The main problem I often have with docos is the phenomenon known as re-enactments. Nothing takes me out of the narrative more, or makes me squirm more uncomfortably than a shoddy re-enactment. Even if they’re well handled, at the very least they draw attention to the layers of falsity surrounding ‘true’ stories.
The Real Dirt on Farmer John doesn’t suffer from this, or at least doesn’t seem to. The film is filled with authentic footage of John Peterson, from the filming his mother did when he was little, to his own camerawork in his teens and twenties, and then the stuff filmed by director Taggart Siegel. It’s an extraordinary collection of images that help make this doco so rewarding. John himself narrates the film and overall the tale flows beautifully.
The initial image of John in a dress riding a tractor sidesaddle is perhaps misleading. The film is about a man who loves farming with all his heart, but is mistrusted by the people around him simply cos he’s a little more expressive that the average monosyllabic Midwest farmer. It’s hard to keep a straight face as one of John’s neighbours admits that he spread rumours of Satan worshipping at the Peterson farm purely cos he was concerned that his own cattle were getting restless with all the ‘coming and going’.
This coming and going refers to the sort of commune John hosted in the 70s, along with fellow art students from his college. His artistic inclinations, seemingly so out of place in such a vocation, are what make him so interesting. John periodically tries to give up on the family farm, but it keeps drawing him back. We see him through the tough times in the 80s – when so many nearby farms were caving in – during his journeys south to gather his thoughts and write, and eventually towards a very uplifting conclusion.
The film delves into the relatively recent notion of community-sponsored agriculture, which illustrates how communities have adapted rather than simply dissolving in the wake of commercial (and chemically-focussed) farming. I realise it’s really hard to sell this film, but I assure you it’s worth it. I was genuinely surprised at just how thought provoking and entertaining this doco was, particularly for someone who’s rarely ever gotten dirt on their hands (literally, that is…).Rating: