James Moll’s documentary Farmland has no narrator and little visible filmmaker presence on-screen. It consists mainly of talking heads from a group of youngish farmers speaking about the modern state of their chosen profession and clearing up misconceptions about it. And as these farmers see it, there are countless such misconceptions that need clearing up: Many of their statements begin with “People think…” or “People don’t realize…” or “People don’t know…,” eventually positioning the movie as an act of outreach and re-education. A little of this debunking is cute (“I got nothing against bib overalls or straw hanging out of your mouth,” one of the subjects clarifies about the myths he wants to dispel); the rest of it feels defensive.
But there are bigger problems with the film’s approach. Farmland lets the farmers tell their stories, but doesn’t see fit to shape them into anything resembling a coherent statement or narrative. They’re really just well-scrubbed anecdotes—and even those stay firmly on the topsoil level. When one family tells a story about losing their patriarch to cancer, it’s sad, but not exactly dramatic; the only information offered about the deceased is that he was a good guy and that he died too soon. This minimal background information is about as illuminating as the many still photos of the film’s subjects as children. Both do little more than remind audiences that farmers are people, too, and hence had childhoods and lose parents.
Those people might be compelling in a more focused movie. Subjects like Margaret Schlass, a CSA vegetable farmer who got into the business without any family legacy, have a winning presence. But there’s not much sense of what they’re triumphing over beyond the movie’s list of general farming concerns. Those issues are covered in perfunctory overviews that are careful to eschew controversy whenever possible. Hints of climate change (never mentioned by name) emerge when the farmers stress that they’re often at the mercy of extreme weather; a couple of subjects parse the definitions of “organic” versus “all-natural”; and GMOs receive a brief and dully evenhanded discussion. (Some farmers like them; others don’t!) All of the subjects who work with animals bravely take a stance against animal cruelty. Apparently, people don’t realize that not all farmers torture pigs and cows for fun.
Factory-farming practices are similarly and almost nonsensically dismissed as “few and far between,” without any statistics explaining how many U.S. farms follow that model. Farmland doesn’t need to rip the lid off the industry to work as a movie, but it should offer more than shots of farm machinery scored to music that occasionally apes the Jurassic Park soundtrack. Some of the footage—like a vast field of baby chicks that grow, in a single cut, to a vast field of chickens—is more interesting than what the farmers can reveal in their interviews. But most of the time, the film’s value as entertainment or education is limited by a numbing simplicity.