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A Labor Day focus on Films About Workers

Brookford Almanac, a look at a first-generation farm in New Hampshire

The Labor Day program Films About Workers will include a screening of 'Brookford Almanac,' a look at the daily struggles of a first-generation farming couple in New England.

This Labor Day, Sept. 2, the Antenna Gallery and Cinema Reset will host a cinema and discussion series, Films About WorkersBrookford Almanac, a film by Cozzette Russell, is among works to be screened at Antenna. As director and curator of the program, I recently interviewed Russell about her experiences making the film, and the trends of first-generation American farmers during a period she cites as an "agricultural renaissance."

Blake Bertuccelli: The idea for Films About Workers came as soon as I watched your film (Brookford Almanac). In Brookford, I saw the ideal type of worker – farmers in the muck with pigs and cows and soil that needed to be churned. I’ve seen this image in films of the past – early Soviet cinema comes to mind – but cinema seems to have abandoned laborers and their labors. What attracted you to farmers and their land?

Cozette Russell: The relationship between people and land is something I find endlessly fascinating and it comes out of my own experiences and love for the natural world. I'm also very interested in the flow and process of labor. When I began filming at Brookford Farm, I was actually surprised by the intensity of farm life. As our daily lives are growing more sedentary, physical labor is becoming more exotic.

While filming, I witnessed stunning sunrises and dramatic storm clouds rolling in across the sky, but life on a farm is also a messy, dirty and smelly existence. But the thing is, when you learn about how that smelly cow manure is essential to the fertility of a farm, it’s really not so gross and smelly. It’s part of an important symbiotic relationship.

Farming is messy and smelly and oddly beautiful.

Farming, says filmmakerC ozette Russell, is messy and smelly and sometimes beautiful.

BB: I read that you decided to make Brookford Almanac after reading about young people moving back to tend the land. Can you speak a little about this trend? What have you come to learn about new generations being drawn to the land?

CR: We are in the midst of an agricultural renaissance in many parts of the U.S. and it’s particularly evident in New England, where we’ve seen a dramatic increase in farmers' markets, winter markets, the rise of cottage industry food businesses, farm to table restaurants and many farms running CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). Through these resources communities are once again getting to know their farmers and young people are seeing the appeal of a life based around agriculture.

In the seacoast of New Hampshire, where I live, I can point to a handful of farms that are run by first-generation farmers and they are successful at it, too. But for every success story there are still huge obstacles for young farmers. Access to land is the major one. It's too expensive to buy land but also risky to lease as the story in Brookford Almanac shows. Since the farming population in the U.S. is both dwindling and growing older -- the average age of a farmer is 58 -- we are approaching an important turning point in the story of American agriculture.

I originally wanted to make a film about young farmers because I was interested in telling a positive story and documenting the life of a successful young farmer. It wasn't until a year into filming that the focus of my film changed when Luke and Catarina (the farmers in Brookford Almanac) faced losing their land. The future of farming and how the next generation of farmers will fare is a complicated subject, but on the hopeful side I've met a lot of dedicated and passionate people involved in these issues and it's an exciting time to be working in the new farmers' movement.

Luke Mahoney during wheat harvest: The young couple faced challenges, including the possibility of losing their land.

Luke Mahoney at wheat harvest: The young couple faced challenges, including  possibly losing their land.

BB: Where is the farming trend heading? Young people follow a lot of trends that don't carry into their old age.  I would be curious to relate experiences at Brookford to a trend that I've seen around New Orleans – with young people starting independent farming operations. What do you think that new generations look for in the hard life of the farmer?

CR: The hard life of a farmer is also a life spent with deep and meaningful connections, through their relationship with the land, the animals, the seasons, the workers and -- really importantly -- their customers. There is a strong sense of community on a healthy farm, particularly on a farm like Brookford, which believes in diversified and organic farming methods.

I once asked Luke, "Why be a farmer?" and he replied that everyday you’re with life -- death sometimes, too -- but mostly you’re with life. This powerful bond between a farmer and the land (and this bond forms on rented and leased land, too; the land doesn’t have to be passed down through family generations) is about that very tangible but also spiritual relationship with life.

On the challenging side, there is the rigid routine -- particularly for dairy farmers like Luke and Catarina. And I came to realize farmers spend a lot of time fixing equipment; they have to be expert mechanics, too! But all that hard work goes towards feeding people and there aren't many professions as admirable. Anyone who tries their hand at farming learns pretty quickly that it's a huge commitment with lots of hard work and financial insecurity. It doesn’t strike me as attracting many people on a whim or because of a fad. I think for beginners interested in farming, the best way to learn is to be an intern or worker on a farm, that way you learn pretty quickly if you're cut out for that sort of life or not.

BB: Will you be trading your camera for a plow and pigs?

CR: Ha ha, probably not. My husband had to actually "mow" my garden this year because the weeds got so out of hand and the hornworms eating my tomatoes were the size of squirrels (and if you don't know what a hornworm is -- Google it -- they're terrifying).

So while I'm certainly drawn to many aspects of a life lived farming it really is a serious commitment and I prefer the freedom filmmaking gives me to dip in and out of different worlds. I do hope to have backyard chickens someday and be better at growing my own vegetables. But for now I'm quite happy to fill up my basket at the farmers market and support my new heroes.

FILMS ABOUT WORKERS

  • WHAT:  A series of short films about workers, including pieces by Tulane professor Betsy Weiss, Italian filmmaker Claudio Romano, the Los Angeles video collective FreewavesRachel Lears of New York University and the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab's Brookford Almanac by Cozette Russell and  Demolition, a film that documents Chinese laborers in the act demolishing a building to make way for the Beijing Olympics by JP Sniadeck. A short discussion with artists, labor organizers and academics that attempts to reconcile the image of the artist with the image of the worker will be moderated by Daniel Fitzgerald.
  • WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 2
  • WHERE: Antenna Gallery, 3718 St. Claude Ave.
  • ADMISSION: The event is free and open to the public.

Writer and filmmaker Blake Bertuccelli is the former Director of Content for NolaVie.