Doing the Work
Ela Bittencourt on The Grocer’s Son, the Mayor, the Village, and the World…

Claire Simon's The Grocer’s Son, the Mayor, the Village, and the World… is the opening night selection of First Look 20/21 at Museum of the Moving Image, on July 22 2021.

Meaningfully rendering and connecting to the textures of everyday life is one of the central tenets of documentary filmmaking—one that the French director Claire Simon celebrates, but also gently prods, in her latest, The Grocer’s Son, the Mayor, the Village, and the World… The film—which Simon originally made as a ten-part series, and only later edited as a feature—follows the creation of the Documentary Village, a festival and a post-production hub in the village of Lussas, in southern France. The story isn’t, however, solely about the project’s challenges, in an industry in which documentary programming and funding has shifted from television to streaming platforms. Simon is also interested in film people as art workers, and juxtaposes their attitudes and world views with those of the region’s farmers.

“The social situation of filmmakers or film students is rarely shown. I made The Grocer’s Son… as if I were filming bakers or engineers,” Simon told me on a conference call in anticipation of its New York premiere at the First Look 20/21 festival. It’s not the first time that Simon has focused on the film milieu. Her earlier feature, The Competition, looked at the nerve-wracking selection process at the renowned Parisian film school La Femis.

Simon’s new film opens as the documentary director and Lussas lifetime resident Jean-Marie Barbe—the titular grocer’s son, who previously made a film about his family’s local store—prepares with his team to meet investors. The Village’s main components are a new center and Tënk, a streaming platform for documentaries. Both, particularly the new construction, need the backing of the Culture Ministry and local political figures—hence the major role played in the film by the mayor, an agricultural worker and the project’s key supporter. Shifting between various perspectives, Simon shows how the Village dreams its cinema—and the world—with one man’s tireless push. Or as Simon tells me, “Jean-Marie [Barbe] thinks that the world can come to Lussas and Lussas can go to the world. He has this ideal of bringing back the culture to people who don’t think they have it.” On his idea to stimulate the region’s job creation, she adds, “He’s a rural Citizen Kane, but much better economically.”

Simon follows the project’s gestation from inception to inauguration, from grass roots to national level, attentive to the frictions that accompany each stage. For example, when the team is off to Paris to raise funds, Simon adds an upbeat musical motif, which heightens the contrast between the rural and urban locale, but also ironically highlights the “elevator-pitch” pressures; the mood darkens in subsequent scenes, when it becomes painfully clear how difficult it is for documentary cinema to compete with more commercial ventures. Furthermore there's a visual syncopation, with Simon returning to certain objects and scenes—e.g., the repeated shots of the machines working on the construction site. The internal tempo springs up from the constant modulation of opposite forces: sleepy and lively, quiet and loud, slow and quick.

The film’s pulsating aural and visual swings are crucial, since, as Simon told me, her cinema is always about time: “A documentary filmmaker like Frederick Wiseman isn’t filming time, he’s filming a moment, but when you film for a long time like I do, it’s a very strong experience of things disappearing all the time, always changing, and never coming back.” Simon found that this sense was even stronger in the ten-part series. It was Simon’s first time working on a series, an experience she loved because “a village is itself a series, with characters constantly coming and going. It then took me a huge amount of time to arrive at the film.”

Simon also does her own camerawork, which helps her establish an immediate intimacy with the residents and place (Simon grew up in a village herself, though further south). Time and again, she will convey a sense of wistful magic, with nocturnal images of cobblestone streets. Other shots, such as an elderly woman waiting patiently outside the boulangerie store before its gates go up, establish a place where time appears to move at a more languid pace. But this calm also contrasts with the starker reality of the villagers’ daily toil. Most of it happens in the vineyards and farms not far from the village’s commercial center.

“It was my great discovery and delight that in Lussas you could see how agriculture and documentary cinema have a lot in common,” Simon told me. “A village can be closed off to strangers, but the fact that I was filming economic problems was a big opener. You ask, ‘How is the economy doing? How do you make your money?’” and suddenly everyone’s concerned.”

Simon’s rapport with the farmers is remarkable, as is their openness. When, after visiting the project team, Simon films the vineyards, a wine grower complains that farm work is a utopian endeavor, “a wild bet no one in their right mind would make.” The confession pointedly dovetails with the film center’s travails. Cinema too is a maddening gamble, a point that becomes increasingly clear as some of the Village’s funders pull out, young team members burn out from poorly paid overtime, and the whole project seems to be hanging by a thread.

Simon’s insight goes even deeper, since this seemingly convincing parallel between two types of utopian heroism ultimately proves frail, even illusive. Beneath it lie the strict social divides that separate manual and intellectual labor. As the festival opens, few locals attend; equally few sign up for the subscription service. Again, the same wine grower sums up the divide: “The Left Bank is dreamers, the right bank is farmers and locals.” The sharp delineation seems harsh, and yet it shows that while both farmers and filmmakers are subject to external factors beyond their control, this awareness of vulnerability can’t entirely override the social gap. In Simon’s view, the divide is at least partly due to the farmers’ sense that the film world takes itself too seriously—which is why Simon made sure to give the locals’ views equal weight.

In the end, Simon’s empathic, inquisitive approach delivers just the right anecdotal and visual detail to make us feel how these divides operate in the real world. Between the bodies bent over in labor in the fields and the machines that do the work of the “film bodies” seated at their desks, there’s an unequivocal hierarchy—with leisure as a concept that reflects and reinforces it—which rarely gets broken down, except, perhaps, when the community comes together to celebrate the Center’s inauguration. Thus it’s also possible to read the film as Simon’s plea for film festivals—where her film about festivals and cinema’s ecosystem will ultimately also screen—to be more self-reflective about their function and place within local communities. She seems particularly concerned about how this relates to the national workforce at a time when streaming and co-production initiatives are making cinema’s landscape ever more global.