only person who thought it was interesting to make it as a documentary series.” She explains, “There are very few series on television that are documentaries with the requisite suspense.”
The protagonists were also surprised when they saw what Simon had made. “I think they thought that I was there to promote them and documentary filmmaking,” says Simon. She adds that anyone who has seen her Venice best documentary winning film “The Competition,” which looked at the workings of famed French film school La Femis, would know that she is an observer of reality rather than a marketeer. “I treated these cineastes as I would bakers or engineers.”
She wanted to make the film because she thought the idea of a streaming platform devoted to documentary films was great. Simon currently programs retrospectives on master documentarians for Tënk.
She is also a big fan of the eponymous grocer’s son, Barbe, who dreamt up the idea of turning this beautiful French village where his parents worked into a haven for documentary filmmaking. Having created a successful film festival, he now wants to make a year-round Mecca supporting documentarians.
Like direct cinema legend Fred Wiseman, throughout her illustrious career, which spans both fiction and non-fiction, and began with her making short documentaries in the 1990s, Simon has always been keen to look at the bureaucracy and administration that make enterprises run. “I’m interested in the money, the economy,” she says. “The fact that this guy has to make a call to an investor and say we need an extra 60,000 euros. You never see that in fiction. Also, all the battles that have to be fought, like with the mayor, Jean-Paul Roux, and everyone.”
Simon has her tactics for getting people to open up to talk. “When you arrive in a village, you’re an intruder and no one likes you, but if you say to someone: how are you doing with your business? They are suddenly more interested in answering. And that’s my topic, how do you manage with all the economic problems.” If she wanted an economic crisis, she certainly found one in Lussas, where the effort needed to make the platform work takes its toll on Barbe’s health and creates plenty of divisions.
She has spent lockdown cutting the 520 minutes of the television series down to under two hours for this feature-length version. “It was enormous work for me. I did it mainly myself, there were so many ways of doing it, and it took 18 weeks to complete.” As she was doing that, Simon was also wrapping up work on her next documentary, “It’s about a garage of mechanics in my village in the South of France,” and she’s also working on her fourth narrative feature.