Peter Dunning is a counter culture artist from the sixties who, for the last thirty five years, has split his time between being a farmer and being an artist, the former seeming to have consumed his days. Peter lives a fairly solitary life, his only company on the farm being the animals he is raising for slaughter. Depression threatens to consume him, with two marriages behind him, and four children that no longer speak to him. His alcoholism causes him to wake up in the middle of the night for his nightly shots of medicinal rum to stop the withdrawal DTs, and suicide is very often front of mind. This is the story of Peter and the Farm.
Filmmaker Tony Stone has produced a documentary that is both beautiful and heartbreaking, as we are given a peek into the soul of a man whose life has slipped away from him. We find Peter at a very contemplative point in his life, his best years behind him. This farm that he has poured his sweat and tears into for decades is now all that he knows, and you get the sense that there is a certain amount of resentment in that. At one point in the film, Peter emotionally confesses that he cares more about the farm than he does for himself, but you can’t help to wonder why that is. Why has the farm grown to such importance to him? Is it the memories it holds? It is that it represents the happy life he once knew?
Much of the film is dedicated to the daunting task of taking care of the farm, a duty Peter seems to care about greatly, though he does state at one point that he is living in hell. This internal conflict is what makes Peter such a fascinating subject. You begin to wonder if the farm is keeping him sane, or driving his depression. If Stone would have us believe, Peter’s life is almost completely devoid of happiness, which very well may be the case. When his drinking is highlighted it’s clear that the reason he has been left alone on his farm is because he has pushed everyone away from him. Peter is somber and regretful as he reflects on his life, and he is almost successful in masking it.
Peter and the Farm is a gorgeous film, stunningly shot by Stone. There is a melancholy beauty in the bleak winter months, and as the weather breaks, the fields are reminiscent of oil paintings. There is no sense of narrative in the film, just emotion. We feels Peter’s remorse for what he’s lost, we feel sympathy for what he has endured, and we’re uneased by his non chalantness as he kills and slaughters a sheep.
This is a nearly perfect documentary. At times, the editing seems a bit overly manipulative. I feel that film’s editor Maxwell Paparella didn’t necessarily always trust the subject matter to tell the story. And despite Peter mentioning in passing that his children no longer speak to him, a bit of context would have been welcomed. It’s understandable the Peter would have been a bit stand offish on the subject matter, but as an audience, it’s slightly unsatisfying.
These minor missteps do nothing to take away from the brilliance of this film. Peter and the Farm delivers a captivating look into the life of a man, a farm, and a life of regret.