John and Molly Chester were a successful pair of city-slickers madly in love with each other, their environmentalist ideals and their new rescue dog Todd. When Todd alienates the neighbours in their Los Angeles apartment with his incessant barking, the cameraman and his food vlogging wife decide to ditch the concrete jungle for a life out in the sticks and finally pursue their dream.
That dream consists of employing traditional methods of agriculture with almost every crop and livestock candidate imaginable, all the while operating in perfect harmony with Mother Nature. Despite being scoffed at by lifelong farmers and ridiculed by their friends, they somehow manage to scrape together enough money to buy an expansive but apparently infertile plot of land and set up shop.
The film spans eight years and provides the perfect vehicle for Chester’s flair behind the lens. Incredible shots of wildlife rival those normally narrated by David Attenborough, capturing the beauty of all the planet’s diverse creatures, from the insect population to the avian one, the farmyard animals to those worrying away at its fringes. It’s a feast for nature lovers right from the get-go.
Of course, the film is far more than just a simple exploration of animal life on Earth. True to their principles, the Chesters do their best to implement only organic and environmentally sustainable practices on their new farm. Working under the guidance of biodynamic farming expert Alan York, John and Molly successfully turn a barren stretch of land into a thriving cornucopia bursting with all manner of crops, fruits and vegetables, as well as ducks, chickens, cows, dogs and Emma the Pig (formerly known as Ugly Betty). The turnaround is remarkable.
It’s not all plain sailing, though. Just getting to this point in the first place must have taken considerable investment (the source of their funding is glossed over in a brief opening sequence), but it’s not long before they have to deal with the consequences of their agricultural efforts butting heads with Nature’s own inscrutably complex plan. Pests and predators, droughts and disease (both animal and human) rear their heads and play havoc with the Chesters’ idyllic – and perhaps ingenuous – blueprint, causing all manner of unforeseen challenges.
That they manage to find a way to overcome them all, putting out each fire (some of them literal) as it ignites, is hardly a surprise. Indeed, the schmaltzy soundtrack and at times over-the-top, triumph-over-adversity theme (including a less than convincing framing mechanism) are its weakest qualities and signpost the fact that it has clearly been made with American audiences in mind. Nonetheless, it’s still a thoughtful, sensitive and excellently-shot documentary which explores questions of ethics, environmentalism and practicality with an open mind and a heart-warming approach.
At the Filmhouse from Friday 29 November 2019, with a special director Q & A on Monday 9 December 2019