‘A Life on the Farm’ Review: An Ode to the Artist in All of Us (Fantastic Fest 2022)

Art can be therapeutic. It can save someone’s soul and be a gateway to cleansing the spirit. Art can transform and mold you. On a small farm in Somerset, it was everything to Charles Carson.

A Life on the Farm recounts the discovery of this old videotape owned by filmmaker Oscar Harding’s grandfather, which contains a feature-length home video written, directed, and starred by his neighbor, one very eccentric farmer named Charles Carson. What follows is a celebration of life, death, family, and the yearning to create art, no matter the cost.

Oscar Harding’s debut documentary expertly explores the obscure and bizarre life of Charles Carson in the 1990s. Carson, a farmer at the Combee End Farms, decidedly made a plethora of home videos discussing aspects of farm life in a distinctive and eerie, off-putting way and sent these video cassettes to his neighbors around his vicinity. Harding’s grandfather kept one of Carson’s videos, which the director eventually got a hold of years later after remembering the experience of seeing said tape in his youth. This was the inception of creating this film.

The documentary contains a lot of footage shot by Charles Carson himself, and the interviews dissect many elements of the thought process and methodology behind Carson’s craft. Carson clearly seems like someone who loves film and photography. Even though he was never classically trained in the field, he had a good grasp of how to make something compelling, intriguing, and entertaining in his own off-kilter way. It feels almost Lynchian, abstract, but also very matter-of-fact the way Carson showcases things like giving birth to calves, burying dead animals, and generally showing the day-to-day inner workings of a functioning farm. There was an authentic, earnest, and simplistic vibe to the scenes he shot. Carson liked to record his family a lot, and that’s when things get a little weirder
Yet it’s something that it’s better to experience than to read in a review.

A Life on the Farm touches on Carson’s life, his videos, his depression, and his legacy through his home videos. The film relies a lot on second-hand accounts of who he was in his life and how his neighbors and acquaintances remembered him. It’s apparent that making these home videos and taking photos around the farm was Carson’s way of coping with all the tragedy surrounding his life. By sharing these snapshots of his daily farm life induced by bemoaning remembrance with his neighbors, he was extending this art to hopefully bring some happiness and entertainment to them and possibly himself. It’s beautiful to see how Charles’ home videos have reached a new generation of fans, thanks to the advent of the internet, who will love and admire his work for how eccentric, low-key and inspirational it is. It’s inspiring to see a man who owns a simple VHS camera create something beloved by thousands and leave a mark in the cultural zeitgeist. Documentaries are a powerful tool in how it tackles any subject matter, no matter how odd or mundane it can be. This one is exceptional – an emotional piece that will leave you perplexed at the beginning and with a lump on your throat by the time the end credits arrive.

The only negative aspect of this documentary is that it relies on talking heads to carry the film forward, which may have come out of necessity because of the potentially scarce footage they had of Carson’s old videotapes. I’d argue that the most compelling parts were his footage. It would have been great to integrate more of it if it was possible. I assume that the documentary might be a gateway for the audience to Google his other videos on YouTube and see them themselves. In that regard, they succeeded in building that curiosity in the viewer.

The documentary is surprisingly endearing and sweet, even if it’s a tad morbid and dwells on the macabre from time to time. By analyzing Charles’ life, you get some introspection of how someone deals with grief and loss and how they hone in on these tragedies into something positive and uplifting. As a result, A Life on the Farm becomes this poignant celebration of the cycle of life and death. It provides a tribute to a man who wanted to document his life uniquely but was creating a ravishing piece of art, probably without even realizing it. I highly recommend this documentary.

One response to “‘A Life on the Farm’ Review: An Ode to the Artist in All of Us (Fantastic Fest 2022)”

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