“The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger is a beautiful yet uncommon approach to a subject—one that is happily out of step with the frenetic, info-tech lifestyles we’ve adopted. But more importantly, the film is a reflection on creation as a metaphor for human existence.”
The Seasons in Quincy is the result of a five-year project by Tilda Swinton, Colin MacCabe and Christopher Roth to produce a portrait of the intellectual and storyteller John Berger. It was produced by the Derek Jarman Lab, an audio-visual hub for graduate filmmaking based at Birkbeck, University of London, in collaboration with the composer Simon Fisher Turner.
In 1973 Berger abandoned the metropolis to live in the tiny Alpine village of Quincy. He realized that subsistence peasant farming, which had sustained humanity for millennia, was drawing to an historical close. He determined to spend the rest of his life bearing witness to this vanishing existence, not least by participating in it. Berger’s trilogy Into their Labours chronicles the peasant life of this Alpine village and its surrounding countryside. Our portrait places Berger in the rhythm of the seasons in Quincy.
The four essay films which comprise The Seasons in Quincy each take different aspects of Berger’s life in the Haute-Savoie, and combine ideas and motifs from Berger’s own work with the atmosphere of his mountain home. Each film was created as an individual work of art but they combine to make a feature film. The Seasons in Quincy shows how film can move beyond text, and beyond fine art, to offer a multifaceted and multilayered portrait. These are more than documentary films – they are exercises in thinking in film.
For me, as a student in the sixties and seventies, John Berger was the most important thinker in Britain. Only he really tried to combine the analysis of economics and aesthetics, politics and ethics which was so much needed then and is needed more now. He also wrote a great novel, G, and a trilogy of the Alpine peasant life which he encountered upon moving to Quincy forty years ago.
When Tilda and I started making these portraits of John in 2009, I was a great admirer of his work. As I have re-read and read and talked and talked over more than five years making these four films, my estimation has grown for John both as a man and as a thinker and storyteller. I hope these films, these four portraits, will make clear not only why so many look to Berger as a contemporary intellectual but also why so many love him so much.
Formally the films were composed in two different registers. Each film was made completely individually and without reference to the other films They were envisaged as time based art that would find their audiences in museums and galleries. At the same time we hoped that when we put them together that they would turn into movie, a film that could be shown in cinemas. Our emphasis in the individual film is on the seasons as an unending cycle but when we put them together we discovered that we had, unknowingly and completely against our intentions, recorded the final seasons of John's life in Quincy. Our four essays were transformed into a feature-length documentary.