Several months ago, one of the books I was reading on rural redevelopment (for my as yet uncompleted master's thesis) mentioned the PBS documentary The Farmer's Wife. Intrigued, I put it on my Netflix queue and moved it up towards the top (unlike some folks, I have no compunctions about obsessively re-ordering my queue). Last week, the first installment came, and Mark and sat down to watch it.
Would it be too melodramatic to say I'll never be the same?
It's probably the best documentary I've ever seen. The filmmakers follow Daryl and Juanita Buschkoetter and their three daughters (Audrey, Abby, and Whitney) through nearly three years of life on their Nebraska farm. During the documentary's six hours, the Buschkoetter's struggle and work as hard as any people I've ever seen to keep being able to farm their land and try to make ends meet. At the outset, in 1995, it looks as if they might lose everything due to four years of drought and mounting debt. At the end, in 1997, we get to see Juanita graduate with her Associate's Degree, the family take over Daryl's father's farmland, and the best bumper crop in decades. In between, life is hard and the Buschkoetter's keep on keeping on in a way that is both completely inspiring and nearly unbelievable.
The film is both about saving the small farm and saving a marriage, and both parts are equally compelling (and equally unlikely). For probably the first five and a half hours of watching them, I seriously doubted the Buschkoetters were going to make it with their farm or their marriage. I wanted them to, and I admired their resolve, but the situation seemed impossible. In the last half hour, it all seemed to work out. (In fact, the marriage didn't work out, as the film's website tells me that Daryl and Juanita divorced and are both remarried. However, Daryl is still farming his land and both of their older daughters are in college, so the news isn't all bad.)
Part of the reason I reacted so strongly to the film is clearly because so much of it was reminiscent of my own childhood. Though it was timber in Oregon, rather than farming in Nebraska, my family had a lot of the same experiences in the 80s that the Buschkoetters had in the 90s. There were a lot of scenes in the film, especially small ones like the one where Juanita is cutting her eldest daughter's hair in their kitchen, that took me right back to being nine years old again and both cognizant and not of how precarious our economic situation was. It is hard, and gets harder all the time, to live off the land, whether it's farming, timber, mining, fishing, whatever. The country has changed away from that model, and the people who are left, after generations of living that way, are so often forgotten or ignored. I love filmmaker David Sutherland for bringing their story, in some ways, my story too, to light.
I'd recommend this film unequivocally to just about anybody, especially those who dig right in to documentaries. In particular, though, you should watch it if you grew up, like I did and like the Buschkoetter girls did, with both a profound respect and a profound fear of the land on which your family's livelihood depended (are you out there, Frog?). While the Buschkoetter's story may not match yours exactly, I'm betting there are parts of it that will resonate with you like they did with me.