Reviews and notes
2013 Sundance, Berlin, Sydney, Los Angeles, Wellington, Reykjavik
A keenly observed, beautifully filmed documentary about a Sussex farmer struggling to survive in a world of big supermarkets and oppressive health and safety regulations. A hit at the Sundance Film Festival, this gentle, honest film keeps its audience enthralled from sunny start to tear-stained finish – an impressive achievement, since it’s about cows. Steve Hook, the ‘moo man’ of the title, runs a small family dairy farm and sells raw (i.e. unpasteurised) milk at local farmers’ markets and via doorstep delivery. It is, he says, the only way he can keep the farm going in a world where it costs 35p to produce every pint, but a farmer gets only 27p from the supermarkets… Filming took place over a year and the seasons play their part in the film without ever being exploited for picturesque effect. Indeed, it is the ability to shape the material into an emotionally satisfying story without ever manipulating it that makes The Moo Man
one of the best British documentaries in many a moo-n.
- Nick Roddick, Evening Standard.
Observational documentaries are always a gamble. The filmmaker chooses to record a certain ongoing situation in the hope that dramatic conflict will manifest itself in the course of time, bringing to light themes and ideas for the audience to take away with them. Reality, needless to say, may or may not play ball, and it can be a headache for directors and editors trying to shape resulting footage into a dramatically cogent feature length.
Looked at in only those terms, Andy Heathcote and Heike Bachelier's portrait of an organic dairy farmer is somewhat problematic, since it's not exactly packed with crunching confrontation, nor indeed does it have quite enough material to fill its generous 98-minute running-time. The striking particularity of The Moo Man
, however, is that these characteristics are of lesser significance than its telling rendering of the genuine emotional bond between farmer Stephen Hook and his Friesian cattle. Indeed, it's primarily our emotional connection to the film that gets us thinking about the questions of farming practice and consumer choice – and even the broader arena of humanity's relationship with our four-legged friends – thus generating a viewer response so much larger than the decidedly intimate scale of what's on screen.
The skill of the filmmaking duo here is to choose a situation that keys into our perception of the ongoing crisis in the dairy industry in the UK where public awareness of farmers going out of business because supermarkets have driven down milk prices doesn't necessarily translate into many of us opting not to pick up that 588ml of semi-skimmed from the chill cabinet on the way home. The Hook family operation shows that there is another way, selling a natural product to a local consumer base, and keeping the numbers down so that animal welfare is an achievable priority. What Hook calls "raw milk", bottled unpasteurised on site, may not be for everyone, since it comes with a health warning that it may contain microorganisms dangerous to pregnant women and so forth, yet the simple fact of seeing the whole production chain in motion gives the viewer something to ponder. Are we pouring something bland and sanitised on our cornflakes, when we could have some of this stuff instead?
It helps, though, that Hook himself exudes common-sense decency, and Ida, his favourite cow, is undoubtedly something of a character – transported to Eastbourne for a publicity shoot on the seafront, she simply refuses to get back in the trailer, prompting much knockabout huff and puff from Hook and his farmhands. Elsewhere there is the donning of veterinarian arm-length rubber gloves and several fairly elemental calving sequences, but what the direction really captures (highlighted by Stephen Daltry's charming Tati-esque chamber score) is the sheer comedic daintiness of the animals as they trot from field to milking shed. They are imposing yet somehow graceful, allowing us to understand why Hook is so attached to them, and the tears he sheds in the film's toughest moment so genuine and affecting. By the end, we're deeply touched too – evidence of a film whose impact comes not from trenchant argument or visceral conflict but from sheer loveliness. No coincidence, then, that Heathcote and Bachelier were successful in raising 20,OOO pounds in online crowdfunding to support the film's UK theatrical release.
- Trevor Johnston, Sight & Sound, August 2013.
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