Marie-Monique Robin is a French filmmaker. She produced the seminal film and book ‘The World According to Monsanto’, and more recently ‘Good Old Growth’, a critique of economic growth. She has just completed a new film, ‘Qu’est-ce qu’on attend‘ (‘What are we waiting for?’) which tells the story of Ungersheim in north-eastern France, a story we have reported here before, and which was one of our 21 Stories. To mark the launch of the film, I spoke to Marie-Monique by Skype, and started by asking why she chose to make a film about Ungersheim.
“Two years ago I made a documentary called ‘Good Old Growth’, about the paradigm of economic growth, and showing alternatives to this paradigm. I was filming in Toronto, for instance, where they have got a very good urban agriculture programme. I was in Rosario, Argentina for the same reason. I was in Denmark, in Nepal. They have very beautiful alternatives there. I was in Conjunto Palmeiras, Brazil and in Germany, for local currencies like Palmas or Chiemgauer. I finished in Bhutan, the home of Gross National Happiness, the best alternative to GDP. The documentary was released on Arte, a Franco-German channel, in November 2014. I also did a tour presenting it in some cinemas.
Anyway, I was in Alsace for a screening, and there was a good crowd there. At the end a very nice man came to me and said, “Oh you know, what you said in documentary, we do it in my village. I said “oh my gosh!” So in February 2015 I went to visit his village and I was really very impressed. I said, “OK, I will do a documentary on this village”. It’s quite unique. It was true. They had everything, everything I had talked about in ‘Good Old Growth’.
In Ungersheim they have horses to bring children to school, and also for growing organic food. They have a local currency. They are building an eco-village, zero carbon inspired by the BedZed principles.
I travelled there each month for three, four, five days. I spent about 6 weeks filming during the four seasons. I followed the people involved in this initiative through the seasons. It was really very interesting to see how when you have a local municipality, local leaders like the Mayor and his team, who are taking the right decisions, trying to mobilise people around them, to explain to them why it’s important to do that. Not only that, we know the challenges, okay – climate change and so on – but we do that because it’s good for us, you know. And you see there was really a dynamic in the village.
I remember one morning in July, I was in the home of Jean-Claude Mensch, the Mayor, and his wife. They received a call and said, “Oh, there are many, many tomatoes”. They’ve got an 8 hectare urban farm, and there were a lot of tomatoes that needed using very quickly because they were very ripe. They have the ‘Conserverie’, a place where they conserve the food, and they needed many people to do that because they have to get the tomatoes canned very quickly.
They rang around looking for 10 people in the morning, and they found 10 people to do the tomatoes. It’s amazing to see that. Then in September they had to collect the potatoes. And it was the same – they needed about 20 people, and they just called and they got 20 people. It is really very good to see that. How everyone is really encouraged to participate and to do something for the common good. This is the first time I’ve seen that, to be quite frank. I travel a lot in my life. That’s my job. But really it’s very inspiring.
What’s the story that the film tells? Is it a chronological diary, or how did you turn what you saw there into a story that would sustain a 2 hour film?
I made this film so that my voice is not included. That means that the people who are doing Transition there, they are film’s characters, they play a very important role. The mayor, Jean-Claude Mensch and his wife, for sure. Then there is Jean–Sébastien Cuisnier who is running an agricultural sector that the municipality decided to create. This means there is someone paid by the municipality to run a service, a common service, to grow organic food.
He is a very interesting guy also because he used to be a vet. He’s about 30 years old and he decided he didn’t want to do that job anymore because he doesn’t want to go on giving vaccines to cows and doing what he calls ‘business medicine’ for animals. Now he’s running this agricultural programme which is permaculture and organic food production. He is one of the figures of the documentary.
There is also a citizen called Bertrand who is a very normal citizen and he says he arrived in this village and tells how he was as any other citizen in France, you know, just going to work and taking care of his family, and didn’t involve himself in any kind of initiative. Then when he arrived in Ungersheim, he became a very active citizen.
There is an old lady called Alice, 84 years old, who is really fantastic. She is really promoting ‘Le Radis’, the town’s local currency. There is a farmer who used to be a maize producer with a lot of pesticides and chemicals, and then switched to grow old varieties of wheat. His wife is baking bread with all the varieties of wheat. There is another farmer who is in the municipality together with Jean-Claude.
It is all these people that are telling the story. I made special, very long interviews, in what we call the Studio. It was actually in the Maison des Natures, where we just put a wall of straw, because straw is also a figure in the film. We spent two hours speaking together. I wanted them to tell how how it is to do Transition concretely. Why, and so on. This is important because they are leading the story. They are telling the story.
It’s based on one year of shooting, and a sort of chronicle of the transition. In Spring, in Summer and so on. You can see the passing of time, the different seasons: the trees are different and there are special activities linked to the seasons. This was very interesting because I was a little afraid for it to last so long and the theatres don’t like it so much. They say “better 90 minutes or 100 minutes” – until now.
Now they all say, “No, we really enjoy the story, which is really very moving and very interesting also at the same time” and because I spent so much time with these people, one year, travelling each month, that came to trust me.
Each of them is very powerful. Therefore I think people watching it can identify themselves in those characters. I mean, if you are a student, a young person, you love very much Jean–Sébastien because he’s like you. If you are an organic farmer, you can identify with Christoph. If you are an intensive farmer producing monoculture and you are really asking should I keep on with this, you can identify with another figure. What’s good is all these people are involved with the Transition and are sharing their experience. This is a very nice story. I’m very proud of them.
So having spent a year there and got to know it so well, what’s special about Ungersheim? Why did this happen in Ungersheim?
This is a good question. I think that there are two answers. One is, as I pointed out in ‘Good Old Growth’, is what I call the ‘local hero’. It’s something I saw in Toronto, Rosario, and so on. Everywhere where there are alternatives which are working well, behind them there is someone. What I call a ‘local hero’.
A local hero is someone who has a vision. This is my definition – a vision. He/she knows what the challenges are, but he has also an ego which is very low, which is not always so easy to find. He’s able to really convince the people, with big passion, to do something collectively. This is Jean-Claude. Jean-Claude is a hero of Ungersheim. I saw how he is doing things. It’s very remarkable.
For instance he decided to take one young girl – she is one of the figures of the documentary – Sophie, who was 21, and didn’t know anything about ecology. She said, “I didn’t know anything”. But he looked for her and said, “Yes, join us” and now she’s in charge of Transition, which is a really big issue there, and now, in 2 years, she became also a local hero. This is remarkable. For me, to get to massive change, we have to promote these local heroes. Most of the time they are not helped. On the contrary. This is one explanation.
Ungersheim used to be a mining area. About 13,000 people worked in the mines, and now they are all closed. They had to do an economic transition. It was a big disaster. Many families were living from the mines until the 1990s, and then they all closed. Maybe they are in a way prepared for transition, I don’t know? This could be an explanation as well. Jean-Claude thinks it’s possible, because he himself had to do a transition. He used to work in the mines. Those are the only two reasons I can find.
What’s your sense of the impact that you have already seen this film have in France, and the impact that you hope that it will have in France?
I made the first version for TV which was 52 minutes long. It was really too short. Most of the people who saw it said it was very nice, but too short – they would like to see more, hear more of these people. All the people who are participating in the process are really speaking for three, four, five minutes – on television it’s not possible. The reaction up until now has been very, very good.
I have already been to about 12 premieres. The first premiere there were 700 people. It was a huge room and it was in a small city in France – they have never seen that kind of turnout before. And most of the time you can see on our website, on Facebook, that audiences are 300, 400 people. People are very moved, as I said before.
You know we are in a very special time, not only in France, in Europe. There are many insecurities in all sense of the word. We have the terrorism story and so on, but it’s more than that. People are needing stories where they can see that there are alternatives. Margaret Thatcher said, “there is no alternative”, which is terrible for the people, you know. When you see the world they are living in, if you just say there is no alternative, it’s really terrible for our kids. People want an alternative. They need to see.
It is quite different to my previous documentary where I chose the most beautiful stories, and Toronto, and so on. In this case you see it could be your village, your city. It’s all happening in a small territory. You could repeat it everywhere. People ask me sometimes, “Okay, it’s a small village, but is it possible to do that in a city?” I say, “Yes of course. If you just take these four cornerstones: intellectual autonomy, food sovereignty, energy sovereignty and promoting the local economy, then this can be useful for also a city, like Paris”.
We have a very special year now in France. We have the election for the President in May 2017, many people don’t know what they will do, because they are disappointed with the current government. We’ve got extreme riots, you know, with the Front National. It’s a very serious situation. There is much desperation.
What I saw, and Jean-Claude also, and the rest of us who are attending the screenings, is that at the end people are crying. People are doing a standing ovation for 10 minutes. This is incredible, no? And saying, “Yeah, we can do that”. And Jean-Claude says, “yes, you can do that”. I hope it will help to give people the energy to begin a Transition story where they are living.
Any last thoughts?
In the film where Jean-Claude explains that he has been working on ecology for a long time. But then one of the very important moments for him was that he saw your documentary on Totnes once (‘In Transition 2.0’), and spoke about that to his municipality. You get to see how ideas are being transferred, spread. It’s very fine to see that. And I hope now that it spreads faster, this is the point now.
Wonderful, wonderful, I can’t wait to see it.