Two documentaries cling to a steadily diminishing way of life. By STEVE GARDEN.

THE FILMS of Raymond Depardon are rarely seen in this neck of the woods. Apart from the superb Tenth District Court (NZIFF 2005) and the short film that opens To Each His Own Cinema (one of the better efforts in that patchy concoction), Depardon’s films have not made it this far south (to my knowledge). Which is a pity, because Depardon is obviously a filmmaker worthy of attention, and his new film, Modern Life (Profils Paysans: la vie moderne), could emerge as one of the understated masterworks of this year’s festival.

From what I can gather, Modern Life is closer to Depardon’s usual preoccupations than District Court or the To Each His Own short. All of his films appear to share a compassionate concern for grassroots humankind, and here Depardon returns to the Haute-Garonne region of southwest France to catch up with the people at the centre of the film series to which Modern Life belongs: Profils Paysans: l’approche (2001) and Profils Paysans: le quotidian (2005). While it would have been interesting to see the previous films, Modern Life is a complete and wholly satisfying entity in itself.

Depardon grew up in a rural farming community, so he knows about farmers and their connection with the land, the seasons, and animals – and it shows. His empathy and sincerity is unmistakeable. His artistic interested in rural life took hold while working as a photojournalist on a visual essay about the decline of small-scale farming and the ascendency of industrial agriculture. But as he saw it, there was no such decline. Over a ten-year period, he has developed a strong and trusting relationship with the people of Haute-Garonne, and believes that his Profils Paysans cycle of films does not subscribe to the miserabilist view of rural life that abounds in the French media. I have to say, it’s difficult to wholeheartedly agree. The world depicted in Modern Life is far from rosy.

The film is essentially a series of portraits shot in locked-off single takes (with the occasional editorial cut), each separated by travelling shots filmed front-on from the roof of a car. These shots are stunningly hypnotic, and act as a formally compelling counterpoint to the static interior interviews. Shot in widescreen, Depardon’s long-take compositions are impressive, but they also serve an important formal function. Apart from giving the participants all the room (and dignity) necessary to speak in their own time and in their own way, it gives the viewer what Depardon calls “reading time”, the liberty to explore the frame and discover things for themselves, and rightly so. Modern Life requires a fully engaged and perceptive attitude from the viewer, but it is no stark or demanding piece of minimalism.

The film pivots around the aging Privat brothers, Marcel (88) and Raymond (83). Their nephew, Alain Rouvière, has recently married Cécile, and while this has brought joy to his life, the uncles aren’t so chuffed. But Alain’s marriage and the subsequent friction is only one of a number of changes these old men of the land struggle with. Marcel is finding the irreversible consequences of age debilitating, humiliating and demoralising. Less able to combat the elements, he can only watch as grazing land turns to scrub, stock numbers decrease, and his life’s work slowly falls away. 63-year old Paul Argaud, has taken to watching television and smoking – and saying very little. 80-year old Marcel Challaye and his 70-year old wife Germaine are forced to sell their cows. The land is too steep for him now, and land-taxes are crippling. A young couple, Amandine and Michel Valla, realise that their goat-rearing prosects aren’t looking too good. The middle-aged Daniel Jeanroy is the only one of six children to remain on the farm with his aging mother and father, too old to handle it alone. Daniel resents having to work the farm, and would rather do something else – only he doesn’t know what.

As you can see, it’s not exactly awash with optimism, but Depardon doesn’t see it that way. Frankly, I’m not going to argue. The one undeniable truth about the people we meet in Modern Life is that despite the challenges facing them, they are pragmatic and fiercely self-reliant. They are proud people (in the best sense), and the affection and admiration Depardon has for them is contagious. They have no use for pity, and there is no place for it in Modern Life. Depardon invites us to see beyond the hardship and struggle in the hope that we will see ourselves in these people – as he does. The film has been described (probably by Depardon himself) as a love-letter, not only to those in the film, but also to those watching. The film gives a small isolated group of people the opportunity of expressing themselves, and (crucially) to be heard. As such, Modern Life serves an important socio-political purpose. Some may only see aging farmers in a declining rural sector, while others will see themselves, their family and their friends.

TO QUOTE Depardon, Modern Life is, above all, about life today, but it looks towards the future. It’s a more sobering comment than it might at first seem, and it applies equally well to Lee Chung-ryoul’s Old Partner, one of the top grossing films in South Korea. It has similarities with Modern Life in its portrayal of a rural farmer, his wife, and their loyal, hard-working old Ox, all of whom are steadily approaching the end of their lives. It’s almost certain that before this beautifully observed 75 minute film is over, the Ox is likely to be freed of its yoke, but farmer Choi does all he can to forestall the inevitable for as long as possible. “The Ox,” he says, “is my karma”, but the ever-complaining Mrs Choi is having none of it, and not without some justification.

Modern Life and Old Partner are poetic and lyrical reflections on life and death, and both have strong philosophical views to express. However, they are very different from each other. I enjoyed both, but Depardon’s film is much more formally satisfying. Lee’s tendency to milk the natural pathos of the story serves to highlight the aesthetic and visceral quality of Depardon’s approach, particularly in terms of the trust he extends towards viewers. Given the delicate spiritual and philosophic tonality of Old Partner, the film could have been even more contemplative. It might have been more austere, but no less affecting or engaging if handled correctly. The music, while not constant or overly insistent, occasionally imposes itself on moments that would have spoken more eloquently if left alone. As a first time filmmaker, Lee can’t be chastised too severely for wanting to ensure that his film touches people, and (again) judging by the audience response it won’t stop people liking the film.

Quibbles aside, this genuine and revealing film about the 40-year friendship between two humble soul mates (and Mrs Choi too) is sure to find an appreciative and justly deserved audience. Like Modern Life, it depicts a way of life, traditions and values that are steadily vanishing, and has much to say to a world reeling from the collapse of the erroneous imperatives of consumption and greed.