Interview | Biggest Little Farm Director John Chester

Elena Lazic talks to Biggest Little Farm Director John Chester.

Elena Lazic

29 Nov 19

Picturehouse:  You were a filmmaker before you decided to become a farmer, and from the film, it looks like you are used to filming lots of moments of your life. When did you actually decide that you were going to document this project?

John Chester:  I never was sure that I was ever going to make a film about what we were doing. But I knew that I should probably keep track of how things were changing. And I was inspired, like many artists, you know, their craft is to be inspired aesthetically by things, and I was inspired by various animals and that type of thing and we would shoot it. And then, when bad things would happen, I was always like, "well, maybe we should shoot this bad stuff, too" just in case. But I never thought it would make a full-length feature film because I had no way of anticipating really where it was going to go and how incredibly different it was going to feel in five years. So around year four or five, I started to see the return of all this very purposeful biodiversity, this nature that was now helping to balance out these epidemics of pests and diseases. And I thought, "I don't think anyone's ever captured that, or seen what that looks like." That became a very intriguing story because I thought I could offer at least a perspective and an experience unlike any other film had ever done before. And so it was around year five that I really knuckled down and started recapturing things that we had missed — capturing hawk stories, capturing the barn house stories, and really making it as cinematically beautiful as possible to give it the best chance to be seen by the widest audience that needed to really see it. 

Picturehouse:  Were you motivated by the fact that you were filming yourself? Did it make you self-conscious?

John Chester:  Let me answer it like this. I became aware of it when I was allowing my farm team to film me doing things that I had never done before. And I, in the middle of anxiety and the feeling of shame and embarrassment because of some massive failure, I was starting to edit in my head and I would tell them to stop rolling because I was embarrassed. Then I realised, if I'm ever going to make a story about this, what good is it going to do if I don't show the raw vulnerability and humility that is ultimately what it means to be a farmer who is trying to find harmony with nature? And so I made this deal. I said, "I'm never going to have this moment of clarity again, so no matter what I say, after this meeting, don't listen to me. If I ever tell you to stop rolling, just back up 10 feet and keep rolling."  That moment ensured that we were able to capture some very dicey and difficult times, and that's what became the film. I had to get out of my own way. I wanted to be considered a farmer at some point, I wanted people to think that I was actually part of this farming world. My wife and I floundered around in the midst of failure didn't feel like something I wanted to even think about a lot. But I think, ultimately, what makes one a farmer and what we both learned after eight years, is the level of humility and vulnerability that you're able to both express and encapsulate as you face problems with nature. You really have to be able to say you don't know how to fix it, but be willing to look very deeply into the problem and understand why it exists. That helped me find a way back and the confidence that I deserve to be a part of this community.

Picturehouse:  Do you feel that the adaptability that being a documentary filmmaker requires — being able to catch reality as it happens and to adapt to what is happening outside of your control — helped you when you started working on the farm? It seems the two things call for similar instincts. 

John Chester:  Yes, and I often wondered how the two would play. I heard a quote once which said that, in scripted film, the director is God, but in documentary, God is the director. And if you don't get out of the way of circumstance and start to look at the story unfolding the way it is, even though it's not the way you envisioned, then you miss the opportunity to tell a really deep and meaningful story. And obviously, farming is the same way: you have to be willing to look at how failure can shift your opportunistic eye, to capture that failure and turn it into something that is producing a farmable good. We had to constantly take advantage of the failures to either learn something or to shift how we were managing the land. There was a bit of adaptability in that I'm used to films not wanting to be made, and farms essentially don't want to be farmed! It's the same thing.

Picturehouse:  What you said about how, in fiction, the director is God, made me think of how so many times in documentaries which heavily feature animals, there is a tendency to anthropomorphise them, to make them look human in the things they do. There is a bit of that in your film, for example in the incredible rooster and pig sequence, but these are selective and rare moments that are mostly a little playful. 

John Chester:  It's funny because the way that I anthropomorphise the bits that I did, it was tongue in cheek, and you can tell I'm doing it tongue in cheek. It's like "here's rooster, the boyfriend of the pig." It's not like I'm saying "this was an agreement between the two of them." It was more tongue in cheek like any farmer would. We know that there's a degree of truth but also a little bit of fantasy because the animal might not be thinking or doing that at all. It was very important that I didn't dilute the way that nature works on very different principles. We try to apply the right and wrong filter to everything that we do in life as humans, but nature works purely based on consequences. To see into that world requires having this connection to the impermanence of life, and the animals have an almost intuitive level of acceptance that they are part of a cycle — a cycle that humans constantly try to separate themselves from. I think that the fragility of life is a big theme that runs through this. But the purposefulness of that fragility is the fueling force that gives us all the life that we know. That soil shows us that. That's why, though there is a tremendous amount of dicey moments for animals in this film, but I don't shy away from them.

Picturehouse:  There is something quite special about this documentary, which is that you don't mention things like climate change and pollution so much, though they are very much at the back of our minds as we watch the film. And obviously, the fire that we see in the film was partly caused by climate change.

John Chester:  I tried to thread a needle to a truth about the endless and infinite possibilities for us to collaborate with a biologically diverse ecosystem. By threading the needle, what I'm saying is, I knew that we spend so much time in a polarised state of fear, and finger-pointing and blaming. What this has unfortunately prevented us from focusing on, is that we've used confrontation as a way to try to deal with these issues, rather than innovation. And the reason is because I don't think the human force really understands the potential that they have to find a lot of the answers we need within the endless complexity of nature. So I stayed away from polarising terms and phrases, and I just offered a perspective and an experience of how, because of our consciousness for the consequences, we were able to find a way to harness the forces of nature through our human force of nature, by just being conscious of the consequences and how we interact with things. It's really as simple as that to me. I do think that most documentary films come into the world with an agenda and a perspective,, and there's a lot of shaming and exploiting in that. And unfortunately, it creates defensiveness. 

And let me just say this too, I think it's really important because I think what we learned was something, to me, quite profound that I'm trying to pass on to my son. I think we all sort of sit in this stew of fear and that creates panic, inaction and finger-pointing. The real way through fear, to me, is the method that we use on the farm when something fails and we're afraid. The antidote to that fear is curiosity. If we get deeply curious about why this bad thing exists, we start to develop an understanding of how to live with it and maybe even how to manoeuvre it and manipulate it a little bit. Whenever my son is afraid of something, we spend a lot of time understanding why that thing exists. We had an earthquake, and he was out of his mind, asking me "are we going to die?" And so I thought, you know what, let's just take 10 minutes and watch a little film about what the Earth is doing when that happens. And suddenly the earthquake had purpose and meaning and it wasn't after him specifically. I think we undervalue curiosity in a state of fear.

Picturehouse:  Speaking of this, what do you think this film could do or inspire in people?

John Chester:  I hope it inspires a very individual and maybe illuminating perspective as to the great potential that exists right in front of us. And I hope that we won't give up on seeking that reconnection with nature in a meaningful way. I think artists tend to be the ones seeking meaning and purpose, as do many other people. That's the big goal, right? Seeking meaning and purpose in your life. The thing that I think really brings that home is a triangulation of three things: it's meaning, purpose and reconnection. And reconnection can only really be found if you allow yourself this very vulnerable relationship and deep, deep looking into nature. Then suddenly, that reconnection with nature starts to help create a roadmap and a fabric for how it all works together. I think that brings us back together as a people because we're having the same experience of first, having alienated our connection to nature, and then purposely and meaningfully coming back to understanding its driving forces of how it gives us life. For us, it's really about helping people find a reconnection to nature in their own way, one that doesn't pull any punches on the impermanence of life.

Picturehouse:  In the film, you really explain how the balance of all the elements of the farm work. It's science, but it's not rocket science: they're all things that we learn about in books when we're kids about how to grow potatoes and things like that. But then, when we grow up, it feels like people talk about similar things like they are impossible to do. What your film shows is that it's not impossible, it's just difficult.

John Chester:  I think that, for the last 260 years, since the Industrial Revolution, the human species has called itself the plague and the cancer of Earth. But cancer is not conscious of the consequences of its existence. It lives off the finite natural resources of its hosts and eventually, it kills the host, which kills the cancer. We've gotten here through that lack of consciousness for the consequences of our need to live off of finite natural resources. So the humans' force of nature has never really seen itself as a force of nature, and it is. And as we become more conscious around those consequences — aside from indigenous cultures that subsisted off the land and even still exists today, and have always understood these things — we've been able to see that we are far more powerful and efficient at reversing the wrongs of the past in a much shorter period of time. It's not going to take us 260 years to reverse a lot of the damage we've done. Because Molly and I did it in 7 to 8 years on a farm that had been extractively farmed for 45 years, and we returned it to better than what it was with just consciousness for those consequences. So I'm actually very excited and I have more hope after what we've done, rather than less hope, for the human race.

Picturehouse:  That's also the way I felt watching the film, which is nice and unusual.

John Chester:  And you have that experience in life to know that it's real [knowing of farms in Eastern Europe that do not use pesticides], and you bring that to the viewing. The other people that seem to do well with it are ones that have been through a health crisis. They're able to connect the gut microbiome [the microorganisms that live in the digestive tracts of humans], which they may have healed in order to get through that health crisis, with soil. Because soil is the digester of the earth. It's digesting all the permanence and turning it back into nutrients and minerals that feed plants. I like to say it's the only optimizer of life and death that we'll ever truly know. And it does it all. It's pretty incredible, and we know practically nothing about it. Something like 90% of it has not been mapped. We don't understand the full complexity with which it works and how it does what it does. All we know is that it needs to be very, very microbially diverse. And in order for it to work, it needs to be fed. And the way you feed it is by putting plants on top of it. 

Biggest Little Farm out now.