When a creative farmer in rural England bought a video camera and started documenting his life, he might not have predicted that some years later his recordings would be seen by hundreds, if not thousands, of people around the world.
Charles Carson was a character. He’s referred to in “A Life on the Farm” as “eccentric” (what great visionary isn’t?), but he was also kind of a badass filmmaking enthusiast devoted to capturing his experiences—the good, the heartbreaking, the sweet, and the zany antics in-between that are just so oddly intriguing you can’t look away—think skeletons riding tractors and cows!
He also gave his films to his neighbors.
The family of “A Life on the Farm” director Oscar Harding inherited one such feature-length home-movie. Thus began Harding’s quest to learn more about the life of the ingenious farmer-filmmaker preserved on VHS and now celebrated in Harding’s 75-minute documentary.
“A Life on the Farm” is quirky perfection. Much of the film is focused on learning about Carson through the archive VHS footage. This is paired with commentary from Harding, neighbors, and others in the creative community who have been touched by Carson’s recordings.
One of the big questions posed in “A Life on the Farm” is what prompted Carson to make such elaborate films. We’re not talking simple video diaries but detailed well-thought-out films complete with props, editing, music, and special effects. Watching “A Life on the Farm,” you get the impression that Carson’s neighbors thought he was rather reclusive and out-there with his filmmaking hobby. Perhaps it was fun turned obsession. Though it seems like it could’ve been Carson’s way of easing his sense of isolation by forming connections or at least trying to feel connected to those in the rural Somerset community by showing them his work on Coombe End Farm and a bit of his personality–which by all accounts seemed to be one that was deeply caring.
Curiously, at the beginning of the film it’s briefly mentioned that Carson and his wife at some point had children. The children don’t appear anywhere in the documentary or in the footage of Carson’s that we’re shown. Of the commentators in “A Life on the Farm,” there seems to be just one relative featured–a cousin. Viewers see through Carson’s footage that his wife, mother, father, and brother all passed away before him.
While the limited commentary from Carson’s other family members doesn’t take away from the greatness of the film, it does add to the mystery of who Carson was and limits the depth of our perception.
And you know what? Sometimes mystery isn’t bad.
The fact that viewers might still be curious about some aspects of Carson’s life means Harding has done a wonderful job at making them care and feel connected to his story.
Filmmaking also seems to have been a therapeutic outlet for Carson during times that might be viewed by others as overwhelmingly sad. When his parents, brother, and wife pass away he takes to his camera to document certain moments after their deaths. Post-mortem photography isn’t a new concept. It was common during the Victorian-era and is something still practiced today, albeit generally privately, by different cultures and individuals as a way to memorialize their departed loved ones. While some might be taken aback by Carson’s footage, particularly of his mother, it’s not grotesque or outlandishly shocking, rather a way for him to remember her in an environment she loved and, in turn, perhaps aid in his processing of grief.
The fact that Carson gave his elaborate home-movies to people feels reminiscent of receiving a meticulous personal newsletter that catches you up on everything that’s been going on in that individual’s life. The difference, of course, being that Carson’s newsletter isn’t a letter at all but a film. It’s heartwarming how he shares his experiences farming, major life events, and skits he probably thought were hilarious. The love and effort he put into his films, perhaps wanting to make them interesting for people, is beyond endearing and anyone who watches Harding’s “A Life on the Farm” will feel lucky to have a peek into his life.
While we all weren’t part of Carson’s community, “A Life on the Farm” makes you feel like you’re an extension of it and how wildly delightful it is to look in and see the world through someone else’s eyes.