You Can’t Look Away From Tony Stone’s “Peter and the Farm”
By Jamie Larson
With elegant sweeping landscapes, scenes of animal processing and a lonely man battling his isolation and madness, Hudson-based filmmaker Tony Stone’s latest movie, “Peter and the Farm” is the naked examination of solitary, 70-year-old, organic farmer Peter Dunning. Though shot in Vermont, Stone (the co-founder of the Basilica Hudson performance and art venue with musician, wife and the film’s producer, Melissa Auf der Maur) has captured a powerful vignette with resonance here at home.
Stone will attend a screening and discussion of his acclaimed documentary hosted by the Pine Plains Memorial Hall at The Moviehouse in Millerton, New York on Jan. 22. The tightly focused documentary watches as Dunning shoulders an astonishing amount of daily labor and personal anguish. The film also bears witness to the complicated reality behind that which we’ve built a good chunk of our local cultural identity upon.
“When we started filming, Peter had been alone on the farm by himself for a year and a half because he’d also had a DWI. So he was extremely isolated,” said Stone, who initially rejected Dunning’s pitch to film his suicide, choosing instead to film his life.
“I think the predicament Peter is in is actually quite common. His family has been driven away, so there isn’t anyone to pass the family farm on to, and so you’re carrying the weight all by yourself with your aging body and your aging equipment. That’s kind of the only type of sustainability missing from Peter’s farm because there’s nobody to hand this thing off to.”
“We’re so entrenched in monoculture now, there is less room for a diverse farm like Peter’s that supports its own ecosystem,” said Stone, adding that while the impact of industrial farming is not an explicit theme of the movie, its presence hangs quietly overhead. “There’s income versus living, and Peter says he’s interested in making a living.”
Tony Stone and the Hudson Waterfront view in front of Basilica Hudson.
Stone spent a year visiting Dunning at his farm in Brattleboro with Auf der Maur and a small crew. He’s known Dunning from the farmers market since he was a kid growing up there, but had never visited the decaying farm itself before coming with his camera. The story of the farmer’s life quickly poured out before him. Stone doesn’t shy away from strong imagery in any of his work, and the inclusion of shots of butchering animals or a dead coyote swinging from a barn window might be difficult viewing for some. But for Dunning, it’s just the un-gratuitous activity of daily life. But one could use the word gratuitous for the amount the old man drinks.
“I’ve never seen such a high-functioning alcoholic, but even with his alcoholism he’s extremely active for 70,” said Stone. “The only thing he imports to the farm is basically alcohol and fuel. You see him just working away every day. That’s the Sisyphean thing about being a farmer.”
For all the bleakness, what captivates throughout the film is Dunning’s animated storytelling, engrossing personality and performative flair. Emotional and dramatic, he holds court while moving through his endless routine of chores.
“You watch Peter and he’s this unique character but his struggle is truly universal. As people will see when they watch the movie, he’s also such a performer. He was used to talking to the animals for many years. Suddenly he had this outburst and a need to just download all this stuff to us. He really invited us in.”
For Dunning, every action he takes throughout the day has a story. He would, in his own way, direct his story, telling Stone not to ask him about something until the right time. “The story arises from the event,” he said.
“There’s a natural arc that happens in the film. The confrontation happens at the right moment. It was like, ‘did Peter sort of write this whole narrative before we got there?’ But it is an amazing way to exist. He’s living on the clock of nature, living in the seasons.”
Shooting over the course of the year, Stone wanted to capture the seasonality of Dunning’s existence. In so doing he also captured the flowing visual beauty of a rural farm. Stone skillfully shoots the vibrant colors of summer through to the cold contrasts of winter. In other hands, the inherent pastoral elegance of the farm might serve as contrast or a foil to Dunning’s internal darkness. Stone shows that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
“We’re trying to place you there as much as possible. We never approached it with a pre-driven narrative about what we wanted the film to be. We just went forward and absorbed the land, the way Peter is, capture what he sees and feels and his attachment to it. A hilltop farm is incredibly beautiful but it’s also extremely difficult to manage and run.”
Stone says he likes screening the film in rural communities like Millerton and is especially gratified when farmers or the people close to them tell him he’s captured something about the way of life that is usually hidden. It’s a reminder that as we enjoy supporting farmers by patronizing their stands and eating “farm to table,” we aren’t always supporting them as members of our community. But as much as the film is about a single man or about farming, it also rumbles a low tune about the human condition and our own personal, subterranean loneliness.
Part of the film’s success is that Stone doesn’t feel a need to pull a moral out of the mud. But there is true beauty in the telling and filmcraft for sure. If you can’t make it to Millerton for the screening, “Peter and the Farm” is available for download online.
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The View From BIFF 2016: World Facing And Local Focus
A Year By The Sea
By Jeremy D. Goodwin
One of the most delicious preludes to summer’s high season around here is the Berkshire International Film Festival, which reliably fills downtown Great Barrington (and a busy bubble around Pittsfield’s Beacon Cinema) with happily dazed festival warriors, walking around town in search of somewhere to duck in for a meal between screenings or buzzing about one of the evening events that give us all a chance to break out those white party clothes for a dose of late-spring glam.
This year’s edition includes 26 narrative features, an equal number of documentary features and 17 short films. As usual, the selections come from all over the world— from 26 countries, but who’s counting?—but there’s also plenty of particular concern to the Rural Intelligence region. Things get rolling on June 2 at Great Barrington’s Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, with the doc “Music of Strangers: Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” with the Berkshires’ (and world’s) favorite cellist on hand for a Q & A afterward.
Festival fave Karen Allen is at the center of what is likely to be a crowd-pleaser this year—“A Year By the Sea,” based on Joan Anderson’s much-loved memoir of the same name. Allen plays the author, who responded to her husband’s upcoming transfer to Wichita, Kansas by renting a house on Cape Cod and venturing on a journey of self-discovery that has proven inspirational to untold readers.
When the opportunity came along, the role was a very pleasant surprise.
“I’m 64, and I have to say, around the time I came into my early to mid-50s, the quality of the roles that are written for women falls off. You get to play the annoying mother,” she says. “I come from a wonderful generation of actresses, and there’s not that much for us to do. I could reel off 25 names of actresses who I think are just brilliant, and we never see them in films,” she says.
As the bold, questing protagonist, Allen has some real meat to dig into here, she says — and it helps, too, that the story is so inspirational.
“It’s about the classic questions,” director/screenwriter Alexander Janko says. “Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I go from here? I think we live in a culture now where it’s harder and harder to take the time to ponder those questions and seek those answers.”
Farms and food are on our minds a lot in the RI region, of course, and “Forgotten Farms” (June 4 at Triplex Cinema) takes a close look at a sometimes-overlooked part of the local food scene.
New England’s dairy farmers are an integral piece of the region’s agricultural infrastructure, but the amount of farmland devoted to that pursuit has plummeted, while much of the attention and energy surrounding the local food movement has centered on startup farms that keep our farmers’ markets stocked with kale and heirloom tomatoes.
“Dairy farms get very little attention, especially compared to the sort of boutique farms that are getting an overwhelming amount of attention in the press,” says producer Sarah Gardner, who is the associate director of Williams College’s Center for Environmental Studies. “Yet those farms produce a relatively small proportion of the food that we consume, while the traditional dairy farms produce almost all of the milk that’s consumed in New England.”
Other festival highlights include a tribute to actor Bruce Dern on June 4, a closing-night screening of the biographical doc “De Palma” (directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, who will be around for a Q & A) on June 5, and “How To Let Go Of The World And Love All The Things Climate Can’t Change” also on June 5, directed by Josh Fox and featuring a panel discussion with Fox, author Benjamin Barber, and anti-fracking activist Rosemary Wessel.
But as always, the BIFF has much too much going on to summarize it quickly. Your best bet is to examine the website, or pick up a copy of the festival program and browse with a Sharpie behind your ear to circle your top choices. You’ll need a fresh marker.
Berkshire International Film Festival 2016
Great Barrington and Pittsfield, MA
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Something Old And A Whole Lot New At Wind-Up Fest
By Amy Krzanik
Some people find it difficult to cultivate the suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy most big-budget films. Luckily, the recent and explosive popularity of memoirs, reality TV shows and documentary films has filled in the entertainment gap. Their popularity can be attributed, in part, to the ease in which viewers can see themselves in the subjects: most people don’t look like leading men or own million-dollar mansions, and neither do the subjects of documentaries. Instead, we know these people, we are these people, and perhaps someday we’ll also get the chance to tell our story. After all, the truth is stranger than fiction, and a lot of it is funnier, braver and more engaging, too.
The brains behind the Wind-Up Fest (formerly known as The Williamstown Film Festival) have already figured this out. In its 17th year, the WFF—which runs from Thursday, October 15 to Sunday, October 18—has donned a new name and been re-imagined as a celebration of all things nonfiction. Following the retirement of the festival’s founding artistic director Steve Lawson earlier this year, the organization tapped Paul Sturtz, the director of Columbia, Missouri’s True/False Film Fest, to be its new creative director.
Why a purely non-fiction festival? Sturtz explains, “What we learned at True/False was that documentaries in general are much more approachable; there are less layers of pretension when you’re not dealing with the apparatus of Hollywood. My philosophy around film festivals is that it’s a lot more satisfying when you have great films and interesting people who you want to spend time with, rather than focusing a lot of energy and resources on getting ‘stars.’” Having big names at an event can create a distance between the viewers and a film’s directors and stars. Instead, Sturtz was looking for a more “up close and personal, intimate experience” for Wind-Up.
That’s why, along with managing director Sandra Thomas, Sturtz designed the four-day event to be even more interactive than in years past, adding more talkbacks with actors and directors, performance pieces, after-parties featuring live bands, and something he calls “show and tell.”
Instead of simply watching a film quietly in the dark, which anyone can do at home, guests are invited to attend a variety show of sorts, like the one on Friday afternoon at MASS MoCA. Hosted by humorist David Rees, known for his National Geographic show “Going Deep with David Rees” and the comic strip Get Your War On, the event also will include archivist Rich Remsberg who will bring his “History Jukebox,” an interactive game show; photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally who will reveal “The Boys of Troy” (NY); and musicologist David Rothenberg who will play new songs of the humpback whale. You’ll get all of this, plus three short films, at one event. Talk about bang for your buck.
Another “show and tell” occurs on Saturday at the ’62 Center at Williams College in the form of RADIO 1-2-3, when Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass recreate their 3 Acts, 2 Dancers & 1 (Missing) Radio Host performance which opened this year’s Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Barnes and Bass will appear live and Ira Glass will be there in spirit (or, in the form in which he usually appears, as a recorded voice). This American Life’s Scott Carrier will give a guided tour of his unlikely radio career. And Nick van der Kolk will premiere the October episode of his popular podcast Love + Radio.
The inclusion of radio shows and a podcast in the festival showcases the resurgence in popularity of this new/old art form, and Sturtz doesn’t think it’s just a fad. “Radio has an ability to fit into people’s lives more easily than other mediums, and podcasts fit into people’s everyday lives in a beautiful way,” he says. “Everyone thought radio was dead 10 years ago; who would have guessed this would have happened?”
One thing that will return to the festival this year is its annual benefit dinner, which will be held on Friday evening at Gramercy Bistro on the MASS MoCA campus and be followed by a screening of Very Semi-Serious. The film is a behind-the-scenes look at the New Yorker, its iconic cartoons and the process by which both well-known illustrators like Roz Chast and yet-to-be-published hopefuls prepare their work to be viewed by the magazine’s cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. A “show and tell” with longtime New Yorker cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan (known to the magazine’s fans as BEK) and Liana Finck will follow the screening.
On Sunday, after a Bloody Mary brunch (you heard that right—full schedule here), a talk by cinematographer and director Kirsten Johnson (CitizenFour, This Film is Not Yet Rated, Pray the Devil Back to Hell) will touch on a subject that all Wind-Up participants have pondered at some point in their careers. At Williams College’s Goodrich Hall, Johnson will share the ethical struggles that come with filming the lives of others, bringing the spirit of the festival and its events full circle.
Thursday, October 15—Sunday, October 18
Williamstown and North Adams, Mass.
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New Movie, ‘Look Away,’ Stars Hudson
By Jamie Larson
When Location Manager Matthew Chamberlin needed to find small town backdrops with texture, character and some “authentic grit” for the setting of the dark comedy Look Away, starring Matthew Broderick and Chloe Sevigny, he said he found everything he could have hoped for in the always handsome and sometimes darkly comic city of Hudson, New York.
While Hudson is being used more and more as a location for scenes in movies and fashion shoots, the production of Look Away used more of the city than any before, filming all over town, closing down sections of Hudson’s main business artery, Warren Street, putting false fronts on businesses, and one day littering wood and debris across the street as though a building had exploded. Scenes were also shot at the (now closed) Iron Horse Bar, which has served as a dive bar set for numerous films. Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep shot scenes for Iron Weed in the Iron Horse and Paul Newman and Melanie Griffith spent time there for Nobody’s Fool.
Chamberlain no doubt saw the same potential his predecessors did in the attractiveness of the area. Look Away, set for a 2016 release, is almost entirely shot in Hudson, with sojourns to a cottage and tree in Germantown and the Hyde Park Drive-In.
“When I came on the project, they were narrowing it down between Beacon and Hudson,” says Chamberlin, who’s worked on everything from Armageddon and Spiderman 3 to Must Love Dogs and episodes of Modern Family. “It’s an amazing town with a real sense of history. I’ve spent 20 years in locations in Los Angeles, so coming out here has been a real treat for me.”
A production of Locomotive Media, Look Away casts Broderick and Sevigny as the parents of teenager Bess Kraft, played by up-and-coming actress Shannon Tarbet. (Yes, we know what you’re thinking: There’s some strange Hollywood age rejiggering happening here, but there are also actors cast as young versions of Broderick and Sevigny, so maybe all will be explained.)
The movie, directed by Andy Delaney and Monty Whitebloom, follows Bess, “a strong, off-beat, thoughtful young woman” who is literally unable see her mother due to a fictional affliction called selective blindness.
“With such a high caliber of talent in front of the camera, in conjunction with Delaney and Whitebloom’s unique visual storytelling style, we are excited to be bringing Look Away to a wide audience” says producers Lucy Barzun Donnelly and Alexandra Kerry. “Matthew, Chloe and Shannon are perfect to complete our inventive vision for this project.”
Though he may have a selective bias, Chamberlin said another star of the film is Hudson. There was an emphasis in Look Away on settings that make an impact on the storytelling, more so than may happen in other films.
“I feel the locations in this project are characters in the movie. They set the tone and the feel,” he says, adding that city officials and police were extremely helpful and accommodating, which is key for future productions. “I sense the Hudson Valley is growing as a location. It has a variety of looks that are very appealing.”
But we already knew that.
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‘Dog Down’ Pairs Man And Beast For Mutual Benefit
By Amy Krzanik
“I’ve always been crazy about dogs, but when I was younger, my parents wouldn’t let me have one and it made me furious,” says Candide Jones. “As an adult, I’ve had as many as five dogs at a time, but my veterinarian says you don’t need to worry until you get into the double digits,” she says and laughs.
The dog lover, who grew up in North Adams, MA, is the catalyst behind the documentary Dog Down, which will be shown at Berkshire Museum’s Little Cinema on Wednesday, July 15 at 7 p.m. Jones, who now lives in Winston-Salem, NC, will be on hand after the screening to answer questions from the audience.
Dog Down follows a handful of inmates at the Forsyth Correctional Center, a men’s minimum security prison in Winston-Salem, as they train unadoptable shelter dogs to become sociable and well-behaved pets. The state-wide program, A New Leash on Life, was created to give a second chance to both canines and their prison companions.
A longtime community volunteer, Jones won an award for her service in 2007 and it came with a $10,000 stipend for a nonprofit of her choice. She used the money to start the Forsyth program, which, like other programs in the state and around the country, partners animal welfare organizations with inmates who dedicate 10 weeks to training dogs in obedience, socialization, crate-training and agility.
Jones, along with two professional trainers, have been working with the program since 2009, taking dogs that have been deemed too rambunctious or too shy and turning them into loving companions. Part of Jones’ job at the prison is encouraging the men to keep a journal, which serves two purposes: the journals are given as a keepsake to those who adopt the dogs, and it allows the inmates a chance to write down their feelings about the process — frustration, confusion, delight. “Often, they’ve never done that before and it’s really good for them psychologically,” Jones says.
The film came about because Jones wanted to promote the good work the program was doing and let people know about the exceptional dogs waiting to be adopted. “People can go to the Humane Society or a shelter and point to a dog and say ‘I want that dog,’” she says, “but it’s not easy to get people out to the prison.” Jones approached filmmakers about making a 30-second PSA to air on TV, but interest in the subject was so high that many offered to produce a full documentary. The film that director/producer John Le Blanc and editor/producer Steve Childs ending up creating has been shown in 15 film festivals so far and has received many awards.
Jones is hopeful that those who see the film will be inspired to start their own program where they live, as the experience is beneficial for both inmates and dogs. “The recidivism rate is unbelievably low,” she says. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever been involved in.”