Life on the farm is no holiday, and being a farmer is never easy; caring for an array of animals, and crops, doing deliveries, and those early starts and the late finishes (that was tiring to even write). But what about an amateur filmmaking career that involves dead animals, live birth, and some skeletal characters driving makeshift lawnmowers? Call it crazy, call us whatever you like for mentioning it, but that was the life of Charles Carson of Coombe End Farm (it's Coombe End Farm if you didn't quite hear him the first few times). This eccentric farmer might not be with us anymore, but through Oscar Harding's magical documentary of found footage and testimonials from old friends, the man dubbed the Scorsese of Somerset (by his fans, albeit) has been brilliantly immortalised.
It was when Oscar Harding's grandfather passed away that his family inherited one of the most ludicrous VHS tapes in home movie history. What was inside this tape was a feature-length home video created by long-standing neighbour Charles Carson at his home on… you know it by now. Charles wasn't your ordinary farmer, he was an inventor and an artist, but maybe his most fantastic quality was how he saw death with such positivity. The film begins as an examination of the man's oddity, his mystery, and his legend, but instead of focusing on turning him into a sideshow attraction, which might have been the case if someone other than Oscar got hold of the footage (with his family being so close to it and all), it turns into a celebration of the man's legacy.
That's not to say this film, and Charles himself, isn't absolutely bonkers, because that is very much the truth. One or two questions keep popping up in the film's early stages, “who is this man, and what are his motives?”. It's hard to distinguish at first due to how dark and spooky the early footage truly is. But that's clearly the film's aim, to lull us all into a false sense of security – although, when one person compares him to the serial killer Ed Gein, the alarm bells do start to ring, no doubt.
The film does unravel though, with the story, and all its answers to the questions that have started to appear in your mind, become clear. And with that, the film's tone becomes lighter; we are no longer laughing at the man and all his eccentricities, he now becomes this endearing character who struggled with so many things in his life, and creating films and taking quirky photos became his stimulus. The structure of the film is the biggest determining factor in its shifting dynamic though. It's split into several chapters, with each one lifting the lid on the details of Charles' life. The fact we do learn about this man is the most important aspect as well, as he's not classified as just this crazy farmer anymore. You will discover things about his family (and you'll see them a lot, and not in the conventional method), his career away from the farm in Northumberland and how he met his wife – it all acts as a bridge to truly humanising the man and make him relatable, and that's such an important thing to do.
But what does catch your eye the most, as it should do as well, is the collection of found footage that becomes the foundation of the film. Consisting of such loveable weirdness that you can't turn your eyes away from it. Whether it's a simple photograph of him and an animal, with added speech bubbles containing basic but oddly hilarious quotes, or video footage that contains extreme realism of farm life, and then swiftly followed by the complete opposite. Yes, it looks it all looks a bit… rubbish, but he loves doing it and puts an extreme amount of effort into creating it all (skills that no ageing farmer should have), which, in turn, makes the footage fantastic.
A Life on the Farm is a gleeful (but often creepy) celebration of Charles Carson and his film, which were thankfully rescued from obscurity. It presents a moving and genuinely hilarious insight into a man who would normally be forgotten by the world as so many others have been. But away from the laughter is a sombre story, one involving a man that has lost all the people that were important in his life (even his poor little cat) and the toll that this has taken on his psyche. When you find out the reasons for this madness, it all makes so much sense, to the point you do feel for a man trapped in isolation. But for all his massive quirks, you cannot help yourself from becoming smothered by his warmth and his overall take on life, and especially, his method of living it to its fullest.
A Life on the Farm screened at MANIFF 2023