Tilda Swinton on making 'The Seasons in Quincy', four short films about maverick artist and thinker John Berger

The actress tells Geoffrey Macnab about their long-standing friendship and what inspired her

You catch glimpses of John Berger in his 1960s pomp in the new documentary about him that is premiering at the Berlin Film Festival. In one piece of archive black-and-white footage, we see him in an open-top sports car, driving through the night as he holds forth on modernism and modern art. That was when he was a critic on the BBC arts programme Monitor. To many young viewers who watched him on that show, or on his groundbreaking TV series Ways of Seeing, Berger was an inspirational figure – a counterpoint to the patrician Kenneth Clark, who was sternly taking viewers through art history in his series Civilisation, at around the same time. We see footage of him warning viewers that “the arranging of artists in an order of merit seems to me an idle game”. That, of course, was the opposite of what Clark had been telling them.

Berger in the 1960s and early 1970s was a ruggedly good-looking figure. He was a Marxist with panache and one of the few Brits with the charisma of continental intellectuals such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. He also had a knack for upsetting the establishment. When he won the Booker Prize for his 1972 novel G, he startled the TV audience by announcing that he would give half the money to the London-based Black Panther movement, as a protest against the sponsor's exploitive trading practices in the Caribbean.

It was the actress Tilda Swinton who had the idea of making a film about Berger. She and the producer and literary critic Colin MacCabe had just premiered their film Derek, about Derek Jarman (the British filmmaker who died in 1994), and Swinton told MacCabe they should now turn their attention to Berger.

“John always calls himself a storyteller rather than a writer,” Swinton says of Berger. They first met in the late 1980s, when MacCabe headed production at the British Film Institute. He produced a film based on a short story by Berger called Play Me Something, in which Berger himself appeared and Swinton had a small part. The old intellectual and the young actress immediately formed a close bond. Both were born in London, on 5 November – Berger in 1926, Swinton in 1960 – and their shared birthday has, as Swinton puts it, “formed a bedrock to our complicity, the practical fantasy of twinship”. Both also had military fathers who were reticent about the violence and slaughter they had witnessed (Berger's father on the Western Front in the First World War, Swinton's in the Second World War.)

Berger, now almost 90, has lived for many years in a small rural community in the French Alps. He and his wife, Beverly, moved to Quincy in the mid 1970s to understand, as the documentary puts it, “the lived experience of peasants”. It's easy to be cynical about the affluent English intellectual re-inventing himself as a French peasant. However, as MacCabe points out, Berger had realised that subsistence farming was soon going to end and he wanted to make a record of a vanishing lifestyle. He has written extensively about this rural life, for example in novels such as Pig Earth, Lilac and Flag and Once In Europa.

For Swinton, making the film was a chance to spend time with someone who had become a firm friend. “I wanted a glimpse of his gimlet eye and a blast of his company,” is how she puts it. “I went to find him in Quincy for a check-in, for a catch-up, for a chinwag.”

Swinton, MacCabe and their crew turned up at Berger's home in the midst of a snowstorm: “We got in two hours before they closed the roads,” says Swinton. When they finished shooting, Swinton promptly declared that, having been there in the dead of winter, they should make three more films reflecting the seasons. These were Spring, directed by Christopher Roth, who had also edited the footage of the first film, Ways of Listening; A Song for Politics, in which MacCabe made politics the focus; and Harvest, which Swinton directed and which is the most playful and intimate of the films. In it, Berger shows Swinton's teenage daughter how to ride a motorbike (until recently he had taken the machine “all the way across Europe”, we learn).

Berger may be the subject of the documentary but he continually deflects the attention on to his interviewers. Important moments in his life are mentioned in passing. The illness and death of Beverly, Berger's wife, took place during shooting but this is not brought to the foreground.

Like Swinton, MacCabe was a huge admirer of Berger. When Swinton first suggested a film about Berger, the burnt-out MacCabe had decided he no longer had the “stomach for another round of raising money”. However, he realised he could shoot the documentary inexpensively, using graduate students at The Derek Jarman Lab, part of Birkbeck, University of London. Part of it was edited in Swinton's home in Nairn, Scotland.

Berger made it clear he wasn't interested in a film chronicling his career and achievements. “John said that he would love us to come and see him but that the last thing he wanted to do was talk about his life,” MacCabe says. Anyone looking to The Seasons In Quincy for discussions of Berger's books or the controversies he has sparked will be disappointed. What the four-part film does offer, though, is something far more intimate and revealing: a portrait of its subject in which we get closer to him as a personality than a more conventional film could ever take us.

'The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits Of John Berger' is screening this week at the Berlin Film Festival. It will screen at the National Portrait Gallery in London in October