Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 08, 2016 5:29 pm 
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Touchingly real documentary portrait of a lone organic farmer in Vermont

The articulate, instantly engaging narrator of this docu-portrait is Peter Dunning, a former artist with Sixties hippie sympathies for whom since he was 35, 35 years ago, his 187-acre Mile Hill Farm in rural Vermont has been more important than anything else. "I am the farm and the farm is me," he says, in part of an articulate running commentary that bursts from every vivid frame. Tony Stone's intimate camera follows even the dirty, brutal side of the work, like Peter butchering, skinning, and gutting a sheep and a vet reaching inside a cow to see if she's pregnant and wrestling with an aging John Deere hay bailing machine, with the eagerness of a young man eager to learn from someone with deep experience.

Peter Dunning is a flawed individual and partly an unlucky one. His switch to farming away from a possible career as a painter and sculptor, which he studied to be when young, may be connected to a hand mangled working at a saw mill in his late twenties. What emerges is a life of endurance and dedication that has rather soured over the years as livestock have died out (coyotes have done serious harm in the past year), the buildings have sagged, the weeds have grown, and the man who has done all the work alone has aged and grown into deeper and more dangerous alcoholism. This idyllic place has become a prison in the years -- he says the farm was at its peak of production, when friends and family were all working happily together, in 1999 -- since his wife has run out on him (he's lost two marriages) and his grown children now won't even talk to him on the phone any more. And, worst of all, he knows the drinking is eating away at his soul. Thoughts of suicide seem a daily thing. The F-word flies in every sentence. The tough work of the farm that looked like fun 35 years ago now doesn't.

This is, of course, not an "objective" film. Would cool detachment while filming a man living and describing his life on the land even make sense? Not when Dunning says he feels closer to the filmmaker and his cameraman, than he ever has to any men. They stay out of Dunning's way, but the grown-closeness shows when Stone (sometimes glimpsed) worries or seems to criticize and Dunning seems wounded or angry. But mostly the sense of a seasoned relationship works well, shows in the film's way of making you feel you're there, watching, listening, smelling the barn smells while Dunning tells his stories and explains his processes. And he tells all and explains all clearly and vividly from first to last, the reason why this is a watchable and worthwhile film.

Peter and the Farm, 92 mins., shows in the True/False documentary festival 6 March 2016 and New Directors/New Films, 24 March 9:00 p.m. at MoMA and Friday, March 25, 6:30 p.m. at Lincoln Center. Screened as part of ND/NF for this review.

US release Fri. 4 Nov. 2016 (Metrograph Theater, NYC) and on VOD.

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