Hot Docs 2018 Review: CERES Connects Children to the Land
Filmmaker Janet Van den Bran follows the journey of four children in the Flemish region of Belgium as they learn about an agricultural life.
With so much of the worlds population living in cities, where all the food comes from the grocery store, or some variant of urban market, immediate, highly proximate documentaries such as Janet Van den Bran's Ceres are essential.
She follows four children in the Flemish region of Belgium, where the law keeps farms closer to the family scale (compared to the industrial scale experienced in the USA and parts of Europe) over the course of a season. They provide the voice-overs for their dreams and aspirations on agricultural life, while the tight macro-lens photography emphasizes touch and sound. One has a love of tractors and the equipment, another for the companionship and connection to animals, a third finds time to paint her nails between penning and herding sheep to pasture.
This is an immersive cinematic experience first, and any notion of didactic exercise, while not completely absent, is a far distant second. The cinematography is impeccable, and the sound design up there with the best I have experienced in blockbuster fiction. That it is, in effect, comparable to large studio operations such as Warner Brothers (who recently set the bar with Dunkirk and Mad Max: Fury Road) and Skywalker Sound, is a testament more to how such sounds are applied to the imagery to get an emotional (or ASMR) response out of the viewer.
We witness the birth of pigs and cows ("welcome to the world"), just as we witness the abattoir and the thresher. The difficulty for one child to see his daily companions disappear forever: "If you want to be a farmer, you have to be able to say good-bye," shows a kind of melancholy wisdom belying his young age. We call that experience, which is what the film really excels in offering.
Hands caress the dirt, stalks of wheat (for once, not used a visual design cliche), and most acutely, the hair or fur of animals. It feels therapeutic, and imprints a keen, tactile, awareness upon the viewer something they probably already know: Cities offer us much in the way of entertainment and livelihood, but there is an essence of humanity being connected to the land and its bounty.
These children are outsiders in their own community, where the tween-children are more interested in the latest smart-phone app or pop band. But Van den Bran has given an ode to their existence one that is both hyper-practical and romanticized (Ceres is after all the goddess of agriculture and nature) at the same time, the perfect middle ground for document and cinema. This is her first film, and I cannot wait to see what she creates next.