Film production in rural Europe

“The cinema is an instrument of cultivation; only instead of cultivating the product, it cultivates the producer.”

French Ministry of Agriculture, in: Alison M. Levine, 2004, p. 76

The agricultural sector was one of the pioneers when it came to producing moving pictures. Film production outside the United States really started after World War I. The films made about rural Europe were used by organisations for educational purposes as well as for advertising products and for teaching the rural population new values and techniques. While in France the government funded a rural cinema campaign in the interwar period, in Switzerland it were mainly the agricultural organisations (often in cooperation with state institutions) which promoted the film as a medium of communication. A crucial period in the development of the rural film production are the 1960s, when significant changes took place both in the structures and in the actors involved.

Up to the 1960’s, agricultural films were almost exclusively so-called commercial or, more precisely, commissioned films. These films were commissioned by state departments, agricultural organisations or scientific institutions for specific purposes – but usually the films were used for a variety of purposes. The producers of these films normally were film production companies producing feature or cinema films as well. Indeed, most of them could not have survived from the risky feature-film business alone if they had not had a halfway steady income from their so called commercial activities, that is: producing commissioned films. Quite often these commissioned films – whether agricultural or otherwise – were shown as so called supporting films (Vorfilme) immediately before the feature film was shown in the cinema. The practice of broadcasting a commissioned film with an industrial, tourist or agricultural content as a supporting film for a feature film furthermore contributed to a better acceptance of the latter category as a form of art in the feuilleton of “respectable” papers where feature films for a long time in the 20th century were judged as “low-culture”.

Rural films up to the 1960’s can, broadly speaking, be divided into two categories: feature films under the cultural heading and commissioned films produced for industrial, tourist and agricultural clients. Exactly because agricultural films were regarded as part of the economic, not the cultural world, they were not judged as sophisticated enough and culturally valuable enough to be preserved for the future by the existing film archives. This attitude only changed significantly in the 1960/70s, when the so called author-director films began their remarkable career. Intellectuals influenced by the 1968 student movement began to look at agriculture, especially the peasantry in remote or mountain areas, from new perspectives. They literally produced new pictures, pictures their audience often did not associate with the rural world at all. The author-directors called themselves as “documentary” film makers, convinced to “show nothing but the reality”.

A second element that was crucial for the development and broadening of the independent film makers was the rise and breakthrough of the Television. TV provided a new outlet for the author-director film. It became, in addition to the state, an important financial support for the filmmakers. And it opened up for them a new, pre-dominantly urban audience that began to be interested in the peasant-mountain world for a variety of reasons.

The aim of the ERHFA is to make the films produced on rural Europe visible and provide rural historians with the necessary information to identify and contextualise these films by providing not only information about the location of the original film (and a digitised version of it, if there exists one), but also data and guidance towards the necessary contextual information about who was producing, financing and using the film.