OBITUARIES - Frédéric Back and my Memories of "The Man Who Planted Trees"

Animator Frédéric Back (1924-2013) holds a special place in my heart. I never met him in person, but his work had a profound effect on me. One of the greatest things about Back's work is that no one can be unaffected by the beauty of his vision.

I still remember the first time I saw one of his films. I was about 10 years old and attending Canadian Yearly Meeting (CYM) at Pickering College in Newmarket, Ontario. I was in the basement of Pickering College with several other youths and we had several Betamax tapes to watch when we weren't participating in the CYM youth program. The only film I remember, of the many we watched, was Back's "The Man Who Planted Trees". Seeing Back's beautiful paintings mysteriously come to life was as mesmerizing as the story he wove. At that time the only animation style I was familiar with was the one being used for the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (1987-1996) - and I'm not ashamed to admit I was a huge fan. As someone who had already been tutored in watercolor painting by his great-grandmother and someone who was already reading all of the art books he could find, seeing Back's work had a fairly immediate impact on me.


Oddly enough, the opening scene of "The Man Who Planted Trees" reminded me of the final scene of the "Planet of the Apes", which featured the Statue of Liberty on a beach and an astronaut seeing it who then realized that he was indeed on Earth and that humanity had virtually wiped itself out through a near cataclysmic conflict. Somehow, that final scene revealed my own mortality to me. It's quite something to truly grasp the reality of your own mortality and that moment of realization still haunts me a little to this day. After seeing the "Planet of the Apes" I didn't sleep properly for weeks. Especially when I extrapolated the concept of my own mortality to that of the entire human race.  You see, even at 10 years old I'd already read Robert Del Tredici's "At Work in the Fields of the Bomb", my parents were active members in Ploughshares, and the Cold War was only just starting to de-frost.

You might wonder how the "Planet of the Apes" film would tie into Back's work for me. Seeing the opening to Back's "The Man Who Planted Trees" cued up the same emotional despair in me as the end of "Planet of the Apes", but as Back's film progressed my despair turned to hope. Hope that one person can have a positive impact on the world, even if all else seems lost at the time. It also gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, humanity wouldn't only be a small negative blip on the timeline of the cosmos. Admittedly, I became a rather idealistic kid after that - and I still am in many ways. That's because I also believe that the idea that one person's actions can have a positive impact is a concept that will outlast each of its mortal proponents, because as long as our species exists that concept will have the power to live forever thanks to inspirational works like "The Man Who Planted Trees".

So let us raise a glass to Frederick's work, and his legacy as one of the greatest animators Canada, and the world, has ever seen. Here's to beauty, here's to hope, and here's to you, Frederick Back, who brought both to this world.

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