Thursday, September 12, 2013

Film Review: The Moo Man (Andy Heathcote / Heike Bachelier) 2013

The Moo Man

The new documentary film from husband and wife duo Andy Heathcote and Heike Bachelier is the ultimate signifier that the Kickstarter era is in full swing. The film was made as an obvious labour of love over a four year period about a subject close to their hearts and has then been marketed and distributed with a £20,000 boost from the popular crowdsourcing website (They actually raised over £25,000). Only in the age of the interactive Internet can a film about farming expect a cinema release.

The film follows Steve Hook, a charming milk farmer from East Sussex that owns Hook & Sons farm. He is passionate about fresh, natural dairy products produced on self-sustainable family farms. Steve is on a first name basis with all of his cattle and tries to talk to them and treat them like pets as opposed to livestock – especially his favourite cow ‘Ida’. Filmed over a number of years the filmmakers have captured the different seasons on the farm ranging from the icy winter and the hardships that are brought with the cold, to the glorious spring with the birth of the calves. The narrative also includes the upgrading of the milking system with a bottling plant, and the illness of Ida and the genuine sadness that Steve feels towards her in pain.

This might not sound like the most exciting of documentaries, yet due to the easy manner that Steve has in front of the camera as well as the insight that is presented into the technical running of the farm, the film manages to remain interesting throughout. Everyone who lives in the UK has at some point in their life sat lazily through a farm centered nature documentary, normally focused on the plight of some lambs or sheepdog in peril. Or they have sat through Gardener’s Question Time on radio 4 featuring a report with irate farmers discussing the increased milk production prices and lower subsidies. This film manages to show the drama involved in looking after animals, alongside the politics of dairy economics, without patronizing the audience or representing the characters as country bumpkins.

There are moments during the beginning 30 minutes of the film where the production feels wholly un-cinematic and the inclination is to wonder why this hasn’t been divided into three and shown on pre-dinner television. But then there is a long section that shows, in explicit detail, the live birth of a number of calves – and it is suddenly very apparent why this is on the big screen. Steve has become so familiar with the gestation period of his cattle that he can tell by sight when they are due to give birth, and he has become extremely proficient as a bovine midwife. The cows are framed in a long, tripod shot as a calf’s head begins to protrude from the mother and before long the film becomes a full-on GCSE science video as the birth is shown is full. Later there is a scene where Ida is giving birth and Steve has to wrap rope around the legs (which are escaping first) and gently pull the calf from the mother. The scene is both gruesome and fascinating, and also appears to take all night as the baby is finally licked clean by the exhausted mother in the early hours of the morning.

Although the films most memorable scenes are almost certainly the scientific insights, it is ultimately the political agenda that is supposed to be the take home message. Like all human-interest documentaries, Steve runs a small, family business with a unique product – raw milk. There is an amusing scene with Steve having to put up a government health-warning banner before being allowed to sell his natural (raw) milk at a market, as well as another scene with elderly women in Eastbourne almost beside themselves at the prospect of drinking his novelty organic produce.

This is juxtaposed later on with a far more serious monologue with Steve decrying the absurdity of the economics of milk production. He claims that he gets 27 pence per litre of milk by the supermarkets, yet it costs 34 pence per litre to produce– he would therefore have to sell at a loss and end up claiming subsidies from the government – meaning that the taxpayer ends up paying twice and the supermarkets get the excess. Hook & Sons are the exception to the rule in that he undercuts this by selling straight to the consumer.

Having said this though, it seems unlikely that the kind of person who would go to see a film such as this at the cinema would not be fully aware of the questionable ethics involved in corporate food production. The question then is: who is this film for? The film wouldn’t exist without the unique practice of this single farmer, as he provides the narrative and the cinematic substance, yet it is only largely the people who are already comfortable with this type of business model that would gravitate towards a niche independent documentary. Or maybe that is too cynical.

Ultimately this film seems to stand comfortably in the new wave of crowdsourced indie films that will charm the British film festival circuit before becoming a favourite film of pockets of rural blighty. It’s charm and low-key political agenda allow the greater story of British farming decline loom around the periphery of a tender narrative of a man and his lovely cows.

This article was originally posted on the now defunct

The Moo Man is now available on Netflix 

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