Peter and the Farm almost misleads with its title, for this man and his land are one and the same.
Shortly after he finished art school decades ago, Peter Dunning lost half a hand in a sawmill accident. Up to that point he’d studied painting and sculpting and had gone on to work long hours of manual labor for six months at a time in order to generate enough income to indulge the romantic lifestyle of spending the other half-year “just making art.” His hand mangled, Dunning overcame his acquired disability to the point of sustaining himself for the past 35 years through farming—raising cows, pigs and sheep, which he slaughters and sells at local farmers’ markets. Over that span, wives and children have come and gone, and the farm has become as weathered yet stubbornly productive as the man behind the plow. Tony Stone’s debut documentary, Peter and the Farm, explores the mindset of this 68-year-old Vermont farmer, who still clings to the poetic and the artistic even as he’s disemboweling sheep.
More than anything else, Peter and the Farm concerns itself with the theme of isolation and the effects—both positive and negative—of living off the land at the expense of participating in a greater community. Dunning’s farm, which he often bemoans as an increasingly overgrown, decaying space that nevertheless appears relatively well-maintained by the aging farmer, acts as both his pastoral oasis and his prison. Shot over the course of a year, the film documents Dunning’s shifts in demeanor, which change as drastically as the seasons, as well as his conflicted thoughts about the farm he both loves and hates. During the winter months, Dunning is at his most discontent, struggling with alcoholism to the point that he reveals to the filmmakers—who are coaxing him toward rehab—that he cares about the needs of the farm more than his own. And, in fact, keeping the farm running may ultimately be what keeps the man going—he wears his self-harm ideations on his sleeve, even at one point proposing that the film chronicle his suicide.
Despite decades of hard labor and rural living, Dunning maintains his artistic streak. He proudly displays a few modest artworks for the camera and pontificates on philosophy and literature. He recalls youthful time spent in the military, where he led a group of sailors in a drunken rendition of songs from West Side Story while stationed in Hawaii. At times, he chides himself for telling a particular story poorly or at a less than ideal juncture. He often strategizes with the filmmakers about particular shots, and on one occasion drunkenly gushes that he’s never before felt so close to other people as he does the film crew. It’s in these moments, when Dunning is at his most earnest and unfiltered, surrounded by the increasingly overgrown grounds, that the film harkens to Grey Gardens, especially given his particular New England lilt. There’s a dash of Winnebago Man in here too; Dunning will curse a blue streak at his livestock when they give him troubles. But it’s the oppressive weight of isolation in both those documentaries that is again so starkly rendered on this Vermont farm.
In this debut, Stone captures beauty and desperation through carefully-framed shots basked in natural light. His camera lingers on gutted sheep or a dead coyote hanging from a rafter in a way that appears as majestically natural as a snow-dusted pasture. But it’s Dunning himself, with all his complexities, contradictions and flaws that makes this a spellbinding work. He lives in a patch of land where he knows every inch. He can point to the exact spots where two of his children were conceived. He can look at a bale of hay, seemingly as uniform as the others, and know from what part of the field it came. As he relays late in the film, he doesn’t wish to have his ashes scattered on the farm when he dies, because he’s already scattered himself—his blood, sweat, skin, and seed—throughout these fields many times over. He wrestles with the ghosts of a happier past as much as he struggles with the alcoholism that diminishes his quality of life, and his farm is both his solace and his curse. In this way, Peter and the Farm almost misleads with its title, for this man and his land are one and the same.