The documentary After Winter, Spring has been making the festival rounds in recent months and stealing the hearts of armchair environmentalists and Francophiles alike. The film follows small-scale farmers in southwestern France over three years as they face twenty-first century challenges.
A screening of this agrarian narrative is coming to the city on Monday, October 12 at 7:30 p.m. hosted by the French Institute Alliance Française in the Florence Gould Hall in partnership with Slow Food NYC, the National Young Farmers Coalition, and New York Women in Film & Television. The evening will include a panel discussion with chef Daniel Boulud, filmmaker Judith Lit and Hudson Valley farmer Sarah Chase. Following the screening and discussion, there will be a mini farmers market, curated by Farm to People, with local farmers selling their best products of the season. Tickets, which are $14 for the general public and $8 for French Institute members, are still available.
We caught up with Manhattan-based creator Judith Lit to talk about the film.
Edible Manhattan: What was your original inspiration for this documentary?
Judith Lit: Gathering and weighing eggs, learning to milk by hand — these are among my first memories of a childhood spent on my family’s farm in Pennsylvania. As the years passed, our farm changed. My father was forced to take an office job in Phiadelphia and fields were sold off for housing developments. Today, the countryside I knew as a young girl has all but disappeared. However eighteen years ago, moving to the Périgord in Southwestern France, I rediscovered a life tied to the land. In this region continuously cultivated for 5,000 years, neighbors helped me remember the roots of our shared farming culture.
Over time farmers ave opened their homes to me. We share meals, work together, witness births and deaths. When my closest neighbor, a farmer who lived in the old ways, died, neighbors said that his death marked the end of an era, and I was suddenly struck with the fragility of a rural world. My desire to tell the story of this farming community caught between tradition and an uncertain future took hold.
EM: What sorts of parallels between these farms and comparable ones in the U.S. did you notice throughout the filmmaking process?
JL: Small farms in the Périgord are actually quite similar to the farm I grew up on. They are family-run farms, primarily dependent on polyculture and a variety of livestock. Like American farmers, French farmers struggle with low prices for their crops. Furthermore, in France often set by the government, sometimes even retroactively! They have mounting expenses that mean that they can no longer live only from what they produce and so they are increasingly growing cash crops. Their children no longer want to continue to farm, attracted by easier work that’s better paid and that offers them vacations. In addition, French farmers have to deal with shifting EU regulations and paperwork that’s often overwhelming.
But what began to interest me more and more, as filming progressed, were some of the deeper similarities that I felt with my French farm neighbors. Our ease of communication that came of a shared background made me wonder about the values and the worldview that come from a farming life. Listening to the farmers I recognized their sense of realism, saw an acute attention to the world around them and a humility come of knowing that nature is ultimately in charge. These and other attitudes are expressed in the film, and it occurs to me that, along with the very real pleasure of farming, these hold true for those who work the land no matter where they are.
EM: When you initially started the filming process, did you know you would spend four years following your subjects?
JL: This question makes me laugh! Well, NO! I didn’t expect the filming to go on for four years. In fact, including post production, the film was six years in the making! The problem that American independent filmmakers are faced with is that we need to be raising money as we go. In order to apply for grants, we’re asked to show a clip of the film and therefore are shuttling back and forth between production and fundraising. This film was complicated to fund as it bridges two cultures and two very different funding models.
I sometimes felt frustrated at needing to interrupt filming to turn attention to fundraising. However, in retrospect, I think that filming over a long period served the film well in several ways. For example, the changes that the film is addressing are not sudden, dramatic shifts. The farming life is changing in major ways, but this happens day-by-day. Filming families over four years allows us to see these transformations more clearly in the final product.
Another advantage of this length of production is that our relationship with the farmers deepened. They began to call to suggest that we film a certain harvest or event, and they reflected on what they wanted to express. They became partners in this project.
And lastly, interest in issues of food and agriculture have blossomed in extraordinary ways since I began the film. When I first started, some funders told me that “farming isn’t sexy.” They’d be hard-pressed to say that now!
Featured photo credit: Facebook/After Winter, Spring Documentary Film