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My Review of Auteur Frederic Back's Classic 'The Man Who Planted Trees'

I excessively quote about Leo Tolstoy and his works nowadays in whatever I write since I'm on the verge of finishing his masterpiece 'War and Peace'. The reason for this is the universal truths that are constantly invoked in the book through the events in the lives of its characters. In one of the paragraphs, Tolstoy describes a real life character Dokhturov as 'a person who was considered inferior to others and quite neglected while quoting history but stood valiantly in the thickest of battles and the trickiest of situations without consideration for his own life. Such people were forgotten soon because people usually do not notice the most consistent and essential people but the ones who have stood because of some reasons. People such as Dokhturov are like the cog wheels in machines that quietly spin and run the entire system but most tyros who see the machines functioning oddly will foolishly assume a tiny visible chip to be the most significant part.'

Elzeard Bouffier is such a character; he is least perturbed by the World Wars and any other political situation happening around him. His only ethos is to serve Mother Nature that has provided him his fundamental needs - food, water, shelter, clothing and most importantly, life. He tends sheep, raises bees and plants trees everyday; he does not blow his own trumpets, he doesn't want fame, glory and recognition, all he wishes to do is to serve nature and humanity. Like the cog wheel he does his work brilliantly, but remains unnoticed, unrecognized and he wants it that way. And indeed we the audience do not hear Elzeard speaking but are introduced to him by a nameless narrator who dedicates the entire short to the former. How ironic is it that while Elzeard remains nameless in his world, we the audience know his name and not the narrator's!

The story begins with a hazy view of the sky and birds and then closes in on nebulous clumps of brown that represent hills and valleys. Our young narrator then begins reciting his journey - he wanders lonely in the hills with no water and not much hope to live. Shapes begin forming at a distance and we realize there is a small town ahead albeit a decrepit one who's church remains undamaged but deserted. He vainly searches for water in the town and leaves the place soon. His eyes are caught by the sight of a tall object in the distance which he assumes to be a tree stump but later realizes it's a shepherd with a stick in his hand. The kind shepherd offers him water and takes him along to his home; the narrator observes that though the man is extremely quiet, his eyes seem to show keen discernment and determination. At the shepherd's abode, the narrator is offered soup and later the two of them sit at the table where the shepherd, Elzeard Bouffier begins segregating seeds of acorns on the basis of their quality. The narrator offers help, but Bouffier doesn't need it as he knows only he has the eyes for such a task. He selects the best hundred acorns and puts him in his tiny bag. The inquisitive narrator is so intrigued by the man he makes an excuse not to leave the next day only to know more about Bouffier. He finds out that the man is on a mission to plant trees wherever the soil is favorable and has already planted a hundred thousand seeds in the last three years. The writer then meets him after the First World War to see that entire area is burgeoning with growing trees and young streams. His unique relationship with this altruist, environmentalist and visionary continues throughout their lives and we blessed viewers get to be a part of it.

Frederic Back's works give us a feeling as if we are in a dream, however, we aren't just in any dream but one that we shall remember for a long time. This style suits short stories that are generally transient in nature- people generally don't phase out short stories as they do while writing novels; shorts come spontaneously and produce the best result when they are still fresh in mind. This artistic form wouldn't suit full length Pixar films but they create a magical effect here. Notice the scene where we see the narrator holding a bowl in his hand in the right part of the frame, and a hand and vessel magically appear on the left side to serve the writer his soup. Or the transition where the wall in Bouffier's house transforms into his cloak in the next scene. Or the herd of sheep becoming warring soldiers in the subsequent scene. Or the distorted scene that depicts the plight of the villagers. Every single frame comes alive with the use of wax pencils on frosted cel - a translucent material that is superimposed on a basic frame in order to give depth to an image. Since much of the work is hand drawn, the director has a lot more freedom to dabble with his work and provide that storytelling feel. And how can we forget the terrific use of sound that enchants us right from the beginning as we hear the clear music in the background and the audible footsteps of our narrator to the later portion where nature and human sounds dominate the picture?

My university had organized an Environment Awareness event recently where I was in the management team. Almost the entire event was marked with amateur performances, skits and poems, and in the end, I was shocked that the most important part of planting seeds was subordinated to a feeble ten minutes where we actually had to scatter the seeds that were placed inside balls of mud! Is this true compassion towards nature? Of course not. True passion comes from those people who like tiny cog wheels that operate actively but invisibly.

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