Producer's notebook: docmaking on a farm (aka life on the lamb)
When I pitched this doc, I never thought the CBC would go for it. Here I was, this novice docmaker, asking for three weeks of tape-gathering (that's a lot of tape) while living (and working) on a farm in the middle of nowhere.
But, by some miracle, they went for it. And I'm so glad they did, because this ended up being one of the single greatest adventures I've had.
In a world of endless choices, it can be hard to make a decision about what you are going to do with your life. But after much back and forth Ira Bernstein thinks he's found it. The thing that will make him happy, content, fulfilled ... is farming. Listen to the documentary →
Don't get me wrong — farming is hard. Part of why I wanted to make this doc was my city girl fascination with rural living, but while having some inclination of the challenges of farming, I wasn't entirely prepared for how tough it can be.
Take Day 1. Ira and I drive up the Dockendorff farm, and we're greeted warmly by Anne and David. Then, business. The tour began in a flurry, with us rushing around from barn to barn, field to field, learning the ropes as best we could.
"We store this tool in this shed," David would mutter over his shoulder. "This is how much grain we feed the rams, and this is where the ducks sometimes lay their eggs, and this is how you call the cows," and on and on it went. I noticed Ira had a small notepad in which he was scribbling the Dockendorffs' lessons furiously.
I, naively, thought I could remember it all. Or maybe, my recording equipment would capture it. Amateur mistake.
The good news is, I didn't kill anything. The bad news is, I almost did.
Whether it was mixing way too much mineral for the sheep on Day 4, or not calling the cows for dinner and filling their unattended troughs to the brim on Day 10, I screwed up more than a couple times.
Now, if you're wondering what the disastrous outcomes of either would involve, you probably don't work with animals. Short answer is: sheep murder by poison, cow homicide by over-feeding. Working with animals is an art, a science, and a business all at the same time.
As Anne Dockendorff puts it, "They're not our pets. They're our business partners." She says that, yet it's clear her and David really do care for their animals. Considering both the cows and sheep eventually get sent to an abattoir, the Dockendorffs are incredibly dedicated to the health and happiness of their 'business partners.' For example, it's not every farmer that checks on their sheep every two hours. All day. All night. Admittedly, that's not a regular thing, it's something they do when the ewes are lambing.
Which brings me to the heart of this doc, and my experience making it. Although the primary focus was following a young WWOOFer on a sheep farm during lambing season, I ended up learning a lot more about people than I did learning about animals.
Not many docmakers spend every waking minute with their subjects, much less while negotiating the day-to-day physical labour of farm chores, the late nights of lambing, or the early mornings of who makes the coffee. This put me in an interesting position: when was I 'Felicia-Latour-the-doc-maker,' and when was I 'Felicia-the-farmhand'?
Maybe it's my own pretense of consummate professionalism, but it was a big deal for me to drop the facade of complete objectivity and accept that living with my subjects for three weeks meant they'd see me in some low moments. It might also mean I'd see them in all human state's: tired, hungry, cranky, upset, frustrated.
To some people, that might sound horrifying. But ultimately, experiencing highs and lows as a collective made me a better storyteller, and the folks I interviewed more open and forthcoming.
That's the number one takeaway from this experience (other than how to deliver a lamb). In order to tell human stories, it's okay to be human too.
In fact, it's necessary.