John Seven | Viewer's Discretion: Films explore farm life, facing a terminal illness

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The most recent, as of this writing, in an apparently endless string of breakout documentaries, "The Biggest Little Farm" wears its crowd-pleasing qualities on its sleeve. If you like infused-sentimentality, then you're going to love the film. If that's not your thing, I'd suggest seeing it anyway and not letting swelling soundtrack music, sweeping farm vistas and the occasional philosophically mushy narration get in your way, because "The Biggest Little Farm" is well worth your time despite these affectations.

Chronicling the efforts of married couple John and Molly Chester to not just farm, but actually create a farm that embraces biodiversity as its central working tenet, the film is visually rich in capturing the minutiae of what happens to the land as they work it, warts and all, thanks to John's background as a wildlife cinematographer. Capturing an eight-year period that will see the farm transform from a ravaged, unkempt property to a well-managed, lush achievement, the film captures the nuts and bolts of farming thanks to the circumstances that inevitably come from setting up a new one.

I've seen and reviewed plenty of farm and agriculture films, and feel most of them are bogged down by preachy aspects that rub agendas in the viewers' faces and don't seem to understand that lectures don't convince those who need to hear them. The Chesters allow their work on the farm to stand as its own argument for their methods, doing the hard work of creating a biodiverse farm that requires problem-solving and wildlife management decisions rather than relying on chemical or firearm solutions to everything. And by demonstrating in real-world terms the concept of biodiversity and the way nature works as a whole mechanism, the film does more to address climate change than any documentary I've seen that actually focuses on the issue.

And despite the relentlessness of the inspirational cheery tone, I appreciated its presentation of the darker side of farming. It turns out there's no way to eat food produced by humans that don't involve animal death, it's just that the deaths from produce are hidden and orchestrated. That's the sort of revelation "The Biggest Little Farm" provides, and if you are willing to dispense some pre-conceived notions before watching it — whether they are about climate change or pesticide or anything else — you'll learn something and not even notice you're being taught, diverted by fascinating nature footage and some good animal chuckles.


Death is the condition of life that we don't speak of too often or too openly. We talk about it happening, of course, but the nitty-gritty of what happens when we die is not considered appropriate conversation. As a result, many of us fear it. We fear the pain of it, we fear the unknown aspects. In British director Steven Eastwood's film, "Island," the audience faces death front and center, in all its details, both agonizing and mundane.

Eastwood spent time with terminal patients on the Isle of Wight, turning his camera on what it's like to wait, and wait, and wait for an ending. There are various kinds of people profiled — for instance, one older man is bedridden and has difficulty communicating, at the mercy of the kindness of nurses, who wheel his bed outside every day to give him a chance for a peaceful smoke under the blue sky. Another, a kind of normal Joe dad, is grappling with terminal cancer and whether he cares to take his medication, circumstances that are complicated by the presence of his young daughter, who is old enough to understand and who he wants to be straightforward with.

Eastwood captures the process of dying at all stages, including the very final moments of one subject, which is unexpected by the director and breaks the illusion of a dispassionate documentary when he finds out. But Eastwood's eye is an elegant one, capturing the beauty of humans on the wane even as he does the same with the processes of island living. It's a rough movie to watch at times, but Eastwood transforms that difficulty into something ultimately rewarding and revealing.



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