What do you think of when you imagine life on a farm? Perhaps you imagine slipping on some Hunters and walking through a sunlit meadow to gather a few eggs for breakfast, an Australian shepherd trotting devotedly alongside you. You gather some wildflowers on your walk back to the house and smile to yourself feeling hopeful about the day ahead. How nice to “get back to basics” in a rural setting, right?
For the majority of America’s small farms, each day is lived out in stark contrast to this kind of artisanal fantasy. Families struggle to make ends meet, reach their quotas and oftentimes to just hold onto land and traditions that have been apart of lineages for centuries. The documentary On Her Own depicts such a family, in particular a woman who is a fifth generation farmer on the Gleason Ranch in Sonoma County, California. The film is shot with a great deal of respect and an intimacy that clearly took years to attain, following Nancy Prebilich along with her family over the course of five years as they try to sustain and preserve their family’s legacy in the wake of the great recession.
Earlier this week, I sat down with director Morgan Schmidt-Feng and his subject, Nancy Prebilich, at Toronto’s Victoria College. They were in the midst of a succession of interviews but seemed excited and energetic to speak to me about the project, which premiered at the ROM Theatre on Monday, April 27 (for additional screening times, click here).
How did you guys begin working together?
MORGAN SCHMIDT-FENG: I shoot and produce video for a living, and I was shooting a show for a client and was just hired for a couple days to shoot these little one-minute vignettes, and Nancy was one of those vignettes. They were [centered around] small local farms and wineries in the Sonoma area and I was really touched by what they were doing there and I was really interested in her niece and nephews that were farming with her, it was really interesting to me. My mom grew up in a small farming community and I grew up hearing stories from my grandmother and my great-grandmother about their farm and this was a way for me, having grown up in the city, to sort of connect to that, to bring those stories to reality for me, at least as an observer, not as a participant. So, Nancy, thankfully, replied back when I emailed her and then just a few weeks later I was up there filming.
NANCY PREBILICH: In our area in particular a lot of people want to visit the farm. We go to the farmer’s market and people ask me all the time if they can come out. And I realized the importance of that, but the logistics of accommodating all of those requests is very difficult. So when Morgan asked me about [this project], I thought it would be a really great opportunity to document our operation.
I honestly thought like, best-case scenario maybe he’d make us a little five, 10 minute thing to put on our website that we could use to sell more meat, you know? But the idea of ‘Let’s make a film!’ was never on the table. Not until several years in did he realize that he was part of an experience and I realized that we were going through a not-uncommon family farm experience, which happened to be in the midst of being documented.
How was it integrating the crew into your life and your family’s life?
NP: That’s really a huge credit to Morgan because he really is a one-man show as far as filming goes. It was really Morgan and periodically one other person that might show up with him. He really just became a close friend of the family and in fact when my father passed away, when I told my mother that Morgan was coming to the service, she was very happy. It wasn’t like he was an outsider that we needed to protect ourselves in some way from. It was like, ‘Oh good, our friend Morgan is coming.’
That’s how it felt to me; intimate, but not intrusive.
MS-F: I didn’t go in with any big notions of, “I’m gonna make this epic, five-year documentary.” I went there because my normal work is so scheduled and has a tight-focused agenda. This was just such an open release as a filmmaker, where I could just go and start filming and explore what happens, let it unfold throughout the day. It was like hanging out with good friends and catching up. I used my camera as an extension of that exploration. I didn’t even ask for releases until like, four years in, because I wanted there to be a trust between us.
One thing that really struck me as I was watching was how closely the children in the film experience life and death on a daily basis. Can you talk about what kind of an impact you think that has or a lack thereof?
NP: Well, I do think by and large that if you’re not from a culture like ours and you’re not born into it that in a lot of ways [there can be] over-cautiousness about the process of life and death, as opposed to recognizing that it’s something that is very natural. Bringing this next generation into that experience is what is at the core for me.
The very first time we harvested chickens when Samantha [Prebilich’s niece] was maybe four years old, we were very clear with her that the whole family’s up in the barn doing this, but you’re welcome to be with us, or if you want to stay in the house and watch cartoons you can do that too. [We’re often very] divorced philosophically from own sense of mortality and place in this world. So I do think it’s really important [and] think it’s lacking in our society. I don’t think it’s for everybody and I tell people all the time you don’t need to be able to do what I do. It’s not for everybody to be able to take a life as I do, but understand that I do have a personal resolve as it’s part of my culture.
Morgan, how did working in this particular rural setting effect logistical things, the day-to-day film making?
MS-F: Well, the first day I was filming, I didn’t have a lighting kit or even a bounce card or anything and I was shooting an interview with Nancy. They had a two-ton white pick-up truck that they were loading up chickens on. I was like, ‘Nancy, stand next to the truck and the sun bouncing off the truck will give you some fill.’ And I set the tripod right in front to get the most bounce, shot it and I was kind of sizing up what I was going to do next and her dad got into the truck to move it to the next row of chickens. Just as I went to move my camera so he could start the truck, there was a chicken that had gotten under the clutch and the truck literally just lunged forward and I jumped and it was one of those ‘lift the car moments’ when someone’s trapped under it. It was not even a conscious thing. It was [with a] total dinosaur brain I jumped out of the way with the camera and the tripod and nearly got killed the first day.
After I had calmed down and my adrenaline drained, I was like, ‘Okay, I really want to come back.’ I had gotten a quick little taste of quickly things can turn for the bad in a hurry on a farm. People think, ‘Oh, it’s a quaint, beautiful setting,’ but it can be hazardous.
It can be brutal.
MS-F: Right, yeah.
NP: People are always asking, ‘What’s with all the injuries?’ in the film. Mom has a cast, dad has an eye patch, Samantha’s all scratched up, you know? And it’s like, ‘Well, yeah, and? Moving on.’
Nancy, are you still in California raising animals?
NP: Yeah, I’m still on a family property. I’m actually on my paternal family’s property now. But it’s only 1 acre in the middle of town in Sebastopol, California.
It’s my mother’s side that the ranch is from [in the film] and I’m the fifth generation. My nephews and niece are the sixth, but on my dad’s side. We also go that far back, from not only California, but Sonoma County and so, my mom and dad grew up just 10 minutes from each other. Now I’m doing more of an urban farm and expanding beyond my acre. People are going ‘this actually can work’ and I say, ‘Well, duh, it can work. This is how it always used to work.’ [Laughs]
Do you have any thoughts on the near or distant future of small farms in America?
NP: We need farms at every scale. I don’t think that we want to make large-scale farms the enemy any more than we want to lose sight of the importance of small farms. It takes a whole community to help secure the foodshed.
A foodshed is a really important term that needs to be reiterated and talked about more. Much like a watershed, it’s the geographic region that produces the food for a particular population. And I’m interested in building awareness in terms of investing as well as processing and distribution. One thing that’s a huge misconception that I hear a lot is people say, ‘What we really need to do is get rid of the middleman.’ You can see how much work it takes when you eliminate all the steps to get it from the farm to the table.
Is there any particular audience that you think needs to see this film?
MS-F: So, this is our seventh festival so far this year and it’s only April. We’ve been really lucky that we’ve been able to show. We premiered at Slamdance in Utah in Park City and that really launched our film internationally in terms of publicity. That was huge.
What I’ve found is that so many people have been affected, from middle school kids all the way to 75-year-old dairy farmers from western Massachusetts. Someone from Pixar called me in tears saying how strongly this film affected them emotionally. I’ve been really surprised how broad of an audience that we’re touching.
NP: Anyone who eats. [Laughs]
MS-F: Anyone who’s had loss. Anyone who has family, or yearns for family. The universality of this story is a lot broader than I thought it would be. I know that that’s a shotgun answer, but it’s true. [The film] has touched a diverse group of people. And I’m just very thankful for that.
Are there any filmmakers, women in film currently or in the past that have influenced you?
NP: Well, I’ll say in terms of farming, and with regards to my life, the women are incredibly strong even going back to my great grandmother. Every time we faced a challenge, my mother and my sister and I, we would reflect on that and say, ‘Well, if great-grandmother can be widowed with nine children and do this, we can do this.’ And ‘If grandma can be widowed at 40 years old and still keep the dairy going, we can do this.’
So it was always truly the women in my personal family lineage that inspired me to keep going. Women need to see [this film] because I feel a little bit like a dinosaur when people see me with power tools or on top of a roof or stretching my own fence or digging a post hole. And this idea of, you know, that it’s manly work–I mean, believe me, I would much prefer someone like a man to be around to do that work. It’s exhausting. [Laughs] But you do what you need to do.
So I do hope that a lot of women will see this. And you see that in Samantha–she’s right in there with her brothers.
MS-F: My mom was quiet, but very strong and an intelligent feminist from Berkeley who got out in the streets, got arrested and protested against things that she thought were wrong. I have four sisters and my sister Heather is the executive producer on this film. She was very instrumental in helping this film get finished.
Also my spouse of almost 24 years, Susanna Aguayo, is the associate producer and she’s been there from the very beginning weighing in on every cut. When I went to film school at CCAC [California College of Art & Craft], my professors were all women in film and they were influential. I dedicated the film to my great grandmother, my grandmother and my mother.
Actually, if you look at the US census for farmers, because men tend to own the title, they’re considered in the headcount as they have the deed on the land. Well, the reality is that almost every one of those men has a woman who’s right there elbow-to-elbow with them doing the farming. And often the men will go work in the city and the women will actually be doing the majority of work on the farm.
NP: And I’ll tell you in terms of film, now going to these festivals what I really appreciate is that I recognize that we’re one of the few films that has a female protagonist. Oftentimes when a film has a female protagonist, it often has a female filmmaker and there’s often a kind of feminist angle that’s being addressed. I’m really proud of the fact that this is a male filmmaker who has made a female his protagonist, not because of the fact that I’m a woman but because of purely the content of the subject and the issue.
MS-F: I was drawn to your character as a human being.
NP: I think that that’s really important. I like that we’re working the genders together on this.
Claire is covering the 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival live from Toronto. Check out more Hot Docs reviews here.