Skip to content

Postcard from France: beyond the riots, two movies in a small town

July 3, 2023

Castillonnès is a little town in Southern France. As such, it’s too small to attract the attention of the rioters who are currently running rampant in many of France’s major cities. In fact, if you drive through the bottom of the town along the N21 between Bergerac and Agen, you’d hardly think it worth a visit, especially as the view is dominated by an extraordinarily ugly water tower.

But drive into the upper reaches of the bastide (fortified town), and you’ll find one of those beautiful medieval town centres that abound in the Dordogne and Lot et Garonne.

Not so pretty, but equally important to the living community, is the former municipal theatre, now a cinema, where, for the princely sum of seven euros per screening, you can watch a variety of movies, both French and international. No plush seats and multi-vendor foyer. Just a small counter manned by volunteers and a fridge full of ice creams.

Every month they hold a “Soiree Cinema d’Ailleurs”, which roughly translates as Movie Night from Elsewhere, meaning not Hollywood, Bollywood or any other well-beaten cinematic track. For 22 euros, you get two movies – the kind of work you wouldn’t find in Britain beyond the art-house cinemas of our big cities – plus a buffet outside the cinema in the interval.

A couple of nights ago, “The Elsewhere” was 16th century Algiers, followed by the mountains of Iran in the present day. We probably wouldn’t have sought out either movie, especially when to do so would have entailed an hour’s journey on the train and tube into central London – twice.

In case you might think that this was a tourist attraction laid on for visiting English-speakers, the movies – in Farsi and Arabic – came with French subtitles. Most of the audience were French, with a smattering of Brits confident enough to battle with the subtitles.

La Derniere Reine is an action movie with a feminist theme set in Algiers. Zaphira, the eponymous queen, breaks out of the boundaries of the harem to lead the resistance against Barbarossa, the pirate warlord, who has taken the city after treacherously killing her husband. It’s bloody and histrionic. She’s fiery, patriotic and fiercely protective of her young son. Things don’t end well for either of them, but the director, who also takes the leading role, uses the production to make the point that Algeria has a history worth telling from the period before it succumbed to colonial powers – first the Ottomans and then the French. Ironic, then, that we should watch the movie at a time when France is ablaze with the anger of its minorities of North African ancestry.

The second movie, The Scent of Wind, set in a remote region of Iran, couldn’t have been more different from the first. Minimal action, very little dialogue. It’s the story of an electrician who is sent to repair the power supply to the ramshackle house of a disabled man and his paralysed son. The father is unable to use his legs except to shuffle slowly in a crooked gait using his hands for support. The electrician doesn’t have the part required to fix the problem. He’s sent on a quest to cannibalise an installation in another village. Like an everyday Odysseus, he encounters obstacle after obstacle, including a river ford where he gets stuck and has to walk miles to find someone with a tractor to tow him out. Throughout the movie, people help others with no thanks, almost as if they’re fulfilling an unspoken obligation. That includes the electrician, who gives a blind man a lift and stops to collect a bouquet of flowers for him. As a final mission of kindness, he buys his disabled customer a new air mattress for the paralysed son.

The movie is a patchwork of minutiae. There are long scenes where acts of kindness, unsentimentally rendered, are left to tell their own stories. In one episode, lasting several minutes, an old man, trying to darn a sock for his wife, can’t thread the needle. His crippled neighbour, who has shuffled over to ask if he has a mobile phone so that he can call the electricity company, threads it for him. The husband finishes the darning and gives it to his wife, who takes the sock and slips it on her foot. No words are exchanged. And during the entire movie, nobody smiles or laughs.

The Scent of Wind is a parable of quiet kindness from a world in which mutual cooperation is the norm. While the subject is hardly likely to attract a generation used to Marvel blockbusters, it’s a moving portrayal of a human trait that anyone can appreciate, yet rarely gets an outing in the mainstream cinema. Pretentious? Not at all. Just an understated procession of acts of humanity.

All of which is in stark contrast to the brutal cruelty shown by the Iranian regime in suppressing the protests in 2002 over the killing of a girl accused of inappropriate dressing, as evidenced by Inside the Iranian Uprising, a BBC documentary screened on Thursday night. Scenes from another universe, you might say.

Two films in one night in a tiny town of fifteen hundred inhabitants. Castillonnès is never likely to be proclaimed as a European Capital of Culture, yet its promotion of such movies and of other events, such as the series of chamber concerts it holds in the Salle de Charbonniers next to the Mairie, is one of the reasons why I love coming to France. They may be of interest only to a relatively privileged minority, but they still happen, not only in Castillonnès but in other small towns around France. Could you say that of Britain, where everything seems to be measured in terms of value for money rather than value to society? Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I can’t think of a small town in Surrey, where I live, that boasts such treasures.

The cities of France may be burning right now. One would hope that the state will learn from the eruption and take measures that deal with the causes of the resentment within its troubled suburbs. Easier said than done, of course. Previous initiatives don’t seem to have had the desired effect.

But I for one love this country for all its contrariness and prickly pride in its way of life. Most especially I love its self-conscious embrace of La Culture, which is on display not only in grand receptacles like the Louvre, but in small towns and villages such as Castillonnès. And it’s worth remembering that away from the molotovs and barricades, much of the country continues to pursue a life of quiet minutiae that would be familiar to visitors from the mountains of Iran.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: