Playback: David Sutherland's 'The Farmer's Wife'
The Farmer's Wife, a documentary by David Sutherland, had a profound effect on me. It inspired me back into producing documentaries.
After film school I wanted to make docs, and I did; several years later, I seemed to drift into directing feature films, then episodic TV and movies of the week. By 1998 I felt burnt out and was looking around for something new.
I often watched PBS' Frontline, one of my favorite shows. When I saw there was a six-hour documentary scheduled over several nights about a farm couple, I'm sure I groaned at what it might be. But I was hooked into the miniseries in the first ten minutes. Darrel and Juanita Buschkoetter were real people. They never would have been "cast" by Mark Burnett or MTV. They weren't flashy or sexy. But they were real and Sutherland somehow got them to open up their hearts and souls on camera and expose their lives to the world. What we saw was a couple facing financial problems and a crisis surviving as a couple and family.
Maybe it was because back then I was coming out of a divorce from a 17-year marriage and my two kids were living with me, but I could relate to them and their problems, even though our worlds could not have been more different. Even stranger, I found myself relating to and cheering for Jaunita over Darrel. The doc gave me such insight into the couple, and I felt like I had been going through a great deal with them.
Another element I like about this documentary is the style. Sutherland lets the scenes percolate before pouring the cup of coffee. Editing is all about rhythm, and he understands that. But the rhythms in this show are not fast and snappy, but slow and natural. The voiceover of the subjects tells the story without the need of a gravel-voiced announcer telling us what we are already watching. This style works best in docs and has evolved over the years beyond the interesting "fly-on-the-wall" style of the work of Fred Wiseman.
Recently I was discussing with a client a show I was producing for one of the major cable networks. He said to me, "Just don't make it like The Farmer's Wife; we want it more like MTV." I was taken aback, but at least he had seen my favorite doc. Too many networks today want to lower the age demographic of their core audience and think that quick-cutting and Fox-like whoosh sounds will wake up the audience.
Some have compared The Farmer's Wife to An American Family, the 1973 multi-hour documentary on the Loud family, but The Farmer's Wife is so much better. I have read that Sutherland put up some of his retirement money to fund the film. I don't know if I could do that and spend three years of my life living off and on in a motel 50 miles from the nearest McDonald's, let alone the nearest Barnes & Noble. My hat's off to David and co-producer Nancy Sutherland for my favorite documentary.
Chuck Braverman is the owner and president of Braverman Productions, Inc. in Santa Monica, California. He was earned three DGA Award nominations, a DGA Award for High School Boot Camp (2001) and an Academy Award nomination for Curtain Call (2001).