When I told director Tony Stone that the subject of his first documentary, Peter and the Farm, which comes to VOD and New York City’s Metrograph theater this Friday, had just been dubbed an “Unforgettable” by the upcoming Cinema Eye Honors, he didn’t know what I was talking about. He hadn’t heard of the Cinema Eyes, the documentary awards that are a decade old. I like that. I like it when a documentary filmmaker comes out of the woods — in this case, literally — especially when it’s with a remarkable film.

Peter and the Farm is pretty much a one-man monologue by Vermont farmer Peter Dunning, who struggles with alcoholism and other demons but who is also a deeply compelling, thoughtful and curious character with whom you might well want to spend an hour and a half. But I shouldn’t sell the film short. Peter is far from a talking head. He’s always out and about on his farm and the film is very much a portrait of life in Vermont as Stone adeptly wields his camera to depict a beatific natural setting on par with a documentary like Sweetgrass. The Cinema Eye Honors, which announced its “Unforgettables” October 19, tends to notice films that expand the boundaries of creative nonfiction and I hope Stone gets his due there.

Curious about the director, whose resume includes a couple indie features and being married to rocker Melissa Auf der Maur (Hole, Smashing Pumpkins), I got him on the phone and he told me that his initial conversation with Dunning about making the film included his subject’s desire to have his suicide documented. Yikes.

Stone knew Dunning from having met him at the Brattleboro, Vermont farmer’s market where Dunning sells his goods. Initially, there was ambivalence on Dunning’s part, but “Peter knows his stories are worthy and he had been waiting for an audience.” So after developing mutual trust, the filmmaker and subject eased into an agreement and Stone spent a month in late 2012 on the farm with his wife and their one-year-old daughter and a crew of two more. They then made a few trips over the next year and, every time, “We drove up to the farm and we had to wonder what we would find,” he says.

The crew was with Dunning every day and they would do chores with him, tasks that he had been doing for 40 years. And while he worked, he would talk and they would film, creating a profound harmony between visuals and storytelling. “The story arises from the event,” Dunning says, and the same can be said of Peter and the Farm and the best of the best documentaries. At times, the camera dwells on the natural setting, the snow, the trees, the sheep, establishing a poetic balance between a man and his surroundings.

“It could have been darker,” Stone says. “There are things we are leaving out because you want to be celebratory and love your subject.” It’s an interesting admission on the part of the director, who is a fan of Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence), Manda Bala and Frederick Wiseman. I’d put his film into the new territory of cinematic storytelling that emphasizes experience and immersion over information and can sometimes go too far but I think Peter and the Farm gets the balance right.

As does Dunning, apparently. According to Stone, after seeing it, the farmer said, “I love that f–king movie.”

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen