Just after WWII, Aveyron was a different country from much of France. It took a long time to get there from anywhere else, people spoke a different language and the way of life had existed for centuries. Change was happening, but it was slow, and age-old customs and traditions clung on. Georges Rouquier, a documentary-maker, captured this world in his film Farrebique, shot in 1946. We saw it at the cinema in Saint-Antonin recently.
A family concern
Farrebique is a farm near Goutrens, in the Rouergue. In 1946 the Rouquier family owned it (filmmaker Georges was a nephew). Several generations lived under the same roof: the grandparents, their married son Roch, his wife and four children, and their unmarried son, Henri. Nine people, in other words. The house had neither electricity nor running water.
Georges Rouquier showed how the seasonal rhythms governed the family’s life. We see them clustered around the fire in the depths of winter, with ice coating the window panes inside, while the grandfather (le pépé) relates the history of the farm. In the intense heat of summer, we see them stacking sheaves of corn before feeding them into a threshing machine. The Rouquiers still ploughed with oxen, milked the cows by hand and cut wood with handsaws.
Everyone has their allotted tasks. The men do the heavier farm work. The women keep the house, do the laundry, help with the haymaking and manage the basse-cour (chickens, rabbits and goats). When they aren’t at school the children mind the sheep and cows.
Preparing the bread is a team effort. The elder son pounds the dough in an ancient kneading trough. His wife fashions it into loaves and le pépé bakes them in the bread oven. As the head of the family, le pépé slices the loaf, which is kept in a drawer in the table. Everyone crumbles it into their soup plates and the soup is poured over the top. The meal is washed down with their own – probably pretty rough – red wine.
Entertainment is limited. After the obligatory Sunday church attendance, the men pile into the local café for a few snifters before going home to the family lunch cooked by the women. In one scene, a group of younger men amuse themselves by doing traditional dances (this reminded me very much of the folk dancing we saw in Cantal last year). And the supper following the communal threshing is a big affair. Mostly, people socialised en famille. They still do in rural families here.
Fact and fiction
The film was what we would call a docu-drama today. Rouquier fictionalised parts of it, such as the birth of a baby to the middle generation, the decline and death of le pépé and the younger son’s courtship of the girl from the neighbouring farm. In real life, he was already married.
The issues the family faced were probably genuine enough. Le pépé feels the weight of responsibility on his shoulders, as chef de famille. His two sons address him as vous, which was common. His main concerns are to modernise the farm and to regulate the inheritance. Even so, la mémé is opposed to installing electricity and extending the house on cost grounds. The conservative elder son, Roch, is content to let things ride. Le pépé’s main supporters are Henri and his daughter-in-law.
The inheritance is an even thornier issue. To sort it out requires a meeting of all the family members, including le pépé’s two daughters, nuns in a Toulouse convent. Finally, it’s concluded that the elder son will inherit the farm, while the younger son will receive compensation for his share. The nuns have taken a vow of poverty, so they’re already sorted out, but their agreement is still required.
Flawed but precious
The film is not without its critics. The grandparents usually speak Occitan, while the younger members reply in French. However, it’s most likely that they all spoke Occitan at home. When the grandparents speak French, they are clearly not comfortable. Rouquier apparently decided to avoid the extensive subtitling that speaking Occitan would require, although this gives a false impression.
The film contains no references to WWII or to the agricultural situation immediately after the war. This may have been diplomatic. Around here, people old enough to remember it are still reticent about WWII. Communities and families were divided by their allegiances.
Thirty-eight years later, Rouquier returned and made another film, Biquefarre (1984), starring Roch and Henri. The industrialisation of agriculture has caught up with the Rouquiers and the choice is between enlargement and selling off parts of the farm in order to survive. They can no longer continue the traditional way of life.
Farrebique is a precious record of the end of an era. For all its flaws and slight romanticising, it offers a glimpse into a living world and the lives of real people.
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