It all started with a promise to a dog.
In just nine words I knew that I was going to love John and Molly Chester’s documentary, The Biggest Little Farm. What I didn't know was how much.
The film begins with scenes of high drama and suspense. Devastating wildfires, increasingly common in California, move ever closer. Before the story has even begun, we fear for the survival of Apricot Lane Farms.
We have to wait to find out what happens next, however, as the documentary then takes us back to the start and that promise to a dog. Todd, the dog in question, was rescued by Molly and John and then he, in turn, rescued them… by barking incessantly and causing them to be evicted from their home.
Turns out, this was just the nudge that the couple needed to explore Molly’s dream of owning a sustainable farm. For just shy of eight years, The Biggest Little Farm follows them on their journey towards this goal.
The result is a visually stunning, emotionally moving adventure. The Biggest Little Farm is compelling and thought provoking, funny and inspirational. Willing to put their egos aside for our greater ecological good, John and Molly record their remarkable achievements alongside their embarrassing mistakes.
For amid the conversation about the environment, nature and sustainability lies a very human story.
The Biggest Little Farm starts with narration from both John and Molly. They are an engaging and likeable couple. It seems a shame that (all too soon) Molly’s voice disappears as the story progresses.
However, Molly is content to be the film’s costar. “My inspiration came in making the farm itself,” she says. “There’s a creative force within both John and myself and we are very supportive of each other’s creativity. John is the filmmaker and he was the one recording what we were doing. I believed in The Biggest Little Farm because I believe in John as a storyteller. I think everything he does is amazing and good for the world to see.”
While John started filming from day one of their journey at Apricot Lane Farms, it was only at year five year that he decided to make a documentary. “We were capturing this story the whole time but I never really committed to the idea of making the film until that year,” he explains.
“I remember the day I decided to do it,” John recalls. “I was walking in the orchard by a tree that only days before had been completely covered in aphids, a pest that kills plants when it sucks the nectar from certain plants. But now they were all gone. Instead the tree was covered in hundreds of ladybugs, one of its main predators. The ladybugs had returned because we had created a habitat throughout the farm for them to thrive in. It just snowballed from there to one example of return after another and I knew I was ready to tell this story.”
The central message in The Biggest Little Farm is one of harmony and balance. However, at times, the same could not be said for the making of the documentary. John states that filming and farming proved to be " the most insane thing I’ve ever done. It’s hard enough to deal with the complexities of a farm let alone shoot what is basically a nature documentary within the ecosystem of a farm.”
The tension between the two projects was often overwhelming. “That final year of post-production I had officially taken on too much,” John admits. “I’d be in the barn editing with Amy Overbeck the editor and have to rush out because of a fire, windstorm emergency or troubled livestock birth. Then walk back into the edit covered in various fluids and smells and keep cracking away on the story.”
On occasion, the act of filming his journey prevented John from processing what was happening at the farm. “The most difficult times were when the emergency would involve the death of a sick animal and I’d find myself returning to the edit room with very little time to process the loss,” he explains. “I’ve got a lot of favourite animals here so none of that is easy. We were shooting 365 days a year for almost eight years. There was constant tension for me personally between the needs of the farm and the needs of the film.”
All this gives you some idea of the challenges that both John and Molly faced when making The Biggest Little Farm. This was far from an easy documentary to create. However, the act of farming and filmmaking have more in common than you might expect.
“The cool thing about nature and the farm, though, is that they have their own rhythms, so you can anticipate when something is about to happen,” says John. “It’s all about watching for the routines in nature and being there waiting for it to happen. That’s obviously the secret formula for directing nature docs but funny enough it’s also the most important trick to farming in this way. Observe and anticipate. And both require an extreme level of humility.”
Of course, the documentary genre has been blessed by numerous films and series observing nature (thank you Sir David Attenborough). As a result, we audiences have pretty high expectations.
Thanks to John’s expertise behind the camera (he has been a filmmaker and television director for the last 25 years) our expectations are well and truly met in The Biggest Little Farm. This film is a joy to watch - featuring scene after breathtaking scene of stunning images.
The Biggest Little Farm also makes good use of animation in telling its story. The style is almost like that found in a children’s book. No surprise, then, that John would love his film to find its way to younger viewers.
“While the film might contain some intense scenes, the story is very much for them too,” he explains. “And then I hope that all the viewers will see that a collaboration with nature offers infinite possibilities.”
Young or old, The Biggest Little Farm is a wonderfully entertaining, gripping and visually gorgeous documentary. Yes, it has a message. However, the film never feels like a lecture, its tone is never judgmental or preachy.
However, by the end of the documentary I felt that I had learned a lot about the importance of balance. It may be (very) unlikely that I will become a farmer, but The Biggest Little Farm made me think differently about my own day to day life.
Molly Chester says it best. When asked about the greatest lesson that she has learned from the land, she replies “that conquering doesn’t work, that the focus isn’t eradication or winning - it’s collaboration and understanding… You have to watch and be observant. Something is always going to be causing ‘problems’ but they’re not really problems, they’re just teaching you what the land needs. They’re your next place to find greater harmony.”