I had the pleasure of attending the Frédéric Back screening at the Bloor Cinema on March 15. Back himself was present and was interviewed on stage after a showing of Tout Rien, Crac!, The Mighty River and The Man Who Planted Trees.
It was interesting to see Back's films all together (though they were run somewhat out of order; The Mighty River was made after The Man Who Planted Trees). Certain themes in his work are obvious: his love of nature and his romantic and nostalgic view of the past. However, seeing his films together, I could trace certain changes in his work.
Tout Rien is a fable about humans who are envious of other creatures and a deity who attempts to placate them. Crac! is a history of rural Quebec seen through the eyes of a rocking chair. These earlier films include humor and the characters are designed in a frankly cartoony style. Both films are wholly pantomime accompanied by music. Of the two, Crac! is the more innocent, as change is seen as something inevitable, if regrettable. Just as children grow up and leave their parents, the landscape becomes more urban. People gather around television sets instead of fireplaces. The past continues to exist, if only in memory, even if most people are oblivious to what's been lost.
Back's approach changed substantially in The Man Who Planted Trees. The designs are more realistic. Humor has vanished. The story still contains no dialogue but does rely on a narrator. The film contrasts the work of the shepherd, who single-handedly creates a forest over decades, with the work of governments, which destroy the landscape through war or are clueless as to how to manage it. Where change in Crac! just seems to happen, Back makes it very clear in this film that people are at the root of change and that human choices have a profound impact on the world.
The Mighty River is an animated documentary, closer in tone to The Man Who Planted Trees than any of Back's earlier films. There are no central characters; here Back charts how the mass of humanity has altered the St. Lawrence river. The film resembles Robert Crumb's comic strip, "A Short History of America" in some ways, though Crumb focuses purely on landscape and Back goes beyond landscape to include wildlife. The film is nothing less than an indictment of humanity's lack of respect for natural resources; the river is something to be plundered, not protected.
Back's love of the natural world and his pain at humanity's treatment of it are constant thoughout all his films. However, his mood has darkened over the course of his career. The films have become more serious, probably because Back sees humanity blindly heading for a precipice. At the Bloor, Back talked about his website and how he was making large amounts of his artwork and ecological material available in the hope of inspiring people to be creative and most importantly to participate -- to work towards improving things rather than simply allowing things to happen. In this way, he himself is like The Man Who Planted Trees, going his solitary way focusing on what he believes to be important; calling attention to the natural world and by his example urging others to involve themselves in its preservation.