My stereotyped Sundance film-goer is not much interested in farming. Nature (theoretically), maybe. And of course good directing and camera skills, and a compelling story. The Friday, January 26 screening at the Tower Theater in Salt Lake City was packed to capacity and it was hard to tell who came for what. Whatever the lure, The Biggest Little Farm delivered—along with lots of baby animals, which never hurts.
The story of an L.A. couple, Molly and filmmaker John Chester (she, a private chef; he, a nature photographer), spans eight years. Motivated by their barking dog (a rescue who will have none of being left alone in their small apartment), they finally act on their (well, her) dream to own a working farm. They locate an abandoned, drought-stricken avocado and lemon orchard just south of the city, find someone willing to finance their dream, and the journey begins.
The heart of the story is Alan York, a quixotic character in his early 60s with deep skills and a sense of Molly and John’s vision. Hired as their consultant, York stresses the absolute importance of, first and foremost, growing good soil. A massive worm-composting project ensues, and you can see from the start this is no ordinary farming operation.
It’s a food-chain story, typically seen in nature films but here it involves farm animals whose owners are trying their best to live and let live. We cheer their too-good-to-be-true early successes, then sink as the plot turns toward pestilence and predators. Their resolve is sorely tested, but the wisdom of York (whom we learn after the film was a renowned biodynamic viniculturist), prevails. York picked up on their dream and plotted for them a future that is still unfolding, years after his 2014 death.
York’s message, repeated with confidence, was that over time, working with nature would pay off. A coyote preyed on their chickens, again and again. Eventually they opted to kill the coyote—what else could they do? But the fowl kept getting killed, and night-vision cameras revealed a host of other midnight marauders. Without the coyote, the groundhog population grew. So they built houses for owls, and eventually the owls came, preying on the rodents. Snails took over an orchard, consuming the leaves, until Chester evidently heard the line often repeated in permaculture circles, “You don’t have a surplus of snails; you have a deficit of ducks.” (The row I was sitting in definitely contained some holistically oriented farmers; I distinctly heard a hiss, “Ducks! Get ducks!”) The scene of ducks leaping higher and higher to snatch snails encrusting the fruit tree trunks was hilarious.
They learn as they go—at one point, Chester sutures an injured lamb, cellphone propped up as he follows instructions on YouTube. The house is littered with piles of books. John Chester admits, in the Q&A after the film, that he had not thought to document their project until four years into it. That explains the cheerful animation with which the film unfolds, telling the story of how this plot (literally and figuratively) began, after a blistering opening scene of heavy smoke and anxious animals as one of last year’s Southern California fires looms over a nearby hill. (Spoiler alert: The wind changes and they are saved.) The rest of the film reminds one repeatedly that this film is being made by an award-winning nature photographer—shots gotten only with good doses of patience, and breathtakingly beautiful drone shots that best show off the progress with the farm. But Chester reveals afterward that much of the The Biggest Little Farm was shot by Wwoofers (usually college-age students participating in World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms—a sort of farm internship), often on their smartphones. One Wwoofer-cum-cameraman present at the Q&A attested to the long hours spent crouched in a peach tree waiting for a butterfly to emerge from its chrysalis.
I’m glad someone in the audience asks why the film was named The Biggest Little Farm. Chester’s reply harkens back to a scene in the film of the Milky Way as seen from the farm on a clear night and he, as narrator, says, “I spin inside that which I see.” In cultivating biodiversity, the farm becomes self-sustaining, self-contained, regenerative; sacred. Ours is one planet around a sun among an endless supply of suns, as the sky on a clear night demonstrates. “This planet,” says Chester, “is the biggest little farm.”
The Biggest Little Farm has one last go-round at Sundance on Saturday, February 2, 6pm at the Library Center Theatre in Park City before it is released into theaters April 5. Recommended for all ages.