The flax men
Two years ago, the last flax farm in Gullegem, West Flanders, shut its doors. It was run by two brothers, Walter and Wilfer Devos, who still put on their overalls and worked seven days a week despite being well past retirement age.
The final year in the life of a West Flanders farm
Brussels-based filmmaker Jan Lapeire grew up just a few hundred metres from the Devos farm. He picked up his camera and headed back to the land of his youth to document the brothers’ final flax harvest.
Although he may not have realised it would be the last. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, flax farming made West Flanders rich. But it is labour intensive, and globalisation – including China’s entry into the flax market – has decimated the small flax farms in Flanders. Only the large manufacturers remain.
The Devos brothers have, over the last 50 years, stubbornly refused to modernise the farm or to bring it up to environmental codes. If their methods were good enough for their father, they were good enough for them. Hence, the Devos flax farm is a place where time stood still. From the machinery to the clock on the wall, this film could have been shot in the 1970s or the 1950s, and it would have looked exactly the same.
Lapeire did all the camera work himself for the 75-minute documentary to impose as little as possible on the day-to-day workings of the farm. His methodical, quiet film contains no commentary save that of the brothers and their few workers, as they go about the harvest and process the flax (which is used to make linen and yarn) into beautifully soft strands that look like long, blonde hair.
The brothers struggle to use their cell phones, to repair punctured tires, to sell their harvest over the border in France. All the while, they talk of other flax farmers who have finally given up and the faceless government inspectors who want to close them down. At 73, Walter finally becomes unable to work and admits that he is not handling his retirement well. “Two people in the village have hung themselves – people like me. I’m depressed.”
Vlasman (Flaxman) takes awhile to warm up to – you might, in fact, find yourself close to the end before you really begin to appreciate the richness of the material. It is not really a film about flax production, rather it’s a film about growing old, giving up a life you have always known and not being able to adjust to another. The Devos brothers feel that they, like their farm, have grown obsolete.
Vlasman screens on 28 February at Budascoop in Kortrijk and is available on DVD