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Oscar Harding Talks About His Quirky New Documentary ‘A Life on the Farm’

6 min read
A Life on the Farm

has was underway in Manchester last week, and with this ninth edition of the festival, things were bigger, bolder, and with a lot more variety. The festival showcased film in all its art forms, from features to shorts, and some eclectic documentaries as well, and one of those documentaries was 's .

This quirky documentary features some never before seen home video footage created by a farmer called , an old neighbour to Oscar's grandfather. After discovering the old VHS tapes and the wonderous content that was on them, Oscar decided to stick it all together and find out more about this eccentric farmer from the middle of Somerset. What lay ahead was unprecedented.

Ahead of the film being premiered at this year's MANIFF, Filmhounds sat down with Oscar to talk about the film's origins, the quirks of the old farmer, and how Oscar came into possession of such golden footage.

Thanks for joining me today all the way from The States. First thing, how much did you know about Charles Carson before the idea for the film came to you?

Absolutely nothing to be honest. My Grandpa died and someone mentioned the tape, and when we sat down to watch it, my dad turned it off actually, and it got forgotten about for quite some time – I didn't even know the man's name until the rediscovery of the tape, but what I saw stayed rent-free in my mind for a long time.

As you just said, you watched some of the films when you were younger but only remember little bits of them. So, what was your reaction when you returned to this crazy home video all those years later? It must have been quite the experience.

I remembered the cat scene in the film – that's when my dad originally turned it off. There are certain bits of the footage that, when we've been in theatres watching it, the audience reaction has been incredible. Everyone's reaction is the same as when we saw it for the first time which is great, and the footage just gets odder and odder as well.

The footage speaks for itself, of course, but tell me about what you wanted to achieve with the film's narrative. Was there something, in particular, you wanted to achieve or was it simply to show this forgotten footage?

We very intentionally edited this so that everyone who watches it goes on the same journey that we did. You're plopped into the middle of nowhere, not many people actually know where this place is in Somerset, and then you just gradually experience this footage as it gets darker and more surreal. We can't hide from the fact that you will laugh at him though, it's understandable. If you're not British or didn't live on a farm, then the behaviour is totally bizarre. But if we did our jobs properly, then, by the end of it, you will be celebrating all his little achievements and adoring him as we all did.

When people do eventually watch the film, initially they will laugh at Charles for being an oddball. Was it difficult to celebrate the man's quirkiness as a positive instead of making him a sideshow performer like others would have done perhaps?

Let's say I did make this film in such a way that would poke fun at this man that was hidden away in the middle of nowhere, then we would have failed in our jobs. It's hard not to be won over by him when you watch his stuff. There is so much more to his work and story than that initial shock reaction. The trailer and introduction to the film are done in a way that is like a true crime doc, that indulges in the madness and the darkness. It wasn't hard in the end because he's so likeable, and he puts so much effort into his work, intentionally crafting jokes, and his distribution of the films is just something to be admired.

What strikes me was his age and how he picked up filmmaking so late in his life. How often do you come across a man in his 60s that has all the filmmaking and editing skills that he has – it really is quite incredible.

I agree. Everything about how he did it really is amazing. His age, yes, but the technology was getting democratised, and camcorders weren't exactly cheap. He's doing video-to-video editing as well, which isn't easy. For someone in their 20s, it would be tricky, but you get around it, but he picked this up without any help, he had no support from the film industry or anything. It's just remarkable to me really.

Obviously, the found footage is what binds the film together, it's the perfect amount of craziness that everyone has come to see. But there are also a lot of interviews in the film, how did you decide on who to interview and which people would be the most beneficial to the film?

Part of the problem was that there were plenty of people we could reach out to, but we found out had died. There was a ticking clock to get people while we could, and this film doesn't work if we don't get people that knew him. But what really changed the film was that I couldn't shoot anymore because I moved to America, and after some digging, I found out there was a found footage scene out here, and it's quite a big cult thing too. It just happens that the holy trinity of them was visiting where I am now in Milwaukee, and I sent them a message, showed them the footage, and they all loved it. Americans absolutely loved it because of the British quirkiness that surrounds it. He now has an audience across the globe, which is what he wanted, maybe not to that extent, but he wanted his work to be seen.

It's nice that this was his goal, to get his stuff seen by as many people as possible because it means he was proud of it. Has the reception been greater than anything you could have thought though?

Honestly, and I'm not being modest here, I'm really shocked about the massively positive reception that it got in so many different countries. People seem to love it on every continent, not just in the UK and America. We had a great team involved and they deserve credit too, but ultimately, it's all down to the guy that this film is about that makes it so successful.

 

From the people that you spoke to, what was the consensus about him as a person? Was he just seen as this eccentric old man who kept himself to himself, or was he this friendly old man that was loved by the community?

We spoke to so many different people who had things to say about the man. He didn't always live in Somerset either, he was an academic and an inventor, his name was mentioned in academic journals from Spain, and he was also on television multiple times before we even made this film. The overriding thing I got from him though, was kindness, and he just seemed like a considerate person; he spent decades inspiring generations of students at an agricultural college, he was really involved with the community and spent years caring for elderly relatives as well. I hope that warmth, generosity, and kindness shine through in the film. People have told me they cried when they watched it, and that just says it all about the innocence of the man.

A Life on the Farm premiered in the UK at MANIFF 2023