The Farmer's Wife, David Sutherland's six-and-a-half-hour verité epic debuting on Frontline next week, gives us evocative rural imagery of newborn calves roused to life by licks from their attentive mothers, hogs being hauled off to market, and a combine moving through the shadows of an autumnal sunset.
"Yes, it's about farming, but that's the least of it," says Mike Sullivan, executive producer of Frontline, which stepped well beyond its brief of investigative reporting to make The Farmer's Wife a high-profile addition to PBS's fall schedule. "It's an extraordinary portrait of an American marriage."
At first glance, the girding storyline is whether Darrel and Juanita Buschkoetter, a farming couple raising three young daughters in Lawrence, Neb., can realize Darrel's dream of farming his father's land, and earn enough to support their family.
The answer, as many an informed Midwesterner would predict, is likely to be "no." We see Darrel struggling, working the farm and a full-time job, butting heads with his loan officer and his in-laws, worrying that Juanita will leave him once she learns how well other people live. He comes home at the end of a day, brain-dead with exhaustion, cracks a beer and watches a hard-pitch infomercial about successful home-based businesses.
Juanita, meanwhile, is working the farm bureaucracy to stem the onslaught of creditors through loan restructuring, caring for the three girls, cleaning wealthy farmers' homes to supplement the family income, and devising ways to disguise the absence of meat in meals.
"Now I feel like I'm just a dumb farmer's wife who don't have no voice," she says. She enrolls in a local community college to earn credits toward an associate degree.
"What did we do so wrong to never be able to enjoy one hour all day?," Darrel asks at the end of the second episode.
"It's a story we're very familiar with here in Nebraska," says Joel Geyer, producer of another recent look at farm life, Nebraska ETV's Last of the One Room Schools.
"It's all there: the cultural love of farming, wanting to stay on the farm and be part of a family tradition," Geyer adds. And the difficulties of realizing farming is a business, no longer just "a way of life."
"It takes a while to realize you can't make a living at it."
When your world is shaking
At what could have been a logical conclusion to the series — when a bountiful harvest stands as proof that the Buschkoetters can be successful farmers — something far more threatening happens. Their marriage, strained by years of relentless financial pressure, begins to fall apart.
"It's the first time in our married life that we've ever prayed together, so you realize how much more important this is than the financial problems," says Juanita during the third program.
It is the resolution of this conflict — a compromise between Darrel and Juanita that allows them to stay on the farm and stay together — that concludes the drama of The Farmer's Wife, making it a tale of marriage in the 1990s.
"The issues that it raises are issues everybody has faced," comments Jennifer Fox, an independent filmmaker whose verité American Love Story — scheduled by PBS for next fall — portrays the marriage of an interracial couple. "How do you stay in love when your world is shaking and when the roles have changed in your marriage?"
"I think if these people don't represent where people are, they represent an aspiration of where people would like to be," says Sullivan. Darrel and Juanita make the hard choice to stick to their marriage vows — a decision many people respect, even if they lack the commitment to do so themselves. "This is Frontline's first happy ending, ever."
The price of a dream
"I'm not a Frontline expose reporter; I'm a portraitist," asserts David Sutherland, a Boston-area independent filmmaker who was pursuing his own dream of documenting the lives of farm families when he met the Buschkoetters.
The project had been his longtime ambition. In the early 1970s, Sutherland made the downpayment on his first house with the commissions he earned selling agricultural tires to farmers and ranchers. "I loved talking to these people over the telephone." Years later, when he learned the median age of farmers was 57, he wondered "what was happening to all the young people?"
His question evolved into a film concept: he would document the lives of people "trying to chase their dream of being family farmers." He found backing from private foundations, the Independent Television Service, and WGBH, through Peter McGhee, the station's national production chief and a longtime fan of his work.
"I like to penetrate personalities, using social issues as a backdrop," says Sutherland, characterizing his work. His previous films for PBS include "Out of Sight," a documentary about a real-life cowgirl presented by P.O.V., and "High Energy," a portrait of physicist Melissa Franklin that led the WGBH series, Discovering Women. He also produced a portrait of George Washington for American Experience, and "Halftime: Five Yale Men at Mid-Life."
For the Farmer's Wife Sutherland began by searching for potential subjects who had farmed 1,000 acres or more for at least 10 years. The Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska put him in touch with Juanita.
"I knew instantly this was the person I wanted to film," says Sutherland. "She spoke from her heart, and her love for her husband Darrel's dream touched me deeply." Sutherland visited the Buschkoetters and spent a night on their sofa. He and his wife Nancy returned several times to get to know the family and show them his previous films.
Although she was initially reluctant, Juanita recalls that she agreed to participate out of hope that families facing similar problems would watch the film and realize that they were not alone.
"We're not asking for pity from everybody," she explains in an interview. "We want people to know that, if we can get through these things, they can." Today she recognizes that Farmer's Wife also delivers an important lesson to her daughters: "You can have problems in life, and you can get through them."
Originally, the Buschkoetters were to be one of several families whose lives would be captured in Sutherland's dramatically intimate style. Sutherland later revised his concept, concentrating solely on them. By the end, his planned 40 hours of filming had become 300 hours.
From the spring of 1995 to August 1997, Sutherland and his crew filmed the Buschkoetters for several 10-week periods. During shoots, Darrel, Juanita and sometimes their daughters, wore radio microphones, recording their every sigh, groan and whispered prayer.
"I think it was long enough, David was catching on in how to run the tractor," joked Darrel, during an appearance at the Television Critics Association press tour in July.
In the end, the series cost about $1.3 million, estimates Sutherland. ITVS and Frontline became its biggest backers, with 'GBH waiving its overhead and, according to a spokesman, putting up a total of $750,000. Although it's not reflected in the official budget, Sutherland cut substantially into his retirement savings to get the project started.
Juanita became the central character in the real-life farm drama, partly out of circumstance. Darrel was juggling a full-time factory job and the farm, and had no time to deal with the filming, explains Sutherland. Shooting began just when Juanita took on a new role in the marriage, managing the business of the farm by developing financial plans and dealing with creditors. "It's his dream, really ... but she is helping him realize that dream, she's helping it come true."
"At the time you come into the story, she's 27 turning 28, and she's had a life experience that many much older women have never been through," says Sutherland. Marital tensions deepen as Juanita gains power in the relationship and confidence in dealing with the outside world. Darrel completes his first successful harvest, immediately goes to work for another farmer, and starts to crack under the endless pressure.
"You can tell by the tone of the interviews that the filmmaker is really trusted by his subjects and ... he's won a kind of access that is quite rare and special," says Fox, who saw an early rough cut of the first program. "The intensity of the interviews kind of shimmers with that vibe of connection between filmmaker and subject."
Eventually--although none of this occurs on film--Juanita takes the girls and leaves, urging Darrel in a letter to learn to deal with his frustration, or she won't come back.
"I told Darrel he was just letting the pressure get to him too much and I was to a point that I wasn't going to let it get any worse," explains Juanita during the film. "Either things were going to get better or something's going to change, because I couldn't stand it anymore."
A few months later, when Sutherland returned, the couple is back together, and the change in their relationship and homelife--not to reveal too much--is striking.
Sutherland describes the drama of the Farmer's Wife as watching "what the characters learn and how they change."
"It's really not a farm film, it's about chasing your dream and the price of getting your dream."
When Sullivan first screened the Farmer's Wife, it was 10 hours long and still in assembly. McGhee had suggested that Frontline execs--Sullivan and David Fanning, senior executive producer--take a look, just to offer their suggestions. "We just flat fell in love with the sheer intimacy in it."
Even with the film in that unfinished stage, the Buschkoetters appealed to Sullivan as "icons for every marriage and every relationship." The opportunity to back Sutherland's epic offered Frontline "our best shot at doing the real life that most people live."
"The way the story was structured was already there, but it was much slower paced than what they normally do," recalls Sutherland. He worked with Sullivan to bring the film down to six-and-a-half-hours, but retained editorial control. "Moments that gave it a certain rhythm"--such as the girls riding bikes--"weren't even open for discussion. I'm a good listener and will try ideas, but if anybody starts ordering me around ... ."
"He needed money, editorial help, and somebody to say 'This is a big deal and really important,'" comments Sullivan.
In addition to a major promotional push—the Buschkoetters will appear at a Capitol Hill screening Sept. 14 and on Good Morning America on Sept. 21, the day of the film's debut—an ITVS-backed outreach project will support local follow-ups at 14 stations. As it now routinely does with all of its documentaries, Frontline will publish an extensive web site to supplement the broadcast.
How to end it
Sutherland acknowledges that he could have ended The Farmer's Wife when Juanita left, but "she didn't know what she thought." Such a conclusion "would have alienated them," he says.
Having the cameras in their home during their marital difficulties was "a pain," Juanita admits in an interview, but she persisted because she "didn't want it to end on a bad note."
"Some ask if the film had any impact on the way things turned out," she continues. "Subconsciously, I have to think part of me thought, 'We have to get through this because of the film,' so it will have a happy ending."
During the Farmer's Wife, Darrel and Juanita talk in voiceovers about their marital problems, but, remarkably, their disagreements never erupt Jerry-Springer-style, in front of the cameras.
Among filmmakers working in verité, there's a myth that "if you stay long enough, you will get more, and more, and more," observes Fox. In her own experience of filming a family's life non-stop for 18 months, she found that "you reach a wall of which you won't get beyond. The real fights don't happen on-camera. The really heavy issues, if the subjects are sane, happen when the door is closed."
"This forces the filmmaker to construct ways to illustrate what he knows is happening."
Juanita admits that the "real personal things" were kept in check in the presence of the film crew and cameras. When the "bad things" happened, Sutherland was not there.
Nevertheless, Sutherland does find evocative ways to bring out the conflict, and the Buschkoetters are forthcoming and truthful about explaining themselves verbally.
"I never hit her, didn't beat her up or nothing," says Darrel, in a voiceover as Juanita sits teary-eyed and silent in front of a Christmas tree, looking visibly distressed. "I'd lose my temper and yell at Juanita, and I'd call her an ugly bitch or something. There was rumors that I was beating the hell out of her."
Sutherland often interviewed them together about what was happening in their relationship. During one such session, an interview conducted in the barn, Juanita waves her hand in frustation and walks off; in another, she sits with her head down, saying nothing, as Darrel rambles on about how he'd do anything to make it work, "if she'd just listen to herself once—right?" he asks, nudging her with his elbow, as she sits downcast and unresponsive.
Sutherland also captures tell-tale moments. Darrel's temper erupts as he struggles to fix a combine. Juanita cuts Darrel's hair for him, and he shoves her to get her to accept a "tip." On a sad Christmas morning, just prior to the break-up, Juanita opens up a present from Audrey, their eldest child. It's a Christmas decoration, a pair of wooden mittens, festooned with jingle bells and a poem that she wrote for her parents:
One mitten's for Mom, one mitten's for Dad;
Worn alone, stress causes them to wear and tear;
Worn together, they make a great pair;
Worn in a family with love, they teach them how to care and share.
Viewers willing to read between the lines of Sutherland's words and images will find subtle messages. Such as a weatherman's report for that sad Christmas of 1996: "It's very cold out there, bone-chilling temperatures and not to mention the wind." Or a sequence portraying Darrel's stormy relationship with his mother-in-law, which concludes with an uncomfortable scene of the family dog bullying a frightened little kitten. Or a scene of the three girls sitting in a parked bus with Juanita pondering, in a voiceover, how her difficulties with Darrel have affected their children: it concludes with Audrey telling her youngest sister Whitney, "You're a pain in the ass."
Even with her admitted restraint in front of the camera, Juanita says she can't believe she "actually let them film all that."
"It's tough watching it, only because it's really what life was like the last three years, really real."