Chicago’s documentary film festival comes to a close with docs on the war in Ukraine and a cute little farm in SoCal.
As Doc10 2019 comes to a finish, it’s fun to realize just how eclectic the selections have been. Progressive politics, culture clash, privately run EMT services, Satanism, and more—this lineup didn’t have the most tangible throughline. I like that, though, and the most surprising part is how consistent the films were in terms of quality. It’s a much better surprise than walking into a wet, mid-April snowstorm, only for the wind to hurl you into a snowbank.
Yes, that actually happened before the first movie of the day, but it didn’t manage to make the experience any damper than my clothes. Maybe it even enhanced the experience. Simon Lereng Wilmont’s The Distant Barking of Dogs is easily the heaviest movie in the festival, telling the story of 10-year-old Oleg as he and his grandmother, Alexandra, live in rural Ukraine against the country’s war with Russia. It’s cold to look at but easy to take in. It might be because the film is downright oppressive at points, but honestly, why shouldn’t it be?
Mortars, gunfire, and howling reign from a distance, almost like the wind simply quit and let a more grating force take its place. There’s a constant sense of decay here that exists not in what we see but what’s missing: the empty rooms, the barren fields, the pieces of a family that often feel left of center. Sometimes it’s bilious. Sometimes it’s beautiful. Sometimes it’s both, and as the little boy becomes more attuned to violence, it conjures the blend of humanism and emptiness that recent films like Capernaum couldn’t quite achieve.
However, some sequences feel truncated, especially when compared to the languidness that makes up most of the film. It’s a bit unfortunate, too, that this happens in the latter half. Oleg’s dichotomy of world-wary man and innocent child is one of the movie’s most challenging aspects, but some of it feels sidelined by its sudden—albeit lingering—end. The Distant Barking of Dogs could have done gone from strong to spectacular with some more shaping. It’s one of the few films where the director probably should have done it himself.
After Wilmont’s film was Cristina Ibarra & Alex Rivera’s The Infiltrators, which I passed on, having already seen the film at Sundance. That means the next (and final) movie was The Biggest Little Farm. This heart-warmer of a documentary was a total 180 from Wilmont’s film, telling the story of John and Molly Chester, a married couple who spent eight years developing a self-sustainable farm in southern California. John Chester also directed and co-shot the film, and while that sounds like it’d preclude critical distance, that isn’t an issue—at least for a while.
Not many movies are this wholesome. From its storybook title to its bouts of storybook animation, there’s an undeniable compassion that dwarfed even my own cynicism. Is it twee? Not really—that would imply a sense of detachment. The Biggest Little Farm grows tallest when it’s framed as a push-pull between Mother Nature’s practicality and Chester’s indomitable idealism. His background in photography even gives a punchy (if uneven) quality. But the real issue is here the myopic pacing, which turns a once-whole film into a mat of vignettes.
The movie unintentionally foreshadows its messiness at the start, beginning in medias res without enough reason. Similar issues are sprinkled throughout, but it’s the most apparent when The Biggest Little Farm touches on anything besides the main couple’s drama. There’s a boisterous helper named Alan whom the film revisits and dispatches with an underwhelming sincerity, and as for the middle-aged man who’s tended the farm since he was 14? Well, the movie doesn’t even seem to appreciate him.
Chester’s film unravels as more issues come to the forefront, becoming as messy as it is passionate. It feels like some crucial scenes were cut down or entirely exorcised both in the beginning and in the end. The entertainment value is always there and some scenes have a decent amount of tension that don’t add up to much substance, but it’s too caught up in the now. At least the now is amusing to behold.