"They call us the bargemen or the canalmen, those who work the decks while those on shore are the terra firma landlubbers, there’s a difference."
The super 8 family archives of Daniel Wattiau takes us back to this bygone era when canal craft evoked a free and itinerant way of life, this idyllic image rooted in the collective imagination of popular culture. Jean-Claude, a young bargeman offers a contemporary counterpoint relayed by the testimonies of retired mariners of Longueil- Annel. This village still keeps the histories and living testimonies of these ''water people'' passing on their heritage through the waterway festival.
Flat edge, macaroon, ecouart, odds and ends, scull, boulard, marquise ... so many words which in my ears had very little resonance. And yet all this strange jargon became familiar to me when I got in touch with the elders of Longueil Annel when in 2008, charged by the museum of inland waterways, I carried out a dozen interviews with couples of former boatmen. It was the discovery of Daniel Wattiau's Super 8 archives that convinced me to continue my work with this documentary project. They evoke the timelessness and poetry of Jean Vigo's "Atalante" and allow me to anchor the world of inland shipping in the collective imagination in a cinematic way.
Longueil Annel, a city of boatmasters memory
Longueil-Annel is a town located in the department of Oise in the Picardy region. The inhabitants have for the most part a bond with the inland waterways. They are a part of history, of boat memory and it is not for nothing that on the day of disembarking they choose to settle here, near the canal. Here, the side canal at the Oise, built in 1835, allowed more traffic for the barges.
Between 1900 and 1950 the abundant activity of river transport still gave the village a particular color. Thus, the village and its thirty cafes and breweries could count in the evening up to 400 more inhabitants and a hundred boats waiting. The story of the "people on board", which I want to tell, is rooted in this village, an essential crossroads of waterways. The natural decor of the quays crossing this village is today so calm, almost deserted, while yesterday it was teeming with life, passages, shops and exchanges ...
Daniel Wattiau's super 8 family archives: "Happy who like Ulysses had a great trip"
Daniel Wattiau is an 88-year-old retired sailor who lived in Conflans St Honorine. In the seventies, he filmed on his boat "Le Rove", his family and his travels for ten years. His images take us to the Haute Seine, Belgium, Amsterdam, Rouen, Zeeland etc. By the eye of his camera we navigate on all types of canals, at sea, we pass lying dams, we cross cities, small corners of wild countryside.
The technical and artistic quality of Super 8 films is remarkable. The spectator is truly immersed in the intimacy of the family, the boat, the life of a sailor. The father brilliantly films moments of daily joy, recreational and playful moments from which emanate a feeling of freedom, an impression of continuous movement.
The old boatmen-guides, the living pieces of the museum
They are passers of knowledge, know-how ... They take a guided tour of their own life, the last concrete link that allows them to express their passion, their way of life, their freedom of yesteryear. The Longueuil boatmen association is, for them, the last outlet of a new sedentary life. They enlighten visitors on an unknown world, a profession whose reputation has long been blackened by illiteracy and alcohol.
In activity, they found their balance in the movement. Retired, they are from a certain point of view unsuited to this new life, that of "people on the ground". To understand them, we must think of the emotion of travelers who, discouraged by the shipping crisis of the 70s, made the decision to disembark with their wife; it means giving up the job of water transport, and especially life on board which they have practically never left since their birth.
This emotional shock made them want to make known this job, by oral expression . They have known the whole evolution of inland waterway transport, from hauling to modern self-propelled vessels. The history of their successive boats is an example of the evolution of boatmen. More than "guides" of the boat city, they are its soul. They participate in the cultural life on board, and share their experience with the visitors.
Jean-Claude Biencourt is 26 years old, he is the 7th generation of boatman in the family. He sails between La Fère in the Aisne and Gennevilliers in the Paris region. He chose to be an employee at Cemex, a company that manufactures and transports gravel for public works, preferring job security and getting closer to his son. Each transport of gravel takes 2 days, and when it has unloaded, it goes back empty in 1 and a half days to La Fère to start again.
Its Freycinet type boat is nothing modern, no radar , no autopilot, not even a propellant, just a good old-fashioned "old-fashioned" badge, as he says. Jean-Claude apprehends the visit of the expert who comes to check his compliance with navigation standards.
Il vit seul désormais sur son bateau depuis que sa fiancée qui a essayé de vivre à bord a débarqué. Une fois par semaine, il débarque à Beautor et va voir son fils de 2 ans et demi qui vit avec sa mère à Tergnier. Deux jours avant le pardon de la batellerie, il ponce, repeint et pavoise son bateau. Après l’avoir embellit de belles couleurs, il attache méticuleusement, un à un, une trentaine de drapeaux…c’est la première fois qu’il participe au «pardon». Ses grands-parents avant lui y avaient participé, il assure donc «la relève» avec fierté. Mais les difficultés s’accumulent et Jean-Claude songe à tout arrêter.