Split into four parts aptly, The Seasons in Quincy is the result of a five-year project by Tilda Swinton, Colin MacCabe and Christopher Roth to produce a visual portrait of the intellectual and storyteller John Berger. Produced by the Derek Jarman Lab, an audio-visual hub for graduate filmmaking based at Birkbeck, University of London, in collaboration with the composer Simon Fisher Turner, the film focuses on four different aspects of Berger, with its concentration on Quincy, his home and Alpine village.
In 1973 Berger left the metropolis of London to live in the tiny Alpine village of Quincy. He realized that subsistence peasant farming, which had sustained humanity for millennia, was drawing to an historical close. He, determined to spend the rest of his life bearing witness to this vanishing existence, not least by participating in it. Berger’s trilogy Into their Labours chronicles the peasant life of this Alpine village and its surrounding countryside. This portrait of Berger actually looks at him within Quincy and within the rhythm of the four seasons.
The four essay films which culminate to make the documentary as a whole each touch on different aspects of Berger’s life in the Haute-Savoie, and combine ideas and motifs from Berger’s own work with the atmosphere of his mountain home. Ways of Listening centres on a conversation between Berger and Tilda Swinton in his snow-bound kitchen in the village of Quincy. Friends and collaborators since the 1980s, who share the same birthday (which was referenced more than I was comfortable with) they discuss Berger’s poems and drawings, exploring elements of their shared experience, somewhat anecdotal in its style. Spring focuses on Berger’s seminal writing on animals and contextualizes in local farming culture, as the cows are released from their barns. Roth offers a personal meditation on both humans and animals and their understanding of death and departure in this nineteen minute short. Colin McCabe in A Song for Politics, brings several left-wing thinkers to the Alps to stage a political discussion of the now. This discussion is intercut with footage of traditional agricultural labour and songs of the revolutionary past, highlighting Berger’s Marxist ideals and the theory that sits within his writing, divulging the surprising past of his that he did not enter Higher Education.
Finally, Harvest is a twenty-five minute short where Tilda Swinton revisits Berger with her children, on a journey from one mountain range to another as they travel from the Scottish highlands to Quincy. While there are similarities to the first three shorts, this one is primarily a response, and companion, to Ways of Listening. John’s home is explored through the eyes of a new generation with not only Tilda’s children but also through John’s as we meet Yves.
The Seasons in Quincy pays due tribute to Berger but perhaps borders a little too much on the serious, drenched in discussion of theory whilst there is a glint in his eye we rarely see in this documentary, that which sees Tilda’s daughter on the back of a motorbike. Although refreshing in its nature, the repetition of these intellectual chats, could perhaps be backed by a little more physical activity to hold the viewer’s eye.
For more on The Filmhouse, Edinburgh and its programme click here.