I saw 5 movies today at the New Hampshire Film Festival – Peter And The Farm was the first, and it’s the one I can’t stop thinking about. It isn’t a perfect film; the film makers are having a little too much fun experimenting with their fancy cameras, content to show you their prowess with focus/unfocus on a brightly lit night sky. But they get top marks for subject: A+++.
Peter Dunning, farmer, is the star of the documentary. He’s like no one you’ve ever met. He’s an artist who took up farming as way to sustain his art. But farming has overwhelmed his life. He fell in love with it, put it ahead of everything else, neglecting his art, his health, his numerous wives and children, who all have left him. Now it’s just him and the farm, a derelict little operation he has grown to loathe. And the memories that haunt him. And the alcohol that soothes him.
Rarely seen without a bottle of something in his hand, Peter is a legendary story-teller with a bottomless bag of tales to tell, grateful to finally have an audience again. He performs his farm work dutifully but grudgingly, the brutal realities of farm life a lonely cautionary tale. Sean and I agreed that Peter has a philosophical soul, and that that might just be his undoing. Alone on the land, he’s got nothing but quiet hours of drudgery for thinking, thinking, and more thinking. And most of his thoughts revolve around the pointlessness of existence in general, and his life’s work specifically. The only thing that gets him through the day is fantasizing about his suicide.
Peter is an endlessly fascinating character, but he’s a real, flesh and blood man with real demons. This is a documentary, and you can never forget that the stakes are real, and that the man selling you beets at the farmer’s market this Sunday might just be thinking of going home and putting a shotgun in his mouth. The honesty is beautiful but there’s a tormented soul on display, and that’s tougher to watch than the sheep gutting and the cow gynecology. Rural Vermont looks gorgeous but you get a very real sense that this one-time utopia has now turned into a prison and Peter, one way or another, is serving a life sentence.