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The Real Dirt on Farmer John & r & & r & by ARI LEVAUX & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & J & lt;/span & ohn Peterson was a toddler in the 1950s when his mother bought a movie camera. As she documented the comings and goings on their beloved Illinois farm, she may not have realized that she was also kicking off a five-decade-long project that culminated in this film.





From the opening scenes of John toddling around in his little overalls, his love for the camera is clear, and he grew into an artist with a gift for storytelling and the patience, eye and wherewithal to create great shots. As the events of his life began to circle into a story that looked like it might have a happy ending, Farmer John the filmmaker got to work. This raw footage was spliced with present-day scenes and a few re-enactments into a tight movie that hits all the notes, high and low, light, dark, and darker.





As the film opened, I was braced for a rehash of the standard foodie rallying cries: the impossible economics of farming, the importance of knowing where your food comes from, local vs. organic, etc. Important stuff, to be sure. Then this crew-cut Scandinavian guy walks across his muddy field, squats down, takes a bite from a handful of mud and chews thoughtfully, and I forgot all about rallying cries and agendas. He is at once an artist trapped in the able body of a failed farmer, and a farmer trapped on a farm he loves, desperately, but can't hold onto.





Particularly striking is John's ability to document the scenes of his life in which most people would be too busy feeling sorry for themselves to think of filming. It speaks to the depth of his slavery to art. Here's John in a depressed stupor after selling off all but 22 acres of his family's 350-acre farm to pay his debts. Neighbors turn on him. Farming was his dream and his life, and he failed. On camera.





It's a dramatic story -- one about a dark chapter in the history of middle America, told by an uninhibited artist with his camera, his wits and his creative spark. Farmer John will probably make you laugh, might make you cry, and if it breaks your heart into little pieces, then it will put them back together again.

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