Peterson grew up on a family farm in Caledonia, Ill., enjoying a simple farm life and a close relationship with his mother, though the early deaths of an uncle and his father deprived him of male role models. He attended Beloit College in the '70s and befriended a group of city kids, who visited his farm and made films, had mud parties and worked the land. The conservative neighbors weren't thrilled by the goings-on at the farm and accused Peterson of devil worship, among other evils; Peterson became an outsider in the community. By the '80s, deeply in debt, Peterson was forced to sell off most of the farm.
Siegel, a longtime friend of Peterson's who made his first film on the farm in the '80s, has been working on the documentary in earnest since 1996. The film, which includes footage from home movies Peterson's mother made, captures a decades-long time span. Interviews with community members recount an affecting and all-too-familiar story of small farms disappearing in the 1980s. Yet other parts of the film lack clarity. Perhaps because Siegel knows his subject so well, there's a slightly insiderish air to the film—as if it were made for those who were on the farm rather than an outside audience. Peterson's idiosyncrasies, like "suppressed homosexual tendencies," as he put it in an interview, are hinted at but left largely unexplored.
In the 1990s, Peterson began farming again, this time organically. Financial success remained elusive at first, but then a new strategy of community support allowed the farm to prosper. The farm again became a center of communal living, attracting volunteer farm workers. "The earth is a primal draw. That's where our food comes from," said Peterson during a recent trip to Portland. "Often the people who are attracted to that kind of lifestyle learn these ideals that occur in the head. They're intellectual. It really confronts people, their own physical relationship to the work. And they sometimes become bitter and cynical and angry."
The Real Dirt on Farmer John is the story of a man who has not become bitter, cynical or angry. Peterson's commitment to grueling farm labor has persisted despite myriad difficulties—some typical of farming, others unique to his life—and his open-mindedness becomes increasingly charming as the film progresses. But the question that remains is whether the story of his life can speak to those who don't know him or aren't passionate about farming. Though it's an interesting account, with beautiful panoramas of Caledonian farmland, it's difficult to see how The Real Dirt on Farmer John can appeal to a truly broad audience.
Not rated. Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. 7 and 8:45 pm Wednesday-Thursday, Feb. 1-9. Additional shows 1:30, 3:15 and 5 pm Saturday-Sunday. $4-$7.