Back in December, the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Science announced the 15 films that’ll be competing for the Best Documentary Oscars, and it’s hard to find much fault with what’s on the shortlist. I Am Not Your Negro, O.J.: Made In America, Tower, Weiner, 13th, Fire At Sea… these are all outstanding films, examining serious problems. No one would (or should) argue against the importance of nonfiction filmmakers grappling with systemic racism, the refugee crisis, political scandals, and gun violence.
As is often the case with the Academy, though, it’s what’s not in contention that’s a little irksome. The Oscars in recent years have had little use for documentaries that offer up small, evocative, artful slices of real life, with no grand social comment or sweeping story to tell. These are movies that trace their lineage back through the likes of Les Blank, Charlotte Zwerin, the Maysles brothers, and even the early work of Errol Morris. They’re in the tradition of documentarians spending months or years with fascinating characters, looking to find some ineffable truth about real life that they could shape into cinema. Pictures like these are special but subtle, to the point of being hard to explain to anyone who expects documentaries to be magazine articles, not poems.
Last year’s Peter And The Farm never had a real shot at an Oscar, even though it was—in my opinion—easily one of the year’s five best docs. Perhaps if director Tony Stone had changed his angle of approach, and had made the film more about the plight of the American farmer in general, he would’ve drawn more attention. Peter And The Farm is more like a character sketch, detailing the grueling daily life of depressed, boozy, amusingly philosophical 68-year-old Vermonter Peter Dunning.
It wouldn’t have been that hard to turn Peter And The Farm into an advocacy doc. Dunning is an independent operator, who bought his land decades ago in a rush of counterculture idealism, with the thought that he’d grow his own food in the warm months and spend the winters writing and painting. He’s still holding on to a lot of the worldview that drove him into the countryside in the first place, and there are times in this movie where he seems on the verge of launching into a long rant about the oppressive thumb of corporate agribusiness. He clearly has a connection to his own property that people running bigger operations don’t, and as he talks about the children he’s conceived, the animals he’s lost, and the blood and tears he’s shed on his own ground, there’s a sense that Peter And The Farm is implicitly criticizing our modern, impersonal ways of producing and consuming food.
But if that’s all that Stone wanted his film to be, he would’ve used more of the tools that journalistic documentarians rely on, like on-screen text, animated facts and figures, and corroborating interviews with leading experts. Instead, the movie is mostly one long monologue from Dunning, cobbled together from roughly a year’s worth of shooting by Stone and his small crew. The only other voices the audience regularly hears in Peter And The Farm are the filmmakers’, and that’s mainly because Dunning keeps goading them into pitching in with the chores, and into pushing back against his angry bouts of self-pity.
Stone never really underlines what this film is “about,” per se. Dunning just starts talking and working, and as we follow him through his routines of planting, nourishing, and harvesting, he shares his insights into farming, along with pieces of his personal history. Only gradually does it become clear that this confidently opinionated, incredibly capable old man is also an alcoholic, who’s grown exhausted by the impossible effort it takes to tame and manage his land on his own. His life has gone through cycles where he’s had friends and family by his side and a flourishing farm, and then cycles where he’s driven everyone away and he gets by on pure cussedness. Peter And The Farm catches Dunning in one of the down times, which gets scarily dark once winter comes and he starts musing about suicide.
There’s nothing wrong with documentaries that are clear about what they’re showing and why. The year’s two best docs—I Am Not Your Negro and O.J.: Made In America—leave some room for interpretation, but for the most part are straightforward and accessible, pulling viewers along through the observations they want to make and the stories they want to tell. But there’s something to be said for Peter And The Farm’s haziness. The film is always lovely to look at, with Stone and his other camera operator Nathan Corbin emphasizing the natural light and colors of the farm to give everything a rich, golden-brown tone. Sometimes Stone and editor Maxwell Paparella even weaponize that beauty, by assembling montages of placid country life under audio of Dunning getting drunker and pricklier over the course of the day.
This may be the bigger reason why the Academy passed on Peter And The Farm—not just because it’s vague and elliptical, but because it’s about such a morose, difficult human being. But this, too, is something that sets the movie apart from the countless documentaries and art films that paint rural and working-class people as simple and stoic, silently enduring another day of indignity while keeping their thoughts to themselves. Dunning doesn’t fit any of the stereotypes of the elderly family farmer or the back-to-the-land reactionary. He’s led a colorful life and can tell spellbinding stories about everything from the logging accident that cost him two fingers to how, during his time in the service, he’d organize his fellow intoxicated Marines in West Side Story sing-alongs on the beach at Waikiki. His fussy artist’s soul also has him taking over the project from Stone at times, suggesting better shots and scenes.
To see Peter And The Farm only as an elusive, arty doc about a depressing subject misses the bigger picture of both Dunning’s life and Stone’s fascination with it. This movie genuinely marvels at the particulars of an operation that Dunning has long grown sick of, at the detailed notes he takes on the life cycles of his sheep, at the rickety old machinery that saws firewood and bales hay. Time spent with Peter Dunning is unforgettable, and in its own way worthwhile, whether or not the Academy can recognize it. Peter And The Farm finds the extraordinary within the ordinary, honoring the work of a non-famous person without feeling the need to turn him into a cause.