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Just a short train ride away from the glamour and glitz of Cannes sits the Roya Valley, nestled at the foot of the Alps between Italy and France. It is there that hundreds of African migrants try to make their way each year across the border in the hopes of obtaining political asylum, braving the harsh terrain while trying to stay clear of the police, who constantly patrol the frontier and deport anyone they pick up.
When Cedric Herrou, a 38-year-old olive and chicken farmer who lives on the French side of the valley, began to see men, women and children — most of them Sudanese or Eritrean — showing up on his land scared, starving, in need of shelter or medical attention, he decided to do something about it. Providing food and a bed for anyone he could help, making excursions over to Italy to bring migrants safely into France and eventually escorting them to the city of Nice to apply for asylum, Herrou refused to cast a blind eye to the suffering of others. He quickly became a local hero (to those who joined his “underground railroad”) or a nuisance (to a few neighbors and the police), was arrested and sent to trial several times, debated the French interior minister on national television and was even profiled in The New York Times.
In the documentary To the Four Winds (Libre), Herrou’s friend Michel Toesca trailed the farmer over the course of two years, following his many excursions through the woods, on trains and in cars, and then into the courthouse as he tried to assist hundreds of asylum-seekers on their quest to find refuge. Shot in a rough you-are-there style, with the director forever on the move as he chronicles Herrou’s actions, this Cannes special screening should drum up interest in France and other European nations where the migrant issue remains both crucial and unresolved.
Herrou was just a regular country bumpkin, tending his chickens and olive trees, or drinking beer at night with his buddies, when African migrants began showing up on his doorstep as they attempted to cross over from Italy into France. Like any good Samaritan, he decided to feed and house those in need, and then began helping them travel to Nice so they could apply for asylum before being deported back to Italy, where they would try to make the journey all over again.
As more migrants began arriving — in one scene we see as many as 90 people living on the property — the cops and local authorities began to crack down, rounding up families and arresting Herrou several times. “Tell me what to do!” he pleads with them when they are unable to explain how he should deal with immigrant minors who, under French law, have the right to protection, or else with families that include small children. At one point he obtains the legal permission to accompany the migrants to Nice, only to have a judge reverse the decision, which puts his support network in jeopardy.
Herrou is at the center of a very hot-button issue and is unafraid to confront those in power — “We don’t respect the law because you don’t respect the law,” he says to one official — and over the course of the film he becomes an unlikely national hero, proudly marching through the hills as he leads the migrants on their long path to potential freedom. There is never a doubt where Toesca stands on the immigrant question, but he also tries to frame Herrou’s actions within the history of the Roya Valley, where people have been crossing borders for thousands of years — including Italians at the beginning of the last century and Jews during World War II.
While the camera is focused mostly on Herrou, we also get to meet some of the people he helps — some of them very young families with infants in tow — as well as those who help him, including other folks from the region who decided they could not sit idly by as the situation around them deteriorated. We also see the police trying (or not) to enforce the law, with one disturbing sequence, set in the Cannes train station, showing a cop bullying both migrants and the activists trying to protect them.
Tech credits are very low-fi, with Toesca shooting off-the-cuff both day and night (he uses night-vision for some of the latter sequences), capturing events as they quickly unfold. A playful score by Magic Malik adds a light touch to a rather dark situation, and even if the film leaves one with a bitter aftertaste, there is no denying Herrou’s valiant efforts to aid his fellow man.
Production company: SaNoSi Productions
Cast: Cedric Herrou
Director: Michel Toesca
Producer: Jean-Marie Gigon
Director of photography: Michel Toesca
Editors: Catherine Libert, Michel Toesca
Composer: Magic Malik
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
In French, English, Italian
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