“The Real Dirt on Farmer John” examines 50-odd years in the life of its eponymous subject — a most compelling character — and in doing so literally provides the viewer with food for thought. Winner of the Audience Award for best documentary feature at Slamdance, pic is already sprouting up at a bevy of other festivals and, backed by strong critical support, stands a definite shot at specialized theatrical release.
Docu grew out of a 20-year friendship between director Siegel and John Peterson, an Illinois farmer who fancies himself a writer and performance artist, and who regards thetension between art and agriculture as one of the defining forces of his adult life. He’s a red-state American who shows no hesitation about riding his tractor while sporting a fushia feather boa.
Having gotten to know Peterson in the early 1980s, Siegel (armed with camera) subsequently captured the two most tumultuous decades of Peterson’s life, as the era’s widespread agricultural crises drove Peterson’s farm into bankruptcy and Peterson into a deep depression. Years later, when Peterson did decide to give farming another try, this time from an organic approach, the venture would prove fraught with triumphs and defeats.
Even before Siegel’s arrival, Peterson, like the subjects of recent docus “Tarnation” and “Capturing the Friedmans,” had already spent a good deal of time filming himself and being filmed by others, beginning with Super 8 home movies shot by his own mother in the 1950s. Siegel incorporates this footage with his own, broadening the pic’s canvas to include the entire, sprawling history of Peterson’s farm, from its ’60s heyday as a thriving dairy and poultry operation run by his grandfather to its evolution into a hippie commune presided over by Peterson himself.
In the process, pic effectively tells the story of America itself during those same turbulent seasons, with the farm providing a model of a nation wrestling with conflicted notions of identity.
But “The Real Dirt on Farmer John” always comes back to Peterson’s own journey of self-discovery, from his self-imposed exile into Mexico (to concentrate on his writing) to his belated realization that his own farm possesses all the aesthetic inspiration he could ever need. (Hence, docu’s lyrical narration, written and performed by Peterson himself.)
Not that being an agro-artist hasn’t brought Peterson his share of grief. Throughout the 1980s, unfounded accusations of sex orgies, devil worship and drug-running on his property made him a community pariah, suggesting that sometimes being an iconoclast is ever harder than being a farmer.
Yet Peterson emerged (relatively) unscathed, and the pic’s final moments, which portray the day-to-day operations of his now-organic farming operation, are suffused with a soulful optimism as vast as the fruited plains.
Lensed on a variety of film and video stocks — some rendering the images in vibrantly earthy colors and others capturing them in wintry black-and-white — pic’s varied visual textures add to the overall enjoyment.