THE MAN WHO PLANTED TREES
The cluster of houses, although they were in ruins, reminding me of an old wasps' nest, made me think that once there must have been a fountain, or perhaps a well.
A humanist and environmentalist who was ahead of his time, the French writer Jean Giono (1895-1970) drew on his own experience and the history of his native region to write The Man Who Planted Trees in 1953. It was in the magazine Le sauvage that Frédéric Back came across Giono's story in 1974. Having planted over 30 000, trees himself as a member of the Society to Overcome Pollution, he decided to bring to the screen a tale known until then only to readers of specialized periodicals.
"In reading this story for the first time, I was very moved by the character's generosity and his utter indifference to any kind of reward. It is the very essence of happiness because the reward is in the act itself and in the vision of its beneficial consequences. Usually an animation film moves at brisk pace, with frequent situation shifts, gags and themes that are preferably outside reality. This subject called rather for a certain dignity, but I was convinced that animation, even when given greater realism, was the best way to touch a wide audience and to give the story a look distinct from that of a documentary," says Frédéric Back.
By turning Giono's story into a film, Back wanted its message to reach the broadest possible audience. In the course of his research, the filmmaker discovered actual people performing the same humble, persistent work in the real world, with no more means than the invented shepherd of the tale. The public response to the film was greater than Back could have ever hoped: millions of trees were planted on all continents.
The Man Who Planted Trees is about the unique achievement of Elzéard Bouffier, a Provençal shepherd who patiently reforests a barren piece of land. The narrator's fascination with the man and his mission leads him to return time and again to the mountains, where he sees the windswept, forsaken landscape gradually transformed: springs, cultivated fields and thriving villages are regenerated by the incredible forest that is the work of one stubborn and uncommonly selfless man.
"Reforestation is a necessary remedy, but it is not a solution that allows us to destroy ancient forests, with their rich variety of trees and the many animal species they shelter, which would otherwise disappear forever," points out the environmental activist. The Man Who Planted Trees is probably the world's first animation film to have such a great impact. Frédéric Back hopes that the film's success will encourage other animation filmmakers to tackle serious subjects for which audiences are apparently eager.
Following the resounding success of the film The Man Who Planted Trees, the Gallimard/Lacombe publishing house in Montreal decided to issue a coffee table edition of Giono's story. The accompanying illustrations by Frédéric Back have helped make this magnificent work a classic in many countries.