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Filmmaker’s adventure creates a connection to nature he shares in ‘Biggest Little Farm’

John Chester tends to a pig on his Moorpark farm.
John Chester, with Emma the pig, directed a documentary about his and his wife’s efforts to start a farm.
(Telluride Film Festival)

In the Oscar-shortlisted documentary “The Biggest Little Farm,” filmmaker and farmer John Chester and his wife, Molly, leave Santa Monica to transform a dried-up 200-acre former ranch in Moorpark into a frothy and alive biodiverse working farm, called Apricot Lane Farms.

John Chester, who directed, co-wrote and narrated the film, says it was in their adventure’s fifth year when he felt an overwhelming need to share the intense treats and disturbing trials of their eight-year rehabilitation process. We watch as nature rebalances the ecosystem engines that had degraded over a period of 45 years.

“I knew this was a really special thing I’d get the chance to tell, and the only thing that could mess it up would be me,” he says. “I also knew I needed to stay very raw and honest and show my own shortcomings as a person and allow a lot of those things to be part of the film. In trips like these, you have to go down some scary roads, and maybe even experience some real loss, but you’ll learn at the intersections what you can’t yet see from up here. So it was go big or go home.”

Was your intent in making the film to tell a story or to inspire others to do what you did?

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The intent was to inspire people. We face the climate issue and environmental farming as a polarizing thing: Someone’s right, someone’s wrong, we blame. The result is there’s been no lasting effect of a changed behavioral pattern. The missing thing for me in these stories was the very thing I found in farming: This incredibly deep connection that was not polarizing, which actually made me fall in love with something and see so deeply into it, it somehow made me feel safer about everything.

Push through fear until there’s no fear…

Yes, exactly. And I’d been taught in environmental stories to be afraid of [nature] — and I felt the opposite. I felt a love and a hope, and I’m asking, “Why?” It’s because I was able to experience this four-dimensional eight years on the farm as a purposeful, intent-ful return to biodiversity and how suddenly everything was working together to try and help us if we were willing to take some expectations for perfection off it. I fell in love with a hope I’d never felt for something that has been trying to keep us alive for billions of years. I felt purposeful impermanence. I was never taught that.

How did being a filmmaker help in your farming life?

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Films don’t want to be made and farms don’t want to be farmed. You have a plan, it doesn’t work, and as a documentary filmmaker, you have to go with the story you’re suddenly presented with. We have to get out of our own way, and farming is the same. You always tell young filmmakers the most important thing you can do is finish. It’s the same with farming. It’s so easy to give under to the failures and turn around and walk away. We learn a lot at that point of just not giving up and walking away.

In the narration you voiced a powerful lesson: ‘Our earnest intent was not a protector.’ It’s a nice plum-line through the film.

I learned there is no such thing as right and wrong in nature; there are only consequences. It’s a deeper truth over a longer period of time than our human understanding is maybe capable of and has the patience for. I learned I could justify right and wrong in my simple understanding in a short period of time, but it may not be the truth.

What have you learned about animals through the experience?

Animals are very simple: They eat this and they poop here, and the health of the ground they live upon is what makes their health. Of course, I try to project my human emotions onto animals all the time, but often that’s doing a disservice to the animal. There’s a true connection [with humans] but they just look at the world a lot differently than we do; though of no less value to the whole system.

They don’t look for euphoria; they look for contentment and safety. If they have purpose and feel a part of something and safe, and have food, they’re good; [humans] always seem to want more. Animals don’t want more and more and more: “I’d be happier if I was on that pasture.” They’re happy with food, water, shelter and safety and being a part of the pack, and then some of them are driven by a purpose. They’re not wishing it was warmer or colder or whatever, they accept and they deal. You can see this all through the film.

What has been the public reaction to the film?

So far the coolest thing is people are so surprised it’s not a polarizing film about climate. Yes, its message is incredibly pertinent and timely to what we globally need to come together on, around our love for complex ecosystems having the solutions for all the things we think and feel we’re facing. Viewers are from 5 to 105 years old, and I’ve heard a number of people see it multiple times: I’ve even heard [of] people seeing it eight, nine 10 times — that’s so cool because they’re seeing the deeper layers. Not to compare this at all to “Star Wars” [laughs], but the last time I saw a movie that many times was, in fact, “Star Wars.”

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Why do you think people are choosing to see the film so many times?

Here’s the thing: We live in a state of fear right now; there’s so much to be afraid of. And the natural response in the midst of fear is to turn away. The thing I’ve found is that anything we’re facing on the farm, the antidote to it is curiosity. Actually taking the time to understand why the bad thing exists. It’s the only way to find a level of safety and serenity and hopefulness.

What we have now is a culture that responds to fear with just confrontation for the things they do not like, and we need a culture that responds to fear with innovation. It’s not going to change anything just to march against something. We need to innovate our way around it. It doesn’t matter how we got here; what matters is we’re part of the force of nature that can fix it. I think what we’re all experiencing globally is, without a reconnection to nature, there is no such thing as a meaningful life.


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