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Film review: The Biggest Little Farm

02 December 2019

Stephen Brown reviews a documentary about resurrecting the land

One of several young workers enthusiastic about helping with the project in The Biggest Little Farm

One of several young workers enthusiastic about helping with the project in The Biggest Little Farm

THE inspiration for the wildlife filmmaker John Chester’s The Biggest Little Farm (Cert. PG) was Albert Einstein’s words “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” The film, Chester says, explores the mystery behind the human condition, the infinite possibilities that we see in nature’s complexity. “We put ourselves in a situation where we are required to understand how we fit in and what level of control we may or may not have.” Spoken like a true Christian, but, if so, he never lets on in the film itself.

The nearest that Chester gets is his use of religious language such as grace, hope, and a reference to the season of Lent. Elsewhere, Chester said: “I saw God as the director. . . Personally I did not know how humbling it would be, but I came to understand and experience a freedom in humility.” The outcome is a film to evoke awe and wonder in believers or unbelievers — and not because life on the farm is just one idyllic moment after another.

Nature red in tooth and claw forever presents itself. John and his wife Molly are evicted from their Los Angeles home because of their dog Todd, who barks too much. It becomes a sign for the couple to take stock. Idealistic (some would say naïve), they invest, with the help of crowdfunding, in 200 acres of nutrient-deficient, drought-stricken farmland. Their aim is to resurrect it, using traditional farming methods, which, by their definition, involve motorised tractors, electrical equipment, etc. The difference is they are set on diversity in contrast to the conditions of neighbouring Californian industrial-scale farms specialising in only one product.

The film chronicles the course of eight years’ laborious effort. Mistakes are made. Certain principles are jettisoned. They lose hope that through the balance of nature things will necessarily rectify themselves. Shooting a coyote that is ravaging their chickens is done with deep regret and a sense of failure. More than that, it leaves them bewildered at human limitations in mastering the environment.

Amid breathtaking images of all creatures great and microscopic, we witness crops ruined by pests, raging fires, and ill-judged agricultural experiments. The documentary occasionally reads like the Book of Job. The Chesters tacitly ask what they have done to deserve all this, given how much they have been trying to harmonise with Mother Nature.

I did find myself wondering whether they worked quite as hard as the film makes out. By his own admission, John was also filming life on the farm 365 days a year, and the implication is that there was time for this as well as for the cultivation of the land. Also, he managed throughout the period to be making programmes for television, scooping several Emmy Awards in the process.

All strength to his arm, of course; but there is a residual sense that we are beholding a gentleman farmer in comparison with the 24/7 back-breaking toilers of the earth. While the pair come to a better understanding of how nature operates, they are no wiser than Job about why the Creator has made it so.

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