'Farmer's Wife' Survives Scrutiny of Cameras

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Anyone would cringe to see three years of their life filmed," says Juanita Buschkoetter, 31, the farmer's wife.

But there is no upset in her voice, even as she allows that she "had no clue," when she let the cameras in, how difficult those years would be.

She is talking by phone from her home in southern Nebraska about "The Farmer's Wife," a 6 1/2-hour intimate documentary portrait of the Buschkoetter (pronounced bush-cutter) family, presented by "Frontline" and Independent Television Service for PBS.

Over three nights beginning tonight, viewers will see Buschkoetter and her husband, Darrel, parents of three young daughters, undergo an almost herculean struggle to save their small grain and cattle farm of 1,100 rented acres and, with financial and emotional pressures mounting, their marriage.

Having gotten into trouble after four years of drought, they do battle with unremitting rain and an early frost, creditors, government loan officials and their families, who have differing expectations. Inevitably, they fight with each other.

"It was shocking to me to hear me say some of the things. You forget the camera was even there," Juanita says. "I suppose, some of the arguments between Darrel and I. . . . When we watched the film--oh God, our life--we wanted to forget."

The portrait by independent filmmaker David Sutherland of Newton, Mass.--who produced, directed, edited and wrote "Farmer's Wife" along with Nancy Sutherland, his wife of 27 years and co-producer--shows a couple working to the bone.

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Juanita cleans other people's houses and takes business courses at a local community college to get a better job, though she had hoped to stay at home with her daughters. Darrel goes to work by day, first in a steel factory, then for another farmer, and at night must take care of his own farm. Their family of five lives on $11,000 a year. Fiercely independent, Juanita is grim and depressed as she drives to the store to use food stamps.

The $1.2-million film also shows the Buschkoetters begin to turn their lives around.

Done without narration, and gleaned from more than 200 hours of film, beginning in 1995, "Farmer's Wife" lays out the crises as well as the ebb and flow of everyday life, the anger and the love, the harsh words and the tight hugs, just as the film itself depicts a landscape that in one frame looks Edward Hopper bleak and in another closes in on a painterly shot of their black and white cat, sitting atop a cut-out pumpkin, backlit by a glowing sunset.

"Why would you ever let them into your life?" Juanita reports being asked by neighbors who have seen a PBS promotional spot.

"I don't always say anything," she says. "I just keep in mind the reasons why we did it. I just really wanted to show the farmers that they weren't alone," and the rest of the country "that we're not dumb farmers out here, that I think people really do have a stake in family farms, [in] who's raising the food. We have corporate farms so close to us that people like us can't afford to buy ground anymore, to hand down to the next generation."

Darrel Buschkoetter, 37, picks up the phone. He's been moving cattle to another pasture before leaving the next day for Washington with his wife and daughters Audrey, 12; Abby, 11; and Whitney, 7. On Tuesday, Juanita testified at a congressional hearing involving family farms.

Buschkoetter says he identified with filmmaker Sutherland. "What David is doing is what I'm doing. He's an independent, working with his wife to make [his] dream come true. Same thing for us. I couldn't do it without Juanita."

Clearly the Buschkoetters won't end up like the Louds, a prosperous Santa Barbara family who were the subjects of a 12-hour PBS documentary, "An American Family," in 1973. In the final episode, William and Pat Loud, who had five teenage children, filed for divorce. Some observers said they were exploited by the filmmakers.

The Buschkoetters, who hadn't heard of the Louds until they attended PBS' press tour in Pasadena this summer, say the presence of the Sutherlands actually helped them. "Throughout the whole time they were here, they never gave advice," Juanita notes. "We became good friends. When we [Darrel and I] got frustrated with each other," they provided an outlet. "So many times what I really needed was to have someone to talk to--Nancy or David or the film crew."

Of course, the Buschkoetters, who came to the attention of the Sutherlands through a farm organization, didn't quite know what they were letting themselves in for. In Pasadena, Juanita drew laughter when she noted that "it seemed like 1,000" hours of film that were shot.

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David Sutherland put radio microphones on the Buschkoetters. "You hear them sighing and breathing; you feel like you're living in their skin," he says in a phone interview. But he drew a line with the children. "I never, on the kids, put a microphone without her permission. I would never interview the kids."

Their longest chunk of time together was 10 weeks. And when asked to leave, Sutherland did. "There would be times," he notes, "when we would be in the house, things would get tense and they had had enough."

"We respected their privacy," Nancy Sutherland adds. "It was their home, their life . . . and she would usually call the next morning."

The worst crisis, seen in Wednesday's episode, occurred in December 1996. Despite a record harvest, Darrel has no time to relax. He has to go back to work to pay off creditors, and though the family has a warm Christmas, it comes after a brief but traumatic breakup. Juanita had taken their daughters to her sister's house for a week until Darrel agreed to get counseling.

"She thought I was gonna really lose control," Darrel says on "Farmer's Wife," "[and] there was a letter on the table saying either you go learn how to handle your frustration or she wasn't gonna come back. . . . A week without seeing my kids was enough to realize I wasn't only gonna lose her if I didn't change some things, I was gonna lose my whole family."

Although the family was back together, Juanita told the filmmakers she wanted to be done with it.

"They needed space, not just from us, from everybody," David Sutherland explains. "But we stayed in touch with them. We would call all the time because you have to keep your relationship up. You have to stay in close contact because you have to know what's going on with them."

Finally that March, the Buschkoetters let the filmmakers back into their lives.

Today the scenes with her children--praying for the rain to stop, at Halloween, with Audrey displaying her heifer at the county fair--give Juanita the most pleasure. "And toward the end, us painting the house. So many stresses have eased. . . ."

For the Sutherlands, the peeling house had been a metaphor for the family's eroding lives.

And Darrel is proud that when 7-year-old Whitney saw the PBS ad, she told her parents, "I just love that, because you guys did save your marriage." Says Darrel: "So many people give up on their job or their marriage. Nobody wants to try anymore. Maybe ['Farmer's Wife'] can instill some values."

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* "The Farmer's Wife" airs on "Frontline" at 9 p.m. today, Tuesday and Wednesday on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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