THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM, US, 2019. Directed by John Chester. 91 minutes. Rated PG (mild themes and infrequent coarse language.
This has proven to be a well-acclaimed documentary, especially for audiences interested in ecological and environmental themes. It has won a rather large cluster of award nominations and prizes, particularly in the United States.
The film opens with Californian bushfires, huge fires, threatening the farm of John and Molly Chester. But, the film goes back to 2010, John Chester being a cinematographer especially for nature documentaries, his wife, Molly, being a personal chef. She has a dream of the best possible farm, cultivating a great number of crops, many fruit trees, animals on the farm as well.
This is not a story of immediate success. In fact, while there are quite a number of successes, there are also quite a number of risks, failures, disappointments. The Chesters attribute their desire to buy land and develop the farm to the soulful eyes of the dog that touches their fancy and they buy. This is a recurring theme through 10 years of farming – but, after some years, the Chester’s have a boy and he becomes a powerful motivation for success.
The Chesters are enthusiastic, initially mocked by friends and family, Molly being a particularly good enthuser and, gradually, many friends want to invest. They find some land, deserted, rather barren – and they buy it. One of Molly’s pre-requisites is to find an advisor who is an expert on natural farming and they find one in an eccentric character, Alan York, who guides them, somewhat nonchalantly even in the face of disappointments, to believe in the earth doing its job, and the principle of biodiversity where everything on the farm contributes to its development.
The action of the film goes year by year for seven years, some years of plenty, some years of famine, and the death of Alan York. There is quite a lot of information in the screenplay, difficulties were not anticipated, beautiful fruit being pecked by birds, coyotes raiding the chickens, gophers upsetting the soil, owls preying on gophers, the appearance of snails and the discovery that ducks consume snails at a great rate.
The Chesters and the many friends and volunteers who work with them, and the selling of produce at a local stall, remind us of how rich nature can be, the soil enriching plants and trees, the trees providing fruit, the animals contributing to compost, and so back to the earth. And, eventually we come back to the initial fire re but, spoiler alert, glad to say, the Chester’s farm is saved.
The couple have learned a great deal about nature. So does the audience, more than can be absorbed in one sitting. And the question, of course, it can be raised – how many farms like that of the testers are in the United States, around the world, contributing to the creative and productive collaborations with nature.
Madman Released January 16th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.