Review: Peter and the Farm (Stone, 2016) – SFIFF 2016


Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Peter Dunning–farmer, artist, poet–owns and operates Vermont’s Mile Hill Farm, a nearly two-hour drive from Burlington, the state’s largest city. Vermont, which produced Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, is the second least populous state in the country and is 75-percent forested. In the midst of these rural environs, Dunning works, and drinks, alone, a solitary man in solitary country.

But he is not without friends. His family may have deserted him or been driven away, but, at times, there have been interns and, now, director Tony Stone and his crew. The men, who help Dunning with farm chores and drive him to replenish his alcohol stores, also become close confidantes. At one point, Dunning drunkenly muses that he feels closer to them than to anyone else in the world.

It is unusual in a documentary for the behind-the-camera people to become such pronounced presences in their own film. But I like it that way. It seems more honest somehow, to show that relationships do–in fact, must–form between documentarian and subject, that these relationships at least affect if not outright alter the stories being told. In Peter and the Farm, Dunning’s relationship with the crew is very much a part of the story, however undesired this outcome might have been initially. (At one point we hear someone saying that he’ll need to find a way to cut his own voice from the scene; apparently that never happened.)

Such a development might have been inevitable because Dunning, a Luddite and a man living alone, doesn’t–perhaps can’t–ignore the cameras and the presence of the “movie people,” as he calls them. He talks to them; he argues with them; he berates them. And they talk, argue, and berate back. Cinéma vérité. Anthropological moviemaking–if one man can be said to constitute an anthropological study.

But the film stops disappointingly short of giving us a fuller picture of Peter. By Peter’s request, Stone allows Dunning’s stories to come organically, which means that some stories don’t come at all. Why  have Peter’s family left? What makes him feel depressed? Peter and the Farm is short on insights–in fact, seems uninterested in even probing that rich and, for the most part, ill-guarded territory.

Halfway making up for the film’s main shortcoming, however, is its stunning cinematography. It’s the lush, lingering shots of Peter’s picturesque farm that steal the show. What imprints in the mind is the warm light slanting through a universe of dust; snow falling gently, thickly; a full moon throbbing behind bare tree branches. Mile Hill Farm is as much a character in the documentary as Dunning–maybe even more so. Still, pretty pictures don’t drive the film forward. At time the documentary lags, giving you enough time to wonder if it could have been so much more.