When in the spring of 1990 Jeanne Jordan and her husband, Steven Ascher, documentary filmmakers both, learned that this might be the final year of farming for her parents, they became determined to film this pivotal time in the lives of her parents, Russel and Mary Jane Jordan. The result is “Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern,” a film as beautiful as it is heartbreaking, suspenseful and finally affirming.
The film premieres tonight at Raleigh Studios as part of the American Cinematheque’s Alternative Screen series and opens Friday for one week at the Grande 4-Plex.
One generation of Jordans after another had farmed the same rich Iowa land but, as they approached 70, the elder Jordans faced the fact that they were fighting a losing battle. Between the 1960s and 1990s, the numbers of American farmers had dwindled from 6 million to 2 million. Expansion in the ‘70s was followed by recession in the ‘80s.
“Bureaucrats and politicians decided the farm crisis is over,” Russel’s son-in-law, whose own farm was foreclosed in 1988, says in “Troublesome Creek.” “It isn’t over, it’s just got a Band-Aid over it.”
The turning point for the Jordans came when their local bank was taken over by the mammoth Des Moines-based Norwest Banks. Norwest’s impassive representative has no interest in the Jordans’ decades of profitability and generations of reliability; to him, the Jordan farm simply warranted a “bad risk rating” and that was that.
Much to the surprise of their six children, the Jordans came up with a bold and courageous plan of action to save their land, including the ancestral Victorian farmhouse. “Troublesome Creek” keeps us on edge, hoping that their gamble pays off. Russel and Mary Jane love western movies, and their filmmaker-daughter can’t help but see them as heroes trying to stave off the bad guys, thus the subtitle “A Midwestern.” (The film’s main title comes from the picturesque stream that rambles over the Jordan land.)
In the process of making the film, the Aschers generate a tremendous amount of emotion and discover a great deal of meaning, which we, in turn, experience in watching “Troublesome Creek.” On the most obvious level, the documentary calls attention to the fragile predicament of the small farmer everywhere in America. At the same time, the Aschers are creating a lyrical homage to the tremendous beauty of rural Iowa and a heartland way of life that seems quintessentially American.
The inviting interiors of the Jordan home and their family life are straight out of Norman Rockwell. These are the kind of settings used for countless “homey” TV commercials advertising everything from pickup trucks to kitchen and cleaning products. In many ways, the Jordans are the very embodiment of the American dream, one that is in danger of becoming a nightmare.
Yet the Jordans’ predicament reveals their staunch strength of character, dignity and humor in the face of adversity, the solidity of their near-50 years of marriage and, above all, the significance of family in the face of the inevitability of change. “Troublesome Creek” is a hugely affecting experience. No wonder it became an Oscar nominee and took the audience award as well as the grand jury prize for documentary just a year ago at the Sundance Festival.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film is suitable for general audiences.
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‘Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern’
An Artistic License-Forensic Films release. Writers-producers-directors Jeanne Jordan & Steven Ascher. Cinematographer Ascher. Editor Jordan. Music Sheldon Mirowitz. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
* Premiering tonight at 8 at the Chaplin Theater at Raleigh Studios, 5300 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, (213) 466-FILM. Exclusively at the Grande 4-Plex for one week, 345 S. Figueroa St., Downtown Los Angeles, (213) 617-0268.