Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
It was eight years ago when chef Molly Chester and her filmmaker husband John Chester traded their lives in Los Angeles for a barren farm outside of the city. It all started with Todd, a sweet but nervous rescue dog who just couldn’t adapt to an intimidating and confined urban life. So to keep their promise to their adopted pet—that theirs would be a forever home to him—the Chesters left their creature comforts behind and relocated to Apricot Lane Farms, situated across 200 acres of infertile soil.
Directed by John Chester and featuring glorious wildlife cinematography, the immensely uplifting “The Biggest Little Farm” tells that eight-year journey of bringing the farm back to thriving life through a vast biodiversity philosophy and design. The word “inspirational” gets thrown around a lot for documentaries with an urgent message, but “The Biggest Little Farm” is one that truly earns the accolade. The environmentalist film—refreshingly positive instead of doom and gloom—is living evidence for Mother Nature’s power to heal and restore itself through constant care and attention, and a testament to what committed life partners who share the same ideals can achieve hand in hand.
It was far from easy for the couple, however, who had an enormous vision, appetite and drive, but no farming experience to speak of. The duo recalled the hardships they had to weather when I recently sat down with John Chester in New York prior to a special screening of “The Biggest Little Farm,” with Molly Chester joining on the phone. As farmers, there was plenty of embarrassment caused by inexperience and an unspeakable amount of loss. As a married couple, there were understandable fallouts through a largely unknown process. But the Chesters came out of it all even stronger.
They didn’t know for the first few years of their quest that they would end up with a movie, however. And yet, John Chester had been filming their transition to country from Day 1. “As a documentary filmmaker, I know regret is far more painful than the time wasted to just shoot that moment,” he explains the reason why he had been recording from the get-go on devices that included iPhones. The essence of the film clicked into place for him at year five. “I saw the return of all this wildlife and predator species of insects that were now fighting pests, and obviously the whole gopher snakes and red-tail hawks and the functions of the coyote and ladybugs,” he recalls. “So year five was just profound and I decided that I was definitely going to make a feature film.”
Was that a joint decision between the two of you, making a film? Molly, were you looking at the footage and thinking about the story as well?
MOLLY CHESTER: I basically just supported my filmmaker partner John. He just had a vision and was seeing it and I just know that he has to follow that inspiration. I'm not a filmmaker. I would watch cuts only when he was just interested to hear my perspective but not guiding it any way.
JOHN CHESTER: I was actually really resistant to the idea at first. I didn't want to be forced to make something that inspired people that wasn't true. At year five, I actually felt confident that we had something to say. We were not experienced farmers; there was nothing we were going to teach. So it had to be a film about discovery.
What was the process of finding the movie like between you and your editor Amy Overbeck? You had to dig through years and years of footage that must have felt like a jigsaw puzzle.
JC: There's 90 terabytes of footage. That's a lot of footage. I think the thread was really trying to tell the story of an awakening ecosystem and the Pandora's box that it sort of becomes. It unleashes all of these problems that at the same time are supposed to be these idealistic versions of a solution of coexistence. And then you have to kind of go to a much deeper level of understanding into how you're going to coexist with something that actually doesn't want harmony in the idealistic sort of way.
So it was really trying to follow those stories and not make it too much about Molly and me, and really make it about what we were experiencing in this process. We could've made the film completely about Molly's and my personal relationship and how hard that was. There have been films like that, but there's never been one that really tells the story from what I think is like the perspective of nature's dance of coexistence with humans.
But while the film isn't about your marriage and your relationship, it captures the concept of love. I just thought the film is really so massively romantic in the sense that you two obviously have a partnership through which you see things eye to eye, you collaborate, you inspire each other creatively and otherwise. That comes through in the movie.
JC: True, I agree.
You must be really proud of what you had built together, not just as farmers but as husband and wife as well.
MC: That reflection was a really amazing thing to see, because it's so challenging to go through what we went through and you don't understand it [at the time]. You don't know you're a story when you're in the middle of it, you can't see it. And then to have a storyteller just put that in front of you, all the pieces start to make sense and you can look back and have such an appreciation for the differences of perspective or the reason for the struggle that seems so monumental at the time. And it's very humbling and healing to watch the film. It's been a really great thing.
JC: I think I didn't realize what we had been through as a couple until sitting in that editing room after the first full pass of the cut. It was at that moment that I realized what we had done as a husband and wife team and I think we both finally allowed ourselves to accept that the challenges we were experiencing were real, and we never really gave ourselves credit for that. And it kind of put the hardships into perspective. It wasn't that we were weak; it wasn't that we were stupid about things; it was that what we were dealing with was incredibly difficult.
MC: I do truly see it as a love story, and so it's wonderful to not only see the story between me and John, but [also to see] the love story of the earth. You can feel your own love of it going through it. To get to see that reflected was very beautiful.
JC: But as in our relationships, it's really hard.
Yes, love is constant work and care. And we see how hard it was in the movie. What were some things that we didn't get to see; some of the really tough experiences you had to eliminate from the film for story purposes?
JC: There are so many. I think there's a lot of loss of life in farming. That’s really difficult because these are relationships you build with both animals and even people, and I think there were versions of the film that I cut where I think it was just too much. If you're going to show that much loss, with the time that you have to show it, it needs to be balanced with the truth; that the beauty is there as well. I feel really proud of the job that the editor and the team and I did around the unflinching raw honesty of it, that we were not afraid of the hard things, so I think those things were really fairly reflected in there, but there were versions where it was even more difficult.
And then what's not probably shown in there as much is what Molly and I went through every single night as a couple, both arguing about something that we knew really nothing about. That could be a whole other film. So there was never really a solution to our disagreements or fear about something, we were just both trying to work it out, and that was really hard, and quite profound for us. It changed us as a couple. It almost broke us, and probably broke us, and then it brought us back together in a much more substantially strong way. Right, Molly, 3,000 miles away?
MC: Yes, absolutely. I think that's totally true. The things that you have to get so much more intimate with in farm life, where it's so raw but maybe you have go for it all the way, is nerves. And then understanding nerves within each other, understanding fear within each other so that you can relate. And then really, there is the process of grieving. I heard somebody say one time that the most important thing you can teach your child is how to grieve, and I really think that's something you just deal with constantly in the evolution of creation in general, of anything you're creating, so it can relate to anyone's life. With farming specifically, with the amount of death that you're facing, to grieve is to release and to be able to start and renew. Until that process is fully understood, it just gets carried as heaviness, and you can't grow bigger carrying that much weight.
JC: I think what happened for us is that we were very new in this whole thing. There's always a bit of defensiveness around the fact that you're new and you don't know how to solve problems, and so you get broken at some point and that's where the humility and vulnerability kicks in: being able to actually ask for help and know when you're both completely out of control and you don't have the solutions. But the thing that I think was most profound was the embarrassment and how we were being perceived by people around us, like our crew, and not knowing how to solve a problem. Embarrassment would actually force us to fix something too quickly.
When we started to figure out that was actually not a thing that was working towards substantial solutions that would last a long time, we started realizing that we had to sort of be able to walk through the pain of embarrassment. That was a part of the process of humility. It allowed us to spend the time to see more deeply into a problem and find a solution that actually coexisted alongside nature in a much more profound and long-lasting way.
So it sounds like patiently watching nature and observing how several facets of nature speak with each other, you kind of learn lessons from that and then apply to yourselves, your solutions, your marriage and the way you look at life.
JC: The more deeply you look at the way the things in nature are working in either symbiotic or mutual ways, [the more you realize] it reflects back the human experience, and it's really poetically profound to me, and honestly that was, to me, the subtext, the theme of the whole film. It was this reflection of our own experiences reflected deeply within nature's hidden web.
You've been living as farmers for almost a decade now. Can you ever imagine yourselves being in the city again?
JC: The one thing I'll say is that I probably wouldn't want to go back to the city, but wherever I am now, I know that I see things way more deeply. I was watching these pigeons from this [New York City] hotel where I'm staying right now, and I have noticed they fly around and they land on the same two window sills and they fight over that. For some reason there's something about it. Maybe it's warm there or [there is another] reason, but I look at everything differently. I think that's the cool thing—no matter where you are, this experience does sort of inform a deeper way of looking at the interrelatedness of things we've taken for granted.
MC: Yeah, I totally get what John's saying. I think you've increased your presence, ability to stay present at your farm, so then you apply that anywhere you go and you start to see the trees and the flowers and understand the ecosystem and it brings safety and peace to wherever you are. But I am for sure finding that I'm more a rural person. I enjoy the pace and the lifestyle and space and have found just a happy spirit here, so I don't think I'm probably heading back to the city. It's nice to be close enough to LA that you can go to a good restaurant every now and then if you want to, but even that doesn't happen enough.
John; did your roles as a farmer and a filmmaker ever clash? For instance, when you observe something off in the farm, your instinct as a director might be to film it. But as a farmer, perhaps you do need to take action.
JC: I don't feel like I ever pushed something in the filmmaking process that I wouldn't have done as a farmer. Like the example of the orphan lamb that was struggling to find a new mom. I would have allowed that as a farmer because I want a more substantial, real connection and that lamb has the ability to find a mom better than me. It was more that I was self-editing at times where I didn't want to look like an idiot, I didn't want to look like I didn't know what I was doing and I was not allowing certain things to be filmed. When I realized I was doing that, I said, "You know what? If I ever tell you to stop filming, don't listen to me; just go back ten feet and I'll never ever tell you this again." So, regardless of what I say, the crew started to do that and I realized I was actually then capturing things that I normally would have stopped.
A question for both of you: Have you been noticing a genuine return to the land? People sometimes talk about it like it’s a trend, but I’m wondering if there is a real movement out there—you might have observed things, working with groups of young people from around the world.
JC: I think there's stress and separation; we as a culture of people tried to reconnect, even down to social media, but it’s a version of connection that's not working. And I think people are trying to find careers that are meaningful and purposeful. I think what we as a people are craving is the culture of reconnection back to nature and trying to understand it and I think that's what's happening universally or around the planet. There's something that's popping in these last few generations that I feel like is way more responsible and aware of it.
MC: I definitely see it in the young people. It's really wonderful to see their passion. The one area where I am seeing it more is the food sector, [where I have been] for a long time now. I have always done the same style of food, which is basically maximizing nutrition in the kitchen with different techniques and then it's about the farmer and the changes that he's making with the soil. I talk about these things or put up recipes or do things and then they get interest. It seems like I'm seeing that interest getting stronger and stronger and stronger, almost to the point that you think you put stuff out there and you're like, “oh, it must just not be all that great" and then it comes back around and that energy grows back. It's making me think that there is some sort of shift out there because what before might have been completely ignored is now seen.
The wildfires frame this movie. I am wondering how you cope with the constant threat and scare of that.
JC: We've been through five wildfires that have been around us in the last couple of years. The first couple were incredibly terrifying, because we didn't understand the rules of engagement. We didn't understand what could happen. Now, having been through it and what our farming looks like in comparison to areas that were either badly burned or escaped with hardly any issues, we have a better assessment of at least where we stand. It's all bad, but it's not as terrifying as it once was. We've set ourselves up a little better. It is an unpredictable thing, but we know where we're going to put the animals now and things like that. All I can say is that it's just one of the many things that seem to come up every year.
MC: I really like that it's looked at in the film. The reality is, you're safe but you're kind of not safe. Yes, we deal with wildfires but everybody everywhere is [dealing with something.] All of existence is a bit fragile, so though I don't love being affected by wildfires, I also didn't love being affected by tornadoes in Atlanta or whatever it is. It's difficult, it's harsh, it does seem to be creeping, it's scary what has happened but I still want to live here.
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