Cow Country: Ways of Telling a Story
Producing a documentary film begins with a pitch: a brief statement of what the film is about, why it’s needed, and how it differs from the zillions of other films out there. In getting our new documentary film on dairy farming off the ground, MILK MEN: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF DAIRY FARMERS, my production team came up with a standard pitching plan. But as activist documentarians, we were also concerned with how to tell the story in a way that challenges ideological conventions. We wanted to avoid stock characters (good guy/bad guy) and Hollywood tropes (harmony and goodness prevail, disrupted by a crisis, happy ending where hero restores harmony). So how did we scope out our narrative alternatives?
We did start (in spring, 2014) with the cultural fascination with manly pursuits: dairy farming is a dangerous job. As popular Reality TV shows demonstrate, high-risk occupations hold inherent dramatic interest, particularly for guys. But such conventions may be subverted even as they are deployed. Alongside truckers, fishers, and miners, dairy farming is ranked as one of the most hazardous of occupations. Yet their association with domesticated animals (cows), situates them closer to the maternal realm of the social imaginary than many conventional “manly” jobs. We wanted to show how managing the machines and herds requires enormous stamina, as does working in bitter cold (or muggy heat) and rising at the crack of dawn, even on weekends and holidays. More than its dangers, we wanted to bring into view socially invisible and necessary forms of labor.
Milk Men provides a corrective to both the idealized and demonized portraits of dairy farmers that circulate in the mainstream media. Two stereotypes predominate, and both are gross distortions of the reality. One image—enlisted routinely in dairy commercials—evokes idyllic pastoral scenes inhabited by simple people tending their contented cows. These scenes invite nostalgia for a pre-modern way of life where humans lived in perfect harmony with animals and nature. The second image—the one most often drawn by anti-dairy critics—casts the farmer as an animal abuser, pushing over-bred cows until they drop and producing large vats of drug-laden milk. In both the bucolic setting of the family farm and the ghoulish scenes of factory farming, the story vastly distorts the reality and misses the complexity of modern dairy farming, with its mix of business skills, animal science, technology, engineering, and social networks required to keep the enterprise going.
Women involved in farming also are either stereotyped or invisible. Once associated with “milk maids,” the embodiment of wholesomeness and fecundity, dairy farming did become by the 19th century a primarily male occupation. Women continue to play important roles in agricultural production, however, whether as farmer’s wives and daughters equally involved in the dairy or, increasingly, as inspectors and scientists.
In telling our story about small farmers losing ground to the big factory farms, an array of Hollywood conventional scripts are available to structure the story. The David and Goliath story—the little guy coming up against the big guy—has a long and noble history in mainstream movies, particularly films about small businesses and the power of banks. In some of the classic films (It’s a Wonderful Life, Pretty Woman, Wall Street, Wolf on Wall Street, Margin Call, American Hustle), the story centers on the corrupting power of big financial institutions, set against small town morality. The denouement typically unfolds as lead protagonists come to the realization that the power of the big firm is a disguise, a seductive illusion. Whatever the transformation of the protagonist, the story typically ends with restoration of an older (and more virtuous) social order.
Yet the storyline of a return to an older and more “natural” way of life carries palpable appeal for many activist filmmakers because it achieves two aims: 1) it challenges Western capitalist ideological assumptions concerning the arc of progress, and 2) it suggests that the present social order grew out of destruction of older and better way of doing things, and that the victors of history tell a one-sided story.
What are the costs, then, of relying on scripts that center on recovery of a lost world? First, a key difference between rightwing and leftwing critics of the status quo centers on whether alternatives are sought in a return to a lost golden age or through the creation of a future society that has not yet been realized. Nostalgia for an earlier era tends to promote conservative values because it is often associated with romanticizing the past. Such portrayals tend to omit the oppression of women, workers, and racial minorities, for example—and the cruelties and inequities through which that old world was built. Or they may rely on dualistic distinctions between “traditional” (good) and “modern” (bad) that collapse too many of the currents and visions of each of these categories in the sweep of history.
As activist filmmakers, we do bring history into the picture as vital context for understanding the present. But as a place of return, idyllic scenes from the past readily take on a regressive glow. But even in progressive treatments, where the colonized claim center stage as agents of history, there can be a tone of melancholic loss that readily overlooks the living history of these same groups as part of the modern world. Liberal films that center on American slavery and the destruction of Native American peoples, for example, may all too fully locate the problems of the oppressed in the remote past.
In films about agricultural life, farmers often symbolize vital connections to the land and agriculture that are severed in capitalist modes of food production and distribution. Yet fighting the big farms, like fighting the big firms, can easily perpetuate the bourgeois story that the middle class–small shopkeepers and operators –are the engine of progress. This narrative readily overlooks the oppressive and exploitive working conditions of many small businesses, including small farms, and the conservative social values that often accompany this level of competition in capitalist economies.
In the process of editing the film, Milk Men emerged as counter-narrative to the romanticized portrait of farmers, frozen in time. We place the dilemmas of dairy producers at the heart of the modern world. In the denouement of the story, we hope to re-imagine the place of the farm in modernity and challenge many of the simplistic images that urbanites hold of rural people. To learn more, go to www.milkmenmovie.com.