Sometimes skepticism is healthy, and sometimes it is not. All too often, however, it is impossible to tell to which side one’s skepticism belongs. As an example, take director John Chester’s documentary, “The Biggest Little Farm.”
The piece focuses on Chester and his wife, Molly, as they attempt to transform a failed farm into a thriving and successful one. The audience watches as John’s voiceover explains the reasons for their move from city to country as well as so many of the trials and tribulations that they undergo over a multi-year period making their new home a success.
It is, on a surface level, a brilliant and beautiful work. Some of the shots are utterly spectacular and the very notion of taking this farm—which had been foreclosed on twice in the recent past—and turning it into a diverse ecosystem with a multitude of crops and animals is thrilling.
Then, the questions start creeping in.
John is a filmmaker turned farmer… except that he’s not, is he? He’s filming everything that takes place at the farm. Is the farm then, in part, being underwritten by the film? Is he taking other jobs during this project to help support the farm?
Early on, John talks about how they found investors for the farm, and then the investors are never mentioned again… even when he states that they ran through their first year’s budget in just six months. By the end of the movie, when the farm is, seemingly, thriving, are the investors being paid back or is it just that crops are now growing in abundance?
There are a whole lot of people working on the farm who seem to be interns. Are they being paid or providing free labor? The farm’s website implies the latter. If the farm is then a success but partially because these people aren’t being paid, is it actually a success?
If the farm is working financially, exactly why do they start doing tours of it? Said tours, again according to the website, are not free.
If this type of traditional farming works so well, why has it fallen out of favor? No one would suggest that the Chesters have it easy, but if they can have a profitable farm in under a decade, why isn’t it just the way things are done?
These are just a few of the plethora of questions that crop up watching “The Biggest Little Farm,” and the movie answers none of them. It is wholly focused on its story of building the farm from nothing to something special, and there can be no doubt that the Chesters have done just that.
The overarching point of the documentary though, the reason for the farm, is to show that we can have a more natural approach to farming, that it is better for the land, that it is better for the animals, that it is better for the people. That it is better for the Earth as a whole. But over and over again it feels like this farm is able to thrive based on a very particular, not reproducible, set of circumstances.
By no means is any of the above meant to state unequivocally that what takes place at this farm is wrong, nor that this critic has the answers to the questions. It is merely a fact that the movie inexorably leads towards this line of questioning and no matter how pretty it is, no matter how much we root for the Chesters, no matter how much we want it all to be true, as a documentary it fails to be convincing. The argument built has all the appearances of a house of cards. It may be real and it may be sturdy, but we just can’t tell.
photo credit: Neon