Sibbalt farm – it looks the same as other little farms, but – wow! – this is something I’d never seen before…
Many, many farms like the one in Women with Cows closed down during the second half of the 20th century. The structural transformation of Swedish agriculture has been huge and merciless. Therefore Sibbalt 1:10 with its red and white dairy cows, all with their horns intact, is a remarkable exception; a remnant and a refuge from a world that has just about disappeared for good. I happened to set foot there at a very specific turning-point in our country's agricultural history: I got to meet the last hand-milking farmers in the country and managed to document the last days of a farm that reflected a traditional way of life for millions of Swedes for hundreds of years. Women with Cows follows the life of half a dozen dairy cows and two hand-milking sisters, performing their duties morning and night, the trembling finale of a very long epoch.
There is a beautiful maple tree just outside the stables, meant to protect the house from the strong winds. Just before I came there, it had lost a huge branch in a storm named Per. It seemed like a sign that even this mighty tree had grown tired of standing up to the destructive energies brought upon us by the future. Everything in life must sooner or later be transformed into something new. Chance had sent me here. My hope was to be able to show the world how life is shaped where the act of milking is a mainstay of life throughout the seasons, where the mechanical instrument is inferior to the human eye when it comes to seeing what the cow – and her body – needs.
Grass and its transformation to milk in the many stomachs of the cow, is the principal reason that mankind has survived on these latitudes since the Ice Age. Cow milk is the fat drink of the Gods. And cow dung is the farmer’s brown gold. In actual fact all this is nothing but grass, leaves and herbs - sophistically refined. Winds of change have mercilessly changed the countryside, which still reverberates with the noise from old truths being torn up by the roots and blown away into oblivion. But in Sibbalt, despite local low-pressure fronts passing between the sisters, I found the serenity of being inside the eye of the hurricane during the entire three years I spent there.
Britt, the crippled one, had a unique ability to persuade everyone around her to help her. She had a strange way of asking people, making clear that the well-being of the cows was more important than her own need to be tactful. She seized every opportunity and it was almost impossible to say no to her. One does not say no to an old woman with a humpback. As a result, I would shovel dung and carry bales of hay after a few hours of shooting on the farm. I became another man-around-the-house for odd jobs and we developed a relationship that benefited both of us.
- Britt I'd like to interview you.
- You cannot because I have to milk two cows, and then I need to clean out the booths.
- But Britt, I can do that; we’ll get some free time for a chat when it's done.
- Yes, that’s a good idea Peter, but don’t forget to fill up the bathtubs in the field with water too!
Everyone around Britt was put to work and never got a “thank you” back. She made us feel as if we should rather thank her. We've got to meet her lovely cows, heifers, calves and Fille the bull of course, the leisurely gentleman of the fields.
I hear my phone ringing:
- Is that you Peter? I have problems! I've called for people all morning, but no one can come. Where are you?
This is Britt pleading with me. I'm on tour with a film in Halland, not far from the farm, but I feel no wish to reveal this, because I simply don’t have time to help her. This calls for an outright lie:
- Hey Britt! Unfortunately, I'm in northern Sweden.
I’ve spoken with precaution. There is a long silence at the other end. Britt is thinking. Then she exclaims enthusiastically:
- Yes, but if you drive all night you should be able to get here by tomorrow afternoon!
Inger, the younger sister, put in such a huge job of taking care of her older sister, that the municipality appointed her as caretaker for Britt. For this Inger gets invited to a few sightseeing tours by bus every year. I have to promise not to tell Britt about the reward, because she doesn’t think that Inger gets very much done on the farm. Nevertheless, one day Inger is traveling in a bus full of caretakers. They stop for coffee and suddenly a woman stands up, points at Inger and talks loudly in a patronizing way, so that everyone around the table can hear:
- Inger, I don’t understand how you can allow this filmmaker to run around you all day, filming everything you do. I would never allow such thing!
- But you see, Inger says (at that point she also stands up and looks coolly at her), I'm sure that the filmmaker would never find it interesting to film your senseless life!
After which Inger gives off a quiet sigh.
- Oh, the witches we have living here in Halland!
Almost the entire film is shot within a radius of a few hundred meters from the dunghill. That’s where all the action is. Three years of constant interaction with the two sisters left an indelible mark, with Britt and Inger really playing out their respective personalities in front of the camera. The Sibbalt sisters may have been constantly bickering among themselves, but they put a gilt edge on my life.
The film is simply about what is most important in life. For Inger, the younger sister, it is the two grandchildren, two boys who live an hour’s ride from the farm. If it weren’t for "the damned cows” she would spend much more time with them. For this reason, the unique heard of milk cows, all still with their horns, are turning into her life’s worst enemies. Britt is completely the opposite. How could a single day in her life be meaningful without her lovely cows? And she is willing to go to great lengths to maintain this happy life.
Britt is probably the greatest cow lover in the universe. The cows are her life and everything else is pointless. The barn is her own kingdom and Britt simply shuts off the outside world with all its hustle and bustle. She’s busy hastening between inglorious, but endlessly significant chores. Can anything be better than to care for her beloved animals? Her furry children need her and she needs them.
Years pass and Britt stays inside her protected bubble, where the cows give her everything she ever dreamed of. The cows have gradually taken over her life, simply because she let it happen. Britt has lost connection with other small everyday futilities and focuses only on what is essential in life: the cows. The fact that Inger must tend to the tasks where Britt fails, seems only quite natural to Britt. They are, after all, sisters. There are days when Inger will catch herself thinking: Britt is willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of these cows, including me. What does Britt really think? Nothing, she just lives and enjoys life, as long as it lasts.
Sweden's last hand-milking farmers sell their hand-milked produce to the large dairy giant. The milk truck drives all the way up to the sister’s farm, but can barely turn around in the barnyard; it was created for a different kind of farm life. The milk truck evokes thoughts of massive, impersonal milk farms. Britt’s cows are individuals in a homely atmosphere. Modernity seems threatening and is never an alternative. And after all, she has Inger to do most of the modern tasks...
Everything changes so strangely through different eyes and times. Shimmering rain in the gray soil, turns to black soil, which gives green grass and white milk and brown dung, while red and yellow sparks fly from two sisters who still live under the same blue sky. Life shifts in all colours of the rainbow, when you enter the mysterious puzzle that makes up Women with Cows.