As gripping as "The Farmer's Wife" is, there is a second, unseen saga behind
it. With double the drama. The Boeschkoetters were not the only heroically
struggling couple during the three years or so it took to produce the film.
Living in the farm country, supervising a crew, shooting hundreds of hours of
intricate, sonically, cinematographically and philosophically ambitious footage
every day and laboriously reviewing it each night--filmmakers David and Nancy
Sutherland were, in a strange way, doppelgangers to the farm couple. Not only
documenting their struggle but engaging in a parallel struggle of their own.
"You're always constantly adapting," says David. "I had five different camera
crews--one guy shot 'Homicide.' Another worked on 'Hoop Dreams.' They all had
their own ways of doing things, but it had to be my way. Everybody had to be
in sync and to improvise, and then we'd play stuff back at night."
While Darrel and Juanita Buschkoetter fought to fulfill their dream of keeping
a family farm--and a family--alive in an era when everything from the weather
to the economic system collaborate to extinguish it, the Sutherlands attempted
to preserve a tradition of long-form, non-narrated documentary filmmaking that
is also on the endangered-lifestyles list. The interaction of the two couples
makes a fascinating study of the nature of documentary truth, and a deeply
moving story of four people bonding in a time of unique crisis.
"They were different than we were," says Darrel Buschkoetter with Nebraskan
understatement. Adds Juanita: "But towards the end we realized how much we've
got in common with them." The Buschkoetters come from a town of 350 in the
supremely traditional, heavily Catholic farming heartland. The Sutherlands are
from Newton, Massachusetts, a Jewish couple whose religious impulses are
channeled into artistic forms of extreme originality. David Sutherland's films
are devoted to the idea of change: his subjects range from octogenarian
enfant-terrible artists to midlife Yale graduates to blind cowgirls near the
California-Oregon border. The Sutherlands' Newton home is festooned with
Nancy's bizarrely inspired paintings and sculptures, many of them incorporating
bleached bones from animal cadavers taken from the Buschkoetter farm.
Yet there are parallels between the two couples. "Two women living their
husband's dream," says Nancy Sutherland. Like Juanita, Nancy has learned her
husband's business and serves as a full partner in it--in some aspects of the
business more skillfully than he. "We're chasing dreams, Darrel and I, and
Nancy supports my dream in the same way Juanita does," says David.
Both couples live in homes that are the hub of an all-consuming world of work.
Once the years of filming were over, the Sutherlands repaired to their Newton
basement, where David and coproducer Nancy edited a document that is in some
ways more fantastically complex than a feature film.
"We don't have 20 people working for us. So all the work--I'm responsible to
recreate every frame of sound," says David Sutherland, wild-eyed from weeks of
lack of sleep. "There are over half a million audio edits in this, where
normally with something like this, you probably have a hundredth as many.
Meaning every microphone has to be separated or they echo. Each one of those
has to be equalized, each sigh and groan recreated exactly so it can be heard
exactly as it was recorded. I'm not looking for sound bites. There are so many
elements--I mean, Darrel has so many groans! Every time he gets off the tractor
and comes into the house, he has a different groan. He's always hungry to talk
about how he feels."
So is David Sutherland, the most technically remote yet emotionally sensitive
of filmmakers. He uses his sensitivity to give his subjects a voice--he calls
his method "the soliloquy film." Though he's quite capable of making
conventional narrator-driven films, his ideal is the film whose images and
subjects speak for themselves.
The effect of all this effort is an impression of absolute effortlessness, an
art of documentary that almost completely obscures the filmmaking process. "The
goal really was to feel like you're living in their skin. We want you to know
who they really are and so you feel for both of them," says David.
Sometimes the filmmakers wound up deeper into the farm life than they'd
intended. A sweet-tempered bull took one look at the Bostonians and "went ape,"
says Juanita. The first scene the crew filmed was in a hog pen, where they
discovered to their horror, up to their knees in mud, that hogs are not
immobile nor contemplative animals. They're big and they charge in a messy
fashion. "They didn't realize the danger," says Darrel. "They thought hogs
would be like statues sittin' there. Well, they're not. It didn't take long for
them to get out of the pen."
"One particular time we were pickin' corn, my brother-in-law haulin' for me.
And I was runnin' the combine," recalls Darrel with a grin. "And the cameraman
had his tripod set up inside this truck box, filming me." "Which I'm sure made
a great scene as far as the angles went," says Juanita. "I didn't realize he
was IN the truck," says Darrel. "I just thought he was sitting on the back--I
didn't pay attention. Here I am, filling the truck with corn, and I got it
full, looked back--and this guy is standing waist-deep in corn, tripod and all.
Once you get waist-deep in grain, you cannot get out of there." Concrete would
do about as well.
The cameraman was in a total beginning-farmer's panic. "We dug and dug and dug
and finally broke the webbing on the tripod and finally got him out," says
Darrel. "We should have just went to the elevator and dumped him--it would've
The filmmakers' impact on the family was subtler, less traumatic. Farmers
cannot afford to be fools and the Buschkoetters were aware of what they were
doing inviting the Sutherlands into their lives. "They have an agenda and they
care about family farmers. " says David Sutherland. "And they thought they
were the only ones who were having trouble with their marriage, and that this
might help other farmers in the same troubles. I think they just wanted to have
somebody they could trust to tell their story."
"So much in the farmer's personality is to be private," says Juanita. "You
know, you don't let people know you have problems. As I work the hotline, you
realize that as soon as you open your problems, everybody's been there at some
point. And they open theirs up too. If you're ready to reach out for help,
you're ready to focus and prioritize you can get through your problems
Both couples agree that the making of the film was not responsible for exposing
the Buschkoetters' troubles. "In a small town, everybody knows 75 percent of
your business--the other 25 they make up for you. It's worse than what's real,
so what the hell if they know the rest?" Darrel says, laughing. "When we were
having some money problems, you know, small town--everybody knew it. And they'd
go to your landlord maybe to see if they could take your land away from you
because they knew that you were on the brink."
Forced to take a last-ditch loan, the Buschkoetters' private woes became
public property. "If you get an FMHA loan you live in a fishbowl," says David.
"All the records are open to anyone and everybody talks about it."
In a way, the tough times when the Buschkoetters feared they might lose their
farm helped the film by giving them bigger problems to think about than the
microphones on their collars. "What people don't realize is they're in need of
money, I mean they're in dire straits," says David Sutherland. At one point,
Juanita realized she had approximately sixty-five cents per day to buy
groceries for a family of five. "There are six issues they're dealing with
before they're even thinking about us." says David Sutherland. "Once they
trust us and know that we're not dangerous."
"I don't think he ever exploited us," says Juanita. "David told us up front he
wanted to get up close and really focus on personal issues and everything. When
we agreed to it--who can look into the future and know what you're gonna go
through? So that's a little bit hard. But he did what he said he was going to
do. And Nancy said to us-- 'When people are going through tough times, you
film the tough times.' I really believe that you're better off when you
confront things. I'd rather have things out in the open. People wondering what
your problems are--that's one of my concerns with both of our in-laws."
In some of the most wrenching scenes in the film, Juanita's family speaks
acidly of Darrel's farming obsession as a selfish folly that drags Juanita and
the kids down with him. And Darrel's father, a hardbitten old farmer who seems
incapable of giving his son the slightest crumb of encouragement for a job well
done, has some hard words too. ("He's a hurricane!" marvels David Sutherland.)
How are Darrel and Juanita's in-laws going to feel when this laundry is aired
"You know, it doesn't worry me as far as our families are concerned," says
Juanita. "I guess I feel if they're ashamed of the way they're acting, they
should've been ashamed when they were doing it, not just now 'cause the rest of
the country's gonna see it."
The Sutherlands strictly resisted the considerable temptation to offer the
Buschkoetters any advice or money--partly because they didn't have much to
offer. Juanita's family, which includes graduates of Wellesley and Harvard, and
no one in financial difficulty, did send money from time to time. But the
Sutherlands plowed most of their life savings into the film, with no guarantee
whatever that it would ever be sold. Six-hour-plus films about farmers are not
in heavy demand on the film-festival circuit, even to somebody who has won many
prizes. "Nobody would give me money," says David, referring to the time before
Frontline picked up the film. "The way I've been humiliated by HBO--I'm 50
years old, and I've done good films, and all of a sudden, with cable and the
prices of documentaries coming down, I'm not one of their chosen people."
To hear David bewail falling film-production prices sounds eerily like
listening to the Buschkoetters lament the era of $1.50 corn. The Sutherlands
know what it's like to lose a life's work in a family business. For years
before he turned to filmmaking, David sold tires--often to farmers--and his
life savings at that time was poured into his tire store in the Boston area.
"Fate stepped in," says Nancy. "The store was hit by lightning." It burned
before their eyes. "We were underinsured. I could easily have gone Chapter 11
and left with a pot of money, but I paid all my creditors off." Then the couple
took the lightning strike as a divine sign to risk all on a life of documentary
filmmaking. That wasn't the last crisis the Sutherlands faced--at one screening
of a well-received film, he burst into tears when somebody asked what his next
one would be, because he didn't think there was funding for another.
Although Sutherland scrupulously avoided directing the events before his
cameras, the presence of the Sutherlands' crew inevitably affected the
Buschkoetters--evidently for the better. "We would've had a tough time no
matter what, and of course our marriage problems came to a head," muses
Juanita. "But really, I think the film crews were a good distraction for the
kids. One of the sound men in particular, the kids just loved him. He talks
like Donald Duck. He taped a whole book in the voice of Donald Duck--imagine
what his throat felt like when he got done. It was like having a seven-person
team of childcare. And David and Nancy, both of them actually are just big
kids at heart."
The curious parallel lives of the Sutherlands and the Buschkoetters are
perhaps best captured in their relationships to the idea of the house. The
farmers were utterly absorbed in the practical matter of keeping their house
and land and entire way of life from repossession by creditors. Meanwhile,
Nancy Sutherland, the fanciful artist with an imagination as expansive as the
Nebraska sky, helped each of the Buschkoetters' three daughters build little
models of their own dream houses. And David Sutherland all the while was
obsessively photographing the paint on the main farm house, documenting its
peeling over the years. "Symbolically you could say the old house is falling
down, which I used as a metaphor throughout--it's peeling more and more, but
there's a certain beauty about a fading type of America that I fell in love
with. I just fell in love with the prairies."
In the end, the Buschkoetters prevailed over their problems. They repaid their
debtors, repaired their marriage, expanded their farm, and repainted the house.
A pair of images stick in David Sutherland's mind. The first is on the front
porch of the house, when the Buschkoetters' troubles were in full fury.
"Juanita gets a call, and the plug's being pulled on her loan, and she's
shaking, and I had to catch a plane, and I felt so bad--what an awful way to
leave somebody! And then, four years later, Juanita and Darrel fly to the
press tour in Pasadena." They went to help explain the film to the nation's
television journalists, and wound up chatting with England's Prince Edward and
being stunned by the princely luxury of the Ritz Carlton Hotel. "Having the
guys put the tray in and say, 'Good morning, sir,'--I thought, nobody calls me
'sir!' I wouldn't want to have that all the time," says Darrel.
"They'd never seen the ocean or been on a plane," says David Sutherland. "And
she's standing in the water in Santa Monica and Darrel's standing next to her,
and they hand her a cell phone and she's talkin' to their kids--'Can you hear
the ocean?'--and she's just chortling and laughing, with a big smile. That they
did all this--I'm just in awe, I just can't believe it!"
Looking back on it all, perhaps the Buschkoetters feel about the experience of
the making of "The Farmer's Wife" the way they did when the plane lifted them
out of Nebraska en route to Pasadena. "When we took off, Darrel had this look
on his face--'I don't think he's going to make it!'" says Juanita. "And this
speed coming off the ground--you realize you're not getting out of this thing
you're in," says Darrell. "No, there's no way you're going back!" laughs
Juanita. "After a while, I loved it," says Darrel. "Now I look forward to going
Juanita says she learned one main lesson from the last rough passage of her
life. "The situation doesn't make you a success or a failure. I think you're
more of a failure if you don't follow your dream."