Ceres depicts life on the farm for four children in a personal and political way.
Belgium 2018 73 minutes
Pigs are being born, their frail little bodies–covered with warm fluid and interlaced with placenta and umbilical cords–cover the entire screen. Cows are being milked while the boy in light blue overalls caresses the cow’s tail, cleans up the stable and gently lays his head on the cow’s back.
Another boy, wearing green overalls, lies down on the barren field, puts his arm deep into the earth, rides the harvesting machine and carefully inspects the harvested potatoes. Hearing him say, “I’ve never had any doubts about whether I want to become a farmer. My grandpa took over from his father, and my father took over from my grandpa. It would be nice to carry on for another generation. I think it’s nice,” one cannot but admire the mix of innocence and determination expressed by the young boy.
The third, a bit older than the other two, has doubts about his identity: “I am the only one of my friends who wants something to do in agriculture. They wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at me though, I’m just normal like the others.”
«It is not only a good educational film, but also an experiment.»
When we first see the girl, we see a detail of her left foot, each nail polished with a different colour. She is carefully perusing her smart phone screen as she narrates, “I’ve got 55 bottles of nail polish. We’ve got 450 sheep.”
The four protagonists of this documentary, the first feature film by Janet van den Brand, are masterfully orchestrated throughout the film, every one of them representing one aspect of their particular experience. Each of them lives on a remote farm in the southwest of the Netherlands and is learning the profession of their ancestors from a young age, as the promotional material declares. But their stories are the same.
Koen Brouwer, the kid wearing light blue overalls, is the sensitive one. He experiences the world through physical contact–with the earth, the bodies of farm animals, the skin of the pigs that he carefully covers with sunscreen so they don’t get burned. He even puts his hand, his whole arm protected by a long plastic glove, into the uterus of the cow who is about to give birth to feel the body of the soon to be born calf.
The kid in the green overalls, Daan Rentmeester, is the determined one. Serious, eager to continue the tradition, competitive and thus happy that he has a sister and not a brother who would also want to take over the farm, devoted to farming so much that even when playing he is experimenting with farming toys and farming computer games.
«Perhaps this is the way to avoid the consequences of global liberal capitalism and the devastating influences it has on the life of the planet.»
The third, Sven Boonmann, seems older because he (already) has doubts and is hiding his identity as a farmer. Aware of other kids and their disinterest in farming, he is also questioning the world around him. He is curious, bored with winter and is daydreaming about travelling to far away places.
The girl, Jeanine de Bree, is following her father and their sheep without comment. She is cheerful, happy when surrounded with friends, always with the smart phone in hand. On the lawn full of flowers, she declares that one day she can do some other job like hairdressing or a gardening. But since much of her portrait is limited to her interest in beauty products and boys, it is rather unclear how much of her stereotypical femininity is hers and how much has been projected by the makers of the film.
Yet, even if this portrait of the kids seems from time to time rather stereotypical, the decisive determination to adapt the filmed reality to the expectations of the filmmakers is also the true power of this film. The kids’ faces are filmed from very close, establishing a great amount of intimacy, even familiarity–in any case, the impression of knowing them very well. One can almost feel their hard life in a harsh environment that gives them limited time to play with peers and be kids.
This is in a clear contrast with perfectly lit and beautifully composed shots of bright colours. Grass is vividly green; sky heavenly blue; down golden. Even the plastic bags carrying raw meet look cheeky and the tongue coming from the cow’s mouth looks like a flower in a Mapplethorpe photo. When the plastic shield forcefully moves in the wind, this documentary starts resembling an experimental film. The beauty of this film is that all this is very much in place. The purpose of making farmers, their kids and farm life aesthetically appealing is noble and beneficial, but Ceres goes far beyond that. It is not only a good educational film, but also an experiment, an innovation, an attempt to–in contrast to the stereotypical profiles of kids on the farm–change the stereotypes and make people think differently.
The true hero of the film is the kid in blue overalls, who finds shelter with pigs when people make him feel uncomfortable, declares pigs his friends, but also eats them when they become meat. Gradually, his attitude takes over the whole film, representing life and death together, as parts of one and the same natural cycle–showing simultaneously one boy assisting in slaughtering roosters, and the other assisting a calf being born.
I admit that in this film, I saw things that I had never seen in my life before. It has been selected for the Berlin International Film Festival, where it will be in competition in the Generation Kplus programme dedicated to “outstanding children’s and youth films as well as films for all target audiences that are also suitable for young people.”
Besides providing quality education for kids, there is also a broader, political context that has been addressed by Ceres: Perhaps this is the way to avoid the consequences of global liberal capitalism and the devastating influences it has on the life of the planet, in particular on the food on our plates. Respecting those who produce food, who clean the stable and pick potatoes out of the earth, keeping them close to our homes and our hearts, seems the surest way to stop global corporations from poisoning the planet and our health. Rather embarrassing though that the film is openly promoting one of the biggest manufacturers of agricultural machinery through product placement, in particular because kids are its main audience.