“Peter and the Farm” is Bittersweet and Enlightening

By Zuzia Czemier-Wolonciej, Staff Writer

“Peter and the Farm” is just that — Peter Dunning and his farm. In fact, it is only that. Peter, the protagonist of Tony Stone’s documentary, lives and works on a farm he bought 33 years ago in the hope of becoming an ecological farmer and artist in the interim. Two-thirds of a life and seasons of successful production later, Peter still toils the earth, breeds his animals and harvests food, but now in overbearing solitude and with an ever-growing depression. His life was by no means wasted; but rather, it became that of the farm.

Dunning labored away his life, two wives, three children and any remaining strands of connection to the outside world. As life on the farm inevitably decays, so too does Dunning. “This farm becomes me. I become the farm,” Dunning admits, half proudly and half defiantly. And yet he is not a man of death. The farm bulges with life. Dunning, alone and slowly drowning in alcoholism, gives it his all — his labor, his art, his life.

It is this bittersweet but symbiotic life we are invited to observe through Stone’s camera. The director throws us into the farm from the very first shot. Sheep run down the hill while a pastoral landscape unravels behind. In a following scene, we see Dunning shoot a sheep, drain it of blood, skin it, clean the carcass of bowels and dry the meat. If that doesn’t trigger cringe reflexes, little of the film will.

Nothing from Dunning’s life is hidden from us. The camera renders the beauty of the surrounding nature, the sweat of Peter’s physical labor and the ever-present dirt and grit with equal respect. A hanging carcass, a dead wolf, blood stains and excrement may not be the most pleasing images, but juxtaposed with shots of prancing cows and freshly tilled fields, these images of death are reevaluated according to Peter’s own philosophy. This man who both kills and nurtures above all loves the act of creation. He believes that “life is really more impressive than death.”

The film pays tribute to this testament in its own way, by attending to the spontaneous displays of artistic creation in Peter’s life. We catch Peter spewing out bits of wisdom and verse at work, collecting a bouquet of flowers just because he needed the color yellow and listening to his poems through offscreen voiceover.

At the same time, we are given equal attention to his drunken frets and suicidal lamentations. For while Dunning is free spirit, he is also a deeply hurt and flawed man. His ideals cannot be altogether separated from his resentment for the outside world, just like his art is inextricable from his labor —  his consuming devotion to the farm.

The filmmakers refuse to idealize him or his counterculture lifestyle. Rather than making a subject of him, they interact with Dunning, although usually from behind the camera. There are moments of candid appreciation and ones of awkward frustration when Peter falls back into drunken despair. The mood fluctuates as scenes of labor, recalled memories and pure visual contemplation of nature alternate smoothly on the screen. We get accustomed to this somewhat uneven pace and find it hard to let go of Dunning’s wavering personality as the film draws to a close. With no reassurance that he won’t slide entirely into alcoholism, we can only hope that he continues to force life into the farm. For as long as it lives, so does he.

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